Saturday, April 25, 2009

Procreation and the Sexual Revolution

In his book, Love and Responsibility, published in Polish in 1960, Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, provided a critique of the main ideas of the sexual revolution and re-stated in modern, philosophical terms, the rationale for the Christian vision of love and marriage. I will try to re-state it as clearly as possible.

In Chapter 1 of this great work, he does some rather technical work that establishes a terminology with which he can undertake his constructive work later in the book. First, he distinguishes between two usages of the verb "to use." The first meaning of "to use" is the straightforward case in which one person employs another person as a means to an end. Wojtyla agrees with Kant that to a person must always be an end and never merely a means. Persons must always be subjects and never be reduced to the level of objects. So when a man seduces a woman gains sexual pleasure from the use of her body only to drop her as soon as the conquest is over, he is using her. This is what often happens in the casual sexual encounters of today's "hook-up culture."

The second meaning of the vert "to use" is more complicated. It occurs when two people decide it is in their mutual interest to allow the other use of their bodies for the purpose of each individual gaining sexual pleasure from the other. In such a case, each uses the other as a means to his or her own end. The fact that there is consent and reciprocity does not change the fact that the relationship is based on a utilitarian ethic and so never rises to the level of a personal act. The two persons do not treat each other as persons for each is merely a means to the other's end. The relationship is based on what each gets out of it; it is ultimately selfish and inherently unstable. As soon as one decides that his or her "needs" are no longer being met, the relationship is in danger of being ended.

Another reason why the relationship is not really personal is that the two persons give themselves to the other with reservation and are not really ontollogically changed by the giving and receiving of the gift of the self. The fact that the focus is on what I get out of it means that I remain in charge of myself even though I give my body to the other person. This kind of relationship is what we call "affectionate sex" as opposed to "casual sex" and characterizes the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship in which people mistake mutual use for real love. But many marriages never rise above this level either.

For Wojtyla, the truely conjugal act is a personal act when it occurs in a relationship ordered by the "personalistic norm." For this to occur the two people must treat each other as persons, rather than as mere means to selfish ends. How can this happen? To get at Wojtyla's answer, I find it helpful to think about Aristotle's definition of friendship. Friends have common objects of love and interest. To be a friend is to share a common goal or concern or value. In such a case, one is not using the other for one's own selfish interest; rather, both share the same goal and work toward it. St. Augustine uses this idea of "common objects of love" to define the difference between the city of man and the city of God.

Wojtyla suggests that a man and a woman enter into marriage with the common goal of procreation and this is what draws them together into a common work. Procreation here must be understood broadly as the conception, birth, raising, educating and nurturing of children in a Christian home so that they eventually embrace a personal and mature Christian faith and themselves establish Christian families of their own. Such a work is inter-generational, life-long work and involves being immersed into a web of relationships that henceforth define one's identity; one becomes not only wife or husband, but also father or mother, uncle or aunt, grand father or grandmother etc. One's vocation is deterimined in large measure by this common goal and one's life is lost in the pursuit of it.

When a husband and wife make procreation in this sense their common goal, certain occasions require that one of them submit him or herself to the other, while other occasions demand that both submit themselves to the common goal. But even when the husband is called upon to submit himself to his wife it is for the sake of their common goal, and the same is true when she is called to submit herself to him. Neither uses the other for his or her own selfish ends; rather the two are joined together in working for a common end. Ironically, this kind of relationship is far more "egalitarian" than relationships that remain stuck at the second level. (Jesus apparently was right that it is only by losing our lives that we really find them, which is a paradox those stuck at the level of utilitarianism can never grasp.)

In order for the standards of the personalistic norm to be met, the common goal must be (1) objective, (2) good and (3) freely chosen. Procreation, the transmission of life, is an objective good and it is freely chosen when people enter into the covenant of marriage. Procreation, therefore, is the common goal that raises the marriage relationship to the personal level. It is what allows the husband and wife to engage in sexual relations without using one another and so it is what allows them to relate to each other as persons. It is only when this happens that Wojtyla is willing to call the relationship love. To reduce love to the level of the utilitarian use of another's body for the fleeting pleasures of physical and emotional intimacy is to reduce love to a sub-personal level and love must be personal to be itself.

This is why procreation must be integral to and central in the marriage relationship. True love is fruitful and open, not sterile and closed in upon itself. True love is not pleasure; pleasure can never be more than a by-product of true love. The sexual revolution is the attempt to de-couple sex from reproduction, love from procreation, pleasure from the context of a personal relationship. Fornication, cohabitation, adultery, divorce, "same sex marriage," "trial marriage, "open marriage," serial monogamy, polyamory, and prostitution are all ways of separating procreation from sex and none of them makes sense except in the context of the contraceptive mentality.

Contraception, it seems, is the crucial factor in training us to conceive of sex as non-procreative and therfore the point at which we begin to conceptualize sub-personal sex as a good, rather than a temptation. It is, of course, only an illusion of the good and not a real good. But the fact that people today conceptualize sub-personal sex as a good goes a long way toward explaining why chastity and the Christian vision for marriage are so hated - and why modern society is so enamoured with artificial contraception.


Peter Dunn said...

Thanks again for another stimulating post. In my previous comment, I had suggested that for Paul, marriage is a state in which one is called; but the vocation of procreation of Christian families goes beyond Paul and is necessary perhaps because of the delay of the Parousia which Paul believed imminent.

I've been convinced of procreation as the purpose of sex since about 1994 or so. It seems obvious from a biological point of view, but I have brought it up twice in separate conversations with Christian friends, who are also theological scholars--the reaction was vehemently against my view that the main purpose of sex is procreation. In each case it led to long vivid (though friendly) debates.

The role of contraception, particularly the birth control pill, in changing people's view to sex for self-fulfillment, cannot be stressed enough. Neill Postman's Technopoly helped me to understand how much influence that technology has on how we understand ourselves. In our age, it is rare to see writers like Pope John Paul II. But the writers of the early church, who initially changed my view of sexuality, maintained that sexual relations were only properly for the purpose of procreation. Thanks again!!!!

Craig Carter said...

I appreciate your comments. Liberal Protestantism (and liberal Catholics as individuals) have cravenly surrendered to and embraced the sexual revolution, which is a revival of the old paganism the Fathers overcame.

However, I think it is not quite correct to view John Paul II as merely repeating the traditional view that sex is only for procreation. That view led to what I would call a semi-Manichean approach in which conjugal acts between spouses were tainted by sin but permitted (and to an extent justified) by the procreation that almost inevitably accompanied them. Modernity has rejected this view of sinful (or at least compromised) conjugal acts and claimed that it is an all or nothing choice: either sex is always sinful or it is always good.

John Paul II is more nauanced than the tradition. I have a student doing an honours thesis on the difference between St. Augustine and JP II on this issue. For JP II, the two goods of marriage (procreation and mutual help) are both served by the conjugal act. The unification of the spouses in pursuit of the common good is discerned in the biology of the woman's monthly cycle. Fertile for only 2 out of 28 days (on average), she can only conceive rarely. Yet sex in the non-fertile part of the cycle (provided it is not frustrated by artificial contraception) is still unitive. So Natural Family Planning is moral and licit. But, further, the marital act unites husband and wife precisely in the service of procreation and this makes the marital act morally good in itself, which is something the pre-20th century tradition was unable to affirm clearly.

This is the heart of the new sexual revolution unleashed by JP II. He takes the modern insight into the goodness of committed marital love and integrates it into the common goal shared by the spouses and thus personalizes it. An ambiguity in the tradition is thus overcome and the Divine plan for love and marriage is revealed more clearly.

I think the thought of JP II in this area is revolutionary in its implications and exemplary as an example of what ressourcement is able to achieve when tradition engages modernity without losing its nerve.

I also think that the contempoary Evangelical theology of marriage is highly compromised, inherently unstable and likely to drift toward liberalaism or legalism unless it comes to grip with JP II. More on that in another post.

Peter Dunn said...

Craig: Thanks for this clarification. I would very much like to read your student's paper when it is ready, if he would make it available to me.

Halden said...

Craig, I wonder does this post indicate that you've adopted the position that artificial contraception is intrinsically wrong? I'm sympathetic to this position myself, but the last time we discussed this, I don't believe this was your position.

Craig Carter said...

I'm more than half way there. Contraception is basically and usually wrong - that is beyond doubt for me now. Are there any exceptions? That is the issue. Can it be used responsibly or is it inherently corrupting? (In this sense it seems to be like just war theory: on paper it sounds good, but in practice it is ugly.) Very few people seem to be able to use use it responsibly; most of the time it is a cover for lustful activity - premarital sex, adultery - or for ruling out children altogether.

Natural Family Planning works and is available to anyone with the amount of self-control any married person needs to have anyway. The RC position is looking more and more morally perceptive all the time.

I don't usually agree with Rowan Williams on much, but his question of whether a church that embraces contraception can say no to homosexuality is a very profound one. Of course, he seems unable to imagine giving up contraception and therefore embraces homosexuality (I presume along with the usual list of similar sins that most Anglicans embrace like cohabitation, pre-marital sex, serial monogamy, etc.) I, on the other hand, think that it may well come down to one camp that embraces the sexual revolution and its war on heterosexism completely (a la Marvin Ellison, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and co.) versus those who reject the sexual revolution beginning with artifical contraception. If it comes to that, I couldn't picture any real Christian not standing with the Roman Catholic position.