Recently, Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler published an article over at National Catholic Reporter arguing in favor of abandoning the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception. In their article, Salzman and Lawler note correctly that if the Church were to change her teaching on contraception, “the entire edifice of official Catholic sexual teaching crumbles”. As a faithful Catholic who wants to uphold the Church’s teaching, I will respond to many of the erroneous assertions Salzman and Lawler make regarding the issue of contraception and show that their position is incoherent and absurd.
A note on infallibility
It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the numerous errors of Lawler and Salzman regarding infallibility, the coherence of Catholic Social teaching and Catholic sexual ethics and other issues. If time permits, I might delve into that another time. For now I will focus solely on their comments regarding contraception, natural family planning (NFP), and Catholic sexual ethics.
Their argument against NFP
Lawler and Salzman make several claims against the Church’s position on NFP and urge for a complete overhaul of that teaching. They claim first that the Church’s teaching is incoherent since NFP, permitted by Pius XII and Humanae Vitae represents a de facto separation of the unitive and procreative meaning of sex.
Second, they claim that “biologically” infertile sex, contraceptive sex, and even homosexual sexual acts are equivalent.
For infertile and post-menopausal couples, and for all fertile women during the majority of days of their fertility cycle, there is no procreative meaning to the act of sexual intercourse.
They also consider these as equivalent to same sex acts.
Both gays and lesbians are naturally sexed human beings and their sexual activity is as incurably infertile as the acts of permanently infertile married heterosexuals, which the Catholic Church recognizes as legitimate and ethical.
On the basis of these claims, they urge that “openness to life” be redefined to mean not openness to the biological production of life but of the “the life of their personal unions”. Let us take each of these claims in turn and show why Lawler and Salzman are wrong. As it turns out, a proper definition of “sex” refutes their position.
What “sex” is
Sex is defined in the Church’s canon law as
[A] conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspringCanon 1061 Section 1
By “suitable in itself” for the procreation of offspring, the Church means to exclude the external circumstances such as the stage the woman is in her cycle, her age, the man’s fertility etc. These factors are not relevant to what sex is but merely what the results of a given sexual act may be. This is proper since acts are not defined by circumstances but by their ends. Whether or not I have a tapeworm, when I eat food I am doing something which is ordered towards providing nutrition to my body. Whether my body happens to get that nutrition due to some malady or other circumstance is irrelevant to what eating is in itself.
From the Church’s definition we can see how infertile sex is still sex but homosexual sexual acts are not. Homosexual sexual acts are not suitable in themselves for the procreation of offspring for such acts can never, even in theory result in procreation. It is not merely circumstance that renders such acts infertile. Thus, the distinction between marital sex and homosexual sexual acts is not that some sex is good and other sex is bad. Rather, the two acts are not even the same act! Two men or two women cannot, using the Church’s definition, have sex.
An Alternative Definition?
Lawler and Salzman might protest and think that such a definition of sex is too narrow and the more important factor is whether the act can in conjunction with the external circumstances result in procreation. However, we can demonstrate that such a propose alternative definition is absurd by showing its absurd implication for people who are impotent.
Impotency in this context is the inability to have sexual intercourse. Such impotency is actually an impediment to marriage according to Canon Law (Canon 1084). By definition, an impotent person cannot have sex and this we can presume even Lawler and Salzman agree with. However, an impotent person can, depending on the nature of their impotency, engage in the sorts of acts that homosexual couples engage in. Thus, if homosexual couples can have sex, persons who cannot have sex (i.e. impotents) can have sex. This is clearly absurd and so the definition of “sex” in question must be rejected.
Thus, once sex is properly defined, it becomes clear that sex’s procreative meaning is not lost when the circumstances render sex infertile. Because sex is by definition “suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring” sex has a procreative meaning. This means that there is not in fact a de facto separation between the unitive and procreative meanings of sex in NFP.
The claim that infertile sex and homosexual sexual acts and contraceptive sexual acts are “biologically” equivalent is also clearly false. It is manifestly false that such acts are “biologically” equivalent. For one, the physiological effects on the body differ quite substantially between sex, and various sexual acts. Without getting into lurid details, sex and say the sexual acts between two men differ in among other things: what organs are used, what happens or fails to happen with those organs, what diseases can be passed during the act and many other biological factors. Thus, to claim their “biological equivalence” is patently false.
Moreover, two acts are not biologically equivalent merely because they fail to result in procreation. By this definition a married couple eating a bowl of soup together is biologically equivalent to them having sex during an infertile period. Such a definition is clearly worthless.
Beyond impotency, it is not clear how Lawler and Salzman distinguish even clearly non sexual acts from sex. A kiss between two people will have the same result biologically as infertile sex or some homosexual act. Do Lawler and Salzman think that kissing is morally equivalent to homosexual acts? What about hugs, handshakes and haircuts? Clearly defining acts by whether or not they biologically produce children is a recipe for absurdity. Acts are defined by their ends not by what the circumstances of the act determine to happen. Consider some non sexual examples and the absurdities that would result using Lawler and Salzman’s reasoning.
A person who votes for an anti-fascist candidate or not voting at all in an election in which the Nazi wins is politically equivalent to voting for the facist. After all, both elections had the same result.
A person kicking field goals in a football game held during a massive hurricane would make the same number of field goals playing tennis (i.e. 0). By Lawler and Salzman’s logic these acts are athletically equivalent since they had the same result.
Such absurd examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. If Lawler and Salzman want to argue against Church teaching, they need to bring much better arguments.
One thing they are right about
Thus we can see that a Lawler and Salzman are wrong in claiming both that NFP represents a de facto separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of sex and that sex by a couple practicing NFP to avoid conception is “biologically equivalent” to other sexual acts. However, Lawler and Salman are correct about one thing, that the intention of the spouses is not the ground for the distinction between NFP and contraception or homosexual sexual acts.
The claim that there is a moral distinction between the intentions of the approved rhythm method or natural family planning and banned artificial contraception, both of which intend to prevent pregnancy, is disingenuous, counterintuitive and morally unjustifiable.
This can be granted but this is not the claim the Church makes. Rather, the Church teaches the that the sexual act is a different when a couple is using contraception. When it comes to homosexual sexual acts, such acts, according to the Church and common sense are not even sex but wholly different moral acts. The fact that all three will, due to circumstance, result in the same number of children is as irrelevant as the fact that a poorly playing sick soccer player will make the same number of goals as a fan in the stands.
Perhaps worse than their arguments against the Church’s teaching is Lawler and Salman’s alternative proposal: a complete redefinition of openness to life in “relational terms”. They propose that openness to life need have nothing to do with the creation of new life, the end of the sexual act. Rather, it can be an openness to “the life of their personal unions”. Such a broad definition is so vague that it utterly worthless as a moral standard. It seems obvious that three brothers can all share a love that is open to the life of their interpersonal union. According to Lawler and Salman even if these brothers engages in sexual acts, those acts are biologically equivalent to sex. What then is preventing these three brothers from having an incestuous polygamous marriage? Whatever the answer is, it is not one that Lawler and Salzman can provide.
The Church’s teaching is rooted in an understanding of the natural law and what sex is. As we have seen, Lawler and Salzman lack both a viable definition of the very concept at the core of the dispute, namely sex. The Church’s definition is lethal to their position and any alternative that is wide enough to support their position leads to absurdities like the ones noted above. By using the Church’s definition, it is clear that NFP does not represent a separation of the procreative and unitive meanings of sex and that it does distinguish sharply between sex and other sexual acts. If Lawler and Salzman wish to convince the Church to changer her long standing teaching, they should start with better arguments.