“Contraception and Homosexuality”

Raymond Dennehy argues at Ignatius Insight that if you accept contraception you can’t hold out against homosexuality.

Sexual intercourse between homosexuals and between heterosexuals using contraceptives is identical in this, they are both by their very nature sterile. The increasing legislative and judicial pressure for the right of same-sex couples to marry is simply the actualization of the contraceptive mentality.

This claim has often made by a certain class of Catholic apologist, but it is illogical. These forms of intercourse are not “by their very nature sterile”–only homosexuality is (as are particular marriages where one person or both are sterile). In the case of married couples, the so-called “sterility” to which he refers here is the choice of an otherwise fertile couple to refrain from having children at this point in time. Catholic teaching accepts the legitimacy of such a choice when it argues that it is legitimate to use Natural Family Planning. But if we accept Dennehy’s argument even it brings what could be called a form of “sterility” to the union, since it involves abstaining from sex during fertile periods. And a selling point of NFP is its efficacy when used properly.

Dennehy’s argument, to be consistent, would have to oppose any sexual act which cannot result in conception (including NFP)–this would be a reversion to Augustine’s belief that sex should be restricted to intentional procreation.

The New Testament does not bind the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of the “conjugal union” as inseparably as Catholic moral theology does. Indeed, Paul speaks of sex without mentioning the hope or possibility of children, rooting it in the couple’s relationship, in the fact that they have become one flesh, and that the body of the one belongs now to the other. Thus sexual union is part of the normal routine of marriage; abstaining should be only for prayer, and only for a time–otherwise, marriage should be characterized by sexual union.

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:2-5).

Marriage is a good in and of itself, a union of male and female in keeping with God’s intention in creation. Within that union couples have an obligation to unite sexually, and the freedom to choose when and how. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Homosexuality departs from both God’s positive command in creation and from his prohibition in the law. We don’t need to get into specious arguments like those proposed by Dennehy to prove that.

Update: Chris Burgwald is quite happy to accept the teaching of the magisterium. Not surprising, but not persuasive to anyone who doesn’t a priori accept the authority of the Catholic magisterium.

Update2: It’s interesting that this post has been generating the most traffic the last few days. It’s caused some discussion back at Ignatius Insight, in addition to the link already given (Chris Burgwald).

Some Catholics say, “Well, you assume an authority in Scripture, so how’s that different than Catholics assuming magisterial authority?” The point, as I’ve made here and in the comments, is that if you are having a conversation with someone else, you need to base your argument on a commonly accepted authority. Catholics and Protestants both accept Scripture as divinely inspired, so if Catholics want to persuade Protestants, they need to argue on that basis.

Another person argues sex is sacred. All Christans agree, I daresay.

She then says sacredness demands that you not separate pleasure from conception. But, as noted, NFP does that just as surely as any other means of contraception.

She argues that NFP must not be rejected just because Catholics teach it. No one does that, of course. As is clear from the discussions, I pointed out many positives regarding NFP. But the fact that it has good points doesn’t make all other points immoral, and it doesn’t change the fact that it is still separating sex from conception as clearly as any other method of artificial birth control. Further, Catholics teach many good and proper things, but they are not good and proper simply because the Catholic Church teaches them.

She says, “There is a strong argument in scripture against contraception,” and brings up many disconnected texts that say nothing about contraception (surprisingly, she doesn’t use the story of Onan, the text Catholics have usually pointed to). All the while defending NFP as an acceptable means of contraception–while denying it is that.

But nothing she or anyone else says rescues Dennehy.

We agree that sex belongs in marriage, and that sex outside of marriage, of any kind, is immoral.

We agree that homosexuality is immoral because it is contrary to the created order, God’s clear command, and the clear intent of the human reproductive system.

Where we disagree is simply this. Dennehy’s syllogism is this:

1) Homosexuality is wrong because seeks pleasure without conception (or because it is sterile),

2) Contraception within marriage is wrong because it seeks pleasure without conception (or because it is sterile),

3) Therefore homosexuality is on a same moral level as a free act between a married couple.

We disagree at many points here, as I’ve pointed out. I maintain the sexual union is good in and of itself, and cited Paul’s admonition on this point. I maintain there is freedom in marriage to choose not to have children. I note that NFP advocates affirm this as well; they agree that couples can have sex and choose to avoid conception. This is contrary to both their own logic (which says you can’t separate pleasure and conception) and to traditional Catholic teaching (as defended by the SSPX).

If something can’t be argued persuasively from either reason (not authoritative) or Scripture, then how can it be laid as a burden on the backs of married couples? Only through appeal to Church authority. Why not just say so? Why not just say this is a case of ecclesial positive law that obliges Catholics but not others (as Catholics affirm regarding other marriage laws)? Why use scare tactics like comparisons with homosexuality?

17 thoughts on ““Contraception and Homosexuality”

  1. Thanks for your observations. Dennehy and Ignatian Insight are to the far right of Catholic positions on these topics. I address the history of the Christian positions on contraception and homosexuality in my Ph.D. dissertation. There is a link to it off my blog, http://creativeadvance.blogspot.com.

    More recently, I argue in blog postings that the overly rapid population growth so aggravates global warming that reducing population growth must outweigh the Catholic insistence that every legitimate sexual act must be open to the reproduction of children. Like Rome, Dennehy fails to factor that into his assessment of human sexuality. I need to read more of your postings to see if you factor it into yours.

  2. Just wanted to note that I have only seen this particular argument come from pop apologists and not serious theologians, who, I believe, also recognize the speciousness of the argument. I may be proved wrong, though. In any case, I certainly don’t base my opposition to both contraception and homosexual acts upon this line of thinking.

  3. Hi Jake,

    Good point. I’ve revised a sentence to better reflect that reality. Instead of saying, “This claim is often made by Catholics,” I now say, “This claim has often made by a certain class of Catholic apologist.”

    Gerald,

    No, I haven’t made that argument. I’ve yet to be convinced that “global warming” is caused by human factors and is not simply part of normal earth patterns.

  4. If my article, “Contraception and Homosexuality,” is invalid, it cannot be because it rests on an argument “often made by a certain class of Catholic apologist.”
    Even if that assertion is true, it is irrelevant to the validity of my argument insofar as it shifts attention from my argument to me as a member of a designated group. Equally irrelevant is the claim that too many children are being born, for that is simply an appeal to what is known as the fallacy of bad consequences. Bill Cork objects to my argument on grounds of inconsistency, but doesn’t address my reason for saying that natural family planning is different from the use of contraceptives. And he is apparently a strict constructionist when it comes to biblical interpretation: nothing is said about contraception in the bible, therefore…

  5. Dr. Dennehy, I agree with your first couple of statements regarding irrelevant points. My comment to which you refer is merely a statement of context, not a rebuttal, of course.

    Regarding your point that I “don’t address [your] reason for saying that natural family planning is different from the use of contraceptives.”

    I think this is the passage to which you refer.

    The charge of hypocrisy also implies a failure to distinguish between a desire and the means of realizing the desire. In using NFP, the couple do nothing to obstruct the possibility of conception in that particular act; on the contrary, they remain open to the procreation of new human life. In fact, it would be wrong to think of NFP simply as a way of avoiding children since many couples practice it to pinpoint when the woman is ovulating as a way of increasing their chances of conceiving a child. NFP does not formally separate sex from procreation.

    You distinguish between desire and means. NFP you say is a licit means because “In using NFP, the couple do nothing to obstruct the possibility of conception in that particular act.”

    Yes, they are obstructing the possibility of conception, by choosing to have sex at a time when they know conception is not going to happen. That seems to me to be as much an obstruction of the process as mechanical or hormonal means. If someone wants to hit me, I have several ways to obstruct their intent–I can put up a barrier, I can hit them first, or I can merely step out of the way. All three protect me. Clearly, the last one achieves the end with the least danger to myself (just as NFP achieves the end without the dangers of, say, hormonal methods). But in the end, what is significant is that a choice has been made to separate “the conjugal act” from procreation.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the term “strict constructionist.” I don’t see that constitutional and political terms readily apply to Scriptural hermeneutics. The bottom line is that Catholic teaching is based on Church authority and on a particular kind of natural law reasoning that non-Catholics just don’t accept.

  6. Mr. Cork,

    So we seem to disagree over whether having sex when the couple know the woman is not ovulating is in principle the same as using contraception. But the more fundamental disagreement is with your use of “obstruction,” which strikes me as Pickwickian. One “obstructs” by interfering or impeding the outcome of an action. That is worlds apart from “avoiding” an outcome. When the woman is not ovulating, choosing to have sexual intercourse during that time “obstructs” nothing, but does “avoid” conception. Practioners of NFP refrain from sex when the woman is ovulating. In contrast, contraception intends to “obstruct” fertilization and its practitioners do not refrain from sex when the woman is ovulating. That difference in intention is what establishes the difference between NFP and contraception as a difference in kind and thus as a difference in principle. That difference is also what establishes the use of contraceptives and homosexual intercourse as in principle the same.

    About reference to the bible, many actions that Christianity condemns need not refer to scripture since their immorality can be justified by natural reason. For example, the direct killing of innocent humans finds defense in both sources. When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception (Humanae vitae, 1968), he appealed both to revelation and our ability to derive objective norms of conduct from our understanding of nature, to wit, the finalities of sexual intercourse.

    I notice the fallacies of irrelevance keep coming. So what if I am a “pop theologian” and “too far away” from serious theologians. Those are statements about me, not about my argument. Only two things count in assessing an argument: the facts and the conclusion drawn from the facts.
    I suspect that references to theologians is a tautology. That is, when asked what a right thinking or serious theologian is, the answer one can be expected to hear is, “One who defends contraception” or “who defends homosexuality.” But these are the very issues under debate.

  7. I sense a lack of honest exploration of the points made by Dr. Dennehy in his article. Interestingly, when I first read the article, I thought it was unnecessary that he spent as much ink as he did explaining the difference between NFP and contraception, and yet the wisdom of this is now clear, as that does seem to be the stumbling block for some who read his article. Re: NFP, the author of this blog states: “even it brings what could be called a form of “sterility” to the union, since it involves abstaining from sex during fertile periods”. Actually, NFP does not bring a sterility to the union, biology does. The nature of women is to be infertile most of the cycle. There is such a fundamental difference between NFP and contraception, because one alters the nature of the sexual act, the other respects it. To avoid conception by refraining from sexual union during the time it is most likely to result in conception, is just not the same as deliberately altering the very nature of the act, or participating in it incompletely, to conform it to one’s intention. In NFP we conform our actions to God’s design, in contraception we alter God’s design to conform it to our desires and intent.

    In Bill’s response to Dr. Dennehy, he states that a distinction is made between means and intent. Bill goes on to say that NFP is “as much an obstruction of the process as mechanical or hormonal means”. And yet the example given, is an example of obstructing intent, failing to support the preceding statement, or refute the distinction made between intent and means. Surely, there is a very real distinction between intent and means. If a terminally ill patient is living their last day on this earth, one can deliberately end their life by smothering them with a pillow, or one can provide pain relief and comfort in their final hours. In both cases, ones intent might be the same (to relieve suffering) and the end result is the same (the person dies) but the means is certainly not the same.

    To refrain from an act is just not the same as altering the nature of the act.

    If contracepted intercourse is not by definition “sterile”, then it is interesting we refer to tubal ligations and vasectomies as being sterilized. Hormonal contraception and barrier methods perform the same function—to sterilize the act, or the woman or man. The homosexual act is, by nature, sterilized pleasure. The contracepted act is distorting nature to render the act sterile, while retaining the pleasure. When using NFP to avoid pregnancy, the couple does not sterilize the act, or themselves, but experiences the full nature of the act, sharing the completeness of their maleness,and femaleness, which by its nature will not always lead to conception.

    I can understand why Dr. Dennehy’s article would evoke a strong response from a Christian who finds homosexual unions unacceptable, morally or as legal marriage covenants, because this article necessitates then looking at a much more widely accepted practice in our society, contraception. No doubt that it is a challenge to many, but the first challenge is to avoid quick dismissal of the points raised, without deeper reflection and introspection.

    Sheila St. John

  8. “So we seem to disagree over whether having sex when the couple know the woman is not ovulating is in principle the same as using contraception.”

    Yes, that’s the point of disagreement.

    “But the more fundamental disagreement is with your use of ‘obstruction,’ which strikes me as Pickwickian.”

    I take “Pickwickian” to mean “Meant or understood in an idiosyncratic or unusual way.”

    So, for “obstruct,” I take a dictionary’s definition that it means:

    1. To block or fill (a passage) with obstacles or an obstacle.
    2. To impede, retard, or interfere with; hinder: obstructed my progress.
    3. To get in the way of so as to hide from sight.

    I believe it fair to say that use of NFP does impede, retard, or interfere with the possibility of conception. I’m not a philosopher, you are, so I’ll go ahead for the moment and accept your desire to seek to use the most precise terminology possible, and that there is a difference between avoiding an outcome (via NFP) and deliberately obstructing it (via other contraceptive means).

    But I would continue to maintain that the intention is the same: to seek through deliberate means to enjoy the pleasures and intimacy of sexual union without the consequences of pregnancy.

    Therefore I wouldn’t accept your initial premise when you say “That difference in intention is what establishes the difference between NFP and contraception as a difference in kind and thus as a difference in principle. That difference is also what establishes the use of contraceptives and homosexual intercourse as in principle the same.”

    My wife and I have taken a CCL course in NFP. We did it for the sake of understanding fertility so that we might seek to have another child. I do accept that understanding the female cycle is a more natural method, honoring woman as created by God. I accept that it is objectively an improvement over hormonal treatments (“the Pill”) which have many negative side effects and over barrier methods (though I believe this is a matter more of aesthetics and intimacy rather than of morality).

    But I maintain that it, too, is an artificial process (requiring, in the method we learned, careful and detailed charting of temperature and of mucous consistency). I would maintain that within the context of marriage, the permanent union of a man and a woman, there is freedom; that how and when and where a couple express their intimacy is up to them; that the Bible’s only command in the matter is that they do have regular sexual intimacy. I would maintain that we have the freedom to use our God-given intellect to study the functioning of our bodies and to apply what we learn for what we both agree is an appropriate intention: avoiding conception.

    I suggest that the moral evaluation you seek to make is only possible through acceptance of another authority, the Catholic magisterium. Because of this, only a Catholic who has accepted this a priori evaluation could come to the equation you make between homosexual sex and contraception within the marital union.

    Finally, you say,

    I notice the fallacies of irrelevance keep coming. So what if I am a “pop theologian” and “too far away” from serious theologians.

    I didn’t say that, another reader did. I know you are a philosopher, not a theologian. These are different disciplines, with different methods of argumentation.

  9. I see that my little comment has gone farther than intended.

    Mr. Dennehy, as a reasonably informed young adult Catholic, I am well aware of, and I adhere to, the Church’s teachings on sexuality. I also have read the works of several theologians, both those in good graces with the church and those who are not. And finally, I am familiar with popular Catholic apologists such Scott Hahn, Chris West, Dave Armstrong, Steven Ray, and others.

    As far as I know, the line of argument against contraception by reference to homosexual acts (or vice versa, depending on one’s objective) has generally been espoused by the latter, whether in talks, conferences, debates, or written works. The theologians that I have read do not use this line of reasoning in attacking either contraception or homosexual acts. I did not use the term “serious theologian” as a tautology to refer to those against the magisterium; I used it for those who present their work in an academic setting (i.e., a journal of repute aimed at other respected theologians and used in research; a thesis/dissertation; or a book-length work). I used the term “pop apologist” to refer to those who write for a more general audience — the Catholic layman.

    Now, perhaps apologists have circulated this particular argument amongst themselves. I do not know. I do know that those whose work is rigorously analyzed in the academic setting do not use it. Personally, I find it weak; I think there are better arguments against both artificial contraception and homosexual acts than the one you presented.

    I made my comment here because Dr. Cork’s original post made it seem that this line of argument was a common Catholic critique of the issue, and I didn’t think that was true. I think it’s used by people who target a general audience, not academia. I did not mean to question whether this approach to the lay Catholic was right or wrong, just that it can be traced to a certain group of people.

    I apologize if I have offended you. Ultimately, we’re on the same side (you can ask Dr Cork, with whom I’m on friendly terms, if you have any doubts as to my understanding and commitment to church teaching). If you feel like you have more to say, feel free to e-mail me at neuja@rice.edu.

  10. One last thing: I see, Dr. Dennehy, that you are a philosopher. My concern here was a theological one, not philosophical. We are perhaps viewing the issue in two different ways. (I personally am an aspiring historian who enjoys reading Catholic theology.) I am not claiming any expert opinion, just reporting the results of my own reading and observation.

  11. I disagree with the claim that intending to have sex without conception is the same as using contraceptives. There is nothing contrary to the structure and finalities of the sex act that makes the desire for sex without conception immoral. Sexual intercourse is a special and profound means of expressing love between husband and wife. Where is the “obstruction” in that? Nature obviously does not intend that every act of sexual intercourse end in pregnancy since the woman is fertile for only a few days each month, but the couple are sexually attracted to each other throughout the month. The couple remain open to the procreation of new life; otherwise they would resort to contraception. Contraception, more correctly called “contraconception,” means the prevention of the possibility of conception. In NFP nothing is obstructed; the woman is not ovulating, so there is nothing to “obstruct.” The use of contraceptives implies the intent to prevent the possibility of conception, the demand to have sex without conception whenever the couple wish. That is the FORMAL separation of sex from procreation, which intentional formal separation celebrates an sterile act. In fact, contraception is technically called “temporary sterilization.” And there’s the link between contraception and homosexuality.

    Yes, I accept the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. That is an observation about me, not about the validity or invalidity of my argument.

  12. You continue to repeat the same point, but I don’t see you’ve added to the discussion. Your argument assumes certain things as given, because of your acceptance of Catholic teaching, that non-Catholics do not accept. You articulate what Catholic teaching is, but do not defend it on Scriptural grounds, which is the only common authority all Christians accept.

    You say, “There is nothing contrary to the structure and finalities of the sex act that makes the desire for sex without conception immoral.” We agree on that–but I think you’ve gone beyond traditional Catholic teaching on that point, which is the very reason why traditionalist Catholic groups such as the SSPX reject NFP (example).

    You say,

    “The use of contraceptives implies the intent to prevent the possibility of conception, the demand to have sex without conception whenever the couple wish. That is the FORMAL separation of sex from procreation….

    And to common sense it would seem to be clear that the use of NFP “implies the intent to prevent the possibility of conception, the demand to have sex without conception whenever the couple wish.” That, too, is a “formal separation of sex from procreation.”

    You’ve argued that couples can separate sex from procreation. I still don’t see that you’ve made an argument that would persuade any non-Catholic that NFP is moral and other methods are immoral.

  13. … In NFP, conception is not prevented or obstructed because there is no sperm to be blocked or destroyed, no ovum to be suppressed.

    You say that you don’t see that my argument “…would persuade any non-Catholic that NFP is moral and other methods are immoral.”

    I don’t know whether any non-Catholics would accept my argument as valid. So? The appeal to bad consequences doesn’t invalidate the argument.

  14. I shortened the post to bring this to a close, as we are just repeating ourselves.

    The intent of NFP is to have sex without conception. It is a much a human construct–artificial, if you will–as any other method devised by modern scientists.

    Only recent Catholic moral tradition sees this as morally superior to other methods of contraception. It doesn’t seek to build an argument from Scripture–as you don’t. If you’re not able to do so, I think we can go no further.

    You see, saying that your argument won’t persuade non-Catholics is not an “appeal to bad consequences.” It’s a demonstration that you are arguing on the basis of assumptions that are not shared and that you are indebted to an authority that is not shared. This is about starting points, not consequences.

    But thank you for the discussion.

  15. My wife and I are using NFP and I would have to disagree with you, Bill, that “the intent of NFP is to have sex without conception.” We used NFP with the intent to have sex with conception (you know, to fulfill that basic, simple, easy-to-understand command in Genesis), and it worked. 🙂

  16. Yes, some people study it for that purpose. My wife and I did (but it didn’t). But we were unique–the one “older couple” in the class who were taking it for that reason.

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