Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(4) November 2017
Humanae Vitae: The Elephant in the Room.
Dr Ian Jessiman
In his interesting letter (re “Humanae Vitae”, CMQ Aug ’17) James Flood raises the important question of acceptance of Church teaching by the laity, in this case over the question of contraception. Like him, I well remember a meeting, called by a local Bishop to reinvigorate a branch of the Guild, addressed by a moral philosopher of his choice with particular reference to contraception, which served only to alienate most of the doctors. Dr Flood talks of the elephant in the room, but I fear there are several such elephants.
In discussing this issue may we assume that we are all trying to uphold the teaching of the Church and that there is no question of seeking to show others the error of their ways. It is important that we should all try together to resolve the difficulties to which Dr Flood has drawn attention.
I do not have the answer, any more than anybody else, but if there is only one truth then it should be accessible and not concealed by arcane language. It is not sufficient to say the laity are ill-instructed, though if that is true it doesn’t help, nor to impute laziness, insincerity or wickedness to all those who cannot understand the Church’s position. It has been my opinion for some time that the moral theology of the Church needs urgent review. Neoscholasticism has held undisputed sway for a long time and still looks at the world through mediaeval eyes. Consequently it is also the case that the Church and the World are speaking different languages. I would like to suggest that moral philosophers and theologians should start by looking at the understanding of the Natural Law.
‘Natural Law is nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God: through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church [quoting St Thomas] para 1955 (cf. para 1960)). The Church derives its understanding of the Natural Law from an understanding of nature culled from the Bible and, through St Thomas Aquinas, from Aristotle. St Thomas does not say in his writings exactly how he understood reproduction to take place (nor indeed did Aristotle, as it was not a question which interested them) but it becomes apparent that he saw the miraculous event [my words] of (pro)creation as taking place at the moment of ejaculation (or immediately thereafter). The semen was a human being ‘in proximate potentiality’ (though not yet a human being) and intended to develop in the appropriate circumstances. Viewed in these terms it becomes apparent that ejaculation, other than in an act of intercourse, is both to call on God to create and at the same time to thwart Him. Consequently ‘the disordered emission of the seed’, that is by ‘acts against nature’ (amongst which is masturbation) was seen as a sin second only in gravity to homicide. (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 122). Sins against nature (‘where the natural way of lying is not kept’), including masturbation, are worse than sacrilege, incest, adultery, rape, seduction or fornication (Summa Theologica 2-2, 154. 11-12))
This is, of course, a long way from modern scientific understanding. Ejaculation, or indeed intercourse, is no longer seen as such an important part of reproduction. Masturbation, I suspect, has always been commonplace, even inherent, in male adolescent development.
Homosexuality is another of the ‘elephants in the room’. It is, of
course, directly condemned in the Bible. The Jews, at the time of its
writing, were a small threatened nation, which needed to reproduce and
multiply in order to survive. Homosexuality was not seen as something
inherent but rather as ‘chosen sin’: contrary to nature. It is interesting
to reflect that now, when the world is increasingly populated,
homosexuality and other ‘formes frustes’ of non-productive activities are
seen as normal. But it is now almost universally considered that
homosexuality is an innate (hereditary) condition, both in man and in
animals. Just as the mediaeval world vision accepted only fixed unchanging
species (which did not allow for ‘missing links’) so it could not allow
that something which it considered so evil could possibly be natural (ie
present in nature).
If we allow homosexuality to be ‘normal’ there is a further problem in that for many the idea of homosexual ‘intercourse’ is utterly repugnant. Meanwhile, however, precisely the same behaviour is extolled for heterosexual relationships in the week-end newspapers. The Church has, no doubt wisely, kept away from dogmatism in the bedroom, but has failed to express any opinion at all. No other source seems to have expressed any objections either.
If homosexuality is natural what then of paedosexuality? Is Paedophilia just another variant of human sexuality? It seems that such behaviour is, and presumably has been, a common thread running through human history. The Church has chosen to treat it like any other sin, capable of simple forgiveness. It may be no more prevalent in Church organisations than elsewhere, but if our preaching is true then it should be very very much less. However, it seems that the miscreants are virtually unable to avoid reoffending. Is this too, then, an inherent state?
Like other intimate aspects of sexual behaviour, there is no reason why bishops and superiors should necessarily be aware of its occurrence unless someone complains. Generally, in the past, it has been regarded as of little importance: what is now known is the appalling and lifelong effects which it may have on the victims.
Much of the authority of moral theology is based on respect for nature and respect for oneself. Though belief in God may be founded in the wonders of the natural world, society now largely denies the existence of God and has little concept of self-respect. Any notion of self-restraint is unheard of. I would argue that we need to re-establish the importance of the Natural Law, but to do so with a Natural Law compatible with modern scientific knowledge rather than with the beliefs of past ages. If the World is to be convinced of the teaching of Christ then the Church must be able to think and speak in comprehensible language.