I wish there were a clearer way to do this than one uniformly-spaced combox post, but since that’s the tool I have at my disposal, I’m going to do my best. Reading this article also made me sad, ironically partially for the same reason as the author, but for a few others as well. I’m sad because of just how profoundly this article simplifies the priesthood, the men who comprise its ranks, and even sexuality. I feel like I need to respond to it piece by piece because that’s the only way the response will make any sense, so since I can’t write my responses in a different color or indent them in any special way, I’m going to put the quotations from the article between arrows and in quotations -->”like this”<--
-->“...men who may never have experienced sex feel qualified not just to speak about it, but to pronounce on it with certainty.”<--
To hone in even further, -->”may never have experienced sex”<--. This was the first part that made me feel a little bit like I’d been punched in the stomach. How many married couples would you say you know? Do you think the author knows? Do you think the average person knows? Of those couples, what percentage of them have trusted you with intimate details about their marital life and sexuality within it? Less than half? Maybe fewer than 10%? Even if you count 50 married couples among your friends, do you know intimate details about the sexual and marital relationships of more than five of them? How broad, really, is your, my, the author’s, or the average person’s “experience of sex”? It’s incredibly narrow, and therefore incredibly nuanced and biased. Your individual sexual experience, complete with all the personality traits and features that make your relationship with your spouse unique, is overwhelmingly the most defining “experience” you have of sex. And it’s unique to you.
On what grounds does that make any married individual more qualified to speak about sex than, for example, Pope John Paul II, who wrote the Theology of the Body? Or Pope Paul VI who wrote Humanae Vitae? Not only does he have the “experience” of having been trusted with intimate details of thousands upon thousands of marital and sexual relationships over the course of his priesthood and papacy, but his assessment and understanding of them is not skewed by his own unique, individual, un-duplicatable, personal experience. Even ordinary parish priests have incredibly broad “experience of sex” relative to the average married person.
Equating “experience” with “intercourse” is such a drastic oversimplification of sex it’s painful. Instead, I would argue that because a priest is NOT married, he actually has a much BROADER “experience of sex” to draw on and to use to make conclusions about what is and isn’t good for the human person and human development. That’s not to say there won’t always be nuance as, obviously, sex only exists between real living people, but it is a great basis for someone to “feel qualified not just to speak about it, but to pronounce on it with certainty,” certainly relative to the limited sexual experience and exposure of a married individual.
-->“Well, no, Fr. Landry, we don’t. We don’t reject it. We make a decision about it. We recognize that pregnancy is a possibility, and we decide whether this is the right time for us to have a baby.”<--
You may not be rejecting it in the aggregate. But the “decision” being made in the particular sexual act, if it’s contracepted, is one of rejection. You may very well value your spouse as an actual or potential parent on the whole of his or her life, but in the particular instance of making a decision whether to have sex *right now,* even if you “recognize that pregnancy is a possibility” and you’ve decided this is not “the right time for us to have a baby,” means that in this instance, you *are* rejecting your spouse’s capability to become a parent. You don’t want the “becoming a parent” part of your spouse right this moment. And there’s nothing wrong with knowing there are times when “becoming a parent” *is* irresponsible or undesirable. In those times, rather than participating in an act that bodily communicates a *total* gift of self and receptivity to the self of the other when you really mean you want to give your whole self *except* your “becoming a parent ability” and receive the whole of your spouse’s self *except his/her “becoming a parent ability”, choose not to engage in the act until your body language can match what your heart knows to be true about the situation.
When you’re willing to give yourself completely and receive your spouse’s self completely, by all means, do so! But when you’re not willing to give yourself or receive your spouse’s self completely, why enter into an act that, in the intense vulnerability she describes later, requires a complete gift and reception of self to support the relationship instead of undermine it?
-->“But the rules aren’t just unrealistic. They are often irrelevant, based on incorrect or incomplete information.”<--
This goes back to the initial point about the “experience of sex.” Who is more likely to have incorrect or incomplete information about sex: The individual who knows his/her own experience in extreme detail and the experiences of a few very close friends in detail, or the individual whose judgment is not swayed by the extremely detailed knowledge he has of his own experience, but instead can make a conclusion based on the detailed knowledge of thousands of people who have trusted him with it?
I don’t mean to say that every priest knows a married couple’s sexual or marital relationship better than they know it themselves. But think about what married couples do when they reach an impasse within the marriage and they don’t know what to do. They seek out professional advice, often from a marriage counselor. Why? Because they recognize that the breadth of that professional’s experience of marriage makes him/her better able to help the couple than the couples’ own deep experience of only their own marriage. Furthermore, the counselor’s impressions and advice aren’t unduly swayed by personal and emotional engagement in the couple’s problems. The objectivity is an *asset,* not a hindrance. The objective professional has a more level-headed, clear-sighted perspective than the couple in the depths of their very human experience. The same is generally true of priests. There will always be exceptions, but generally, the priest is also an objective professional with a more level-headed, clear-sighted perspective to offer.
-->“He is wrong, though, to assume that using contraception automatically makes “pleasure the point of the act.” This is how adolescents think. Teenagers dream of constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy. That priests would talk the same way about sex between a husband and wife who have chosen to use contraception reflects inexperience and adolescent projection.”<--
Whether the average young married man has actually matured beyond adolescence is a topic for another day (obviously many of them have, but whether it’s enough to be a majority is debatable). But let’s focus on this idea of “constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy.” While condoms or any other contraceptive procedure that requires a decision whether to contracept to be made at the same moment as the decision whether to have sex might be able to avoid this “constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy” mentality, long-acting or permanent methods of contraception cannot. Their whole purpose is to be able to make a decision for months, years, or even lifetimes at a time whether there should be any possibility of pregnancy specifically *for the purpose* of making sex constantly available without having to make the decision about pregnancy in that moment. What is the purpose of contraceptive sterilization other than to say, “I want to be able to have sex whenever I want without the possibility of having a child”?? The idea behind anything that is inserted for long periods of time or a pill that becomes routine is that the decision whether to have sex should not be influenced every time by the possibility of having children. It’s fine to make that decision monthly, or quarterly, or just once.
So who’s projecting here? Is this really a case of a priest projecting inexperience and an adolescent understanding of sex onto sexuality within a marriage, or a married woman projecting her own extremely limited conception of what “sexual experience” means and doesn’t mean onto priests? The priest can look at the objective reality that a decision to use long-term or permanent contraceptive techniques *does* have as its goal “constantly available sex, uninhibited by any possibility of pregnancy” and recognize it for what it is.
-->“Distrust of pleasure is one hallmark of the church’s teaching about sex. This is odd because, as Catholics, we also believe that ‘eye has not seen nor ear heard the wonders God has prepared for those who love Him.’ But that aside, what is the church’s antidote to the dread prospect of people having too much fun in bed? Children.”<--
She uses two kinds of pleasure interchangeably in this paragraph, but they really can’t be so easily switched for each other. Yes, to some extent, the Church distrusts earthly pleasure. Why? Because every pleasure we can experience on earth has been tainted by the fall. It is no longer possible for us to enjoy them as they were created. There are times we can come extremely close, like in the presence of an exquisite sunset or surrounded by the sounds of a symphony, but death is now a characteristic of all the pleasures we experience on earth. The sun finally goes down. The symphony ends. So it *is* dangerous to grow too attached to earthly pleasures. If we condition ourselves to be attached only to things that die, we leave ourselves unprepared for Heaven. It’s too much for us. We don’t know how to embrace it. And we run the risk of choosing *not* to embrace it because it’s just too hard a change to make. We weren’t made to be attached to things that end. We were made, first and foremost, to be united with God, who doesn’t end. That’s why we’re to love Him with all we are. But we’re also made to love each other, not just in our earthly lives, but as beings who are also made not to end. That’s why it hurts so much when we lose someone we love. We weren’t made for that. So it’s not odd in the least that we should be distrustful of earthly pleasure in the light of the heavenly pleasures for which we were created. Being too attached to the temporary ones conditions us against accepting the eternal ones.
And, yes, children are a safeguard (not an antidote) against growing too attached to the pleasures of sex, not because they make us miserable and are burdensome, but because they remind us that we were made for eternity, not for death. They are like an arrow reminding us that the pleasures we experience on earth exist to point us to the eternal ones that await. The most intense earthly pleasure we can enjoy brings about a new eternal being. Why? Because we were created for pleasure that’s eternal.
-->“The thing is, children are also a deep source of pleasure, joy, and fun. The bishops, while recognizing this truth, nonetheless focus on babies as natural results of the biological act, as consequences and responsibilities—not as persons who are sought after and gladly welcomed. (Indeed, people who seek too vigorously to have children are also criticized as trying to play God, to control what should be divinely ordained.)”<--
Who fights the hardest to protect newly conceived children, to welcome them, to create a culture in which all newly-conceived children are embraced as a joyful blessing instead of a burden or a consequence, and to make sure the youngest of the young children can’t be killed before they’re even born? If it’s not the bishops, it really isn’t fair to keep criticizing them every time they turn around for their pro-life efforts. Pick on the people who are really doing that more consistently and insistently than they are. But you can’t have it both ways. Either they seek after and welcome children too enthusiastically, or they consider them as burdensome consequences, but their critics really need to pick which. It’s disingenuous to keep accusing them of both.
Since she recognizes at least some of the dangers the bishops are trying to safeguard against by resisting “assistive reproductive technology,” I’m not going to get far into it except to point out that the Pope Paul VI Institute (www.popepaulvi.com) is and long has been a leader in NaPro technology that tries to correct conditions that cause infertility to restore the individual’s natural fertility rather than circumventing the conditions and finding ways to bring about children without having to take the time to heal the parent. They’ve been hugely successful, so it isn’t as though they’re saying people who struggle to conceive should just get over it and accept their fate. They’re pursuing ways that better respect the complete human dignity of the parents AND the children.
-->“But every human activity has the potential to become unbalanced. Having children mindlessly, year after year, as former generations of Catholics did, is just as harmful to the social good as the refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Visit India, Fr. Landry. Talk with the women here who are treated purely as producers of sons.”<--
First of all, the accusation of mindlessness is an unfair ad hominem attack. I’m sure there were many women who had no mindful engagement in their reproduction (some by their own fault and some without it), but it isn’t fair to paint with such a wide brush over the large Catholic families of generations past. In the instances where there was mindless reproduction, yes, that is just as harmful to the social good as refusal to connect sex with pregnancy. Certainly the instances in which women are not *permitted* any say in their own reproduction are just as harmful too.
But that isn’t what the bishops are proposing. It’s not an either/or dichotomy--either we mindlessly reproduce or we refuse to connect sex with pregnancy. That’s a more drastic oversimplification even than what she accuses the priests of. The bishops are proposing a profound integration of sex with pregnancy, and a recognition of the beautiful ways women’s bodies work and tell us when they’re fertile and when they aren’t. They’re encouraging us to respect the way our reproductive capabilities naturally work and integrate our sexuality into an understanding of ourselves in our fullness. If two spouses determine this is not the time to have children, let them wait to have sex until a time when the sex will not produce a child. Why suppress something that’s healthy and functioning properly so as to have sex without children? Whose dignity does that raise, exactly?
To defend contraception within marriage is not to defend sexual license. Married couples who have pledged a lifetime of commitment to each other and their families have the right and the duty to make their own decisions about contraception. The church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that is right for their lives. It is not to dictate one-size-fits-all rules that have no foundation in practical experience.”<--
Every human person has a moral right to follow the dictates of his/her conscience. However, with great rights come great responsibilities. In this case, the accompanying great responsibility is to make sure that conscience is properly *formed.* It’s not enough to say, “My conscience tells me to do/not do this particular thing,” without asking whether that’s because the thing is evil or because the conscience is in error. The Church’s role is to help them arrive at the decision that best leads them to *holiness,* not the one that fits most comfortably with their consciences. Oftentimes it’s the conscience, not the guidance, that needs to be changed. Yes, this requires great care for nuance on the part of the priest, since there are millions and millions of factors that shape the conscience (just ask your nearest Catholic psychotherapist), but the Church’s responsibility (not just in sexual matters) is to help those entrusted to Her care to form their consciences in such a way as to love and find joy in holiness--not happiness. Holiness. “Happiness” is connected etymologically to “happenings.” One of the greatest errors in our modern philosophical discourse is that words that carry connotations of enduring, ongoing, everlasting joy in other languages end up being rendered “happiness” in English, which is unfortunately extremely misleading.
And not to beat a dead horse or anything, but “no foundation in practical experience” is a drastic oversimplification of both sex and the priesthood. “Practical experience,” in her usage, ends up being reduced to “personal experiences of intercourse,” ignoring completely the breadth of experience of sexuality priests do have. Ironically, it’s her own portrayal of sex and what it means to have “sexual experience” that is simplified to the point of being sad.
-->“The church has made a spectacle of itself by promoting an immature version of sexuality that is missing the sinew of lived experience. It used to frighten people into submission. Now it simply makes them smile a little sadly. I’m a prolife Catholic who practiced only Natural Family Planning. But I’m smiling, too. Because I’m sad for my church.”<--
If the Church has made a spectacle of Herself, it hasn’t been by promoting an immature version of sexuality. It’s been by failing to explain the depths of it as well as they deserve and leaving most people’s consciences immaturely formed. It’s a huge error to overcome, but I had to take the time to start trying.