Discipline, concupiscence and birth control

The papal encyclical Humanae vitae (HV) teaches that our bodies are not ours to do with as we please:

“In the task of transmitting life, … [married couples] are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a wholly autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church.” 10

“[J]ust as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his generative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination towards raising up life, of which God is the principle.” 13

“[T]he Church is the first to praise and recommend the intervention of intelligence in a function which so closely associates the rational creature with his Creator; but she affirms that this must be done with respect for the order established by God.” 16

Thus, regulating births per se is not wrong. What’s wrong is doing it in a way that disrespects “the order established by God”:

“The Church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious. In reality, there are essential differences between the two cases; in the former, the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; in the latter, they impede the development of natural processes. It is true that, in the one and the other case, the married couple are concordant in the positive will of avoiding children for plausible reasons, seeking the certainty that offspring will not arrive; but it is also true that only in the former case are they able to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods when, for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity. By so doing, they give proof of a truly and integrally honest love.” 16

“[I]f the mission of generating life is not to be exposed to the arbitrary will of men [e.g. controlled by government], one must necessarily recognize insurmountable limits to the possibility of man’s domination over his own body and its functions; limits which no man, whether a private individual or one invested with authority, may licitly surpass. And such limits cannot be determined otherwise than by the respect due to the integrity of the human organism and its functions,” 17

“[The Church] engages man not to abdicate from his own responsibility in order to rely on technical means; by that very fact she defends the dignity of man and wife.” 18

In regard to that last quote, consider the topic of overeating and weight loss: In the not-too-distant future someone may invent a fat-burning pill that actually works, that is, enables you to eat all you want and not gain weight. Now, if someone is concerned about his weight, what method should he use to control it? Should he exercise the discipline required to eat right and exercise? or would it be just as well to take a pill that enables him to indulge his appetite without limit, and throw discipline out the window?

It’s important to understand the Catholic concept of concupiscence, as one of the fruits of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Basically, concupiscence is the tendency of the desires of the flesh to exert themselves in rebellion against the mastery of the intellect and will. In our fallen state, our ability to resist these desires is compromised, and therefore we must battle the flesh constantly. This doesn’t mean that fleshly pleasures are bad per se, but that they’re difficult to keep within proper bounds, and therefore we must exercise moderation and practice regular discipline lest they rage out of control and lead us into sin.

Presumably it is with this in mind that Pope Paul writes,

“The honest practice of regulation of birth demands first of all that husband and wife acquire and possess solid convictions concerning the true values of life and of the family, and that they tend towards securing perfect self-mastery. To dominate instinct by means of one’s reason and free will undoubtedly requires ascetical practices, so that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order, in particular with regard to the observance of periodic continence [abstinence from sex].” 21

So again, it’s fine to regulate the occurrence of conception and birth, but we must do it in such a way “that the affective manifestations of conjugal life may observe the correct order” — that is, we must keep our bodily lusts in check, and not indulge them at will. This is why it’s bad to regulate births by “technical means” (see 18 above), because in relying on such means we are “abdicating our responsibility”. That is, if you can just take a pill to keep from getting fat, then your appetite for food no longer has to be kept under control; you can let it run wild and gorge yourself at will. This may work medically, but is it a good thing spiritually? By the same token, if you can just take a pill to prevent pregnancy, then your appetite for sex no longer has to be kept under control, but is free to indulge itself at will. Is this a good thing spiritually? (Has it been good for our society?)

In summary, our bodies are not our own; we can regulate what our bodies do, but in so doing we must respect the way God made them. Therefore it’s a bad idea to suppress our natural bodily functions for the purpose of enjoying bodily pleasures without consequence; rather, we should be willing to exercise discipline in eschewing bodily pleasures at some times, and enjoying them at other times, with moderation and within proper boundaries, all the while working with our bodies rather than against them, out of respect for God’s design.

[This was adapted from a comment of mine on another blog.]

A birth control puzzle

When the question is asked, What should we do to reduce unwed pregnancies? most non-Christians would answer, increase sex-ed and access to birth control; whereas most Christians would answer, teach sexual abstinence before marriage, that is, reinstitute pre-marital sexual abstinence as a societal value. And when the liberals say no that doesn’t work, people will have sex no matter what you tell them, the Christians reply that that’s not true, they just have to learn to exercise discipline over their bodies.

Yet when the question is asked, what should be done to prevent unwanted pregnancies within marriage, most Christians would answer, use birth control!

Why the different answer when the context is within marriage? Are people no longer capable of exercising discipline over their bodies once they get married?

In defense of arranged marriages

“That a culture that is OK with idiots of whatever sexes marrying a week after meeting in a hook-up bar frowns upon two families arranging a marriage between their own children is probably the highest praise and validation arranged marriages will ever get.”

Joseph Moore, “Dante and Moral Equivalency“, Yard Sale of the Mind (blog), August 9, 2015.

Foundation and preservation

Commenter Andrew, in a comment to the post “The Benedict Option: the Brotherhood of the Way” on Junior Ganymede (the main thrust of which I agree with), writes, “It is only in these latter days that the CJCLDS’ [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] unique theology can be seen as providing an ultimate and metaphysical defense against our present corruption.”

Not wanting to appear to stir up contention as a guest on that fine blog, I am posting this reply to Andrew’s comments here:


The CJCLDS has done a good job of preserving the marital and reproductive values and practices that were prevalent during the 19th century, when it was founded. But to put things in perspective, one should consider where those 19th century values came from in the first place. They didn’t just fall from the sky; nor were they secular in origin, nor Roman, nor barbarian, but Christian. Granted that they’ve been eroded with the rise of secularism, which has infested even the Catholic Church. But my point is that the fertile soil in which the CJCLDS was planted in the first place, including the values that it now preserves, was prepared by century upon century of Catholicism.

Catholicism has proven its mettle. It has proven to be a foundation upon which an entire civilization can be built and endure. The CJCLDS, if it preserves anything, is only preserving what was built by others. Whether it may, itself, serve as the foundation for an entire Christian civilization, has yet to be proven, since thus far it has only ever been a small part of a larger Christian culture.

What does it mean to judge a tree by its fruits?

This is in response to Bruce Charlton’s post, “The problem of Mormonism (for mainstream Christians)” at Junior Ganymede, and is adapted from my comment thereto. The “problem” Bruce discusses is how non-Mormon Christians can account for Mormons as a group bearing “good fruit”, while adhering to what they consider to be false doctrine. Bruce’s opinion apparently is that Mormons bear good fruit because of their doctrine; whereas non-Mormon Christians believe the good fruits come in spite of their doctrine, or have no relation to it.

But my focus is on the scriptural passages underlying the discussion, mainly Mt. 7:15ff.

The post and some of the comments seem to be proceeding on the assumption that Jesus intends “fruits” as a criterion for judging the truth or falsity of a religion. If so, then obviously it can’t mean that there will be entirely good fruits and no bad fruits whatsoever; under that criterion, no religion on earth could qualify. It’s also doubtful whether it’s a relative standard, as in, that religion with more good fruits than any other must be the true[est] one.

However, Jesus doesn’t say that you should judge a prophet by the fruits of the doctrine he preaches. Rather, he says that “you will recognize them” – false prophets – “by their fruits”. He continues, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’” Now, prophesying and casting out demons and doing mighty works are good fruits, are they not? At least the casting out of demons, surely. And yet Jesus may still say to such people, “I never knew you.” Why? Beause they worked lawlessness: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

So, being a “worker of lawlessness” seems to be what he means by bearing bad fruit. Other translations are “you evildoers”, “ye that work iniquity” and “you lawbreakers”. The word for “lawlessness” is anomia, defined by Strong’s as “illegality, i.e. violation of law or (genitive case) wickedness:—iniquity, × transgress(-ion of) the law, unrighteousness”.

Another place where a tree failing to bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, is in Mt. 3:

“But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Here again it doesn’t appear that doctrine is the issue, because it’s individual Pharisees and Sadducees who are being condemned, based on their failing to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”. So it seems to me that what is being said is, “Don’t follow people whose lives don’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, or, “Don’t follow people who transgress the laws of righteousness”.

In Mt. 12:33-37, Jesus seems to be equating good and bad fruits with the words that people speak, as when he says “How can you speak good, when you are evil?” — a clear parallel with the statement, “a bad tree can’t bear good fruit”. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” And we will be judged by this “fruit”:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

And in many other places the New Testament scriptures speak of bearing the fruits of righteousness unto salvation. This is always in the context of individual exhortations to forsake sin and do good. For example, Romans 6:19ff:

“[J]ust as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

So it seems to me that Jesus is saying that a prophet should be judged by his personal righteousness: Is he living a sinful life? If so then he is a false prophet, for he is a worker of lawlessness.

As far as I can see, the New Testament doesn’t discuss testing the truth or falsity of doctrine in terms of whether it bears good or bad fruit. Probably because doctrine is simply true or false, and not all doctrine bears directly on behavior. Also because people are perfectly capable of receiving good doctrine and yet still bearing bad fruit or no fruit, as in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:3-23).

Laudato Si’

“At this moment, we have the paradoxical situation in which an animated, and even frenzied, secular chorus hails papal teaching as infallible, … provided it does NOT involve faith or morals.”

Fr. George W. Rutler, “Mixing Up the Sciences of Heaven and Earth,” Crisis Magazine (crisismagazine.com), June 18, 2015.

Government: Servant or Master?

“A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here [in the U.S.]; not because the government may be in the hands of Whigs or Democrats, but because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. … In a free government, there can be no teaching by authority, and all attempts to teach by authority are so many blows struck at its freedom. We may as well have a religion established by law, as a system of education, and the government educate and appoint the pastors of our churches, as well as the instructors of our children.”

Orestes Augustus Brownson, Boston Quarterly Review, Vol. 2, 1839, p. 408.

[H/T to Yard Sale of the Mind.]