Holy Sex!--Part 2.2. The Third Rail

For a long time, the "Third Rail" of American politics was Social Security.  It was called a "third rail," because politicians were afraid to touch this electrified rail, for fear of receiving a (political) shock.  No one could say anything about amending or modifying Social Security, for fear of sacrificing their political career.  Other topics may be on the table, but not this one.

Catholicism's Third Rail is its opposition to artificial birth control.  The American Catholic Church has hired Jones Day, one of the largest (and most expensive, though the Church is probably getting a break on fees) law firms in the country to defend the proposition that it won't pay for birth control and it can't be made to.  Jones Day and the Catholic Church is filing suit after suit all around the country in defense of this position.  No effort is being spared.

But it is not just the American church.  This morning, the Vatican released the preparatory document for the Synod on the Family in October.  This document, which in theory acts as an agenda for the synod, has a lengthy section on birth control.  Right from the beginning, Humanae Vitae is described as "prophetic," effectively shutting down any discussion of alternatives.  Any criticisms are dismissed out of hand as a product of "secularization."

Birth control is a Third Rail in another sense--most people wouldn't touch the Church's position with a ten foot pole.  Every time I have attempted to explain the Church's position to non-Catholics, the result has been some combination of bewilderment and bemusement.  But it's not just non-Catholics.   According to the CDC, among Catholic women who were utilizing some method to regulate pregnancy, only 1.8% were using NFP (see Table 8--a drop from 3.2% ten years ago).  A recent poll showed that 58 percent of Catholics opposed their own Church's opposition to the contraception mandate. Even more stunning, more Catholics supported the mandate than mainline Protestants.  That's right--Catholics are more likely to support a rule requiring Catholic institutions to provide birth control than Episcopalians or Presbyterians.

Into this mix comes Dr. Popcak and Chapter 9, entitled "Sex Creates."  As should come as no surprise, it is a full-throated defense of the Humanae Vitae view.  Popcak (and anyone else who would defend the Church's position on birth control) has two "tasks" to accomplish.  First, he has to come up with a way to distinguish between NFP and artificial birth control.  He pokes around at the idea of saying that the pill and condoms are inherently bad for your health or your relationship, as seen by his previous foray into "condoms reduce the bonding of the couple" and by his repeated suggestion that women should "read the warning information" that comes with the Pill.  Ultimately, though, those are side lines to the real argument, which is that NFP is "open to the transmission of life" and birth control is not.

To do this, Popcak (and the Church) takes the position that the proper way to evaluate this openness is in reference to individual sex acts, not the relationship as a whole.  In other words, the micro view as opposed to the macro view.  If you look at each and every sexual act in an entirely atomized manner, without any reference to any other sexual act (or anything else), then all of the sudden the Catholic position starts to make some sense.  I mean, it is certainly true that wearing a condom or taking the pill is a manifestation of a desire not to have a child--to be not "open to the transmission of life," at least in a sense, at least with regard to that specific encounter. If that's all you care about, then I see how you can make that case.

This micro analysis explains the one portion of the birth control teaching that I was never able to wrap my head around--how NFP is different on a moral level from artificial birth control.  My standard objection was "NFP is all about selected times to have sex when the woman is non fertile.  How is that being 'open to the transmission of life'?"  The response I would get is "no, NFP is about abstaining from sex at the fertile periods, and abstinence is always OK."  That struck me as a non sequitor.   But if you look at a couple using NFP solely in terms of a series of unconnected, discrete acts, then it makes a strange kind of sense.  Not having sex on Day 1 is morally OK because it is morally OK to abstain from sex.  Having sex on Day 11 is morally OK because you are not doing anything in that moment that frustrates the having children.  Thus, NFP is morally OK.  QED.

The problem with focusing entirely on the micro is that it is a ludicrous way to talk about relationships.  Take the tap dance on NFP.  Our hypothetical couple decided to have sex on Day 11 and not have sex on Day 1, specifically in order to maximize the chances of not becoming pregnant.  That's the whole point of graphing temperatures and all of the rest of the NFP process.  The individual acts may (in a sense) be open to the transmission of life, but the sum total of all them are oriented toward to purpose of not having children.  You would think that this overall orientation must have some kind of moral significance, but if you focus on the micro-only, the macro just disappears.  It's a pretty clever trick, really.  But, at the end of the day, it is a trick.  The characteristics of the relationship as a whole have to mean something.  It feels like a shell game.

And here's the interesting thing--I think Popcak agrees with this objection to a micro-only view of relationships.  I think he understands that the logical and sensible way to evaluate a relationship, particularly in terms of its "openness to life," is to look at it as a whole.  Everything he has said so far about relationships has been at a macro level, even to the point of being frustratingly vague at times about how to operationalize that macro reality.  Popcak promises Holy Sex, not once in a while, but all the time, as a whole.  So, Popcak's second task is to somehow convert this micro analysis into a macro analysis.

His solution, it seems, is the fixed, almost ontological categories we saw in Chapter 4.  If all of your micro actions are the same, every time, then by definition your macro reality is going to be just like the micro reality.  By doing that, Popcak makes this macro vs. micro problem go away.  In a couple of chapters, we are going to be introduced to a principle Popcak calls "continuity"--the idea that your sexual relationship must be a perfect reflection of the other aspects of your relationship, and visa versa.  That's more of the same idea--the specific is the general and the general is the specific.  Your overall attitude must be perfectly mirrored in your individual actions.

In support of this position, he deploys a parade of horribles to describe "contacepting" couples.  Here are some excerpts from Chapter 9 (and Chapter 10 on NFP, which is technically in Part 3 and which I will say more about in the next post):
  • "Contracepting couples" are participating in "Romantic Anti-Marriages" which are "insular, ultimately self-suffocating relationship[s] in which the couple becomes narcissistically focused on each other, squeezing out the rest of the world, including children."  
  •  Contracepting couples "treat pregnancy as a disease that should be prevented."  
  • They "send a message that [they] do not want all of [their] mate (just the part that gives you pleasure)."  
  • They "treat people who are making love as mere instruments of giving and receiving pleasure.  In other words, they are not being lovers to each other.  They are simply using their bodies as elaborate sex toys, designed solely for the purpose of giving and receiving pleasure."
This would work, except for the fact that it doesn't describe reality.  Surely, there are couples that meet this description.  But, do they meet this description because the use birth control?  And how many of these type of couples are there?  Let's remember, Popcak is ostensibly describing over 98% of Catholic women who utilize any form of pregnancy regulation.  That's a big group.  If it were true that birth control necessarily results in these sterile marriages, then you would imagine that no one would be having any children at all.  But that's not the case--the Total Fertility Rate for US Catholics is above replacement level.   

In other words, the average Catholic couple is (1) using artificial birth control; and (2) having two or three children.  Sure, they are not having six or eight or ten children, but they are putting aside their "romantic anti-marriages" and using each other as sex toys long enough to have and raise two or three kids.  You can say that is not enough "openness to life," but you can't say it represents no "openness to life," which is what you would expect from Popcak's description of people that use birth control.  

Moreover, Popcak makes clear that this is not a numbers game.  Popcak marks out his position that a couple can choose to limit the number of children they have based on factors such as the couple's ability to provide the proper care (emotionally and financially) for their children (which, by the way, is a bit of a "liberal" position among the NFP crowd).  So, there is nothing per se wrong with deciding that three children is an appropriate size for a family.  Thus, an NFP couple with three children is prudently discerning the best way to structure their family, while that same couple who is using birth control is "treating pregnancy as a disease that should be prevented."  That simply does not compute.

In the end, the position of the Catholic Church against birth control is one of fiat--artificial birth control is bad because the Church says so.  Folks like Popcak can give the yeoman's effort to craft a justification that would have more coherence, but at the end of the day, it's all fiat.  But don't take my word for it--here's what the preparatory document says on the topic.

Natural methods for fertility regulation are not natural “techniques” applied to solve a problem. Instead, they show a respect for “human ecology” and the dignity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife. They are part of a vision of conjugal life which is open to life. On this rests the difference in contraceptive methods and the experience which shows the effectiveness of their use.

NFP is different because it is different.  NFP respects the dignity of the couple while birth control does not, because we say so.  NFP is different because it is open to life, in some unspecified way, while artificial birth control is not.

In the paragraph before, the preparatory document also says "[w]hen treating a couple’s openness to life and their knowledge of the Church’s teaching, with particular reference to Humanae Vitae, the responses clearly admit that, in the vast majority of cases, the positive aspects are unknown."  It is these "positive aspects" that we will turn to next. 


Dr, Greg Popcak said…
Interesting series, although it reads like you're invested in missing the point. If this is really what you got from reading the chapter, you might want to read it again. That said, if you're genuinely seeking and you have a question, feel free to ask. I'm fairly easy to find. Blessings, Dr.Greg
omar said…
DR. Popcorn-

Instead of suggesting that your readers reread your horrible prose, maybe you should open a Strunk and White's and actually write something that doesn't read like a drunken stevedore wrote it on the back of a used sanitary napkin.

You've been warned.
Michael Boyle said…
Enough of that. No threats.

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