And Now What My Love?

Andrew L. Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse NY

There is always a certain tension between the proper use of a natural given and the possibility of abuse. In a stable situation such tensions are managed well by a code of ethics in the form of traditional values. This would work well in a static world, but then we could be easily tempted to fuse in our minds the stable situation with the natural given and come up with an unchangeable code of natural ethics. Karl Rahner cautioned us about this when he wrote that certain conditions which have been stable for a long time do not necessarily imply that they are intrinsic elements of human nature. (Experiment: Man. Theology Digest, Sesquicentennial Issue/1968.) Our world, in spite of periods of stability, is constantly changing. Sometimes the changes are rapid and substantial and the distinction between the natural given and the traditional code, a cultural element, requires a new practical interpretation. The Second Vatican Council realized this, and that is why the methodology of the Council, implied in the idea of aggiornamento, that is adaptability, was most significant.

The twentieth century was a century of great changes. Through the many new discoveries of medical sciences in terms of rational hygiene, immunization against viral diseases, the use of antibiotics against bacterial infections, and through the more recent medical technologies, death rate, especially in terms of child mortality, has been considerably reduced, while birthrate has been maintained at high level in line with traditional values. The consequence of this was a huge global population increase from one to over six billion in a mere 150 years with a possible doubling time now of less than 50 years. Another consequence was the impact of this expending humanity on the earth, resulting in a global ecological crisis. Suddenly, many of the traditional expressions of love and respect for life have become dysfunctional begging for aggiornamento in the spirit of Vatican II.

So I was looking for some pastoral support that is meaningful and adequate in our century. What are we to do about the need to respond to these new conditions? I am trying to figure out a way of life that is grateful for and respectful to all natural gifts in a framework that is responsible and Christian. I am thinking about a way of life that is able to reestablish our demographic as well as ecological balance with love and respect for life as a guide. This is a practical matter about a set of new problems which we have previously not experienced, and need to resolve rather quickly and well.

So I turned to one of the most recent and promising sources of normative Catholic teaching, namely the encyclical letter of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life (1995). I was disappointed. I found here great idealism, sincerity and conviction about love and respect for life but strictly in terms of traditional principles. At the same time I also found a great deal of denial toward certain realities of present human life. His perspective makes the events of the twentieth century comparable with all other centuries in terms of demographic and ecological issues creating a form of faithful dysfunctionality. The encyclical is long and complex. Nonetheless, from the point of view of demographic and ecological issues, this complexity is built upon just a few ideas.

In John Paul’s mind, we live in an evil culture, summed up in the contraceptive mentality that supports death and not life. According to him the two different evils, contraception and abortion, are essentially linked. Here is a quote from the encyclical:

But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree... rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception. (§13)

Reading §13, the understanding that we have serious demographic and ecological problems is simply not there. There is no mention here about the need for reproductive restraint today in order to regain our natural balance with the limited resources of the earth. There is no direction given about the means to achieve such balance. With that in mind, two questions must be answered. Does the evil of contraception resides in itself, or is it found in the possible connection with abortion in a contraceptive mentality? If the latter is the case, we should condemn all forms of contraceptive mentality, but not contraception itself. If the former is the case, where contraception is found to be evil in itself, we have no good means to reestablish the much needed demographic balance, and we are in a real dilemma that requires the unhappy choice of the lesser of several evils.

Here is the scenario. To say that we have no need of reproductive restraint, and consequently all sexual must be procreative as it has been in the past to balance a high death rate, is dysfunctional and destructive in our time. This is the only conclusion we can reach considering our present demographic and ecological predicaments. All through our evolution and history we were in balance according to the terms of the demographic equation, where population growth is determined by the difference between birthrate and death rate. Being close to zero population growth with a positive edge on survival, and characterized by slow growth in a relatively small base population, we were no threat to the earth, and consequently no threat to ourselves. The balance was maintained by an effort to maximize reproductive success in face of high death rate. All this has changed in one century. Lowering death rate without adjusting birthrate changed all this. In conclusion, the imbalance we are facing now is ultimately effected only by these two factors, birthrate and death rate.

If we intend to keep using the benefits of the medical sciences, we must also practice adequate reproductive restraint, sufficient to bring us back into a way of life that can be maintained. To achieve this in practice, we should either become sexually inactive for most of our lives, or we should proportionately avoid conception while remaining sexually active for most of our lives. The former seems to be unnatural, and impractical for marriage and for humanity on large. The latter implies substantial separation between sexual acts and reproduction by adequately lowering the probability of conception. This separation in itself does not lead to a contraceptive mentality referred to by John Paul II, but it can and should be an expression of responsible parenting today, because reproductive restraint has become an essential condition for our survival. Lowering adequately the probability of conception is respectful to human life as long as abortion is not part of the solution.

It is most unfortunate that the demographic and ecological issues of today are mere shadows for John Paul II, and may be dealt with by social and economic means. The mechanism of his denial consists in pointing out the need for even and just distribution of resources, and be silent about all else. I quote:

Another present-day phenomenon, frequently used to justify threats and attacks against life, is the demographic question. This question arises in different ways in different parts of the world. In the rich and developed countries there is a disturbing decline or collapse of the birthrate. The poorer countries, on the other hand, generally have a high rate of population growth, difficult to sustain in the context of low economic and social development, and especially where there is extreme underdevelopment. In the face of over-population in the poorer countries, instead of forms of global intervention at the international level - serious family and social policies, programmes of cultural development and of fair production and distribution of resources - anti-birth policies continue to be enacted.

Contraception, sterilization and abortion are certainly part of the reason why in some cases there is a sharp decline in the birthrate. It is not difficult to be tempted to use the same methods and attacks against life also where there is a situation of "demographic explosion".

For illustration, John Paul II uses the following example.

The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the children of Israel, submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed (cf. Ex 1:7-22). Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person's inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive programme of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy.

John Paul thinks in terms of a static world of unchangeable ideals and principles and is to some extent disconnected from the present. How else could he compare our present demographic imbalance with the conflict between the Jews and the Egyptians thousands of years ago when demographic and ecological issues were not matters of concern. I would like to point out that the suppression of the Jewish people at the time of the Pharaohs was a local political matter and not a global ecological issue, and therefore, not comparable to our present need for reproductive restraint. It should also be noted that the demand for a better distribution of resources than what we have today, although essential for social and economic justice, does not resolve the demographic and ecological issues, because just distribution of resources is no solution for resource depletion.

So I say to Mother Church: And now what my love?

We have really very few choices if we try to resolve our demographic and ecological dilemma. To do nothing provides no solution and is certainly suicidal. Or I should say, it provides no good solution. There is no love and respect for life in letting natural factors reestablish balance by increasing death rate through starvation and the devastation of new epidemics. Neither is there love and respect for life if we ourselves try to balance the demographic equation by making use of death oriented control measures. There are many of those, ranging from abortion, medical neglect, denial of child care, euthanasia, denial of help for the needy on personal, community, national and international levels, to various degrees of oppression, racial hatred and political genocide. These would balance the equation through evil. Not a way to go in God’s presence.

Or we could try to balance the demographic equation through adequate reproductive restraint by making use of the presently available contraceptive technology. The only problem here is the traditional view that all sexual must be open to procreation. This view is supported by the argument that by its nature sex is procreative, and therefore, contraception and masturbation are unnatural evils, and homosexual orientation is intrinsically disordered. Is this traditional code of sexual ethics based on the very nature of human sexuality, or is it a code of practical directives to a set of stable but not unchangeable conditions of a past era? Do we have here a situation Karl Rahner cautioned us about when he said that something that has been stable for a long time is not necessarily an intrinsic element of human nature? In simple words, is human sexuality a natural given that must be procreative, or is human sexuality a natural given that can be procreative? In view of what is implied here, I believe the latter is the correct answer. It is simply not true that all sexual by nature is procreative. In women, sexuality and reproduction are separated by the natural cycles of fertility. In the male, out of the billions of sperms produced, only a very few may have a chance to be the one that fertilizes an ovum. The idea that to waste one’s seed is something unnatural is a patriarchal myth. A man’s seed is normally wasted practically all the time.

Here is an analogy. We may plant a tree for its fruit, but we may plant it also for its beauty and shade, or for just because trees are good for human and animal life. Similarly, our sexuality has several functions to fill various needs. Each of these are natural and legitimate in their own right, and their interactions should remain in balance in terms of social and personal health and well being.

As to homosexual orientation, can we really say that such orientation is intrinsically disordered? The usual argument is that it is sexual but not procreative, therefore, unnatural. But what if some people are born with such orientation? Then for some it must be a natural given. We should neither deny the fact, nor condemn anyone for the way they were born. The argument that sexual behavior must be procreative and therefore it must be heterosexual has no other support than a majority experience. If there must be an argument than it is in favor of the naturally given conditions and the individual rights of each human person.

We need to see a clear path for our values and actions as we accept with joy our sexuality as a natural gift with several legitimate expressions. Then sexual sins would not be found in the natural need of being sexual but in the many forms of destructive abuses, as in case of abortion and rape, and the various forms of selfish, irresponsible and outright abusive relationships of promiscuity, prostitution, and pornography. Our sexuality is a beautiful natural gift that should be used well by all, and abused by none.

The major obstacles in the way toward a joyful and peaceful sexual functionality today are the many forms of negativity toward the sexual nature of our humanity. These are cultural and not natural elements in our thoughts and behaviors. For some people, sex may appear to be shameful, dirty, not to be mentioned in polite conversation. May be that is why that sex is surrounded by a world of taboos which prevent so many of us to deal with sexual issues and to think clearly about them. Sex may appear for some people as evil whose necessity requires acts of redemption by the pains of the many forms of rights of passage from childhood into the adult world, including various forms of circumcisions and other mutilations of the body. Even the pains of childbirth are interpreted by some in terms of need to pay for sexual pleasure. In a male chauvinistic and negative culture, women become associated with the demeaning nature of human sexuality. They are then the cause of sin in men to be subdued and controlled. They are looked upon as impure for such a normal and natural event as menstruation. It is in such a milieu that St. Augustine wrote, “Those famous men who marry wives only for the procreation of children, such as we read the Patriarchs to have been, and know it, by many proofs, by the clear and unequivocal testimony of the sacred books; whoever, I say, they who marry wives for this purpose only, if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing? Would they not with great delight accept it?” (Sermon 1, paragraph 23 in Sermons on the New Testament). Needless to say, such negativity demands a totally unnatural process of desexualisation, the result of which would then be called by some the virtue of chastity.

Considering our sexuality as not just procreative but as part of our everyday created nature, all this negativity seems to be far away from God’s created plan. As to created gifts of nature the healthy attitude of mind is balance and wisdom of use for the well being of one self and of society. In this context, the destructive elements are not use but abuse, and the supreme form of abuse is denial.

Of course, the ultimate question that begs for an answer today is the practical meaning of proper use of our sexuality in a world which requires reproductive restraint. Such restraint is to be placed into a caring, loving, and self giving milieu. For some it may be expressed by a mutually satisfying, stable and nurturing family life, creating the right environment for children to grow. The sharing of sexual pleasures by the spouses provides a deep bonding between them necessary for such stable family environment. The number of children per family should, however, remain within responsible limits. This limit is not determined by ability, or financial status, or position in society, but by the demographic and ecological needs of the time. To have children is as much a social event, as it is personal.

Masturbation should not be judged harshly, especially for those who are not married. For the sake of physical and mental health, some periodic release from intense sexual tensions is sometimes necessary and beneficial for many. Such release should be part of normal hygiene, and should not be considered having any further implications or importance.

Homosexual orientation should be understood in terms of being a minority, but nonetheless, clearly part of the natural given. The right to love and to be loved is a human right and it should not be denied to anyone.

It should be also realized that a life of discipline and sacrifice in all matters, including our sexuality, constitutes a way of life that characterizes a truly loving and caring person.