In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that as a maker of worlds, God can “signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves” (ST 1.1.10c). Nature is God’s first revelation; beings themselves, and indeed the whole order of creation, are natural (rather than conventional) signs of God’s love. Dorothy Sayers once used this idea to explain Dante’s use of Beatrice and Christ in the Divine Comedy thus:
Beatrice, a real and beloved woman, is, in the eyes of Dante, an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love. The Incarnate life of God on earth, because it is a historic fact, is at once the supreme instance and the unique natural symbol of the whole history of man, and the whole nature of God, and the relations between them. … If it is not historic, then it is either not symbolical at all, or else ‘merely’ a conventional symbol. If, on the contrary, it is a historic fact, then it is a natural symbol and by contemplating it we can really learn something about God and Man. … [A natural symbol] is itself an instance of what it symbolizes: and therefore, by simply being what it is, it tells us something about the true nature of that thing for which it stands. (Introductory Papers on Dante, p. 8)
In what follows, I would like to investigate this idea that a person can be “an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love” by showing how Blessed John Paul II makes use of it in Gratissumum Sane and its relevance for thinking about chastity and contraception.
A Polyvalent Theological Anthropology
What is the “natural,” that is, inherent significance of human sexuality? I take it that this is one of the questions John Paul II sets out to answer in his profound “Letter to Families” (Gratissimam Sane). Echoing Aquinas, John Paul opens his reflections by noting that “The universe … is inscribed in God’s Fatherhood, which is its source” (GS 6). As John Paul sees it, the world is mysterious in the positive sense that, like metaphors, beings mean more than themselves. For example, he argues, although all animals ‘multiply,’ the divine command to multiply given to Adam and Eve must be understood in the light of the divinity that called for their being: “Human fatherhood and motherhood,” he says,
while remaining biologically similar to that of other living beings in nature, contain in an essential and unique way a “likeness” to God which is the basis of the family as a community of human life, as a community of persons united in love (communio personarum). (GS 6)
As John Paul goes on to explain, we are to understand that the communio personarum is both interpersonal and genealogical in character. Sex is profoundly social; it is always for others. Furthermore, it is for others in many analogous ways, since it is of the nature of relationality that parts constantly transcend themselves by their relation to the whole of which they are parts. Biologically, male and female are reciprocally defined terms; trying to imagine a world of male without female is like trying to imagine a world of left with no right. But masculinity and femininity transcend themselves in the creation of a family. The family itself is a community of persons in which each member’s identity is given by his or her relation to others, e.g., as a spouse, father, mother, or child. This community of persons is also a “communion” of persons, in which by giving of oneself one receives in return a greater gift: the reciprocal love of that is the common good of the family, extending for generations. Furthermore, John Paul argues, by this emptying of oneself as an individual and pouring oneself out in love for another, one participates in the creation of persons who have a supernatural destiny. Marriage is thus mimetic of God’s Fatherhood: “Begetting is the continuation of Creation” (GS 9). In opening oneself to life, one opens oneself to eternity. This is what it means to be human, John Paul concludes: to ‘find oneself’ in truth and in love as a being whom God willed ‘for his own sake,’ by being for others in precisely this way.
Of course, in keeping with the traditional understanding of the Genesis text, John Paul notes that being made in the “image” and “likeness” of God indicates not just our capacities for knowledge, freedom, and genuine love, but that to become ‘like’ God through self-donation is the dynamic task of our lives, an achievement rather than a status.
Fatherhood and motherhood are themselves a particular proof of love; they make it possible to discover love’s extension and original depth. But this does not take place automatically. Rather, it is a task entrusted to both husband and wife. In the life of husband and wife together, fatherhood and motherhood represent such a sublime “novelty” and richness as can only be approached “on one’s knees.” (GS 7)
The imago dei is not simply what we are; it is also what we are called to do. Humanity is both our being and our vocation. One finds oneself by giving oneself away, since only in self-donation does one receive who one really is. As we saw above, this paradoxical statement of our Lord is made perfectly clear in the sacramentality–the (super)natural signification–of marriage and family life.
So what does this have to do with sexual morality? Well, to begin with, it entails that sexual reality is “thick.” Sex has both a horizontal and vertical dimension. Horizontally, our sexuality is genealogical in the sense that it refers backwards to our parents (we are all someone’s son or daughter), presently towards our spouse, and forwards towards our children and future generations of families. In the vertical dimension, our sexuality is a moving image of divine love for mankind, as of a bridegroom for his bride. Each of us stands at the intersection of this web of meanings; we are ‘never merely ourselves,’ as C.S. Lewis put it in The Four Loves, but always already something more.
Since virtues involve a clear-sighted grasp of what is, it follows that chastity is likewise a “thick,” vigorous, polysyllabic simple virtue, whereas lust is thin, anemic and obtuse. The chaste man is a man of sweeping vision, capable of keeping in his mind’s eye all that is his beloved. He views her as woman, friend, wife, mother, and gift, as a sign of his redemption, just as Dante sees Beatrice as “an instance and a symbol of all creation glorified by love” (Sayers). Chastity is a poet. The eyes of lust, in contrast, are always directed downward, stuck on one thing. To see a woman this way, however, is not even to see her as a woman, but as something less. Not even as a woman. Just as the words of a poem receive their meaning as parts of a greater whole, but are by themselves only sounds, so too does the lustful man, in precinding from the beauty of this woman who is never merely herself, make her something less than human, a thin, anemic, mundane thing. Lust is unnatural because it is not supernatural, because it cannot see eternity in the face of the woman who stands before him in glory.
Chastity is also a profoundly social virtue. Like justice and charity, chastity contains an essential reference to the good of another person; it presupposes a relationship with others. It also comes from others. Real virtues, as opposed to the abstractions of philosophers, are learned at home as fathers and mothers pass their character and wisdom on to their children. We learn first by imitation, do we not? Ontogeny aside, chastity has a phylogeny as well. The Catholic tradition–and Plato (Rep. 401b-e)–has long held that the sword and shield of chastity is true friendship, a like-minded community of friends dedicated to a common vision of the good life. A community that surrounds its children with what is truly fine will find that “when reasonable speech comes” to them as they mature, the children will “take delight in it, recognizing on account of its being akin” to what has already been sown in their souls (Rep. 402a).
Lust, in contrast, requires privacy. It happens behind the eyes before it happens behind computer screens or the pages of a book, furtive, ashamed, and lonely. It believes that sex is about personal pleasure–or in any case, that it is sometimes perfectly reasonable to pursue sex merely for pleasure. It treats sexual desire as essentially self-referential, as a desire for sensations rather than persons. So far as sensations go, no harm, no foul. You see how lust shrinks our eternal horizons to the cusp of immediacy: this feeling, now. Lust lays men low.
Anyone who has passed the newsstand in the grocery store has seen the tasteless leads on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine guaranteeing “great sex” if we use their ‘sex secrets’ and ‘techniques.’ Given Cosmo’s reductive attitude towards sex, this is like praising a thief for his safe-cracking skills, or a Nazi for his efficiency. As should be clear from the above reflections, truly satisfying sex involves right attitudes towards the transcendent aspects of sexuality, and not merely concern for physical pleasure production. Thus a purely technocratic attitude towards sexuality such as we find in Cosmo and public sex-ed classes undermines and corrupts a healthy comportment towards sexual love.
An analogy with education will help to make the point clearer. In What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argues that paying students to read, as some school districts do, is a pragmatically and morally unsound practice (51-55). The well-read mind is valuable, Sandel points out, not merely for the professional opportunities education affords us, but also for its own sake. Liberal education fits the mind for its own excellence in the way that practice made Isaac Perlman free to do with a violin what an untutored string-scratcher cannot: make beautiful music. The liberal mind sounds its own worth; it measures itself according to its vocation to “be itself” rather than according to some extrinsic criteria (like fame, fortune, or power) accidental to its nature as mind. Paying students to study substitutes these extrinsic incentives for the intrinsic ones. This not only induces us to do the right thing for the wrong reason, Sandel argues, but in fact corrupts the very good the discipline of study aims at, since valuing wisdom for its own sake is partly what makes someone wise in the first place. This is similar to paying people to be your friends: attempting to purchase the good destroys it by corrupting the attitudes constitutive of it. When extrinsic attitudes are entrenched over time in a mind, institution, or culture–e.g., in the modern educational system that prostitutes itself to capitalism–it becomes impossible to reason well about pedagogy because we no longer understand what learning is for.
More often than not, these corrupting attitudes are not held explicitly by individuals–nearly everyone one asks is ‘for’ liberal education and healthy marriages–but embodied in practices, techniques, and cultural narratives. MIT professor Sherry Turkle recently argued in Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other that social networking practices are undermining the real relationships we all claim to value. As she said in a New York Times editorial,
FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.” (“The Flight From Conversation,” April 21, 2012)
Neil Postman made similar arguments decades earlier in Technopoloy about computers and political surveys; Marshall McLuhan made the point decades earlier yet in in The Medium is the Message. And Pope Paul VI made the point about contraception in Humana Vitae in 1968, something continuously underscored by his successors to the Chair of Peter.
Against Contraception: The Argument from Chastity
Like lust, contraception is reductive in character: its use habituates us to judge sex according to technocratic criteria extrinsic to human sexuality. By deliberately divorcing sex from fecundity, contraception makes us blind to the genealogical and theological dimensions of human sexuality. It allows us to pursue sexual pleasure or romantic feelings for their own sake, with no thought of sexuality’s family-making ends. This closes us in upon our selves, destroying the sacramental character of sexuality by twisting its natural signification. As G.E.M. Anscombe pointed out in her 1973 essay “Contraception and Chastity,” contraception makes the complimentary, interpersonal, and self-donation essential to good sexuality unintelligible. The widespread practice of contraception has led our culture to believe that sex is for pleasure or for love, but not necessarily for family. Insofar as sex makes someone feel pleasure or loved, then, all sex is equally good: there are no sexual sins, no disordered sexual desires, since the end of sex is simply personal happiness; it has no goal outside of the self. I sometimes ask my students if they can imagine married life “B.C.”–before contraception–happy. Rarely does someone answer affirmatively. It is this attitude towards sexuality that explains why the Obama administration hysterically defends the ‘right’ to free contraception, but not free natal care, flue shots, or cancer treatments. Don’t we have a right to be happy?
Contraception also encourages us to think of reproduction as an event rather than a way of life. But this is false on many counts. Reproduction is a process that is completed not by birth, but by the realization of human excellence in an intellectually and morally mature adult. A society that aborts the reproductive process at any stage–either in the womb, or in childhood by abuse, or in adolescence by its conspicuous inability to provide anything other than a pubescent cultural milieu–has failed to reproduce itself.
Reproduction also begins long before conception takes place. Ask college students what kind of parents they want to be to their children, and they naturally respond that they want to be more than providers of food, shelter, and cell phones to their children. They want relationships marked by love, affection, and respect; they want their children to know that they are loved as God loves us all: for their own sake.
What these future fathers and mothers fail to realize is that their relationship with their children has already begun. The man or woman who contracepts is someone who has already assigned a value to his children–and not the value he claims. The ideology implicit in the practice of contraception is that children are inconveniences or burdens to be avoided until the demands that they make can be met by your finances, attention, or interest, when you have gained all of the hedonic ‘experiences’ or professional accomplishments you want and which children would inhibit acquiring. By the time these young men and woman want parenthood–though in too many cases, unlooked for and unwanted, parenthood finds them–they discover that their years of contraceptive sex have corrupted their youthful hopes for being the kind of parent they wished (and perhaps still secretly wish) to be. Children, with their demands for love and attention, their needs and frailties, are drains on the childless lifestyle idealized by a deliberately sterile culture. Pitied by their younger colleagues, and bitter about their family responsibilities, these perpetual adolescents flee from family life through divorce, abandonment, or neglect–dad works too much, so sorry–and have no sexual wisdom to pass on to their bothersome children other than to have fun while avoiding disease and pregnancy at all costs. And really, what’s the difference?
In short, contraception attacks the virtue of chastity, and without chastity, there can be no fruitful love or family life. Chastity, remember, is not celibacy, which is abstinence from sex. The celibate can be lustful and the newlywed couple chaste. More than the mere avoidance of sin, or near temptations of sin, chastity is perfected sexual desire, desire alive to the weight of glory. Rejecting the modern individualism that reduces us to anonymous, homeless sexual consumers, chastity makes its home among one’s community of forefathers and grandchildren and thinks on its responsibilities accordingly. The non-contracepting couple is in their chastity practicing how to be virtuous spouses and parents. They do not think of children as inconveniences, but as the crowning fruit of marriage. This does not entail seeking the good of children at every opportunity, which would be contrary to prudence. Rather, it means that when they desire to space their children, they do not engage in practices whose implicit technocratic ideology would condition their attitudes contrary to those needed for flourishing family life. Rather, they engage in practices like Natural Family Planning, whose periodic abstinence teaches us to be masters of our desires, and to expand our amorous vocabulary to express our love of each other in non-sexual ways. Chastity, remember, is a poet.
Having a proper concern for persons and their genealogical and theological dimensions requires truthful thinking and feeling. In the sexual realm, this means engaging in practices that encourage us to value children as ends in themselves, as persons God willed for their own sake, rather than as inconveniences. The demands of love are never truly burdensome: they make an easy yoke, and light. Love surely calls for patience, fortitude, and humility–that one make a gift of oneself–but this is love’s joy, not its death, as modernity supposes. Indeed, for Christians, love is a never-ending task, something one does unto the edge of doom. The sacrifice of the Son is love’s revelation. When marital love, as a way of life, embodies this sacrifice, it becomes a natural sign of supernatural grace. Every other way is death, signifying nothing.