Thursday, February 16, 2017

Contraception, liturgy and self-giving

Alice has a paper due the day after Thanksgiving. She’s already gotten all the extensions she can, and she can’t get it done except by working through Thanksgiving. She is thinking of not going to the big Thanksgiving dinner that her grandfather organizes every year, even though it brings together relatives she hasn’t heard from for a long time, has much warm family fellowship, and great food. But then she has an idea: “It’s better to attend distractedly than not at all. The table is big and my laptop is small, so I can easily put my laptop beside a plate, and then I can write all the way through dinner and finish my paper. And I’m good at multitasking, so I can still have an ear out for interesting bits of conversation, and occasionally I can put a forkful of food in my mouth or make a friendly remark to someone. It would be permissible for me to skip the dinner completely, and this is better than skipping it.”

Bob has a major exam on Wednesday. It is his habit to attend Mass daily, both for the spiritual benefits and because there is an incredible organist. He could skip Tuesday Mass, but reasons much as Alice does: “If I skip Mass, I get none of the spiritual and musical benefits. I’ll just bring my tablet, sit in the back pew so the bright screen doesn’t disturb anybody, study hard and I’ll at least get some of the benefits of Mass. After all, there is nothing wrong with my skipping Tuesday Mass, and this is better.”

Alice is being obtuse about human relationships and Bob doesn’t understand the kind of participation the Mass requires. There are some activities that one should give oneself pretty completely to—or not do them at all.

What if Bob says something like this? “But I go to Mass on many days when I’ve already spent hours working hard, and I’m really exhausted, and barely able to pay any attention to what the priest says. There is nothing morally wrong with attending Mass on days like that. But today I’m still fresh, and multitasking today I can participate at least as well as singletasking on a bad day.” And Alice can say something very similar—after all, very tired people can go to Thanksgiving dinner, too.

But that’s still not an excuse. For when one goes to Thanksgiving dinner or Mass, one should give oneself to it as much as one can (within some reasonable limit of what counts as “enough”). Both Alice and Bob are going to be deliberately withholding themselves from participation. But on the days when they attended while really tired, they weren’t doing that—they were giving what they could (it would be different if Bob ran a marathon in order to be too tired to follow the Gospel reading!).

Now, consider a common response to John Paul II’s argument that contraception is wrong because it deliberately blocks the total self-giving in sex. “Granted, contraception blocks an aspect of the union as one body. But a partial union is better than no union at all, and a couple is morally permitted to refrain from union for good reasons.” But that’s like Alice’s and Bob’s initial argument. And there is a case that can be made that sex is a liturgical kind of act, akin to Thanksgiving dinner or the Mass, and that in these kinds of liturgical acts one can’t participate while blocking an aspect of one’s participation—one needs to give one’s all, or not at all. It is better not to have sex at all than to have it while blocking one’s participation.

And then there is the riposte: “But the Catholic Church says it’s permissible to have sex while infertile. And contracepted sex has in it everything that infertile sex does.” But that riposte is just like Bob’s suggestion that studying at Mass with his tablet still leaves him as much (or more!) function as attending Mass on the days when he is really tired. Yes, that’s true, but it misses the liturgical meaning of deliberately distracting oneself with the tablet.

If it is objected that sex isn’t analogous to Thanksgiving dinner or the Mass (though I think it is), we could think about the case of Carl who is a professional movie reviewer. His wife would like to have sex with him, but he needs to watch and review a boring movie by tomorrow. So he sets up a laptop by the bed, and unites with his wife while watching the movie. Ugh! It would be better not to have sex at all.


Gorod said...

I really appreciated this post, I am very convinced of the analogy between sex and liturgy, but I have trouble explaining it convincingly and this, for me, was a fresh approach.

It all hangs on your assertion that "there are some activities that one should give oneself pretty completely to — or not do them at all", which is intuitively true, but goes unproven. I wonder if we could further define this? What other activities would fall under this description? What essentially characterizes them?

I could think of two examples that are similar, but seem to be in a lower level of this requirement:

a) a friend of mine who smokes and prays, once jokingly told me that it's ok to pray the rosary while smoking (if you're taking a walk smoking, why wouldn't you pray?), but it's not proper to smoke while praying the rosary (if you're praying, it's not right to desacralize it with a self-serving, idle activity). If he is right, then these activities would have different requirements depending in which is your main activity. You should give yourself to them completely, but only if it's your main activity at that moment. I don't think sex or Mass allow for that lowering of the requirement, but I can't explain why.

b) contemplation of art: if you are listening to a classical music concert, it seems it's wrong to break your attention deliberately towards something lower, like texting casually on your phone. I wouldn't say it's morally wrong, but it seems to invalidate that contemplation - you're definitely not a true lover of music if you do that. However, if you're sitting in your living room texting people, it's perfectly ok to put on a classical record. Music lovers do that. This seems similar to the "main activity" case above, but maybe not completely the same, since music can't mind your inattention, and Our Lady can.

So this really seems to have levels. I would say Thanks Giving dinner is liturgical to a lesser degree than sex and, obviously, the Mass. I think Alice's case would be silly, but not always immoral. It might work with some Alices in some families in some circumstances. The cases of Bob and Carl would never work, in my opinion.


On a different direction, I think this analogy is quite promising for arguments against all sorts of artifical conception. Conception requires a "liturgy", a ritual, called sex. You don't want technologically mediated sex, and you don't want technologically mediated Mass (at least, it's not the same as really attending).

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is hard to characterize exactly which activities have this property.

I'm not offering an argument here that sex is one of them. I am just arguing by plausible example that there could be such activities, and hence that the "Better to give oneself partially through contraception than not at all" argument in favor of contraception fails if sex is such an activity. I think it's plausible that sex is such an activity given the level of intimacy, the importance of the body, and the one body union. (Cf. my _One Body_ book.)

Unknown said...

Dr Pruss

An important thing you seem to gloss over here is what the particpants themselves think about it. Would Alice's grandfather prefer Alice not to attend the dinner over her attending it while working on her paper?
Does Bob get better (spiritually, e.g.) by attending Mass with his laptop?
If the answer to those questions is yes, then I don't think you argument works. Bob gives himself as much as he can and so does Alice. It's just that under those circumstances, 'as much as they can' is limited by other engagements.

And the same holds for your last analogy. "So he sets up a laptop by the bed, and unites with his wife while watching the movie. Ugh! It would be better not to have sex at all."

Who says the "ugh"? Is it Carl, or his wife? If it isn't one of them, who are you (or who am I) to say "ugh"? Sure the sex could be better, but not having sex could end up worse. So, what's wrong with a compromise and acknoeldging that not everything is as black and white as we'd prefer?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree that the opinion of Alice's grandfather does matter: as the organizer, he is the relevant authority for the occasion. But notice that what Alice thinks about isn't all that important. And notice also that we would not think it at all unreasonable if Alice's grandfather objected. (All I'm doing is arguing that "Better a partial participation than not at all" isn't always true--but I don't dispute that sometimes it is true.)

By analogy, in the case of Bob, it is what the organizer thinks that matters, not what Bob thinks. The organizer in Bob's case is God or the Church or both. Again, we should not think it at all unreasonable if the organizer objected.

What about in Carl's case? Who is the organizer of this liturgical occasion? It's either God or human nature or both. Again, what Carl and his wife think doesn't determine the appropriateness of the action.

The "Ugh" is the expression of objective aesthetic judgment. :-)

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr. Pruss

If "Better a partial participation than not at all" is sometimes true, then you should also admit that , barring further argument,"Better have sex using contraceptives than no sex at laa" is also sometimes true. Now, you may have other arguments against this, but your OP doesn't cover those. So, I, please excuse me for not seeing anything really convincing here.

And of course, since both Carl and his wife are aprt of "human nature" and/or are, if we are to believe you, "organized by God", they at least partially, do detremine the appropriateness of the action.
I don't happen to believe that if I had the ability to programme a robot and at the same time give it libertarian free will, calling me "the relevant authority" makes any sort of sense.

I just realized that I published my first comment under my daughter's name. While I am convinced that she wholeheartedly agrees with me on this, I don't think I have the relevant authority to speak on her behalf.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Indeed, further argument is needed (see _One Body_ :-) ). All I wanted to point out is that (a) there are cases where nothing is better than a little, and (b) liturgical cases seem particularly plausible examples of such cases.