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.