Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This post is based on a slight expansion of an analogy I once read in the New Oxford Review. Consider three cases:

  1. Fred throws seed on a normal, fertile field. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
  2. Fred throws seed on an infertile field. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
  3. Fred covers up his field with a giant plastic sheet. (Why? Maybe because the seed has some kind of parasite that he doesn't want to reach the ground, or maybe because he doesn't want the bother of having any plants come up.) Then he walks on the sheet, and throws seed on it. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
I think that in cases (1) and (2), Fred really is sowing the field. But not in case (3). Moreover, while one can symbolically participate in God's creative activity in sowing in an infertile field (think of how the Gospel also is sometimes appropriately preached to an audience who refuses to pay attention—the seed of the Gospel can fall on rocky ground), one does not do so by covering up the field with a giant plastic sheet and throwing seed on that (imagine covering up someone's ears, and then preaching the Gospel). The covering up of the field has an anti-creative symbolism. So the last bit of Fred's motivations in (3) in fact is mistaken.

In case (3), I think we would say that Fred is not sowing the field, though we might say that he is sowing the plastic. He is engaging in an activity different from that in (1) and (2). This is true whether we consider the symbolic theological meaning or not.

Suppose we do not see the difference between (3) and the first two cases. Then consider:

  1. Fred puts a garbage bag in the middle of the field. He then tosses the seed, one by one, into the garbage bag. He enjoys the fresh air, the motion of the arm, the tossing of the seed, the symbolism of participating in God's creative activity.
But that's absurd. There is no symbolism of participating in God's creative activity—quite the opposite. And even if we do not consider the symbolism, it is clear that what Fred is doing in case (4) isn't sowing—it's throwing seed into a garbage bag. But (3) is not relevantly different from (4)—in (3), it's just as if the garbage bag were stretched flat over all of the field.

If this is right, then it is plausible that "sex with a condom" is not at all the same kind of activity as sexual intercourse. Just as in (3) and (4), the relevant kind of causal interaction between Fred and the soil was lacking, so in "sex with a condom" the relevant kind of causal interaction between the persons' reproductive systems is lacking.

This, of course, coheres well with the Catholic canonical view that intercourse with a condom fails to consummate a marriage. And if one adds the premise, accepted by the Christian tradition, that climactic sexual activity is only permissible in the context of intercourse, we get the conclusion that sex with a condom is not permissible, since it is a different kind of sexual activity (more like what the tradition calls "unnatural acts"). Moreover, this is true even in the case where the condom is used not for contraceptive purposes, but to prevent the transmission of disease (see my remarks in (3) on Fred's possible motivations).


Tim Lacy said...

Dear Alex,

This analogy is simply faulty. There's a major qualitative difference between sowing seeds in the external natural world and sowing human seeds.

In the natural world the prospects for germination/fertilization are 50/50 at best (an unscientific odds guess on my part). Some seeds remain on the surface and our swept away by rain shower, others are eaten by birds or mammals, and some simply don't germinate. Plus, we're talking about non-human organisms without souls.

In the modern world, however, our prospects for success in breeding humans seems about 95% (again, a decidedly unscientific estimate). Thanks to advances in nutrition, medicine, and intelligence about fertility, the ability to reproduce souls ~feels~ overwhelmingly likely, as opposed to unlikely based on the whims of the natural world.

So, in opposition to entities like "Quiver-full" and other such be-fruitful-and-multiply movements, we're obligated to consider familial carrying capacity. The imperative is on us. That capacity is determined by money, healthful birth prospects, one's own sanity, and God's grace/blessings. Three of these four are not based on the whims of nature, but rather involve using our God-given minds to understand what we can and should do.

Leaving fertility in the hands of chance is not a rational option. Since chance has been quantitatively lessened, then individual sowers have to consider alternative means of birth control (i.e. NFP, condoms, etc.). Condoms, indeed, are the least objectional in contrast to chemical and surgical (i.e. abortion) means of birth control. No, condom use is not to be celebrated, or seen as the means to be promiscuous, but rather tolerated as a consequence of the advances of the modern world. - TL

Alexander R Pruss said...

At the peak point of fertility in the woman's cycle, the probability of conception for a single act of intercourse in humans is about 55% or so. At a random point in the cycle, it's about 7% or so.

The point of the argument wasn't that the use of condoms is wrong but that intercourse with a condom is an intrinsically different kind of act from intercourse without a condom, or even intercourse during an infertile time (see example (2)).

To get wrongness from the argument, one needs the premise that climactic sexual acts outside the context of intercourse are not permissible.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Alex,

Can you give me the source for those numbers? Just curious.

On the wrongness or different nature of intercourse with a condom, well, in the last paragraph ("And if one adds...") you cite prescriptive behavior norms cited by the Catholic Church. The Church generally teaches that sex with a condom is not permissible (i.e. unnatural), and hence wrong. And you could say that my comment is not about wrongness or rightness, but rather necessity.

- TL

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. My numbers in my comment were higher than actual. Excerpt from my book MS: "Without contraception, the likelihood of pregnancy resulting from a single act of intercourse by a couple of reproductive age is about 5% (that is, for women in their late 20s and early 30s). {Footnote: Conception probabilities depend on the day of the reproductive cycle relative to ovulation. My rough calculation of the overall conception probability was made by summing up the day-by-day conception probabilities, and dividing by a fixed cycle length of 29.1. This is not entirely accurate given that actual cycle length varies, but should be close. The day-by-day conception probabilities, and the average cycle length were taken from B. Colombo, et al., “Cervical Mucus Symptom and Daily Fecundability.” It is also worth noting that sexual desire of women in long-term committed sexual relationships (and only those women) is higher on cycle days on which the probability of conception is higher, according to Pillsworth, Haselton, and Buss, “Ovulatory Shifts in Female Sexual Desire.” Thus, in the case of unmarried women in long-term committed relationships, assuming the likelihood of intercourse increases with desire, the actual conception probability will presumably be higher than 5% (in the work of Colombo, et al. the conception probability peaks at 42.9%).}" Relevant bibliography items:
Colombo, B., A. Mion, K. Passarin, and B. Scarpa. “Cervical Mucus Symptom and Daily Fecundability: First Results from a New Database.” Statistical Methods in Medical Research 15 (2006): 161-180.
Pillsworth, E. G., M. G. Haselton, and D. M. Buss. “Ovulatory Shifts in Female Sexual Desire.” Journal of Sex Research 41 (2004): 55-65.

2. The use of condoms by persons x and y at time t is only necessary if it is necessary that x and y have sex at t.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A reader sent me a link to remarks by Edward Green, a Harvard public health researcher, on condoms.