Romans 11

This is a literal translation of an ancient Greek text. It has also been cross-posted on 31Prayers.com. For more information on how to read this post and what everything means, see the relevant page on that site.

1[I] say therefore, God did not push away his people,some manuscripts: inheritance [did he]? Would that it not come to be; for also I am an Israelite, out of [the seed] of Abraham, of [the] tribe of Benjamin.a 2God did not push away his people,b whom [he] foreknew. Or do [you] not know in Elijah, what the writing says, how [he] meets with God against(concerning) Israel? 3“Lord, [they] killed your prophets, [they] razedThe etymology of this word evokes an image of tearing something to the ground and then digging up its foundation. your altars, and I alone was left remaining and [they] seek my life.”c 4But what does the decree(oracle / negotiation) say to him? [I]or [they] left seven thousand men for myself, whoever did not bend [the] knee to Baal.”d 5Therefore thus also in the now-time(present) a remnant has come about according to a choice of grace;e 6but if by grace,Because no verb is supplied, one must be assumed; we may think ἐκλογέω (choose, from ἐκλογὴν in v5) or καταλιμπάνω (leave behind, from κατέλιπον in v4); in either case, the usage is probably the instrumental dative (the dative of means), specifically as a standard of judgment. no longer out of works, for otherwise grace becomes grace no longer.some manuscripts add: for otherwise the work is no longer a work; others: but if out of works, [it] is no longer grace, for otherwise the work is no longer a workf 7What therefore? What Israel was seeking, [she] did not attain,here and elsewhere, (reach) but the choiceHere and in verses 5, 28, not those chosen, but the act of choosing attained [it];g but the remaining [ones] were petrified,(hardened) 8just as [it] has been written, “God gave to them a spirit of bewilderment, eyes not to see,here and in the next clause, as well as in verse 10, are articular infinitives of negative purpose ears not to hear, until the today-day.”h 9And David says, “Let their table become [on a particular occasion] a trap and a hunt and a snare(scandal) and a repayment to them, 10let their eyes be made dark not to seei and their back [be made] bent [down] through everything.”j

11[I] say therefore, [they] did not stumble in order to fall,ἵνα + subjunctive purpose clause [did they]? Would that it not come to be; but the salvation for their blunder [was given] to the peopleshere and throughout, (nations)k in order to provoke them to jealousy.articular infinitive of purpose with εἰςl 12But if their blunder [is the] wealth of [the] cosmos and their loss [is the] wealth of [the] peoples, how much more their fulfilment [is wealth].

13But [I] say to you, to the peoples: therefore, for as much as I am an apostle of peoples, [I] magnify my service, 14if in some way [I] shall provoke my flesh to jealousy, [I] will also save some oflit. out of them. 15For if their rejection [is the] reconciliation of the cosmos, what [is their] acquisition if not life out of [the] dead [ones]? 16And if the firstling [is] holy, also the [whole] mixture [is];m and if the root [is] holy, also the branches [are].

17But if some of the branches were completely broken off [on a particular occasion], but thou, being a wild olive, were graftedhere and throughout, lit. pricked / stuck in among them and, partaking of the root of the fattinesssome manuscripts: of the root; others: of the fattiness; others: of the root and of the fattiness [thou] came to beThis verb could go with any of the genitives (of-phrases) in this verse, just as “partaking” can; though I have rendered it the most sensible way in English, it can mean that by partaking of all these things, you become of them all. of the olive tree,n 18do not boast over the branches; but if [thou] boast, thou do not lift up the root, but the root [lifts] thee [up].o 19Therefore [thou] will say, “Branches were completely broken off in order that I may be grafted in.” 20Wonderful; [they] were completely broken off by [their] disbelief,here and throughout, (lack of faith) but thou have stood by [thy] belief.(faith) Do not be high-minded,lit. think high [things]p but fear;(be afraid) 21for if God did not spare the [ones who were] branches according to their nature,here and throughout, lit. origin neither will [he] spare thee, {not in any way}.some manuscripts omit these words; their presence is still disputed 22Behold, therefore, [the] goodnesshere and throughout, (kindness) and severity of God; on the one hand, severity upon the [ones] having fallen [on a particular occasion], but on the other, [the] goodness of God upon thee, if [thou] remain in the goodness;r otherwise thou also will be cut out.q 23But also those [men], if [they] do not remain in disbelief, [they] will be grafted in; for God is ablelit. powerful to graft them in again. 24For if thou were cut out of the wild olive, [the one] according to [thy] nature, and [thou] were grafted against [thy] nature into the garden olive, by how much more will these, the [ones] according to [their] nature, be grafted in the same olive tree.some manuscripts end this verse as a question

25For [I] do not wish you to miss,(be ignorant of / not perceive) brothers, this mystery, in order that [you] may not be wise {among}some manuscripts use a different word to mean the same thing; others: with respect to yourselves,s because hardness from heritage comes about for Israel to the uttermost where the fulfilment of the peoples came int 26and thus all Israel will be saved,u just as [it] has been written, “The [one] rescuing will have come out of Zion, [he] will turn back impieties from Jacob. 27And this [is] the covenant from me for them, v that [I] take away their errors.”w 28On the one hand, according to the gospel [they are] hated throughhere and in the next clause, (because of) you, but on the other hand, according to the choice [they are] beloved through the fathers; 29for the graces and the calling of God [are] not to be repented of.(repentant) 30For just as you were disobedient to God then, but now [you] have been shown mercy for the disobedience of these [men], 31thus also these [men] now were disobedient for your mercy, in order that [they] themselves also may {now}some manuscripts: afterward; others omit; the presence of this word is disputed be shown mercy. 32For God enclosed all [men] into disobedience in order that [he] might show mercy to all [men].x

33O [the] depth of wealth of both wisdom and knowledge of God; how unexaminable [are] his judgments and inscrutable [are] his ways.y 34“For who knew [the] mind of [the] lord? Or who became his counselor?z 35Or who has prepaid him and will be repaid by him?”aa 36Because out of him and thorugh him and unto him [are] all [things];ab to him [be] the glory unto the ages, amen.


Cross-references:
a I am an…tribe of Benjamin: cf. Philippians 3:5
b God did not…away his people: cf. I Samuel 12:22; Psalm 94:14
c verse 3: 1 Kings 19:10, 14
d [I] left seven…knee to Baal: 1 Kings 19:18
e verse 5: cf. Romans 9:27
f verse 6: cf. Galatians 3:18
g What Israel was…choice attained [it]: cf. Romans 9:31
h God gave to…until the today-day: Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 29:10
i Let their table…not to see: cf. Psalm 69:22-23
j their back [be…[down] through everything: cf. Psalm 35:8
k the salvation for…to the peoples: cf. Acts 13:46
l in order to…them to jealousy: cf. Deuteronomy 32:21; Romans 10:19
m And if the…[whole] mixture [is]: cf. Numbers 15:17-21; Nehemiah 10:37; Ezekiel 44:30
n verse 17: cf. Ephesians 2:11-19
o thou do not…[lifts] thee [up]: cf. John 4:22
p Do not be high-minded: cf. Romans 12:16
q verse 22: cf. John 15:2, 4
r if [thou] remain…in the goodness: cf. Hebrews 3:14
s in order that…wise {among} yourselves: cf. Romans 12:16
t the fulfilment of…peoples came in: cf. Luke 21:24; John 10:16
u all Israel will be saved: cf. Matthew 23:39
v The one rescuing…me for them: Isaiah 59:20-21; cf. Psalm 14:7
w that [I] take…away their errors: cf. Isaiah 27:9; Jeremiah 31:33-34
x verse 32: cf. Galatians 3:22; I Timothy 2:4
y inscrutable [are] his ways: cf. Isaiah 45:15; 55:8
z verse 34: cf. Isaiah 40:13 (LXX); Job 15:8; Jeremiah 23:18; I Corinthians 2:16
aa verse 35: cf. Job 41:3
ab out of him…[are] all [things]: cf. I Corinthians 8:6

Swimming the Tiber 40: The End?

When I started this series, my goal was simple: I wanted to explain myself. That is, I wanted to detail the changes my faith underwent over the years, to justify how I started my adult life as a Southern Baptist and am now a Roman Catholic. I haven’t addressed every possible issue (at some point, I want to talk about the beginning and end of the universe), nor have I talked about every aspect of Catholic theology that I like (I want to write another short series on prayer), but I’ve certainly hit the highlights. Almost every post in this 40-part series covers some aspect of theology or interpretation that is integral to my faith as a Catholic. (Not all of these aspects involved changes; such exceptions include original sin, abortion, and marriage, although certainly my understanding of each was clarified significantly.)

In that sense, this series is definitely an apology, but it was never meant to be a work of apologetics. I didn’t set out to convince anyone of the Catholic faith–only to explain my own. I think I’ve done that. If, by some chance, this discourse has piqued your interest in the Catholic Church, I want to encourage you to consider it further. Far better folk than I have made an earnest defense of the faith, from the second century to the fifth to the seventeenth to the twentieth and even into the twenty-first. Catholicism has been around for just shy of two thousand years now; the answers to your questions about it are out there, but you need to be willing to go to the source.

In case you have not caught on, this post concludes my Swimming the Tiber series. As I mentioned above, I do want to continue posting about my faith, but I will no longer strive to keep this rigorous pace (and I think my family shall thank me!). I will also endeavor to work again on things I have let go–the sequel to my first novel, 31 Prayers books, my translation of the New Testament (still in Romans). I might even find time to read again (perhaps once I’m done with graduate classes at the end of this year).

Of course, I’m happy to try to answer any questions you have for me, whether about my own faith life or about the Church. If nothing else, I hope you have learned something through my journey. If you’re not Catholic, I do hope you’ll keep your heart open to the Church. Not everyone who stands by her is perfect, and you will no doubt meet plenty of people who disagree with her doctrines; her authority has been abused in the past, but she has never taught error. Her primary purpose is to save your soul, and to do that, she points in every possible way to Christ. Becoming Catholic isn’t about choosing the right church, which makes you the final arbiter of faith; rather, it’s about becoming obedient to Christ and embracing the unity he desired for us by joining the Church he instituted.

So I guess I kind of took ten months to say this: I didn’t choose the Church. The Church clings to the Truth, the Λόγος. I had a professor once who explained how the Church holds the Truth: Scripture is the written Word; Tradition is the spoken Word; the sacraments are the enacted Word; and Jesus Christ, who comes to us in his whole Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist, is the living Word.

I will never settle for anything less than the whole Truth.

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Swimming the Tiber 39: The Buffet Line

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: the Amen, the witness–the [one] faithful and trustworthy–the beginning of the creation of God says these [things]:

[I] know thy works, that [thou] are neither cold nor hot. Would that [thou] were cold or hot! Thus, because [thou] are tepid and neither hot nor cold, [I] am about to spitlit. [I] must have spit; Jerome: [I] am beginning to spit thee out of my mouth. Because [thou] say that, “[I] am wealthy and [I] have been wealthy and [I] have no need,” and [thou] do not know that thou are the [one] suffering and piteous and a beggar and blind and naked, [I] advise for thee to buy from me a golden [thing] having been burned out of fire in order that [thou] may be wealthy and that [thou] may wrap white clothes [around yourself] and [that] the shame of thy nakedness may not be revealed, and [I advise for thee] to anoint thy eyes with clay in order that [thou] may see. As many as I love, [I] test and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. Behold, [I] have stood at the door and [I] knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [I] will go in unto him and [I] will dineor make a meal with him and he himself [will dine] with me. The [one] conquering, [I] will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my father on his throne. Let the [one] having ears hear what the spirit says to the churches.

– Revelation 3:14-22 (my translation)

To be tepid (or lukewarm) is to be neither here nor there; to sit on the fence; to pick and choose what we shall follow from the mouth of the Lord. Woe to the church in Laodicea, and to all who resemble them, who do not choose one side or the other–who warrant neither tenderness nor correction, but say to themselves that they have no need of anything! We should want to dine with him and he with us, but if we consider ourselves good enough, he must spit us out. What more would we let him do in our lives? How else can he grow us, strengthen us, empower us, if we say that we have enough?

I am reminded of the professor who introduced himself to his class by saying, “There are two kinds of students that I can do nothing with: those who already know everything, and those who think they do.”

The Catholic Church has a fairly significant problem in that her members do not always obey her. But this isn’t news and we already knew that. And many people reject the Church because so many people–so, so many–start political or moral comments with, “I’m Catholic, but…” It’s a flawed approach for the flawed people of the Church. We pay lip-service to the Church, like we’re strong adherents to her teaching, and then we spout off our own opinions.

Newsflash, America: The Catholic Church isn’t Democrat. She isn’t Republican. She isn’t Libertarian. She isn’t from the Green Party. She isn’t a capitalist. She isn’t a Communist. She isn’t deeply into mercantilism or monarchies. And more than likely, she doesn’t teach what you personally believe; you’re not her mouthpiece, and neither am I.

And that’s okay. As long as we acknowledge it. Because that’s the way it should be. You and I don’t speak for the Catholic Church–nor should we. She isn’t a democracy at all. We don’t elect representative bishops who then elect a representative pope who makes representative changes to doctrine. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is quoted as having said in 1953, “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”1 The Catholic Church does not bend to the times; she does not “catch up to modern society.” She has a top-down hierarchy, with God at the head, and his timeless teachings on faith and morals do not change to suit the whims of whatever our culture has dreamed up for today.

So how do people disagree with the Church? Well, if you look long enough, you’ll find someone who disagrees with her (yet still claims to be a part of her or even represent her) in every single aspect of her teaching. The most common, probably, are related to the morality of one’s sexual life: “How dare a bunch of old men tell me how to spend my time in private and what to do with my own body?” etc. Almost as common is the morality of economics: “I don’t appreciate the Church telling me to give my money to poor people; it’s charitable of me to give them advice, to pay my taxes, to make sure taxes are cut for companies that might try to employ them,” etc. Or the morality of ecology: “I bet the Church agrees with me that using up this forest for my paper factory is just good stewardship,” etc.

But it always, always comes down to this: someone holds an opinion that they deem more important or more accurate than the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church established by Christ himself. Either the Church is wrong (and should therefore change to match my opinion), or she is simply not my highest priority. Both positions rely heavily on the superiority of self; “I have evaluated the scientific evidence and therefore I deem this behavior moral”; “I believe with all my heart that this behavior is okay, so it doesn’t matter what those old fogeys preach from their ivory tower”; etc. The final arbiter of every decision is not God, but Man–and me in particular. It is Protestantism hidden inside Catholicism, the Enlightenment wrapped in revelation.

But why do people do this? Why call yourself Catholic and then prove by word and deed that you disagree with the Church so vehemently? These are the arguments I’ve seen, followed by my counterpoints:

  1. It’s perfectly normal to ask questions. It’s fine to have doubts. I don’t think anyone should have blind faith, or believe in something without testing it out.
  2. The Church is slow. It will catch up eventually.
  3. I’m following my conscience.
  4. I adhere to Church teaching in so many other ways; it’s unreasonable to expect people to adhere to all of it. No one does that.

In response:

  1. It is perfectly normal to ask questions and have doubts. I wish I could be more like those with the spiritual gift of faith, never needing to question why, but I feel obligated to trust my own reason the most, so I must work through every doctrine, every proclamation, until I understand the teachings of the Church. But this doubting must be done with an eye toward agreement, not schism. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2), a sense that is informed by a holy fear of God’s wrath (Hebrews 12:21) and power (Mark 5:33). If we fail, or fall short, and we choose to stay that way, we are not merely “in disagreement,” but we are in schism, and what stands at stake is not polite conversation at the dinner table but our immortal souls.
  2. This suggests that you are moving in an inevitable direction, but not all schisms are that way. Is the Church about to catch up with Henry VIII? This “divorces should be allowed” thing has been going on at least that long, and the Church still hasn’t “caught up.” Maybe we’re close to Martin Luther–a declaration that members of religious orders should be allowed to abandon their vows should be right around the corner. Perhaps we’re close to catching up with Pelagius and about to say that original sin isn’t a thing; you know, because we’re all basically good and capable of being moral on our own. Maybe we’re about to catch up to Arius and say that there was a time when the Son was not. Any day now.
  3. Well, at least you’re not defying your conscience. But that doesn’t mean you’re always right. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1783-1794.)
  4. The saints did that. Many of the faithful do exactly that. Adhering to one teaching does not absolve you of the responsibility to adhere to the rest; you cannot say, “I believe in the eternal nature of the Son, so I’m allowed to believe in modalism.” Faithfulness is not a balancing act of orthodoxies and heresies, but a strict adherence to orthodoxy.

I think the most basic reason for this disagreement is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Church works. It’s typical of Americans because we cling to this notion that democracy is the best of all possible governance, but the Catholic Church does not rise up from the people and their opinions. Rather, it was handed down to us by God himself, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, through his chosen apostles and most especially Peter. The Catholic Church teaches the Word of God, not the word of Man. But many who were baptized Catholic make no effort to accept this framework.

Okay, but why doesn’t this happen so much elsewhere? Why do I meet more Catholics who cling to their own opinions over the Church than, say, Baptists or Pentecostals? Well, the main issue here is how the label gets applied. If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic; that’s a lifelong sacrament with lifelong grace. The label doesn’t get removed without excommunication–and in many cases, an excommunication is appropriate to people teaching heterodox views, but it’s out of vogue to excommunicate people. Protestant labels like “Methodist” or “Baptist” are chosen by the individual and self-applied for as long as they are appropriate; if a person’s faith changes, they change labels or drop them altogether. Even so, Protestant churches are full of people who only attend because they feel obligated, but who hold no shared opinions with the rest of the congregation; they’re just less likely to use the labels. Catholics are so attached to that label of Catholicism that I would not be surprised to hear someone say, “I’m Catholic, but I don’t think God exists.” This is the origin of the phrase cultural Catholicism–to be Catholic becomes so ingrained in people that they forget what it actually means. Instead, they take it on as a sort of ethnic identity; no one would bat an eye if I said, “I’m a white guy, but I don’t think God exists.”

You may have noticed that I have been careful not to use the phrase suggested by my post title, the derogatory term “cafeteria Catholics.” In part, this is because some are now championing the term because they think it makes them greater saints to defy where the Church is “wrong.” (Of course, if the Church could be wrong, she wouldn’t be the Church.) It’s also not a charitable term; most people to whom it applies really are following their consciences. But our consciences are imperfect, because we are imperfect. We should follow the Church precisely because God has given her to us for this grace, to have her at the ready to correct our concupiscence and cure us of our sin. The true danger of “cafeteria Catholicism” is not teaching error–the Church can survive that, as she has well proved–but it is the trivialization of sin and schism.

I have no doubt the Church will weather the storm as she always does, but not every soul aboard will be saved. Let us strive always to join the crew, obey the captain, and follow the will of God; every time we veer off-course, we risk losing more souls–especially our own.

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Footnotes:
1 I’m not saying Abp. Sheen didn’t say this, because it’s certainly in keeping with what he has said, and he has said the “wrong is wrong” and “right is right” bit in multiple places. But the most specific any source gets for this quote is the year 1953, which was certainly a full year for which I was not present, much less Catholic. It’s possible he said this during a homily or a speech that was not recorded, and someone noted down the words as being particular poignant (for that they are). But these words in this phrasing do not seem to appear in printed or recorded material that I can find, so I’m being as honest as possible about the source.

Swimming the Tiber 38: The Human Right

Last time, I talked extensively about how contraception sinfully controverts God’s will for married life. Two posts before that, I talked about the importance of keeping our children safe as a society. I have talked about the urgent necessity of baptism, too.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that I oppose abortion in all its forms.

This wasn’t always true; like many people, I didn’t give it much thought. I was opposed to abortion on the face of it (“Yeah, that’s bad”), but when prompted about situations of rape, incest, and danger to a mother’s life, I said, “Well, those are probably okay, I guess.” But my Catholicism has cleared my thinking on this issue.

The past 44 years have seen innumerable arguments on the subject. Being against abortion or not did not always follow the political divide (the deciding Supreme Court had four Nixon appointees, one Johnson appointee, one Kennedy appointee, and one Eisenhower appointee–that’s 5 / 7 Republican nominees, folks), but somewhere in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Republican party took a stronger stance against abortion, prompting the Democrat party to do the reverse. (Democrats for Life are a thing, but they are not necessarily welcomed by some party leaders.)

There are good (read: well-crafted) arguments for abortion, and there are bad arguments for abortion. There are probably arguments for abortion that I haven’t heard, because it’s typically a debate I try to avoid. (As a Catholic, my opposition to abortion is so absolute that even Republicans and evangelical Protestants think we go too far. It makes for a difficult conversational environment.)

Let me quickly run through the bad arguments for abortion that I have heard, with simple rebuttals.

It’s Just a Clump of Cells

This is plainly false. This argument suggests that a fetus is like cancer or that weird wart you had to get lasered off. Even a rudimentary understanding of biology makes it clear that a fetus is a unique organism, with its own unique DNA. As a unique organism with human DNA, that makes it a unique human. The “it’s a clump of cells” argument falls flat immediately because it’s factually wrong. (This is still true even if this new organism becomes multiple organisms through twinning; the uniqueness of the zygote is absolute.)

The Presence of the Fetus Is Invasive

It can certainly seem that way, I suppose, when you believe entirely wrong things about sex. If you think, as many do, that sex is for fun alone, then the sudden, unexpected appearance of a child will seem unfair and/or invasive, like a squatter in your real estate holdings. But of course that’s not what’s going on; we already know that sex should only occur in marriage and that one of the purposes of sex and marriage is procreation. A proper understanding of sex alone disproves this argument.

Besides that, the biology of procreation is still against this. A new human organism is made up of two parts in the initial zygote: an egg and a sperm. The egg is a part of the woman’s body designed for reproduction and was already present there; the sperm, with one notable exception that I’ll get to in a moment, was invited in by the woman. The result cannot be invasive unless the constituent parts were; any time they were not, the invasive argument doesn’t fly.

The Burden Is Entirely on the Woman

When this is the case, it’s tragic, but bad circumstances alone don’t justify anything. This is a non sequitur. What does a deadbeat dad have to do with the price of tea in China?

A Fetus Is Only Human Once It Is Viable

This is often coupled with the “clump of cells” argument above, and falls flat on that account, but there’s another reason this argument is no good: viability is a moving goalpost. The age of viability was much, much later 100 years ago than it is today (as of this writing, at least one child born at 21 weeks 5 days has survived past infancy, barely half of full-term). As technology and medicine improve, the age of viability will continue to go down. How could it be that a 24-week-old is a human today, but was not 100 years ago, and an 18-week-old is not today, but will be in another 100 years? Either they are or they aren’t.

A Fetus Is Only Human with a Heartbeat/Brain Function

Rudimentary organs exist at 8 weeks gestation (about 6 weeks after conception on average, since gestational age is typically counted from last menstrual period). The circulatory system comes first, such that a heartbeat can be detected by 6-7 weeks. Electrical brain activity is detectable around 12 weeks and regulates somewhat later than that.

Ignoring that this depends entirely on the “clump of cells” argument as a baseline, is there supposed to be a specific time or stage of development, which changes very slightly with every unique organism, or just whichever one is most convenient?

No One’s Forcing You to Get an Abortion

No one’s forcing me to rob banks or kill people or cheat on my wife. No one has killed me or cheated on me (full disclosure: I have been burgled). But I oppose those actions on principle because I want to protect the victims, regardless of their identity. My concern is not, “You’re doing bad things, how dare you,” but, “Unique human beings are dying and I want it to stop for their sake.”

Abortion Is Necessary to Prevent Poor Quality of Life

This is ridiculous on the face of it. It presupposes that suffering is worse than death. I have not written directly on the economy of suffering in Catholic thought, and I won’t get into it here (it’s a post in itself that I may get to eventually), but we know that suffering is a part of life (as a result of sin). This claim that suffering is worse than death is an extension of the modern tendency to value pleasure more than any other good; if something is not pleasurable, it should not exist. But even in practice, we do not behave as if this were true. We go to work, and even when we enjoy our jobs, it is still work and not always pleasurable. If we follow this line of reasoning to its natural conclusion, it suggests that we should kill everyone for fear that they may at some point suffer.

After all, there is no guarantee of particular suffering; there is a nonzero occurrence of false positives in prenatal testing for various syndromes and disorders–but many people take the results of these tests as absolutes. Even then, some conditions that people call “poor quality of life” (such as Down’s Syndrome) are not suffering. They have challenges, and they are not always happy, but this is true of everyone; we call it “poor quality of life” because their challenges are different from ours. And to think that you may somehow save them from these challenges by aborting them!

What logic is there in suggesting that we should kill ourselves for fear of dying?


You may disagree, of course, but I find those to be the weakest arguments for allowing abortion. They’re easily refuted, and it’s not even a question of religious opinion, but simple logical and/or scientific facts. But there are some arguments in favor of abortion that have a little more backbone.

Children Conceived by Rape or Incest Are Invasive

Ignoring for a moment that rape and incest account for less than 1.5% of reasons for obtaining an abortion, let’s examine the argument on its own merits. (After all, I don’t want abortion to be used under any circumstances.) The argument goes that, because the sperm was uninvited, then the child was uninvited. This is, at least, factual.

It is not, however, sufficient. The argument goes that the child is somehow party to the crime of its male parent and is therefore culpable, but this is not factual (the child has no awareness of its origins and made no choice about its own conception). This argument relies heavily on denying rights to the child. Not even a kangaroo court will condemn a man to die without first claiming some crime, however false that claim may be. But the unique human organism conceived as a result of a crime is deemed guilty and executed without any court at all. (For the Biblical argument here, see Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:4, 19-20.)

Then the argument turns to the trauma of the victim (i.e., the woman who was raped). It would be evil, one supposes, to visit another trauma (pregnancy and childbirth) upon a woman who had just experienced trauma (rape); it would be evil, one supposes, to subject a woman to hardship who had already undergone hardship. But the way a woman handles trauma depends very heavily on her individual psychological state, so these blanket statements are not useful (in the same way that the reverse accusation–that abortion is traumatic for a woman–are not entirely useful). Anecdotally, you will always have counterexamples; scientifically, Surgeon General Koop (who did not find “no evidence” of the harm of abortion) found that every study he had access to was created with a preconceived notion about abortion, and the politicization of the issue had resulted in no reliable studies altogether. Both sides continue to cite studies in the same vein, while denying consistently that there was any possibility of bias.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that carrying the child to term will be restorative and, even if the woman gives the child up for adoption, it will provide better closure than an abortion. Anecdotally, the reverse can also be claimed.

In this case, then, the argument for or against traumatic experiences cannot be made. Yes–rape is more traumatic than I will ever know. Yes–pregnancy can be very difficult, especially when you did not want it. But the argument for abortion insists that a human life must be taken in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of its mother; the argument against abortion insists that a human life must be allowed to live in the same attempt. As for me, I will take the road that sees more people live; this argument is like the trolley problem, but on one track lies one person and the other track is altogether clear of people. The trauma of the victim of rape is a constant regardless of which track is chosen.

Human Rights Are Not Innate

This argument disregards natural law and presupposes that the rights of individuals are granted not by a Creator, but only by the government. By this argument, there are no natural rights, but only legal rights. The right to life, then, is granted when the government says it is; through Roe v. Wade, the government has deemed that the legal right to life does not begin at conception. By that merit, abortion is legal.

I grant that this argument holds weight among those who disregard natural law. Since the government, by its nature, also disregards natural law, this argument is why abortion is legal in these United States.

But natural law is determined by nature, and it is from natural law that human laws are derived. I lack the philosophical background to argue for natural law in full depth, so I will not attempt to. Let it suffice to say this: Natural law is the law under which we are bound simply by existing because of the way the world works. Those who disagree, from what I have read, generally follow either Hume (claiming that you cannot derive ought from is, which presupposes that all rights are granted by some authority and are not innate to creation) or Sartre (as rational beings, we are absolutely free and under no laws whatsoever, which is itself a natural law). Read more from Catholics, Wikipedia, and John Locke (for the basis by which our country’s Founding Fathers made this claim of self-evident truths). See Romans 1:18-23 for a relevant Scripture passage.

As for me, I do not trust the government. Governments, by and large, become corrupt over time, seeking their own good. Knowing that natural law is true, I will not cede the right to life to a collection of legal rights granted by a temporal authority, which may remove those rights as it sees fit (as nearly all governments have done in the history of our species).

Abortion is Justifiable Homicide

Of all the arguments for abortion, this one disturbs me the most. Most people (i.e., those who support abortion rights) do not make, even refuse to make, this argument. It allows not only that a fetus is human, but also that, as a human being, it may have natural rights, such as the right to life–but that those rights may be abrogated by the decision-making power of its mother. The argument goes that there are circumstances which allow the mother to unilaterally determine whether her fetus will live or die. I will get to the prime example of these circumstances in a moment, but supporters of this argument frequently allow poverty, suffering, and inconvenience to be sufficient reason for an abortion.

The danger, of course, is that this is a slippery slope. Once we deem that human organisms may be eliminated as inconveniences or causes of suffering, we enable ourselves to kill the sick instead of treating them, to kill the poor instead of feeding them, to kill the naked instead of clothing them. We would seek a utopia built on the bones of those we find unpleasant. This is as opposed to Christianity as any philosophy can be.

Abortion is Necessary to Save Lives

This one comes up frequently; it’s also the primary argument that even some Republicans will use to support abortion (along with, slightly less often, cases of rape and incest). It goes like this: when the life of the mother is in danger, abortion is permissible.

This sounds reasonable on the face of it, but from a Catholic ethical perspective, it isn’t. It also doesn’t clarify what “in danger” means to any degree, so this is frequently used to justify abortions where both mother and baby would have turned out fine. But even when that isn’t true, the most ethical position I can think of is this: Work as hard as possible for as long as possible to save both lives; in the event that at least one life cannot be saved (i.e., trying to save both will mean losing both), treat it like a triage situation and work to save the most viable.

People often refer to the principle of double effect when arguing for abortion here. The act of abortion, they say, does kill the baby, but it saves the mother, which outweighs the cost. This is not an appropriate use of that principle. Double effect does apply in some situations like this, but not all, and never to a distinct act of abortion. The first requirement for the principle of double effect to apply is that the act itself must be either good or morally neutral; an abortion is inherently evil (by taking a human life), so it does not qualify. What does qualify, for example, would be a salpingectomy (the removal of a Fallopian tube) during a tubal ectopic pregnancy; in that case, the child cannot survive to viability and attempting to allow it to do so would kill both it and its mother. Removing the Fallopian tube is a neutral moral act (which could be done to combat cancer, for example), but it has the double effect of killing the child and saving the mother, which is morally better than the alternative (allowing them both to die).

The difference may seem moot, but from an ethical standpoint, it’s justifiable, whereas abortion is not.

If you came here looking for a fight, I’m sure you still disagree. But my point in going through this incredibly divisive and difficult issue is this: Think about why you believe things. I never thought about why I was against abortion generally but okay with it under vague circumstances. When I thought through the arguments, and applied the wealth of knowledge and tradition in the Catholic Church, my faith and my ethics came into alignment and became clear.

Next time (hopefully next week), I want to address an issue that many non-Catholics bring up in opposition to the Church: “I talked to a Catholic and they didn’t know the Bible or good behavior or the movement of the Spirit or anything! Why would you want to join a church like that?” To find out, keep coming back for more.

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Swimming the Tiber 37: Pass Interference

I’m going to go ahead and apologize for the title of this post. It’s mostly a sports pun on what I’m going to talk about this week, but it’s probably also my subconscious asserting itself a mere 4.5 weeks before the first kickoff of the college football season this year. So if you’re not a sports person, you probably don’t appreciate it, and if you are a sports person, you’re probably annoyed to be reminded about football when there still isn’t any to watch. Sorry.

Last time, I talked about how Scripture and faithful philosophy teach that you can’t break apart a marriage (not just shouldn’t, but literally can’t). About four months before that, I talked about the sacrament of marriage and, later in that long post, I talked about contraception in brief. Today, I want to summarize those points again, and then go on to talk about some of the other implications here.

From before, let’s recall:

  • Sex must only occur in the context of marriage (otherwise, it’s called “fornication”).
  • Sex in marriage must be unitive and procreative.
  • Pleasure is part of being unitive and is therefore not forbidden.
  • To be procreative does not mean to procreate with every marital act, but to be open to conception (not intentionally striving to abolish God’s design or thwart his intentions).
  • Because we are whole and equal persons before God, we should treat each other as whole persons in sex, too, not as objects to be used for particular purposes.

So we know that contraception is wrong. Any barrier method (e.g., condoms) literally interferes with the marital embrace, physically withholding one spouse’s fertility from the other; this controverts the procreative and the unitive purposes of sex and compels both spouses to use each other as objects instead of treating each other as people. Spermicides provide a chemical barrier (rather than a physical one). Hormonal contraceptives (and all other “medical” contraceptives) take properly functioning organs and inhibit that function;1 that behavior alone should give us pause because medicine is supposed to restore healthy functions, not take them away. There is also, of course, onanism (which I talked about in my first post on marriage), which is both sinful and completely ineffective as a contraception.

“Why is NFP different?” I may hear you asking. At first blush, NFP and contraception seem to work the same way: By working to avoid pregnancy, you’re still contracepting, but you’re just putting lipstick on a pig. It’s not like that, but it can be. Here’s what I mean: Suppose you’re using NFP only to avoid pregnancy without serious reasons to do so, and, when you discover that you have conceived anyway, you’re annoyed by the discovery. Under those circumstances, you’re probably just contracepting with abstinence instead of drugs or barriers.

But that’s not the way it should be. The validity of NFP takes its cues, in part, from 1 Corinthians 7:5 (my translation):

Do not withhold from each other, except out of harmony for a time in order that [you] may devote [yourselves] to prayer and [that you] may be togetherlit. to the same again, in order that Satan may not tempt you on account of your lack of power.

So when we are abstinent (avoiding sex), we should be doing so in a spirit of prayer. Basically, then, this abstinence isn’t contraception, but fasting. When you fast, you pray when you would normally eat and you give what you would normally consume to charity. In the same way, when you abstain, pray with your spouse, do works of charity to show your love for all, and devote yourselves to God and to your family. In this way, abstinence will help your marriage grow and strengthen, instead of fall apart (which is what a contraceptive mentality does because you’re constantly using each other).

Maybe you’re not having this trouble, though. Maybe you and your spouse want children more than just about anything, and you haven’t used contraception once, but you have not been blessed with offspring. When in this difficult position, where you want to follow God’s will for your lives, but it seems like he isn’t holding up his end, there is a great temptation to circumvent the proper marital act in the opposite way. Contraception separates the purposes of marriage (unity and procreation) by seeking to eliminate procreation, but in vitro fertilization (IVF) separates the purposes of marriage by causing procreation without unity.

IVF is immoral in no small part because of “selective reduction”; the artificial implantation process often results in more than one successful pregnancy at the same time, and rather than become an “octo-mom,” many women and doctors choose to “selectively reduce” the number of pregnancies. Another term for this process is abortion.

But even if you use IVF without aborting the “extra” pregnancies, it’s still not okay for the same reason that contraception is not okay: it breaks apart the purposes of marital union. The man is used for his sperm, the woman for her egg, and no one is treated as a whole person.

There are alternatives to IVF, of course, just as there are alternatives to using the Pill as a panacea for “women’s troubles.” NFP, besides being useful for avoiding pregnancy, is also useful for achieving pregnancy. Sometimes it’s as simple as timing things correctly; sometimes, there’s a real medical problem, and NFP-trained doctors familiar with NaProTechnology (especially those at the Pope Paul VI Institute) can provide guidance in correcting hormone imbalances, or they can do surgery to solve endometriosis, for example. Each NFP method can address this, whether with specialized charting, adjusted diets, or medical interventions.

Perhaps one of the most important alternatives to IVF, of course, is adoption. I know, you’ve always wanted babies of your own–but sometimes, the greatest challenge is that making babies wasn’t a vocation you were given. But there are orphans in need of help from loving parents, whether those orphans are infants or not. Sooner or later, we are all called to heroic virtue; discerning God’s call is crucial to living the life he wants for us. Don’t sail to Tarshish when God sends you to Nineveh, and don’t use your spouse as an object in order to acquire children. You may end up treating your children as objects, too, thinking that you deserve them or have earned them because of the hardships in your life, but they are also whole persons.

Treating people as persons is difficult. It’s much easier to view the world through the lens of our own life, our own needs and wants. But God calls us to treat every person in our lives, from our spouse to our children to our parents to complete strangers on the street, as whole persons, not as objects or things with qualities we want to use. In marriage, this means we don’t let anything come between us or divide us, and we don’t use each other for pleasure or for procreation. Visit us again next week when I talk about the most basic of human rights: the right to exist.

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Footnotes:
1 “But wait! What about women who take the Pill for medical purposes, such as regulating their periods?” Well, here is a randomly chosen secular guide to what birth control pills do. Note a few highlights: It “regulates her cycle,” “combats acne,” and–not mentioned on that site–reduces the risk of cervical cancer. It is also often prescribed for endometriosis and other serious women’s health problems, like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). But the Pill doesn’t help as much as it might seem.

Note in the link that 21 pills are hormonal and 7 are placebos (“to help you remember to keep taking the pill”). Unsurprisingly, those 7 placebos are when you have your period–every month. Which means that you could skip those seven, go straight to the next pack, take the hormone pills, and never have another period ever again (with significantly increased side effects, but still). Because the Pill is designed to circumvent the natural hormone cycle and prevent the release of an egg, you’re basically not cycling when on the Pill. Which is why it “regulates your cycle”–none of the problems you normally have are showing up because they don’t get the chance. It doesn’t actually fix anything, and as soon as you come off the Pill, your cycles will return to what they were before (probably haywire).

The Pill “combats acne” because acne is caused by testosterone (an “androgen”, or “man-hormone” in the Greek) and birth control pills are often packed with estrogen (a “woman-hormone”); these do battle, and the superior numbers of the estrogen win, reducing androgens and reducing acne. (Of course, women need testosterone to give to little boy babies in the womb, and those numbers don’t snap back to normal right after coming off the Pill. FYI.) So this is correct, but it’s kind of like seeing one fly in your house and deciding to fumigate.

The reduction in cervical cancer risk is real. But so is the increase in breast cancer risk; the WHO lists oral contraceptives as Group 1 carcinogens, meaning they really have no doubt about that.

Endometriosis and PCOS, like irregular cycles, are covered up by hormonal contraceptives, but rarely (if ever) fixed by it.

Having said that, these diagnoses are very difficult to deal with, and the Catholic Church does allow contraceptives to be taken under the principle of double effect (the purpose and primary effect being medical care, with the secondary and unintended effect being contraception). Even so, because of the poor fit oral contraceptives make for these issues, it is better to treat what ails you than to cover it up.