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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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.

Swimming the Tiber 36: Let No Man Put Asunder

This series has meandered its way through several sub-series. We started with some basic bibliology, Christology, and theology, then moved into the sacraments, Marian doctrines, and scandals. Now’s the part where I talk about moral behaviors and you accuse me of thinking I’m perfect (I don’t, but if I went into detail about all my sins, we’d be here much longer than the 9 months it has almost been since I started the series).

I’ve already talked in some detail about marriage, focusing generally on what it is. This post is more about what it isn’t. I touched on this in the older post, but I’d like to go into a little bit more detail here. Remember, the Catholic position here is based on personalism, or the philosophy that all persons are whole persons who deserve respect as persons (and not as objects for our use).

Marriage Isn’t a Feeling

As I’ve mentioned at least once, to love someone is to want what is best for that person. To be clear, it does not mean to want someone to be “happy,” which is fleeting, but it means you strive to bring that person closer to God. The point and purpose of love, then, is not emotional fulfillment, but spiritual development.

It can, of course, mean other things in addition to that overarching goal. To love a sinner means to show the same mercy that God does. To love the poor means to give generously of yourself, as Christ on the cross. But those tie into that main goal: by showing mercy and generosity, we bring people closer to God.

I admit, there is a great temptation to treat love as a feeling. There are a lot of feelings associated with love. That butterflies-in-your-stomach sensation. That pitter-patter of your heart. The incessant desire to swoon. The adrenaline rush of time spent together, and the ache of time spent apart. But none of those feelings is love–they just tend to coincide. Because if you feel those feelings, and you say, “That’s love,” and then you stop feeling those feelings… have you stopped loving? A sudden lack of sensation would throw an entire relationship into jeopardy.

Can you believe that? People actually stop being friends, or married, or familial because they missed out on a few short-lived emotions that flit by like dust motes in the wind.

Don’t assume I want you to be purely logical ( 馃枛 ) about love. Feelings are powerful and can be indicative of important truths. But those are things you need to bring into the open and discuss in the light of day; they should inform your decisions and talks about your relationship, but they shouldn’t make those decisions. Because marriage isn’t a feeling.

Marriage Isn’t a Contract

I just said it, and I’ll say it again: Don’t be purely logical about love and marriage. Marriage is not a relationship of utility. Don’t get married for money or sex or vanity. A marriage isn’t a contractual relationship, where you lay out a set of terms and so does your spouse, and no matter how long you’re contractually joined, any violation of those terms is cause for dissolution of the contract. You can’t set an end date for a marriage.

Instead of marrying for utility, marry for love. Remember, this isn’t the feelings of love, but the action of love. If you’ve already forgotten what that means, scroll up maybe half your screen and read the first paragraph of the last section again.

Go ahead; I’ll wait.

So the purpose of marriage isn’t utility, but to bring your spouse (and you) closer to God. So the secular laws of the nation don’t begin to enter into it. The government cannot dictate what a marriage is or is not. The government has no power over marriage, because it isn’t a contract. It’s not something you need the government’s approval for, and if you’re not validly married, the government can’t say that you are. On top of that, it’s not something you can resolve through a lawsuit. If you have a disagreement with your spouse about your marriage, that’s between the two of you; getting a secular court involved will accomplish nothing real in your marriage–it will just confuse the matter. Because marriage isn’t a contract.

Marriage Isn’t a License

Despite the fact that the government hands out “marriage licenses,” which are legal indicators that you have attained a legal status that has an effect on your legal person (e.g., different taxation considerations), it’s entirely wrong to treat your marriage license like a driver’s license. A driver’s license, for example, allows you to drive your car on any road as long as you don’t break any laws; it gives you a certain amount of control over your car.

But marriage doesn’t give you the same freedom. Many people, even faithful Christians who remain abstinent before marriage, treat marriage as opening the floodgates. “Anything goes in marriage,” some may say. But that’s not true. Marriage doesn’t give you the right to use your spouse any way you want (as long as you don’t break any laws). In marriage, you’re not dealing with cars and roads, you’re dealing with another human person; you must treat that person as a person, meaning that your relationship must follow certain standards that the law cares nothing about.

One of those standards is autonomy: you cannot control your spouse simply because you’re married. Another is safety: you cannot harm (emotionally or physically) your spouse because you’re married. You must at all times respect your spouse as a person. Because marriage isn’t a license.

Marriage Isn’t Dissoluble

Because marriage doesn’t fit these weak facsimiles, it also cannot be managed by the same methods. That means that marriage (i.e., a valid marriage between two persons) cannot be dissolved. There is no reason so good that it can cause a marriage to be dissolved–not a loss of feeling, nor a breach of contract, nor a rule violation, nor crime, nor sin, nor general unpleasantness. What’s done is done and it cannot be undone.

“But wait!” say you, “I’ve heard of Catholics getting a divorce and still being okay in the eyes of the Church!”

Well, that’s not a divorce; that’s an annulment. An annulment is exactly what it sounds like: a declaration of the marriage as null. Not, “This was a marriage, but now it isn’t,” but rather, “This was never a marriage.” That’s why annulments need to be investigated (you need to discover a reason that one or both parties were incapable of a valid marriage at the time of the event) and not just signed like another contract. Annulments can and do happen, even when there are many “marriage-like” things in the relationship, like children and dinner parties and throwing out one party’s sports paraphernalia, but they’re much rarer than divorces, because, “We don’t like each other now,” is not a good reason to claim that you couldn’t get married last week.

If your marriage isn’t annulled, then your marriage is just like you said in your vows: until somebody dies.

This has the unfortunate side effect of putting people in very difficult positions. Sometimes, you’re validly married to an evil, abusive person; in such cases, the Church does allow civil divorces so that the force of law can be used to separate an abuser from his/her victim(s), but as long as the marriage was valid, you’re still married, just separated. Sometimes, you get married and divorced while fallen away from the Church, and one of you gets remarried before you come back to the Church. If the first marriage was valid, then the “remarriage” is invalid, and this puts you in the very hard place of either (1) living chastely with your new roommate (not spouse) or (2) separating from your new roommate to reconcile with your spouse. This is fraught with emotional challenges and hard choices, and there are often children involved and all of that is incredibly difficult to untangle.

This is not meant to be uncharitable, though it may seem so. The Catholic Church does everything in her power to ease the hardship in these cases–but it is not within her power to break the bonds of marriage.

And Pharisees approached him, testing him and saying, “Is it allowed for a person to release his wife for any cause?” And having answered, [he] said, “Did [you] not know that the [one] having created [them] from the beginning made them male and female?” And he said, “On this account a man shall leave behind the father and the mother and will be glued to his wife, and the two will be into one flesh. Thus [they] are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God yoked together [on a particular occasion], let man not separate.” They said to him, “Why therefore did Moses command [us] to give a bill of divorce and to release {her}?” He says to them, “Moses yielded to you, with respect to your hardness of heart, to release your wives, but from the beginning [it] has not been so. But [I] say to you that whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.”

– Matthew 19:3-9 (my translation)

And so you see that the Church is incapable of divorcing people, by the words of Christ Himself.

“But wait!” say you, “What about divorces because of fornication? It says it’s okay right there.”

Does it? Christ did not say, “What God yoked together, let man not separate, except over fornication.” He said, rather, “Whoever releases his wife, except over fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” In Mark 10, he makes a similar statement (and clearly enforces the rule for wives who wish to divorce their husbands as well), but leaves out this exception; Luke 16:18 likewise omits the exception. The exception here does not overrule the other Gospels and allow divorce, but links this verse with Matthew 5:31-32. You see? He’s not saying that you can get a divorce because of fornication; he’s explaining that any divorces for non-fornication reasons cause adultery (because the divorce was impossible). Divorces for reasons of fornication, whether the wife’s or the husband’s, do not cause adultery anew because it has already occurred (through the fornication).

It’s not that you shouldn’t get a divorce because you don’t want to commit adultery; it is, rather, that you can’t get a divorce, because you’re married. The end of a marriage isn’t just disallowed by the Church–it’s impossible. For any reason. At any time. Except by death.

Because marriage isn’t dissoluble.


So what’s the take-home message here? That if you’re in an unhappy marriage, you’re stuck? Well, if you’re merely unhappy, you should work on that through therapy or counseling or by praying together and going to Mass and becoming holier. If you’re in a dangerous or extremely painful situation, then I agree that it is very, very difficult, but we Christians have never been excused from something on account of difficulty. (Obviously, if you or your family is in a dangerous situation, take every available step to escape that danger and put it away from you, but the hardship of the indissolubility of marriage remains. Remember, marriage isn’t a license, so if your spouse abuses you, you are not obliged to take it–and by no means should you–but their wickedness does not release you from your vow.)

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you, whether married or unmarried, is that marriage is not a light thing, nor is it to be taken lightly. By marriage you are bound to another person even until death; do not choose someone carelessly, but pray fervently for God’s will in your life. In the same way, whether you choose or have chosen for you, marriage is final; do not seek to destroy it, but seek to build each other up in Christ.

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Swimming the Tiber 35: A Serious Issue

Up to this point, most of my posts have included a humorous undercurrent (or at least I like to think so). I’m going to do my best to avoid that this time around. I need to spend a short post to talk about something very serious and recent when it comes to accusations against the Catholic Church: the clerical abuse scandal.

To be honest, I planned and wrote this post before Cardinal Pell was recalled to Australia to face charges on multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor while he was a seminarian (Victoria semi-recently lifted the statute of limitations on child abuse). I didn’t think this would be so completely topical, but suffice it to say this: If he is guilty, may justice be done to bring the victims as much peace as is possible, and if he is not guilty, may justice likewise be served by the dismissal of this case. But now let us return to this regularly scheduled post.

Between the 1950s and today, thousands of people in the United States, and more worldwide, have accused Catholic priests of sexual abuse of minors. In many of these cases, the allegations were known to Church officials and were not dealt with properly. Since then, a number of investigative reports have been released and the widespread problem has been brought into view.

There is no defense for this. There is no justification. There are two things: (1) to know why this happened (so we can prevent it in the future), and (2) to determine whether the Catholic Church is safe for my children.

Question 1 has been given fairly extensive study by Rome, by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), by the media, and by the public in general over the last 20 years. The problems were manifold, but I will try to summarize.

  1. Priestly sexual abuse of minors was not known to be widespread. Individual bishops in individual dioceses handled allegations against priests without much discussion among those bishops. This allowed the problem to continue relatively unchecked without an organized effort against it.
  2. Common medical opinion suggested that child abusers could be treated, cured, and returned to society. Although opposed early by some, there was a general idea at the time that men who abused children could, like alcoholics and drug addicts, be corrected and returned to ministry. This was obviously an incorrect assessment, and repeat offenders were allowed to access children again and continue their abuse.
  3. Some cases were specifically covered up. There have been anti-Catholic arguments that the Pope himself is personally responsible for every abusive cleric (he isn’t–see above about how these cases were handled generally), but there really were bishops who covered up abuse in their dioceses–again allowing repeat offenders to continue their abuse. This is unconscionable.

There have been other explanations by other people, but these seem to me the salient points.

Now to question 2: Is the Catholic Church a safe place for my children? The short answer is, “As safe as anywhere else, if not safer.”

In the first place, the Church has done a remarkable job of turning this around. They have acknowledged the problem and apologized for it, but more than that, they have taken steps to avoid it in the future. Every priest is evaluated closely for these tendencies before being put in a position. Educators, teachers, and anyone who looks after children (at, say, Sunday school or a church retreat) must undergo education, not only about the evils of abuse, but about how to spot signs of it in children. Children are likewise educated in Catholic schools. Every volunteer, paid employee, and seminarian undergoes background checks. Of course, every offender engages in a “first-time offense,” so background checks are not always productive. To avoid point 1 above, these investigations are taken not merely to the diocese but to Rome. Substantiated allegations immediately result in the laicization of the priest (defrocking, i.e., removal from the priesthood).

There are still problems, yes. Rome has a backlog of cases to investigate, for example. Priests, of all people, are called to a higher standard, and we should like to think that this would never happen at all. But remember that the Church has both sinners and saints in her ranks; some of the chaff are evil indeed, and we must be wary. Child molesters seek out places where they have access to children; the Catholic Church has many schools, but so does the government, and there’s no indication that priests are more likely to abuse children than others in similar positions of authority over children, whether at Protestant churches or in public or private schools.

Anecdotally, I taught at a public school for one year. In that time, a (female) special education teacher at the same school I taught at was fired after being charged (and later convicted) for sexual abuse of minors. I didn’t know her personally, but the number of children abused by adults in schools is staggering and should not be taken lightly just because there is greater media focus on churches.

Which returns me to my short answer to question 2 above: The Catholic Church is as safe as anywhere else, if not safer. The spotlight on the Church and her focused efforts and increased cooperation seem to me to make her even safer than, say, educational institutions with very little oversight. I fully intend to keep a wary eye over my children and to educate them thoroughly as I am able, especially as they get old enough to spend time in educational settings. That goes the same whether they are in a CCD class at the local parish, a parochial school, a private school, a public school, or with a tutor. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said John Curran (not Thomas Jefferson), and that applies to our free will as well as to our democratic liberties. It is our duty as parents to contend with the world on behalf of our children, as our heavenly Father does for us, and that responsibility does not end in even the safest place.

There is one more question that some will ask, though I do not: Doesn’t a scandal of this magnitude, from even your bishops and cardinals, prove that the Catholic Church is false and corrupt? The short answer is no. The medium version (I haven’t time for a lengthy one) is this: If we abandoned the Church every time one of her leaders was a sinful man, this whole Christendom thing never would have gotten off the ground. The objective Truth we find in Catholicism does not depend on the moral standing of her clergy (praise the Lord!), but rather upon the divine Word, who said that the gates of Hell would never overcome his beloved Church.

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Swimming the Tiber 34: Eppur Si Muove

Let Us grant you that all of your demonstrations are sound and that it is entirely possible for things to stand as you say. But now tell Us, do you really maintain that God could not have wished or known how to move the heavens and the stars in some other way? We suppose you will say ‘Yes,’ because We do not see how you could answer otherwise. Very well then, if you still want to save your contention, you would have to prove to Us that, if the heavenly movements took place in another manner than the one you suggest, it would imply a logical contradiction at some point, since God in His infinite power can do anything that does not imply a contradiction. Are you prepared to prove as much? No? Then you will have to concede to Us that God can, conceivably, have arranged things in an entirely different manner, while yet bringing about the effects that we see. And if this possibility exists, which might still preserve in their literal truth the sayings of Scripture, it is not for us mortals to try to force those holy words to mean what to us, from here, may appear to be the situation.

– Pope Urban VIII to Galileo Galilei, quoted
by Giorgio de Santillana in The Crime of Galileo

I do not therefore consider them [your arguments] true and conclusive; indeed, keeping always before my mind’s eye a most solid doctrine that I once heard from a most eminent and learned person, and before which one must fall silent, I know that if asked whether God in His infinite power and wisdom could have conferred upon the watery element its observed reciprocating motion using some other means than moving its containing vessels, both of you would reply that He could have, and that He would have known how to do this in many ways which are unthinkable to our minds. From this I forthwith conclude that, this being so, it would be excessive boldness for anyone to limit and restrict the Divine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of his own.

– Simplicio in Galileo Galilei, Dialogo sopra i due
massimi sistemi del mondo
, trans. Stillman Drake

The well-read among you may recognize the title of this post as the words of Galileo sometime shortly after his recantation of heliocentrism. You may hear the phrase in English (“And yet it moves,” referring to the Earth) as a petulant retort to an authority figure who denies your view (whether factual or not).

For what it’s worth, the Church has apologized for the way Galileo was treated. Personally, I don’t think it had to. The Church was, in the first place, eminently reasonable throughout the Galileo affair; in the second place, his treatment was among the most civil of anyone found guilty in an inquisition.

Galileo’s biggest problem wasn’t the Church; it was his contemporaries and colleagues. Copernicus was slow to publish his position on heliocentrism (which he dedicated to the pope) not because he was afraid of the Catholic Church, but because he could not answer the principal objection: that there were no observed parallax shifts in the stars (mainly because that technology wouldn’t be available for another couple hundred years). For the same reason, Johannes Kepler was poorly received by his contemporaries; one of those contemporaries, Tycho Brahe, rejected Copernicus’ model of the solar system (in favor of his own convoluted Tychonic system, where non-Earth planets revolved around the sun, but the sun still revolved around the Earth).

But Galileo was so convinced he was right (he wasn’t, by the way–his model posited that the sun was the immovable center of the universe, and we know that it is not, but rather it orbits the center of our galaxy, which is itself moving) that he began to proclaim his scientific opinion as scientific fact without much evidence to back it up. His contemporaries (most of whom held to the Tychonic system and the rest supported the Ptolemaic/Aristotelian system) opposed him intellectually, but he really got himself into hot water when he touted this as ample reason to change the established interpretation of Scripture.

You see, in 1610, Galileo had his famous encounter with the moons of Jupiter through his telescope. That, along with the phases of Venus, disproved the geocentric model in his mind. (His contemporaries replied that the Tychonic system answered those objections just fine.) In 1611, a dear friend of his wrote to him, “I write because men like you are of great value, deserve to live a long time for the public benefit, and I am also motivated by the particular interest and affection which I have for you and by my constant approbation of you and your work.” (Maffeo Cardinal Barberini in a letter to Galileo Galilei on 11 October 1611, recorded in Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, Edizione Nazionale, Vol. XI (Firenze, 1901), p216)

Fast-forward a few years. Galileo belligerently accosted the intellectuals of the Catholic Church, with whom he had formerly had an accord. He flatly rejected that heliocentrism should be presented as a competing model (lacking further evidence); instead, he compelled Church authorities either to accept heliocentrism (and thereby change the traditional interpretation of Scripture, which they had no cause to do, since heliocentrism could not answer its toughest scientific opposition) or to condemn it as heresy (which they were not wont to do under the circumstances).

By 1624, Galileo was having regular meetings with his old friend, Cardinal Barberini–only now, Barberini was Pope Urban VIII. The pope took these meetings as an opportunity to share his own philosophy with Galileo (the first quote at the top of the page). The pope reasoned with him that, although Galileo’s opinions were very well thought-out, wasn’t it possible that God, in his omnipotence, could have done it some other way? (Surprise! God did. See above about the sun also being mobile.) 1624 is the earliest reasonable date for the quote at the top of this page from Pope Urban VIII. The pope promised to continue supporting Galileo, provided the man slack off a little on his zeal.

Galileo’s response was to write the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. The dialogue mostly follows three men: Salviati (who argues for Galileo’s views), Sagredo (who starts out neutral but quickly follows Salviati), and Simplicio (an ardent supporter of the Ptolemaic system). Just as Salviati was named for one of Galileo’s friends and Sagredo for another, Simplicio is ostensibly named for Simplicius of Cilicia (a 6th century commentator on Aristotle)–but even those of us who do not speak Italian can plainly see the double entendre with simpleton and the like. Based on his poor argumentation style and rapid loss to Salviati, the pun seems intentional.

Which brings us to the second quote at the top of the page, when Simplicio is used as a mouthpiece for the pope’s own view. Galileo even makes it obvious, in case you missed it–Simplicio heard this theory “from a most eminent and learned person,” and then he nearly quotes his one-time friend word-for-word.

The pope was still a man, and he had his pride. Getting on his bad side was not beneficial to Galileo’s argument; on top of that, the pope had plenty of political problems of his own. Galileo could not prove his position, but he insisted on changing Catholic teaching anyway; that way lies heresy, which is what he was ultimately accused of. After the inquest, he recanted (though popular legend, spreading almost as soon as he died, claims his petulant response) and was confined to his homes for the remainder of his life (not a dungeon).

Later (over two hundred years later, in 1838), Friedrich Bessel discovered stellar parallax, definitively proving the heliocentric solar system (but still not Galileo’s heliocentric universe). Bans of pro-heliocentric views had been completely lifted by 1835, even allowing uncensored editions of Galileo’s most audacious works. As with other scientific developments (more on that in a couple of months), once the majority of scientists support a particular theory, the Catholic Church respectfully allows its interpretation of Scripture to match God’s Creation.

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