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.

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 ( 🖖 ) 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.

Conclusion

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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