Thursday, June 26, 2008

Catholic Experience and Contraception

A recent comment I posted on the thread to this post.

"Having foundered on fundamental disagreements regarding first principles, it seems that this discussion has inevitably turned to an existential exchange of claims regarding the "authenticity" of Church doctrines on contraception, especially insofar as those doctrines have an "experiential" basis.

While a combox is rarely a suitable form for this sort of existential discourse (one's college dorm discussions at least took place with actual people, with whom one lived and regularly interacted), it seems that there is perhaps some benefit to discussing the "real" experiences of Catholics in regard to the matter. Moreover, it seems the commenters in this thread who seem the most concerned about "hearing the voices of women" on the issue, are in fact very poorly acquainted with any actual Catholics, men or women, who have accepted the Church's stance on these matters. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts:

My wife is a cradle Catholic who grew up, like most women of her generation, being taught that "theological development [should be] based on the actual experiences of men and women rather than on the ideal experience that no one has." Upon leaving her parents' house, she followed that premise to its natural conclusion, and promptly left the Church, a pattern her two sisters repeated also, and which was shared by most women of their generation. Naturally, she rejected the Church's teaching on contraceptive acts, both in theory and in practice. However, a time came in her life when she was forced to re-evaluate her relationship to the Church, as well as consider the significance and status of its teachings on contraception. The interesting part of her story is that she was firm in her rejection of the former until careful study of the latter. Her reconciliation with the Church came only through an acceptance of the Church's teaching on the meaning of the marital act. Indeed, it was a close reading of Humanae Vitae (from a tract containing an introductory essay by the aforementioned Janet Smith) that first captured her moral imagination on the subject. In understanding the Church's teaching on the meaning of the human person, and its embodiment in the most intimate of human acts, as well as its "obstinacy" in the face of popular opinion on the matter, she came to realize that, just perhaps, the Church had a vision for human existence that is somewhat deeper than the cultural currents of our time.

We now live in a suburb of St Paul, MN, and she is connected to a wide network of Catholic familes, nearly all of whom accept the Church's teachings on contraception, with varying degrees of understanding and practice. Interestingly, the women and families with whom she is connected here make up the majority of mass-attending Catholics at their respective parishes, at least for their generational group. For none of them is the "rhythm method" the "sacred pillar of Catholic identity," and none of those women would recognize the snide and facile conflation of theology and practice that lies behind such remarks. Indeed, most of them are adamant about the fact that they do not practice the "rhythm method," and are equally adamant about the non-negotiable role of the Church's teachings on contraception, especially as it shapes their own lives and marital acts. Most of them see and understand, even if they cannot fully articulate it, the right order of theology and practice in this area, and choose to not contracept, not because this or that practice or method is somehow formative of their identity, but because contracepted sex would be a repudiation of their existence as human persons. They realize contraceptive acts are not the acts of human beings - they are they the acts of a consumer, using persons as mere products for the fulfillment of sterilized pleasure. And most of them understand these things, not from careful consideration of theological propositions, but from that lived experience which some commenters in this thread regard as a theological fetish. Indeed, most of them have gained these experiences in as "authentic" a manner as one could hope for, either through extensive use of contraceptives followed by non-contraceptive practices, or from hard and bitter divorces which resulted from contraceptively sterilized marriages.

While I do not expect that anecdotal evidence such as this will be sufficient to change the opinions of some on this matter, I hope that those who have expressed concern about the experiences of "real Catholics" on the issue will at least take time to meet, interact with, and understand the large and growing number of Catholics who have actual experience in the matters at hand."


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