Sunday, August 17, 2008

Germain Grisez, Contraception and Natural Law

I am still working my way through the conclusion of this book, but so far I can not recommend it highly enough. Any contemporary Catholic who is interested in the ethical underpinnings of the Church's teaching on contraception should familiarize themselves with Grisez's arguments. For myself, Grisez's thesis has tied together a number of philosophical problems which have been nagging me for some time now. The chief difficulty among said problems is my perception that, in the popular Catholic mind at least, the Church's teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception has split itself into a seemingly irresolvable dialectic. On the one hand, there are proponents of what I would call a "scientific" natural law theory, who oppose contraception on the grounds that "contraception is immoral because it frustrates the natural purpose of the act." Underlying this theory is a certain version of natural law which assumes that natural law is the "scientific" search within a construct called "human nature" for a set of categorical moral norms ,the violation of which defines the limits of human action. On the other hand, there are those who, rejecting the scientific-natural law theory for various reasons, would propose what I call the psychological-therapeutic model. In this view, contraception is forbidden because non-contraceptive sex leads to the fullest state of emotional and personal well-being. Underlying this argument is the notion that ethical norms are most properly founded upon psychological principles.

The deficiencies of this dialectic have become more strongly apparent to me over the summer. On a theoretical level, my recent reading of Leo Strauss and Alasdair Macintyre has convinced me that the scientific model of natural law is fundamentally deficient, and incapable of rationally grounding a consistent ethic. Moreover, I think Philip Rieff shows why abandoning this model for a psychological-therapeutic model is even more disastrous and unsustainable. On a practical level, I seem to have recently had an inordinate number of encounters with people, both online in real life, who wrestle with one end or the other of this dialectic. One can see this in the wide range of sometimes-incompatible statements which get offered up in support of Church teaching. These statements span the ideological range from "this is how you have great Catholic orgasm" to "you can never prevent conception when it is possible," to discussion of a mythical "contraceptive mentality" which is somehow supposed to be the same thing as actual contraceptive acts.


(N.B. - For online examples of people who wrestle the scientific natural law view, check out the comments thread on the various contraception posts on Dr Liccione's blog, such as this recent example on this post. For online examples of the therapeutic model, you need only to spend a few minutes on this website, an unfortunate, if well-intended example of the problem)


From what I can tell so far, Grisez's work shows a way out of this dialectical mess. While I will not recapitulate his argument here, his book offers a fairly sound critique of both models, and proposes a theory more closely aligned with classical-Thomistic virtue ethics. By aligning the Church's teaching with the pursuit of fundamental human goods, I think Grisez escapes the problems in modern ethical theory highlighted by Macintyre and Strauss. Also, by rejecting the psychological model, the ghost of Philip Rieff can be effectively laid to rest in popular Catholic thought. On a practical level, many of the popular deficiencies offered up in support of Church teaching can be corrected by a careful reading of Grisez's argument. Contraception is not merely the fact of not having children. The traditional formulation of primary and secondary ends in marriage does not have to be interpreted as "really good" and "not as "good" or as "more important" and "less important." Maximizing family size is not a moral obligation which follows from the Church's anti-contraceptive stance. There are other examples one can think of, most of which I believe Grisez's argument effectively answers.


As a closing aside, I think that Grisez's approach offers the possibility of more fully integrating the the two modern documents most closely associated with Church teaching on contraception. Humanae Vitae (HV), lately lionized on the occasion of the anniversary of its release, tends to be popularly associated with the scientific natural law view. This explains its frequent citation by those of a more philosophic bent, as well as the endless quibbling which occurs over some its phrasings and their translation (e.g. the phrase "grave reasons"). However, I think a close reading of HV points towards the more classical virtue ethics proposed by Grisez, and explains its constant emphasis on the goods of human life and marriage, and its less explicit emphasis on the violation of moral obligation.

More interestingly, is the recent series of catechetical talks given by John Paul II, popularly referred to as the "Theology of the Body" (TOB), and which have enjoyed a popularity among the faithful, though typically in a more distilled and summarized form as exemplified by the work of Christopher West. I would argue that these talks have been misread in three fundamental ways: the first is by the theological academy, which is not so much of a mis-reading as a non-reading, whereby the content of JPII's message is dismissed as not consonant with the various structures of modern theology. The second misreading of TOB is by the traditionalist camp, whereby the persistent personalist language employed by JPII is taken as evidence that the content is nothing other than existentialist nattering, with the ghost of Heidegger given free reign over Church teaching. The third mis-reading tends to follow the psychological-therapeutic model I discussed above, and Christopher West's work is often the most prominent example of this mis-reading (though to his credit, West often shows a more perceptive reading of JPII, and the conflicts between this more perceptive reading and the popular therapeutic understanding are left unresolved.)

However, it is my belief that TOB can be read in a manner more closely tied to JPII's original intent. Such a reading would approach the talks on their own terms, namely as a catechesis explaining the true shape of the goods known through human relations. When seen in the light of a virtue ethics such as Macintyre's or Grisez's, where moral actions are the means by which human goods are freely realized within the community (i.e. Church), then the substance of TOB becomes yet another expression of that constant and unbroken ethic which the Church has proposed from Her founding. In such a reading, the constant reference to the origin of Creation found in TOB becomes a method for revealing the full and supernatural end towards which all human actions must be directed.

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