Recently, America magazine, a leading Jesuit publication interviewed and profiled a moral theologian, Dr. Janet Smith. Now, the interview went as you expect it would. Familiar Church positions were affirmed, John Paul II's theology of the body was mentioned. On any given day, the Catholic Church's conservative wing can be seen denouncing contraception over at the Church Militant. Consider this superficial piece by Matthew Pearson, and the overly blown out report about the proximity of Planned Parenthood Clinics to nearby Catholic Colleges.
Behind this fear of contraception, however, lies some seriously flawed reasoning. In this post, I will address the serious errors of the Church’s position regarding contraception and the serious flaws that the Church relies upon in advancing its position. In addition, the following thoughts could address Protestant concerns about moral arguments rooted in God’s design. However, I’ve always found such Protestant considerations rather all-over-the-place since Calvin’s rejection Aristotelian approaches to Christianity undermines the conceptual resources and appeals to design whereas the Church’s development of the Catechism is still within the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework where such appeals are still made.
(1) All human faculties and organs are directed towards the chief purpose of God’s design.
(2) All sexual organs are directed towards the purpose of procreation
(3) Any technological or willful interruption of this directed purpose is unnatural and therefore wrong in going against God’s design.
(4) Contraception is such an interruption of this natural purpose
(5) Therefore, contraception is morally wrong.
Some Observations Regarding the Argument Against Contraception
In this argument, the priority of the procreative act is highlighted as the only end to which sexual activity can occur. The AAC depends also on several philosophical assumptions to make it happen. First, there must be formal and final causes in nature that govern the essence of human sexual interaction. That is, nature is constituted through and through with purpose. Like a sweater and its stitching, God’s stitching of these ends/purposes are the thread in every particular being; this includes the physical laws of nature and there are laws of morality that follow both from human and God’s rational nature. Second, such final causes must be discoverable. In other words, final causes must be knowable and human reason can discover what ought to be the proper ends of human activity.
A brief note of the form of the AAC should be mentioned since it’s largely heuristic. I’ve included an “or” in premise (3) to designate “willful interruption” in addition to technological interruption since same-sex conduct and Onanism (which could just as easily substitute for the word “Contraception” in premise (4) and the conclusion) are morally equivalent to contraception in their deviation from God’s design, and the same substantive argument would be weighed against those actions as well.
The first challenge to the AAC is fairly straightforward. One can simply deny that there is no purpose in nature, or that God does not exist. Without God’s existence, the argument does not have legs to stand on. I would think that’s too easy and not very likely to persuade since denying God’s existence to the Catholic Church and its supporters will get you nowhere.
The Evolutionary Teleological Argument Against the AAC
In wanting to address Catholics, let’s keep premise (1), but update our view of nature to include at the very least the insights of biology of the last century and a half. Premise (1) is silent on what the life of nature is. Accordingly, God can still exist, and even more to the point, God’s purposeful nature is still directed by the very laws and regularities biological science uncovers. As such, in keeping (1), God’s design is what is discernible with the results of evolution and biology itself. In theistic evolution, God does exist, and that there are ends directing the use of faculties and organs. It’s just that these ends must be consistent with what God intended in evolution to be and so the new interpretation of (1) holds that the teleology of species change and behavior are intended by God’s purposeful design. In that vein, a theistic evolutionist holds that the laws discovered about our psychology and organs have a purposeful function. Otherwise, they would not be discoverable in principle.
For some function to be discoverable in science, we first must apprehend the particular, at least in scientific inquiry. In other words, scientific inquiry moves from the bottom-up, from the particular to the universal so to speak. By contrast, natural law moral theologians will work from the top-down, like any Thomist, spelling out their universal declarations about what the purpose of our nature is, and then show what particular action is consistent with that purpose and derive laws of our “moral nature.” As such, we should acknowledge the tension here between these two camps and what I am asking by expanding teleology to include contemporary notions of biological and psychological development determined in part by structures in the physical world. Evolutionary science will admit that premise (2) is, at the very least, part of what God intended with how the genitals function. They do facilitate procreation just as much as the eyes see, the heart pumps, the kidneys filter, yet there are cases, challenging cases, where nature could have been designed better. Proponents of the above argument must (at the very least) acknowledge they have little, if no response to imagining a better-designed world than to echo Leibniz himself that “this is the best possible of all possible worlds” since God chose it *presumably* over all others, and that such a defense is only to reassert teleology to begin with. That’s not a response.
The fact that design is not as optimal as it could be conceived leads to a few problems in the above argument. First, teleology is certainly found wanting, and it might not be true that reality is thoroughly designed by a creator who has our best interests at heart and who is actively moving creation to a better state of perfection. I repeat this not to belabor a point that I’ve already indicated we’ll ignore, but to draw attention to how sketchy the conception of teleology is on its own that underlines this flawed Catholic argument as well as the Church’s natural law stance not only against contraception, but homosexuality and Onanism, too (Onanism being the most primitive form of birth control conceivable to early humans).
Next, even if we preserve teleology in light of evolution, the teleology I’m proposing here is thoroughly naturalized. It’s so naturalized that what is in nature must also be identified as part of God’s design. This means that behaviors that are conducive to our flourishing are either part of God’s design or a deviation from that design. If the case can be made that some practices are consistent with our dynamic evolving nature, then we have good reason to think that we should engage in that behavior and that’s part of God’s design. Technology is an augmentation of our physical being, and a natural part of being human.
Consistent with the evolution of the human species, tool-making is a central activity of our success. From the first flint-chipped cutting tools to agriculture, we invent devices to address certain physical needs to enhance our flourishing. Given that contraception is a tool and we’ve evolved to use technology as a way to adapt to the world, then contraception cannot be easily dismissed firsthand as the dogmatic Catholic suggests. Instead, inventing and using contraceptions is part of the very same teleology to solve problems that proves more advantageous to our being than if it never existed. Contraception allows for families to plan the arrival of their own children, and this can only enhance human flourishing as it empowers families and individuals to be more autonomous in choosing the preparedness to have a family, which in itself is more likely better than if left to chance. Moreover, contraception can be used to prevent unneeded pregnancy, which can often harm women and/or the baby if not planned properly. For instance, if a woman is on severe biologics and medicines, pregnancy could physically harm the fetus. As such, contraception not only saves women from unneeded pregnancy but it prevents harms to fetuses that would be born under certain medical conditions that would harm it and possible conditions in which a woman may be harmed by pregnancy itself. For these reasons, premise (3) is falsified.
In falsifying premise (3) by thinking that contraception is a product of tool-making and that’s consistent with our rational and biological nature, we can still think God exists, but we must do so with respect to the fact that tool-making is an extension of our rational and bodily natures whereas Thomism, on which unfortunately the above argument is so erroneously entangled, regards rationality as a disembodied phenomenon. This means that Catholics must give up on devaluing the body and their Platonist tendencies. In addition, falsifying (3) in this way is a hard challenge of a more evolutionary-grounded conception of teleology that’s more plausible by today’s standards, but it presents problems. Catholics can no longer think that the teleological considerations of “naturalness” can address technological innovations and the ethical problems they invite in bioethics very easily, if at all.
The Catholic position against contraception relies too heavily on the faulty grounds of Aristotelian teleology. Even more to the point, the natural law theorist is operating with a conception of nature that is essentially outdated. Aristotle and St. Thomas wrote about a conception of nature that is scientifically moribund. While it is speculatively possible to revise teleology as I have proposed to do, under the revised conception, tool-making will always be seen as an extension of our rational natures to address and solve problems and this must be, as I argue, found to be consistent with God’s purpose. As such, there’s no evil in deviating from God’s purpose since such an appeal makes no sense. Inventing tools is, on the contrary, an open-ended intention of God’s intended natural purpose.
I believe that there’s no way around this dilemma for the Church. Either there is no such thing as teleology that essentially provides the foundation for the above argument, or we naturalize teleology. Yet, naturalizing teleology means that God becomes the very reasons for why we make tools. More than that, because God becomes the god of the gaps, it becomes even harder to know exactly what God intended in the first place, and looks like He is no longer needed in such an account.
Wider generalizations are possible internal to Catholicism. St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” is based on the existence that there’s a natural function to the self-donation of one’s love and body to another. It relies on the same teleology for its purpose, yet theology of the body, like the larger picture of the Church’s social teaching, only reinforces heteronormativity. In essence, it becomes a self-validating ideology that looks askance upon the natural world while never asking how natural all forms of sexual diversity are in nature. Again, this is a problem because actual Church teachings become oppressive and harmful when used in a pastoral setting, and it puts blinders on priests, parish staff, and the congregration where Christ’s love and acceptance should inform pastoral responses to concrete human needs based on a more accurate picture of nature itself.
 Inevitably, going this route will inherit the God of the gap problem, but I ignore that for now.
 I also anticipate that there’s no real principled way to distinguish between a deviation if the deviation in question occurs in nature. I also ignore this problem here.
 This is also not to say that virtue ethics need to be abandoned because teleology of the virtues is constituted by a rationality that is projected upon the world. I find this to be a different horse altogether.