Tuesday, May 23, 2006

St. John Chrysostom on Contraception

Given that Sam and Bethany Torode are using John Chrysostom as the Church Father who allows contraception, perhaps one ought to look at what he said about it:

Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well…it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God and fight with His laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing?… In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks…

[I]n truth, all men know that they who are under the power of this disease [the sin of covetousness] are wearied even of their father's old age [wishing him to die so they can inherit]; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having of children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome. Many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have mutilated nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live.

Taken from the wonderful Stephanos Project website.

A Cartoon Augustine

If you haven't read St. John Chrysostom On Marriage and Family Life, published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, you should. But you might want to skip the introduction by Catherine Roth, unless you want a nearly perfect example of the Orthodox caricature of Augustine and the Western position on marriage. She writes, “Some writers, especially those in the tradition of St. Augustine of Hippo, have spread the opinion that sexual relations are evil in themselves but tolerated within marriage for the purpose of procreation. This is not the general Orthodox view.” (9) It is not Catholic view either, and it isn't the view of St. Augustine of Hippo. It would have been helpful of Roth to name the nameless writers who say that sex is bad. I haven't found them, but since I don't know whom she is talking about, I will defend St. Augustine on this matter.

Augustine does not write anywhere that I've been able to find that sexual relations are bad. Not ever. He does write that lust is bad, and that sexual relations as practiced by most people in a fallen state are to some degree defective, but never that sexual relations are “evil in themselves.” To prove my point, let's take a look at some passages from On Marriage and Concupiscence. Augustine begins complaining of just the sort of thing that Roth has done:
OUR new heretics . . . are constantly affirming, in their excessive hatred of us, that we condemn marriage and that divine procedure by which God creates human brings by means of men and women, inasmuch as we assert that they who are born of such a union contract that original sin of which the apostle says, "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for in him all sinned;"

Augustine even in his time is being accused of thinking that marriage and sex (“the divine procedure”) is evil. The accusation is nothing new. Let's see how he answers it. In Chapter 5, Augustine gives a clear summary of his position: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring.” Sexual relations are good in themselves, or otherwise marriage would be an evil thing. Lust is sinful, not sex. Adam and Eve were naked and “were not ashamed,” Augustine points out, which shows that marriage can and has existed in purity. Lust arises as a result of sin, but it is accidental to marriage and to marital relations, not essential to it. One must understand lust here as being desire against reason, or as Wojtyla would have said, desire that forgets the dignity of the human person who is desired.

This is not to say one need agree with Augustine in everything he says about sexual relations. There is little of the unitive role in his writing. But to say and to repeat, as so many Orthodox writers do, and as the Torodes echo, that Augustine thought sex was bad, is to misrepresent his thought. It is a caricature, and if it is intentional, a lie.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fr. Meyendorff and Contraception

Sam and Bethany Torode, the couple who made a bit of news a few years back by supporting the Catholic position on contraception while they were protestants, have, as you may have heard, joined the Orthodox Church and repudiated their former position. They have given an explanation of sorts here (www.openembrace.com). On that page, they claim:

For starters, we joined the Greek Orthodox Church and are now in agreement with what some Orthodox have written on this topic (see The Sacrament of Love by Paul Evdokimov and Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by John Meyendorff).

The Meyendorff book is an excellent book, well worth reading, but not for the section on Humanae Vitae, which has some real problems. Fr. Meyendorff himself adopts the typical caricature of St. Augustine and places the blame for distorted Western Christian thinking on him, arguing that Augustine believed “Marriage, therefore, was itself sinful in as much as it presupposed sex, and could be justified only ‘through childbirth.’ Consequently, if childbirth is artificially prevented, sexual intercourse--even in lawful marriage--is fundamentally sinful.” (60) This is not quite true. Marriage was not sinful, and neither was sexual intercourse. In fact, Augustine takes pains to defend marriage from those who would call it sinful. It was lust, the disordered appetites that so often accompany sexual intercourse, that was sinful. I will write more on that in the future. For now I wish to focus on Fr. Meyendorff’s reaction to Humanae Vitae.

Fr. Meyendorff says about Humanae Vitae that it “should not be dismissed simply because it is papal,” which line, coming from an Orthodox theologian, always makes me chuckle. Meyendorff argues that, although procreation is a duty which man has, it is not a strict duty because of the necessity to raise children well. One has a responsibility for the physical well-being of one’s potential children. This is true. Meyendorff then brings up the topic of birth-control, and says the following:

Total continence is one radical way of birth control. But is it compatible with true married life? And is not continence itself a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving and perpetuating life? However, both the New Testament and Church tradition consider continence as an acceptable form of family planning. Recent Roman Catholic teaching also recommends periodic continence, but forbids the ‘artificial’ means, such as the ‘pill.’ But is there a real difference between the means called ‘artificial’ and those considered ‘natural’? Is continence really ‘natural’? Is not any medical control of human functions ‘artificial’? Should it, therefore, be condemned as sinful? and finally, a serious theological question: is anything ‘natural’ necessarily ‘good’? For even St. Paul saw that continence can lead to ‘burning.’ Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health? (62)

Let’s take these points, one by one. First, is continence compatible with true married life? Of course it is. Continence is not always chosen, but is sometimes thrust upon one. What do we do if our spouse becomes incapable or undesirous of sexual intimacy? Do we cheat? Divorce? Of course not. Continence must be compatible with true married life, because the Church doesn’t dissolve marriages based on a lack of sex. In fact, many saints of the early Church decided to live in perpetual continence, while married. Men who were ordained in the early years of the Church lived in continence afterward, even if they were married. So, continence is compatible with married life.

Is continence a form of limiting the God-bestowed power of giving life? Of course. But the problem with contraception isn’t that it limits the power of giving life, since it is not an absolute duty that one must give life. Rather the problem is with the form, the way in which one limits the power of giving life.

Fr. Meyendorff than asks whether or not there is a real difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial,’ asking whether all artificial activities are sinful. Wouldn’t an aspirin be an unnatural response to a headache? Here I think there is a confusion over the words ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’, a confusion that is very common, but one which shouldn’t have escaped so great a scholar as Fr. Meyendorff. What the Catholic Church means by ‘natural’ is not what most people mean. Most people think that organic foods or forests are natural, and chemicals and industries are not. That’s a view of nature that I think ultimately derives from ancient nature worship, although perhaps it comes to us through Rousseau, that anything non-human or non-civilized is natural, and anything human and civilized is unnatural. It’s most certainly not the way the Church uses the term. Look at the Summa Theologiae, I-II.92.2:

Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the mostexcellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident bothfor itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it hasa natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal lawin the rational creature is called the natural law. Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalm 4:6): "Offer up the sacrifice of justice," as though someone asked what the works ofjustice are, adds: "Many say, Who showeth us good things?" in answer to which question he says: "The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us": thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It
is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law.

To call something unnatural is, in Catholic theology, to call it contrary to the law of God. Things aren’t contrary to the law of God because they are unnatural, but they are determined to be unnatural because they are contrary to the law of God. Contraception is said to be contrary to the natural law, ‘contrary’ because it is against the law of God, ‘natural’ because it is able to be known, presuptively, by human reason. The key here is ‘reason’. Contraception isn’t wrong because it puts chemicals or rubber in places that are unnatural, it’s wrong because it is contrary to the dignity of the human person. An airplane is not unnatural just because it is made of aluminum and runs on kerosene. Neither is an aspirin, since both are usually used consonant with the dignity of the human person.

So, Fr. Meyendorff asks “Is not science able to render childbirth more humane, by controlling it, just as it controls food, habitat and health?” Certainly. And such interventions would not be unnatural, unless they are contrary to the dignity of the human person. He gives food as an example: one may, for good reasons, not want to take in as many calories as one has appetite for. There are various ways to go about this. One may diet, one may exercise to burn up excess calories, or one may vomit up one’s food after eating it. Only one of these is “unnatural,” and only one of them is morally wrong. The argument is that periodic continence is more like going on a diet, and using the pill or a barrier method is more like bulimia.

Now is not the time to give the positive arguments for why contraception is wrong. Sam and Bethany Torode know these, having written books about the Theology of the Body. But if they are going to use Fr. Meyendorff’s excellent but flawed book as a reason to repudiate their former beliefs, they should know the flaws in Fr. Meyendorff’s thinking.

Monday, May 01, 2006

God is good!

I've received some very good news. No, I'm not telling you, not yet. Be assured that God is very good.

By the way, I know I've promised some work on Augustine and sex, and also on Fr. Meyendorff. Patience! I'm just starting to grade final papers, and after that come exams. I've got some thoughts already jotted down, but it may take a few days.

Christ is risen!