Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Diginity Question

Amidst all the heated debates surrounding the recent federal mandate that will have a profound effect on the Catholic Church and her institutions in this country, there is one that is of particular interest as it lies at the root of any ethical-political discussion; the dignity of the human person. However, in particular, these debates have taken a recent form by some to argue over the dignity of the woman beyond. I have in mind here, in particular, Emily Bieniek and Joel Moore's "Dignity in contraception" and Anne Reser's "A woman's dignity".

There is no doubt, of course, that the question of one's dignity it utterly important and therefore, utterly controversial. However, I hope to shed a little light on the issue. In the first article, beyond the series of claims against the 'forms of rhetoric that the RTL group chose to utilize that should not be allowed,' Bieniek and Moore make a most curious point: "People throughout the United States and across the globe use condoms and contraception to protect themselves and their loved ones in a variety of difficult circumstances that include, but are not limited to: protecting against consequences of domestic violence and rape, preventing the spread of HIV and other STDs and ensuring that they can feed the children that they already have. These people are not undignified. In fact, they are actively taking steps to improve their situation with bravery and dignity."

This immediately calls to a mind a sentiment along similar lines from the Holy Father that caused a bit of hype itself. In chapter 11 of "Light of the World", Benedict XVI states: "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality." You are quite right then to note that at times, those who use contraceptives do so for a somewhat-noble reason; that is, they perceive themselves to be protecting life rather than destroying it. This is, however, few and far between. Furthermore, I note it to be somewhat-noble as the contraceptive 1) still functions as a life-preventer rather than a life-supporter and 2) leads to a contraceptive culture which is, while subtle, most dangerous. As the Holy Father furthers elaborates: "As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being."

This then leads into Ms. Reser's article. One of the two claims I take Ms. Reser to be making is that a woman's dignity it not tied to "her ability and desire to produce children." She states "Who I am as a person is not in any way related to the reproductive state of my uterus." This is actually more in line with the sentiments of Pope Benedict, and the article she is responding to, than she might think.

To begin, it is important to note that one's dignity, as an imago Dei, is something utterly mysterious, transcendent, and immeasurable. Now I say she is on to something here because she is quite right to take issue with a sentiment that views women as merely child-bearing animals; as if their sole function is to bear children. The same applies, of course, to men who are not mere seed-dispensers. This utilitarian view of "the other" leaves absolutely no room for the beauty and mystery that is a human person; we do not equate a persons dignity with his functions but rather discern his nature, his essence, from his function and in that resides the dignity of the person. (I recommend glancing at St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 29, a. 1, corpus here)

The irony in this, of course, is that precisely what Ms. Reser takes offense to is precisely what Benedict warns against as the result of a contraceptive culture. Sex is utterly stripped of its meaning; one looks at a woman (or man) merely for the sexual pleasure she/he might dispose and not the love and intimacy that can be shared between the partners. Contraceptive sex allows for all the pleasure without the so-called "consequences" that is a new created life. One may disagree on this point but it is important to note that right reason always, always, sides with life over death. This is precisely the eternal act of God and essence of Christ's resurrection from death! This is the fundamental and foundational point of any ethical or political stance that stands in accord with God and His Church ; a stance for life and against death (note this a Catholic commentary rooted in Catholic tenets, not modern liberal tents).

However, this is not to say that women (and men) aren't distinctively dignified in their ability to procreate. What rarely gets noticed in this discussion is the most dignified position man holds in the whole order of Creation; man, in a way both brute-animals and angels can't, shares in God's creative action. Yes, two dogs can produce a puppy but they cannot do so except from their innate nature to reproduce; its is merely habitual and devoid of any meaning for animals. Angels, of course, by their very nature, are incapable of reproducing. We however, participate in God's creative act, as images of God, in a most profound way; we do so rationally and rooted in a unitive love.

For this reason (and I have quoted this before), the Code of Canon Law clearly notes, “For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.” (Can. 1096 §1.) The two go hand in hand and cannot be divorced. This speaks to Ms. Reser's mere hind-sight consideration, then, that as one who is not in a position to bear children and raise a family, that she "should defer the process until a time at which it would be responsible and healthy for all involved" This is similarly confused. Fundamental to our nature as free-willed rational agents are the notions that Omne agens agit propter finem” and “Omne agens agit propter bonum.” That is to say, all agents act for an end...and an end that is good for him. That is not to say that a married couple, with all the rights and privileges of engaging in sexual intercourse, is not capable of, as you note, withholding from conceiving a child at certain times under Natural Family Planning (NFP). This, however, must be done with an eye to a culture and motive rooted towards life, not death or contra-life (contraceptive). However, and its not unusual to view NFP as simply another form of contraceptive, to draw out the distinction is beyond the scope of this post. Thus, at this point, I can merely assert with the Tradition of the Church that, while NFP can be used in an evil manner, it is not inherently evil as contraceptives are.

Now, this brings us to a fundamental point (and brings up the second point Ms. Reser mentions: her issue with the notion of being "
sexually available to any man.") What is the end in mind when we have sex. Now, I must grant that when one is "in the moment," I highly doubt that a rational discursive act is taking place in his/her mind as to the end. However, the end is innate to us; re recognize it immediately. Is it pleasure or procreation. If pleasure, is it pleasure for myself or for the other. What the contraceptive culture allows for is sex to be merely about pleasing myself...again having the pleasure without the so-called consequences. The end in fact is two-fold. It feels good for a reason but the that is not the sole end; bodily pleasure. What is the first commandment God gives Adam and Eve in the garden; to be fruitful and multiply. God planted in our hearts the innate desire to have sexual intercourse with our spouse but the consideration of procreation is also positively essential. We engage in sex because it feels good but not only because it feels good; that leads very dangerously to using the other as merely a tool for my own sexual pleasure. In a contraceptive culture, the other merely becomes a tool and in that, we are incapable of recognizing one's dignity in 'their intelligence, in their determination and drive in their kindness and loyalty' or more importantly, in the fact that they are a image of the Creator.

-Michael Black is a contributing blogger for Notre Dame Right to Life. He graduated from Notre Dame in 2011 and is currently a seminarian for the Diocese of Covington

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