Monday, November 4, 2013

Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I've decided that I'm going to write a series that deals with the reasons why natural law arguments about sex are not actually an effective way to port Catholic sexual morality to secular society. My purpose is not to show that Catholic sexual morality is wrong, but rather to show that the arguments that we use to support it are not actually good arguments. This is important for two reasons: first because if a Catholic only believes in the teaching because of arguments that are ultimately inadequate, sooner or later they are likely to suffer the scandal of disillusionment – a scandal that often tempts people to reject the faith entirely. Secondly, as Catholics we often fall into the bad habit of thinking that people who disagree with us do so because they are fundamentally stupid, irrational, or addicted to sin. A willingness to look honestly at the flaws in our own arguments is essential in order to maintain the intellectual humility and compassion necessary for fruitful engagement with others.

So. One of the biggest problems with most natural law arguments is the axiomatic assumption that pleasure ought to be treated with suspicion. What do I mean by that? It's a concept that derives from Plato, and that arguably entered early Christianity via Stoicism, Manicheeism, Platonism, and various other idealistic philosophies that were popular in late antiquity. The basic thesis is that the pleasures have the capacity to distract the soul from its true nature and to enslave it to material goods. As such they should be used only with caution and avoided except in-so-far as they are the indirect consequences of rational ends. So, for example, the pleasure that a person derives from the companionship of a friend should only be pursued if the friendship also offers other, more rational goods. Otherwise a person could get caught up in worldly friendships that provide the pleasure of companionship without improving the soul, and the soul will thus be left open to corruption and bad example.

These philosophies always share a common assumption: the body is bad, or at least it is not good. Stoicism dismisses the body as being extrinsic to the genuine person (understood essentially as rational agency) and denigrates concern for bodily pleasures or pains as a kind of enslavement to “externals.” Platonism goes further, describing bodies as a form of “prison” to which men have been condemned as a result of some pre-historical offense against the gods. Manicheeism likewise sees the body as evil, conceiving of the distinction between good and evil as largely conterminous with the distinction between spiritual and material. In all of these philosophies both the body and the passions (which are seen as an adjunct of somatic existence) are construed as being at odds with the true spiritual self. The pleasures are treated with suspicion or contempt precisely in so far as they are carnal, and they are treated in this way as a direct consequence of the devaluation of bodies as such.
The problem is that this is not commensurable with Christianity. From the earliest Church councils the integrality of the body to human personhood has been maintained. Christologies that denied the incarnation were consistently denounced as heresy, as were theologies that denied the goodness of material creation.

This presents a considerable problem when it comes to the valuation of pleasure. If the body is good, it is very difficult to deny that pleasure is good. The body, in all of its functions, is naturally ordered towards pleasure. From infancy, the body gravitates towards that which brings it pleasure and avoids that which brings it pain. Pleasure is the primary means by which the body recognizes the good, whether it is the good of a mother's milk, the good of a father's hug, the good of healthy food, or the good of productive labour, all of these things reveal their goodness to the body via pleasure. Even the goodness of God Himself is revealed through an appeal to this fundamental bodily experience: if Christ had come preaching that man must deny himself in this life in order to gain the pains of Heaven, or else suffer the pleasures of Hell, He wouldn't have found a lot of followers.

Early Christian discourse had the luxury of being able to formulate moral arguments within a context where pleasure was highly morally problematized, and pain was viewed with remarkable moral neutrality. To a Medieval mind, the sight of a man who had just suffered excruciating torture bowing down before his executioner, offering his forgiveness and begging to be forgiven in return was inspiring. To a modern mind, it's the stuff of horror movies: a disturbing combination of merciless persecution and Stockholm syndrome. It's not just that we have been mislead by the chicanery of the age and need to kick against it: our deepest moral intuitions tell us that there is something profoundly evil about indifference towards other people's suffering, and something correspondingly good about the desire to bring other people pleasure. This valuation of pleasure and pain form the foundation of the modern conscience, and any attempt to formulate a moral calculus that does not take these basic valuations into account comes across as alien, unnatural, callous, inhuman and ultimately evil. To a person raised within a contemporary moral discourse, the attempt to resituate ethics along more classical lines ultimately produces feelings of guilt, alienation and angst. If the attempt is made at all, it can be sustained only by the practice of consistently acting in violation of conscience – a practice usually managed by substituting rational abstractions or appeals to authority for conscientious judgment. A clinical sociopath (someone who does not experience guilt) may be able to sustain such a practice over the long-haul, but someone with a normally functioning conscience who has been socialized within a relatively mainstream postmodern Western culture cannot without doing deep violence to him or herself.

This is the fundamental problem at the heart of natural law arguments about sex. Such arguments start with the basic assumption that pleasure is a not a natural good that can be rightly pursued by a rational agent for its own sake, and that the pursuit of pleasure must always be justified by some other rational object. They also make the corallary, usually tacit, assumption that the alleviation of suffering (one's own sexual frustration, the sexual frustration of one's lover, e.g.) is not a worthy goal in and of itself unless the suffering is opposed to some other rational good. Modern moral evaluations start from the assumption that pleasure is a natural good and ought to be pursued by rational agents unless there is a compelling reason to avoid it for the sake of some greater good, and that suffering is a natural evil which a person always has an obligation to alleviate unless it is being endured for the sake of a greater good. Sexual pleasure is therefore understood within modern discourse as a good which people are right to pursue unless it can be shown that in exercising that right they are either bringing undue suffering to another person, or preventing another person from being able to acheive a demonstrably greater good.

To Follow: why the appeal to the goodness of conception is not an adequate way of answering this dilemma.


  1. Very interested to see where you go with this.

    I'm not sure I agree with you about natural law treating pleasure with suspicion. I always thought that natural law arguments treated the pursuit and experiencing of pleasure as good but in the right context and the rationality was necessary in understanding that context.

    In a world where we have a veil which hides how our products of pleasure are produced and a marketing industry that tells us which pleasures are important, and a myriad of problems in our world that are caused by the supply and fulfilment of these pleasures, from child slavery to obesity to divorce, I think I need some convincing that the modern mind isn't deluding itself.

    If pursuit of pleasure is so high on the agenda in the modern mind, why is the greatest pleasure - that of denying yourself and giving everything you have to God, one of the most derided and least promoted things in Western society?

  2. Anon,

    Good points. I think the problem is that most people can't relate to the idea of "the pleasure of denying yourself and giving everything you have to God." I'm hoping to deal with hierarchies of pleasure, and with my own weird experiments in the pleasures of Stoicism later in the series...

  3. Melinda, thank you for writing. In this post in particular, I appreciate how you make serious efforts to reconcile modernity (so often depicted as totally lacking in redeeming qualities) with Catholicism. I have come to understand humanity as continually striving, with much sweat and blood, to find what is truly true, good, and beautiful. Even Pope Francis, in his interview with the Jesuit magazine, talked about how humans yearn and search for fullness of truth throughout the ages, right down to our own so-called "abnormal" and "decadent" age.

    Perhaps you might consider writing a letter or two to Pope Francis about the observations you've made about human nature so you can help him with his ministry? I've written letters to Church leaders myself in an effort to aid their ministries.

    Anonymous, maybe I can try to offer an answer to your question. The real-world effects of the Taliban's ideology give us an important clue. So does the abuse within Irish religious institutions. So do the repressions and death-squads in Franco's Spain. So does the ignorance, destitution, and disease that seemingly go hand-in-hand with religious culture.

    1. I see what you're saying, but haven't there always been evil things perpetuated by religion? I've got to say, I agree with anonymous. We cannot entirely dismiss the idea that there is at least a degree of self-delusion going on. The fact is, the current attitudes to sex *do* lead to pain for many people, but attempts to draw attention to this are always answered by a defensive counter-attack 'look at the evil that's done in the name or religion', rather than an honest attempt to assess whether the sexual revolution has been entirely beneficial everyone.

      This doesn't mean that we should adopt an unthinkingly judgemental or arrogant approach to contemporary culture, but the self-righteousness and self-justification that characterises much of contemporary discourse is sickening for a reason.

  4. I'm really interested to see where you go with this. I have found natural law arguments juuust persuasive enough to accept, but I wouldn't do so if I didn't have the additional weight of Catholic moral teaching to bring to bear -- I am, in that respect, definitely a child of my age. I'd like to see a more compelling non-revealed case for the Church's teaching here, if only to strengthen my own resolve.

  5. I think it's a question of wording here. Rather than say that natural law arguments are ineffective, why not expand the notion of natural law from the rationalistic one that most Catholics use, back to the Biblical one in Romans 2:14-16? So, instead of natural law being an appeal to human reason, why not consider natural law an appeal to heart of the human person? I think this is consistent with the expansion of the definition of faith in Vatican I to JPIIs definition of faith in Mother of the Redeemer from an assent of the intellect to a gift of self in response to the revelation of Jesus.

  6. I think the problem with most of the modern "natural law" thinking is, like you say, that it is fundamentally divorced from what Paul describes in Romans. Paul is talking about a law that allows us all to know that we are unable of enacting our own salvation. Contemporary Natural Law theorists seem to be talking about a law that will allow America to be saved *ex Christi.* I know that's now exactly what they intend, but I think it's a curious flaw of thought that creeps into natural law thinking. A friend of mine described it beautifully as "social Pelagianism."

  7. Hi Melinda,

    I'm not sure that I agree with your basic premise that natural law arguments view pleasure as problematic. JPII in Love and Responsibility speaks of the obligation of a man to bring a woman to orgasm, through proper technique, for example. Or I think of Chrystostom who wrote of the pleasure of sexuality in one of his homilies, and said something to the effect that if his parishioners blush when he speaks of the goods of conjugal love, they are nothing more than heretics. Or Aquinas, who suggested that the sexual pleasure of Adam and Eve was greater than it is for man after the fall. The hermeneutic of natural law and sexuality is that pleasure is a great good--but it becomes problematic when it is pursued as an end onto itself. As to the new natural law theorists, I think it's a hard case to make that they think that pleasure is evil, in and of itself. They'd say that pleasure is a good from God, but can become defiled when it's pursued for its own sake. I think the argument of the new natural law theorists (and of the old ones too) is that pleasure is greater--and more pure--when it's not pursued as the sole goal. I'm thinking now of someone like J. Budziszewski; there's no doubt the man sees that pleasure in sex is a good, in and of itself.

    1. I wouldn't categorize JPII's approach as "natural law." To me, personalism is a completely different thing because it places the person, and the integrity of his or her capacity for subjectivity and communion, at the centre of the discourse rather than trying to argue primarily from an objective categorization of acts as "natural" or "unnatural." I think the personalist approach is much more robust because it takes into account the development of the self that has taken place since the Middle Ages or, for that matter, the Enlightenment.
      I agree that natural law thinkers don't characterize pleasure as evil; my argument is that they don't see it as a "good" in the sense of an end that is worthy of pursuit: that it becomes "defiled when it's pursued for its own sake." Whereas other goods, life for example, or knowledge, can be pursued for their own sake and don't need extrinsic justification.

    2. JPII's concept of the person, however, is rooted in natural law, right? The personalistic norm has meaning because of the the objective truth about man, that stems from natural law. I'd argue that underlying all of JPII's thinking on personalism is the objective truth of what it means to be a person, which stems from natural law. I'm not sure how they can be separated. I'm also not convinced that the new natural law thinkers all argue that pleasure isn't worthy of pursuit. Who are you thinking of in this discussion? Like I said, in my discussions with J. Bud., one of the leading new natural law folks, I see no evidence of that sort of thinking.

      I look forward to seeing you flesh this out, since I think natural law is one of the most effective evangelization tools available to us in promoting the Church's teaching on homosexuality, so I'm intrigued by your thinking on this.

    3. Hi Melinda,
      What if the knowledge I wanted to pursue was the knowledge of what it was like to stab someone in the neck? Or what if my pursuit of knowledge kept me locked up in my study while my kids raised themselves? What if my pursuit of knowledge kept me on the internet during work hours instead of doing what I was paid to do. To me, it is good to pursue knowledge but even this pursuit has to be placed within limits of the type of knowledge you seek and how the pursuit of that knowledge impacts on the rest of your life.

    4. All ethical systems must, of necessity, stem from an understanding of the nature of the human person -- but we distinguish "natural law" as a particular approach to ethics that seems to have emerged during the 1st century BCE (though it has clear antecedents in Greek thought.) Natural law theories derive ethics from a contemplation of objective natures, whereas personalism derives ethics from the contemplation of the person and his or her subjectivity. Although Thomistic natural law and JPII's personalism have a great deal of overlap on account of their relationship to Catholic tradition, they are methodologically very different.
      I'm interested in your belief that natural law is "one of the most effective evangelization tools available to us" in terms of promoting the Church's sexual teaching. My own experience is that it looks really effective on paper, but is a complete dud in the field. If other people have had success with it, I'd be really interested in learning about how and why it's worked for them.

    5. Anon,

      I totally agree with this point -- as would almost any ethical person. The problem with traditional natural law arguments re: sex is not that they fail to affirm that pleasure is the one and only truly highest good, but rather that they fail to affirm that pleasure is a good worthy of pursuit. It's a difference between recognizing the principle of proportionalism (I can only licitly pursue good x if the moral value of x is equal to or greater than the set of goods which it precludes), and establishing a principle of subordination (I can only pursue x if x is produced in the pursuit of a set of authentic goods of which x is not a member.)

    6. I suppose I'm a good example of one for which natural law was the big reason I chose chastity, and why homosexuality wasn't a choice I could ever make. I get emails from folks who read my blog, and have read my writings on identity, for whom the natural law emphasis really makes sense to them. I remember doing a radio program once and had two callers call in during the course of an hour and both said the Church's teachings on the human person and sexuality were what brought them back into the Church--one said in particular Benedict's writing. Natural law was my ticket into Catholicism, as I said. But, I don't think that there should be "one way in," of course. Natural law teaching is certainly one way that is effective, and since it was so effective for me, I tend to lean towards it as a powerful means of evangelization. The reason I think it's so powerful is because it's true, and we're made for truth.

      For me, in trying to convince myself that it'd be OK to live out the life I'd like to live, I've always had a hard time getting past the fact that my body tells me I'm made for a woman, regardless of what my mind, will and emotions tell me. That seems pretty concrete to me, which is one of the powerful aspects of natural law that has been so helpful for me in leading me to the Church.

      I can see your point about overlapping philosophies, and I look forward to your thoughts on natural law. I think they come from the same root though, and JPII's personalism I don't think makes much sense without natural law. Nor does his Theology of the Body, for that matter. I think the personalistic norm, and avoiding a utilitarian view of the body really only makes sense if it's built on a foundation of natural law. Anyway, I do look forward to your reflections.

    7. Hmmm...That's really interesting. I wonder if part of the reason I'm critical of natural law is that I've generally experienced it as alien. My primal, unmodified reaction to natural law is to see it as a kind of quaint language game, a sort of intellectual exercise in creative anachronism. I've played with it myself, but I always feel like I'm just playing -- not like I'm approaching some kind of deep magic. It was kind of a fun toy until I got to the point where I could play it well enough to get it to yield up pretty much any conclusion that I wanted. I admit that may be a fault with me and not with the system. I'll try to be more open to the fact that for some people it "clicks," relates to something real in their experience rather than to a bunch of floating and infinitely manipulable abstractions.

  8. Daniel, what about Augustine's alleged demonization of sexual desire and sexual pleasure--and even his apparent demonization of certain involuntary functions as the "glue of lust"?

    1. Well, I would say in this that Augustine shows an example of how often some of the Church Fathers were too suspicious of sex. I'm thinking of Jerome right now, in his writings against Jovinian, where he criticized marriage far too much, and elevated the single life too much, in part because of the carnal nature of the sexual act. He was challenged on that score by St. Pammachius, who challenged for taking a far too ascetic view of the married state, and so Jerome wrote another letter, in praise of marriage. There have been extremes on both sides throughout the history of the Church, but to suggest that natural law has a defacto view that pleasure is evil seems to me a faulty understanding of natural law.

  9. I think that Christian thought has always held that pleasure can be problematic, without holding that it is evil. I think Augustine would say that man always has the tendency toward Manicheanism, regardless of the age.

    Here in my home parish, my pastor is considered a "right winger", even though he can't bring himself to tell his New England parishioners about repentance and sin. His homilies are nominally orthodox, which is a lot around here, and talk of the grace and love of Christ. But I often think, "Father, shouldn't you tell people about the hard road of rejecting sin, and the great striving necessary - the rejection of earthly pleasure and finding Christ alone sufficient?"

    He usually responds, when I say such things to him, that folks around here can't take that message. And I think he feels his approach is "Christ-like" in its gentleness.

    I wonder if Christ was gentle with those who needed gentleness and tough with those who could take it. The problem is that we usually get one or the other, either "nice Jesus" or "tough Jesus", when what need is just "Jesus".

    But it's really hard to be just Jesus...


Please observe these guidelines when commenting:

We want to host a constructive but civil discussion. With that in mind we ask you to observe these basics of civilized discourse:

1. No name calling or personal attacks; stick to the argument, not the individual.

2. Assume the goodwill of the other person, especially when you disagree.

3. Don't make judgments about the other person's sinfulness or salvation.

4. Within reason, stick to the topic of the thread.

5. If you don't agree to the rules, don't post.

We reserve the right to block any posts that violate our usage rules. And we will freely ban any commenters unwilling to abide by them.

Our comments are moderated so there may be a delay between the time when you submit your comment and the time when it appears.