Friday, March 15, 2013

Pope Francis’ First Doctrinal Imperative: Allow Artificial Contraception!

Now that Pope Francis I has begun to settle in, we are becoming more aware of his fundamental positions which turn out to be more in line with Catholic orthodoxy than genuine social justice reform (he is a strong advocate for economic justice). Rachel Maddow pointed out a couple of Francis’ more forceful positions last night, including when he put his name on the line to try to block the Argentine government’s effort to extend rights to gay couples. As Maddow noted, the then Archbishop Bergoglio lost. By a sizeable margin the Argentine people were effectively declaring that civil rights in their nation trumped the illusion of moral bossiness, or presumed dictatorship by Faith.

The Archbishop has also fulminated against abortion, trying to link it to some kind of invention of the “Father of Lies” but he appears to forget the Church allowed abortion up to the 1st trimester, until 1869. This has been pointed out by Fr. John Connery, S.J. as highlighted in an April 22, 1990 PARADE article by Carl Sagan and Anne Druyan. As the authors noted therein:

“The Catholic Church’s first and long standing collection of Canon Law (according to the leading Church historian John Connery, S.J.) held that abortion was homicide only after the fetus was already formed – roughly the end of the first trimester. It was not until 1869 that abortion at any time for any reason became law. "

But the focus of this blog is on artificial contraception and in particular, the new Pope finally reconciling the Church’s position with the recommendations of the original Papal Commission that examined it ca. 1968, under Pope Paul VI. That commission included not only theologians but many scientists (chemists, biologists) like the new Pope – who at least worked as a chemist at one time. The commission judged that in the Church’s best interest, and in light of projections of rapidly increased human numbers and the impact on the poorest in getting resources, the Church needed to permit artificial contraception and not merely the ridiculous ‘rhythm method’.

‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is indefensible in a severely overpopulated world, such as we inhabit, especially one in which each extra human (as CO2 generator)  brings us closer to the Runaway Greenhouse catastrophe. So what’s the point? Is the aim to see more billions dead than already forecast? Is it simply to see more poverty and destitution?

Catholic impediments to a sane birth control policy began with the misguided encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. The Pope at the time, Paul VI, issued this document in direct opposition to his own specially appointed Papal Commission on the matter. Author David Yallop, in his book In God's Name, has portrayed Humanae Vitae in stark terms indeed, as well as its paradoxical consequences[1]:

On a disaster scale for the Roman Catholic Church, it measures higher than the treatment of Galileo in the seventeenth century

The implicit assumption in Humanae Vitae and later Pope John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor, has been that procreation takes precedence over any other function of sexual intercourse. This is observably true in most other animals (with estrus cycles) but it certainly doesn’t apply to humans who exhibit a diverse array of sexual play. To devalue sexplay for its own end, while extolling procreation-based sex as the be-all and end-all, is to rob humans of their uniqueness as sexual primates[2]. Or, to refer to the words of one Catholic biologist (cited in reference (2)):
Why do we call secondary the ends of the sexual act which have been accorded in fullness to us, and why do we call primary the end that we share with the lower animals?

It is also to invite ecological catastrophe for this planet. Since 1968, for example, the world population has added another three-and-a half billion which the Vatican merely welcomes as 'more souls for the Church' - potential or otherwise - while ignoring their collective impact on strained planetary ecosystems.

But is this rational or good for humanity, given that current levels of food production can scarcely keep pace with burgeoning world population? (Especially as global warming ramps up, and soils become depleted of nitrogen, etc. even as petroleum used for fertilizer manufacture runs out). In asking such questions, there is an implicit recognition value systems lose relevance over time, and legitimacy. In actuality, of course, the religious value system is a meme complex designed toward a specific end, say of controlling behavior and self-expression. At the same time, the meme complex assures that an elite group can maintain control over a majority that buys into its precepts.  But this meme is exactly what Francis must overcome, if he's worth anything. He must then break forcibly with the relics of the Curia and tell them in this new world the old ways are intolerable and unacceptable. (He has already conceded that artificial contraception "may be necessary to prevent the spread of disease", i.e. HIV-AIDs)

In the preceding instance, persistent commitment to the value consigns increasing numbers of people to destitution and starvation. This is because the underlying ‘natural law’ remains uninformed by current data concerning food production in relation to rising birth rates.  Or, other things being equal, poverty is the natural accompaniment of larger families. Rather than adaptation based on updated information, unthinking adherence to an outmoded precept prevails. 

 Even if no world food supply problem existed, the Materialist ethicist is compelled to reject the Vatican’s sexual mores and values. The testable proposition becomes: Is there empirical evidence that the practice of artificial contraception harms the species? Or harms the couple? If not, then the value is exposed for what it really is: an effort to control a behavior it views in some negative way. (‘Sinful’). But this negativity is entriely bound up with Aristotelian standards of morality which are no longer supportable. (To make the point more clearly: Aristotelian modes of thoughts tend to fix behaviors permanently within a limited purview which denies human autonomy and full personhood).

A realistic Materialist alternative ethic bases acceptable standards of behavior on success in promoting the welfare of the species. In other words, a desirable ethic is that which leads to measurably good consequences in the human world. The thrust of this chapter is that such a rational goal is attainable, and also essential if the human species is to enhance its odds for survival. The philosophy behind this consequentialist ethic is Materialism, and at root it governs the underlying values of nearly all physical scientists. Since Francis I is supposedly a physical scientist, or at least had that background, he ought to appreciate this and see it.   Hopefully, we will see some true courage from this new pope, not only in how he cleans out the Church's past scandals and holds those responsible accountable but also the way in which he forges a moral path appropriate for the time we are living in. A time in which "be fruitful and multiply" becomes a death sentence for all of humanity.

1- Yallop, 1984, Corgi Books, UK.

2- Contraception and Holiness- The Catholic Predicament, Collins Publishers, UK, 1964.

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