Thursday, February 25, 2016

Pope Francis' Zika & Contraception Remarks Show There Are NO Moral Absolutes

Francisco (20-03-2013).jpg

Amidst the recent uproar over "building a wall" and whether Trump is a Christian, many people may have missed an even more significant papal comment, to do with artificial birth control. To fix ideas, Pope Francis suggested  last week, on his way back to Rome from Mexico, that artificial contraception may be morally acceptable to avoid spreading the Zika virus.  In framing his answer to a reporter's question, he intimated the use of such contraception as "not an absolute evil". So ah, what? It's an intermediate evil? Or a lesser evil?

One can surely argue that if it is not an absolute evil in this case, it shouldn't be in any other. To go one better in terms of situational ethics (which is what the Pope is interjecting) he noted that in the 1960s Pope Paul VI permitted nuns in the Belgian Congo to use artificial birth control to prevent pregnancies because "they were being systematically raped."

But again, why is this ethical dispensation for a nun superior to that for a working class mother, already burdened by 4 or 5 children, who simply cannot afford one more mouth to feed (and with Repukes in charge of the House she can't expect anything more from the SNAP program) . The fact is, it isn't and hence there is no reason other than sophistry to split the issue into more and less evil parts.

In the case of Zika virus, the Pope's pronouncement was quite justified given there is now strong suspicion as well as some hard evidence (which I will get to) that Zika infections - as in Brazil- are increasing the chances for a horrific birth defect known as microcephaly. This is a condition in which affected infants are born with extremely small heads, as well as brains.  Often they don't survive to adulthood but those that do are either warehoused at enormous costs because they cannot care for themselves, OR  (if minimally functional) they end up as circus freaks (such as the several depicted in Tod Browning's 1932 flick 'Freaks', e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJVXTKkjsxA)

Does a papal dispensation,  say to a Brazilian woman whose pregnancy is threatened with Zika,  trump that for a mother - or even a single woman in the U.S.- who doesn't wish to be burdened with an unwanted pregnancy? Especially as she can expect no medical or other support from the Republicans. I don't believe so and indeed made the case in previous posts (as well as in my atheist books)  that there is no moral violation to do with the use of artificial contraception.

This is despite a number of Catholic bishops and others in Latin America proclaiming it is "immoral". Meanwhile, Francis' comments have the Vatican's dino heads ready to explode with at least one spokesman (the Rev. Federico Lombardi) forced to try to clarify (WSJ, Feb 20-21, p. A7) asserting: "the Pope was speaking of exceptional circumstances" then explaining that the pontiff meant that "in situations of grave urgency a well-informed conscience can see if there is the possibility (or not) of recourse to contraception".   But cutting through all this convoluted, qualifying bafflegab,  the point is the Pope - as Paul VI before him - did allow an exception and it only takes one to disprove the rule,  i.e. that artificial birth control is invariably "evil".

Where do the Vatican's moralists get this nonsense anyway? As a matter of theological record the anti-artificial birth control dogma was based on "natural law". The problem is that there is no genuine theological or other (scientific) basis for this antiquated belief. It rests entirely on reducing human sexuality to the state of lower animals, at the behest of their "natural" reproductive cycles. But it ignores that, unlike the lower animals, humans have the intellectual capacity and sense of novelty to introduce a vast variety of pleasure-play into their sex relations - none of which require conception. Thus humans aren't yoked to  primitive instincts to simply mount and hump at specific times.

As observed by Biologist Elizabeth A. Daugherty,  ('The Lessons of Zoology'. in Contraception and Holiness, pp. 96-97):

"Humans are free from physiologically determined sexual desires so we possess a more or less permanent sexuality from adolescence to old age."

So this lays waste to the whole natural law moral underpinning, which is more subjective moralism.

Historically, Catholic impediments to a sane birth control policy began with the misguided encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Paul VI, the Pope at the time,  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.

All of which reinforces the point that there is no moral dimension to the use of artificial birth control at all, irrespective of the situation. It is a carryover from Aristotelian thinking (which permeates Church canons and dogmas) .  Julian Pleasants has observed (op. cit., p. 88) the Vatican has always been hostage to:

"Aristotelian modes of thought which tend to fix behaviors within very limited and fixed definitions and categories."


Thus, the Church once believed it "natural" that some men be enslaved because they were “unable to manage their own affairs  (ibid.)So why be surprised when the same Church seeks to ordain all her members abide by a sexuality more fitting of lower primates?  Clearly, the Church changed its natural law position on slavery as it now needs to do so on contraception. At least the Pope's recent pronouncements on allowing exceptions to the dogma (invoking the Zika virus) allows the door to be flung wide open to finally rid  the Church of this ridiculous baggage. (And let's not forget that back in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI allowed that using condoms to prevent HIV infection "can be a first step in moralization". In fact the very act of connecting the two discloses the 'horse has already left the barn'!)

What about abortion? In the same general response as the one for birth control, Francis did insist that:

"Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. That's what the Mafia does".


But indeed, abortion is and can often be the lesser of two evils. It is certainly the lesser of two evils if a woman, denied access to affordable contraception, has a child she can't cope with and ends up brutally beating it to death.  This actually happened here in Colorado barely a month ago  as one young woman hurled her 2 month old infant against a wall to shut it up .  Given that a two month old infant is more developed than a 4 month old fetus say, abortion is clearly a lesser evil than outright murder. (Specifically defined by our laws for killing an ALREADY born person).

In the case of this Zika virus, we have already seen in the news that a young Slovenian woman - returning from Brazil (and after having sexual relation there),  did a test for microcephaly on her return to Europe and found it to be positive.  Unwilling and unable to bear the costs of future care, she had the fetus aborted. Was she right or wrong? She was right insofar as it was far better to eliminate the primitive fetus than to, say, murder the suffering microcephalic person later.
In this case, she did one better and gave the fetus to medical specialists in Slovenia to further research into the effects of Zika virus. The researchers were also able to genetically sequence the virus from the fetal brain tissue. A step which can mightily help future projections for the spread of the disease, especially in the U.S. (predicted for the Gulf states early this summer with mosquito season onset.)

Little reported in the media (but in Europe) a post- abortion autopsy found the Zika virus nestled in the fetus' brain but in no other organs. This showed the medical team that Zika zones in on the brain . These researchers at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia found that the fetal brain was totally "devastated".  Not only was it a fraction of the proper size but it lacked the usual neural folds that enable a brain to manifest consciousness and thought. The entity - had it been allowed to be born - would have been a literal vegetable with absolutely no life quality of any kind to look forward to, and few resources to depend on from its parent.

The error made by Pope Francis  in condemning abortion as a crime inheres in committing  the "genetic fallacy",  as first described by Antony Flew ('Thinking About Thinking'). That is, arguing that because a thing is going to become something, it IS something. It would be like me picking up an acorn and claiming it's an oak tree. A   person, a human person, must have at least minimal capacity for basic cognition and rudimentary choice. It must possess a brain, at the very least, which evinces definite brain waves. Anything that doesn't is a proto-human entity, but clearly not a person. The microcephalic fetus aborted in Slovenia was such a proto-human entity - reduced to that state by the Zika virus.

Lastly, the current crop of Catholics ought to be reminded that the Church DID ALLOW abortions to be performed up until the third trimester, and until 1869. John Connery, S.J.,  a leading historian of the Church’s teaching on abortion, has been quoted as citing a long standing collection of Canon Law that “it was not until 1869 that abortion for any reason became grounds for excommunication” (See, e.g. Druyan and Sagan, PARADE, April 22, 1990)


The larger point here is that clearly, the fact the Church has already changed its doctrine on abortion shows its moral positions are malleable and not set in stone!

What this means is that the Church itself cannot be free of errors in faith or morals if it has already made one that was since covered up. Obviously, if you can alter a position, it is hardly "absolute". In his marvelous book, Infallible?, Hans Kung observes (p. 143):

" No one, neither Vatican I, nor Vatican II, nor the textbook theologians, has shown that the Church - its leadership or its theology - is able to put forward propositions which inherently cannot be erroneous."


So my point remains: there are no moral absolutes. There is rather such a thing as a provisional ethics which changes, alters in response to circumstances over time. The Church's changing moral positions are proof of it.  Conservative Catholics will, of course, object and have apoplectic reactions to this, fearing that moral provisionalism or the exercise of conscience means "licentiousness". But they are the ones who really need to expand their own purview outside the bounds of a solipsistic, self-ingratiating sanctimony.

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