25 May 2016

Catholic Thought on Sexual Morality: Metaphor and Confusion

Stephen Kershnar
Catholic Sexual Morality: Both Confused and False
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
May 24, 2016

            Catholic morality plays a large role in American life. Almost a third of Congress is Catholic as were over a third of Republican presidential candidates (Bush, Christie, Jindal, Pataki, Rubio, and Santorum). The current Speaker of the House (Paul Ryan) is Catholic. So was his predecessor (John Boehner) and the leader of the opposition (Nancy Pelosi). Until Antonin Scalia’s death, two thirds of the Supreme Court were Catholic. Pope Francis announced that Donald Trump is not a Christian because he wants to build a wall and this announcement got major airtime. This matters to the extent Catholic thought affects how people think about their lives. One area where it might do so is Catholic thought on sexual morality.

            The Catholic Church asserts that sexual intercourse is morally wrong if it is disconnected its purposes: unifying a married couple and procreation. More specifically, sex is permissible only if involves a husband and wife engaged in complete mutual self-giving and opening their relationship to new life. It further holds that sex within marriage involves a chaste and deeply personal unity. So deep in fact that it forms a union in one flesh. This joining occurs in part because marriage is a sign of love between God and humanity.

The Church has grave moral concern about sex when it occurs outside of marriage or when the procreative function is frustrated (for example, via contraception). Its list of grave sexual sins includes adultery, artificial contraception, premarital sex, homosexual sex, masturbation, and pornography. It hammers homosexuality, viewing it as an objective disorder and instructs gays to rely on prayer, friends, and grace so that they may be chaste. On the Catholic view, lust is also wrong, although it is unclear whether it is a type of adultery as Matthew 5:27-28 claims. Masturbation is wrong because it is type of lust. So terrible is pornography that the Church calls for the governments to prevent its production and distribution. Abortion is not merely a grave sin, but also is punishable by excommunication.

This sexual doctrine is false and destructive. 

First, it is not even clear what the doctrine is. The notion that sex must have a procreative purpose could be understood as saying the couple must be open to procreation (that is, think a certain way about sex) or that it could in fact lead to procreation regardless of how the couple thinks about sex.

The notion that a couple must think that their sex could lead to procreation in order to be morally permissible is implausible. It suggests that one married couple’s sex could be permissible because they hope to procreate whereas a second married couple’s sex is not because they hope not to procreate. It is hard to see why the way in which a couple thinks about sex makes their activity right or wrong. Normally, we think that what makes an act wrong is that it does something objectionable to another, for example, it violates her right, harms her, or exploits her. These features are independent of what an actor wants or intends to do.

Furthermore, if an elderly married couple or a couple in which the wife has lost her uterus due to surgery to fight ovarian cancer wants or hopes to procreate, then they are irrational. It is an odd view that sex is wrong for such couples unless they think about sex in an irrational way.
If instead sex is permissible only if it can in fact lead to procreation, then sex between infertile married couples (for example two 55-year-olds) is a grave wrong. The same is true for a couple that has sex after the wife has had an oophorectomy. Such a doctrine is not merely absurd, but cruel.

On either interpretation, the treatment of gays is outrageous. As far as I can tell, there is no reason, conceptually or empirically, to think that gay people cannot have deeply satisfying relationships and that sex does not enhance these relationships. There is a shortage of evidence, but an initial study of divorce in gay marriage by Lee Badgett and Jody Herman of the Williams Institute found that gay married couples had a divorce rate similar to that of different sex couples. It should be noted that the data is early on and there might be a selection bias. A group should have a good reason before it announces that gay people must remain chaste and that physically expressing their love is a grave moral sin.

Furthermore, the metaphysics of the Catholic doctrine make no sense. A couple, married or not, do not become one thing (for example, one flesh). During sex, they still have different bodies, minds, and souls (if people have souls). There is no plausible way to understand the claim that they become one thing. Of course, this might be mere metaphor, but it is hard to see why a mere metaphor should be the basis for sexual morality. This is especially true if the metaphor is nonsensical.

The Catholic view is also at odds with the most basic understanding of human nature. One study by psychology professor Terri Fischer, reported in Psychology Today, found that men think about sex about once or twice an hour. This is unsurprising given that evolution is driven by reproductive fitness and a reasonably strong interest in sex likely increases reproductive fitness. There is good reason to believe that this sex drive is genetic and probably beyond people’s immediate control. The notion that lust is wrong is bizarre given that mere thoughts do not infringe on anyone’s rights or harm, offend, or exploit them. It is also bizarre given that wrong acts are usually, if not always, under people’s control.

Catholicism, and to be fair much of Christianity and Judaism, has an obviously false view of sexual morality. As a result, we should ignore the Catholic view on the matter and hope our lawmakers do the same. The fact that 95% of Americans have had premarital sex tells us that, thankfully, people are in fact ignoring it.

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