Sunday 9/7/14

  1. Only Nixon Could Go to China
  2. Anscombe’s Contraception and Chastity
  3. A voice from the grave
  4. Criticizing Marriage defenders – from the right


Wesley J. Smith, tireless promoter of human exceptionalism and foe of euthanasia and other devaluations, speaks some welcome sense:

Conversations between doctors and patients about end-of-life treatment options are not death panels. (In fairness, Palin has since backed off that claim.) Indeed, such conversations should be a standard part of a doctor’s professional engagement with patients—regardless of pay. Moreover, patients should insist on discussing these matters—not just with doctors, but also with family and friends—before times of need.

So, why is it controversial to pay doctors for these conversations? Blame a toxic soup of money combined with advocacy in bioethics, among assisted-suicide proponents, and in a media in favor of a “quality of life” ethic. In this oft-pitched meme, refusing care when one is very ill or disabled is “death with dignity,” while seeking to “fight, fight against the dying of the light” (to quote Dylan Thomas’s evocative poem) is somehow cowardly, selfish, or undignified.

At the same time, the concerted political drive to cut costs in health care—even as covered procedures are expanding—has many worried that patients with expensive conditions or a perceived low quality of life will be pressured to refuse treatment. That isn’t paranoia. I often hear terrible stories of seriously ill loved ones treated by medical personnel as so much unwanted ballast.

That’s not the whole story, as Smith knows as well as anyone, and the piece goes on to identify some real, existing threats to human dignity.


I’ve downloaded it at least three times over the years, and now I have finally actually read Elizabeth Anscombe‘s Contraception and Chastity, a 1972 piece that was out of the mainstream of the West even when new, and the arguments of which are even harder to follow now, I suspect.

It’s harder to follow, frankly, because few of us in 2014 can read it without much cognitive dissonance and self-justification. I know I cannot. I suspect I started it before and found it bitter medicine.

But we, especially we who count ourselves serious Christians, should try to follow this brilliant woman’s argument, if for no other reason than that Anscombe saw the eventuality of approved contraceptive sex, and we see, a scant 42 years later, her complete vindication.

Further, her appeal is to reason – not unstudied “common sense,” but rigorous reason from the universal tradition of the Church to its application to new technical developments like the pill:

[W]hile one doesn’t have to be learned (nobody has to be learned) or able to give a convincing account of the reasons for a teaching … all the same the moral teaching of the Church, by her own claims, is supposed to be reasonable. Christian moral teachings aren’t revealed mysteries like the Trinity. The lack of clear accounts of the reason in the teaching was disturbing to many people. Especially, I believe, to many of the clergy whose job it was to give the teaching to the people.

And, yes, I do mean “the universal tradition of the Church” of which my Evangelical upbringing left me totally ignorant:

From ’64 onwards there was an immense amount of propaganda for the reversal of previous teaching. You will remember it. Then, with the whole world baying at him to change, the Pope acted as Peter. “Simon, Simon,” Our Lord said to Peter, “Satan has wanted to have you all to sift like wheat, but I have prayed for thee that thy faith should not fail: thou, being converted, strengthen thy brethren.” Thus Paul confirmed the only doctrine which had ever appeared as the teaching of the Church on these things; and in so doing incurred the execration of the world.

But Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has the primacy of the Orthodox Church, immediately spoke up and confirmed that this was Christian teaching, the only possible Christian teaching.

The only serious question, it seems to me (and remember: this is a hard read for me; I could be wrong) is whether birth control pills as a technical development moot a critical mass of the historic bases of objection. Anscombe does not dodge the question, which could be expressed as “how can vaginal intercourse between husband and wife, being neither unnatural nor adulterous, become unchaste by use of contraceptive pills even though confining intercourse to infertile periods is not unchaste?”

Here’s the one (of several version) I find most convincing:

There’s all the world of difference between this and the use of the “rhythm” method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn’t something that does something to today’s intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today’s intercourse is an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act. It’s only if, in getting married, you proposed (like the Manichaeans) to confine intercourse to infertile periods, that you’d be falsifying marriage and entering a mere concubinage. Or if for mere love of ease and hatred of burdens you determined by this means never to have another child, you would then be dishonouring your marriage.

Block a few quiet hours and prepare to be challenged unless you are among the handful of über-Traditional Christians who have internalized all this line of reasoning through felicific instinct, extraordinarily good spiritual formation, or brute force of having read it and similar arguments over and over again.

I’ll probably be quoting it from time to time.


Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And this is nothing but murder.

A great many different motives may lead to an action of this kind; indeed in cases where it is an act of despair, performed in circumstances of extreme human or economic destitution and misery, the guilt may often lie rather with the community than with the individual. Precisely in this connection money may conceal many a wanton deed, while the poor man’s more reluctant lapse may far more easily be disclosed.

All these considerations must no doubt have a quite decisive influence on our personal and pastoral attitude towards the person concerned, but they cannot in any way alter the fact of murder.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Macmillan, 1955).


Douglas Farrow, who I’m increasingly encountering as a bold defender of Christian orthodoxy, somewhat belatedly reviews 2012’s What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George. He is in awe of how well it does what it does, but thinks it should have done more:

One can appreciate the authors’ reticence about this movement and this mentality; not to bracket it would at the very least require a different rhetorical strategy. Certainly it is easier to say, “We’re not attacking what anyone feels or does; we’re only defending the institution of marriage,” than to say, “Some forms of sexual behavior, if widely approved and practiced, must inevitably destroy the institution of marriage and civilization with it.”

The authors do insist that changing the definition of marriage will destroy it, with deep collateral damage to society, leaning for support on the testimony of revisionists who make no effort to disguise their intention to destroy it. But is it enough to consider only the proximate goal? Or would it be prudent to take account of the ultimate goal, which is to normalize homosexual behavior and, with it, virtually any form of sterile sex? At all events, it seems rather odd to claim that “the same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior, but [only] about legal recognition” (p. 90).

The strategy adopted by the authors doubtless makes it more difficult for their opponents to wield the “Bigot!” weapon, and correspondingly easier for their readers to stop and ponder the question as to what marriage is. Yet many opponents (high court justices included) level the charge of bigotry just the same, and for this reason: they know full well that the conjugal view of marriage militates against the normalization both of homosexual acts and (as the authors remind us, albeit only in support of their claim that the debate is not about homosexuality or the morality thereof) of certain heterosexual acts. So why avoid any of this? Why not engage the opposition on the ground they actually hold most dear?

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.