Saturday, January 08, 2011

Rhonheimer's mistake

I have been reading Fr Martin Rhonheimer's reply to Luke Gormally, and it seems to me that he is making a demonstrable mistake. This is of interest since he is a rigorous and in many ways an impressive writer. This is my analysis.

Rhonheimer’s argument against Luke Gormally:

1. Rhonheimer’s (R’s) argument is based on the idea that the sexual acts forbidden by the Natural Law are to be understood in terms of the intentions of the agent.

2. R points out (correctly) that in order to show that the use of an anovulatory pill is (normally) wrong, Humanae Vitae (HV) had to rule that it is the contraceptive intention of the user which is key: thus, the use of the Pill is wrong iff the user intends to impede conception.

3. This R contrasts with arguments frequently met with in the tradition before Humanae Vitae, which make use first and foremost of the notion of ‘unnatural acts’.

4. R points out that since in outward behaviour sexual acts contracepted using the Pill appear less deformed than sexual acts contracepted using a condom, this appeared to some ‘Revisionist’ theologians to leave an opening for the Pill to be used licitly as a form of contraception. This was countered by HV as described (2).

5. R claims that HV’s more developed expression of why contraception is wrong should be used in relation to condoms (and presumably any other form of contraception): these are wrong iff there is a contraceptive intention.

6. R expresses the relationship between the contraceptive intention and the traditional language of unnatural acts by saying that sexual acts are unnatural if they are done with a contraceptive intention. Again, they are contrary to chastity if they are done with a contraceptive intention.

7. On the other hand, R says that it does not make sense to say that acts are contrary to chastity because they are unnatural, if there is no contraceptive intention. This limitation of the prohibition of Natural Law to acts done with a contraceptive intention, R claims, is something revealed by HV in light of the personalistic approach of Gaudium et Spes, though it is also in accord with the long-standing tradition of understanding moral acts in terms of the intentions with which they are done.

Thus R writes:
I am aware that, as you [Gormally] wrote in your letter, your “critique did not rest on any claim that the use of a condom is necessarily contraceptive” but rather on the argument that condomistic intercourse “is an essentially non-reproductive sexual behaviour.” You perhaps can accept what I say about contraception, but you want to distinguish – from any form of contracepted acts – those acts which in addition are behaviourally essentially non-reproductive and therefore “against nature.” In my view "Humanae vitae" has rendered obsolete this distinction.

Rhonheimer seems to me correct in points 1-4. Point 7 is demonstrably false. It has an obvious counter-example in (heterosexual) sodomy: as the Church teaches, acts of sodomy are illicit under Natural Law regardless of the intention with which they are done. These acts need not be motivated by a contraceptive intention; they may have many intentions. It is quite clear however that sodomy carried out with the intention of pleasure, for example, is wrong, even within marriage.

It is not, of course, forbidden as mere outward behaviour. Bodily movements over which the will has no control for one reason or another are not subject to moral appraisal. The prohibition refers to acts chosen and intended. Rhonheimer correctly says that contraceptive intentions make acts wrong; in the case of sodomy, it is the intention to enagage in a complete sexual act in vase indebito which make acts wrong. In the case of murder it is the intention to kill.

On Rhonheimer’s argument it may seem puzzling that acts with sodomistic intentions are contrary to the virtue of chastity. Why should they be? The argument in Humanae Vitae about the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality underpins the claim that acts with a contraceptive intention are contrary to chastity; what argument is there in the case of acts with a sodomistic intention? There is no need, however, to seek arguments in HV for what all Catholics at the time of HV and before and since have taken for granted, the wrongness of sodomy; one can look at the previous tradition. This tradition, framed in terms of unnatural acts and teleology, is not, contrary to Rhonheimer, abrogated by HV, which was seeking a new argument to explain a case to which the old arguments did not so clearly apply.

That, however, is a problem for Rhonheimer, not for his opponents. It is enough to say that Gormally’s argument seeks to identify condomistic sex as a form of sodomy (so there is a question of the exact definition of sodomy), and that Rhonheimer’s response denies that sodomy is intrinsically wrong. Whether or not Gormally is correct (and while his argument is compelling we will ultimately have to await a clarification from the magisterium), Rhonheimer must be wrong, since the illicit nature of sodomy is far too deeply embedded in the tradition of the Church to be considered a fallible teaching (see Romans 1:24-27).

Postscript: The condemnation of heterosexual sodomy is implicit througout the Tradition, though the focus is generally on homosexual acts. In the modern era sodomy is clearly defined as anal intercourse (or any intercourse 'in vase indebito'), regardless of the sex of the participants, and of course regardless of the further intention of the act, and this is clearly condemned in all the manuals of moral theology. Here are a two examples of the condemnation of sodomy (clearly in the sense just described) by the Magisterium.

1. A friend has found the following in the classic 'Contraception' by Noonan: "On 3 April 1916, [the Sacred Penitentiary] declared that when a husband wished to commit 'a sodomitic crime', he must be resisted by his wife and she could not cooperate 'even to avoid death' as the act would be 'against nature' on the part of both. The Penitentiary expressed 'great astonishment' that some priests had taken a milder view. (Decisiones Sanctae Sedis, p.35)" (p. 514, fn.136, John T. Noonan, Contraception, Mentor-Omega, New York, 1965)

2. The 1917 Code of Canon Law includes sodomy among the sexual sins for which the laity are to held 'infames'

Can. 2357. par. 1. Laici legitime damnati ob delicta contra sextum cum minoribus infra aetatem sexdecim annorum commissa, vel ob stuprum, sodomiam, incestum, lenocinium, ipso facto infames sunt, praeter alias poenas quas Ordinarius infligendas iudicaverit.

There are parallel norms dealing with clerics (2358 & 2359).

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