Clearing the Heart to See the Truth
By C0-Blogger John-Mark Miravalle, S.T.D.
Defenders of Humanae vitae have sometimes felt forced into a bit of a tightrope walk when it comes to the connection between sex and fertility. On the one hand, the document’s principle is straightforward enough: don’t separate what belongs together. It’s the principle invoked by Christ against divorce, and it covers plenty of other cases. It illuminates why we should avoid decapitation (separation of head and body), hypocrisy (separation of declared conviction and behavior), and even the use of torture in interrogation (which tries to separate the prisoner’s speech from his considered judgment). So it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to apply the same principle to sex and fertility: don’t separate them.
The devil, as always, is in the details. When you get down to particular cases, the “No Sex Disconnected from Fertility” rule looks pretty extreme. In fact, it might seem to ban any sexual behavior that doesn’t actually terminate in a child, or at least any sexual behavior that we’re certain won’t terminate in a child. Of course, not even the Vatican wants to go that far, but then how to make sense of the rule?
The case of infertile couples is surely the favorite counter-example of those who question the consistency of traditional Catholic sexual ethics. How can homosexual, masturbatory, or contraceptive behavior be condemned for its infertility when allowances are made for heterosexual couples who know in advance that pregnancy is an impossibility?
Traditionalists usually argue that, for instance, when a man engages in sexual acts with another man he is choosing to pursue sexual fulfillment in a way that removes the potential for procreation. To which critics respond that when a man knowingly engages in sexual behavior with a woman who is post-menopause or post-hysterectomy, he is choosing to pursue sexual fulfillment in a way that removes the potential for procreation. The latter activity may look very different from sexual activity between two men, but surely they are both equally known to be incapable of resulting in a child (barring a miracle, of course, but best to leave miracles out of it, otherwise it might be claimed that God could, if He wished, ordain the impregnation of a man). The presumption is that sex between an infertile heterosexual couple is, by definition, no less infertile than that between two members of the same sex.
The standard traditionalist strategy at this stage in the discussion is to try and characterize heterosexual intercourse between infertile couples as “procreative in type,” or “oriented towards procreation” or “fulfilling the behavioral conditions required for procreation.” This is all surely true, but to my mind it already yields too much ground to the opposition. Why not simply say that sex between infertile couples is still fertile?
If we find such a claim paradoxical it must be that we have fallen victim to the fallacy of division, whereby a property belonging to the whole is ascribed indiscriminately to the parts. Such a fallacy would be at work, for instance, if one began with the fact that a week is made up of seven days, and then went on to suppose that each of the days is itself made up of seven days. Just because something’s true about the whole doesn’t mean it’s true about the parts.
To take an example more relevant to our subject: if one link in a chain is broken, then the chain as a whole will be broken; but we may not infer from this that every link in the chain is broken. By analogy, if one step in the procreative process is infertile, then the process as a whole will be infertile (i.e., it will not terminate in a child). Yet we cannot go on to declare every step in the procreative process infertile. Such a declaration would be patently and flagrantly fallacious.
Heterosexual intercourse is the first step in the sexually procreative process, in that process’ beginning, and as such it is fertile. Recall too that “fertile” as it used in common parlance means conducive to fertilization, not that fertilization has actually occurred (e.g., when we say soil is “fertile” we mean it is conducive to growing crops, not necessarily that the soil is yielding a harvest at the moment).
Certainly there are other steps in the procreative process, and if any of them are not conducive to fertilization then the whole process will fail to terminate in a child. It may be that too few sperm issue from the man, that they encounter some obstacle on their itinerary, that at journey’s end no egg awaits. Nonetheless, the infertility of a later step does not nullify the procreative potential of the first step. The act of intercourse between a man and a woman remains fertile.
It should be a source of comfort for infertile couples to reflect that the marital acts in which they engage have as much procreative potential as those of other heterosexual couples. There may be other broken links in their procreative chain, but that initial sexual link remains intact. Each still has the gift of fertility to offer the other – they have no reason to think of their physical expressions of love as “sterile.”
Sexual acts between two men or two women, by contrast, do not begin the procreative process. They are not the initial movement in a larger enterprise which may or may not succeed. They are not the first step towards anything. It needs no later impediment to prevent homosexual behaviors from culminating in new life, as they are irredeemably sterile by their own nature. The difference between homosexual acts and the heterosexual intercourse of an infertile couple could hardly be more drastic, even as regards procreative potential.
It’s also interesting, I think, to note that only when we view procreation as a multi-step process do we recognize the important moral distinction between contraceptive behaviors and masturbatory (including homosexual) behaviors, since the former still retain fertility at the initial level. Contracepting couples break a later link in the chain, and by so doing sterilize the overall procreative process, but at least they get the first step right. Sex between two men and two women involves a wrong beginning altogether. It would be a profound mistake, therefore, to frame the differences between homosexual and contraceptive behavior as consisting merely in the presence or absence of sexual complementarity. There’s a big difference as far as fertility goes too. Contracepting couples retain some profound measure of fertility, despite their sterilizing efforts; homosexual couples require no intervention to make their behaviors wholly disconnected from procreative potential.
In any case, traditionalists can keep the principle “No Sex Disconnected from Fertility” without any amendment. It will do perfectly well as a norm celebrating the physical love between infertile couples, and disallowing behaviors that sterilize either the procreative process or the sexual act itself.