The Catholic Thing
Fertility & Gender: An In-Depth Survey Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 04 August 2011

Several years ago, a small book called How the Irish Saved Civilization became quite a sensation. It told the little-known story about how a group of monks and scholars, toiling away in relative obscurity, managed to preserve the great works of Western Civilization after Rome had fallen. In so doing, they helped shape the medieval mind; subsequent history, no doubt, would have been less felicitous had Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman treasures been lost. The sensibilities derived from the West’s constitutive documents, however, are not so secure in our modern age. Men’s hearts and minds, now as at any point in time, can easily be governed by their opposite. 

In fact, the British historian Christopher Dawson felt that the West is experiencing a kind of crisis without historical precedent because its core social foundations – traditional sexual morality, the recognition of our common human nature, and respect for the institution of marriage – are being uprooted as never before. And he wrote that back in 1932!

Modern day equivalents of those Irish monks labor away on many important and diverse fronts to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful. One such team of highly accomplished scholars and religious met last year – in Ireland – to exchange hard-earned knowledge pertaining to matters of reproductive and sexual ethics, the proceedings of which have recently been published by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre (Oxford) in a sharp volume entitled Fertility & Gender.  This collection of essays examines several contentious issues, including the meaning of marriage, gender identity, contraception, fertility treatments such as In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), and endemic levels of sexually transmitted diseases.

Although these topics deal with human passions (sexuality), this volume is invaluable for its thoughtful, measured attempts to think through and explain the application of irreducible principles – the ideas most worthy of man, the only ones capable of sustaining a great and humane civilization. Despite recent history’s painful lessons, the truism expressed by one reviewer of The Brothers Karamazov remains perilously underappreciated: “Basically what Dostoevsky wanted to demonstrate is that bad ideas are vastly more destructive than bad passions, not only to individuals but to society generally and indeed to civilization.”

        Dostoevsky: bad ideas are more destructive than bad passions

Today’s fertility, family, and gender crises are essentially the byproducts of bad ideas – false ideas: “Having for decades now disconnected our conceptions of the human person, sexuality, marriage and family from human nature, practical reason, and reli­gious faith,” Australian bishop and bioethics expert Anthony Fisher, O.P. notes, “we are now hard put to resist anything, no matter how perverse.”

Real struggles with pain – from infertility or gender identity crises, for example – should never be minimized. The great St. Therese of Lisieux asked her fellow Carmelites to keep poisonous medicines away from her, since the pain she experienced before dying from tuberculosis at age twenty-four was so intense. Without faith, she declared, “I would have committed suicide without an instant’s hesitation.” For those of us whose faith does not measure up to St. Theresa’s, a certain inherited or instinctual reservoir of hesitation to do something we may otherwise wish to try (such as IVF), even if we cannot precisely explain why not, is a vital buffer against our dehumanizing, “all-intrusive technological culture.” (Miller High Life still firmly appreciates that “there is an arch-villain named technology on the loose.”)

Deep down, the topics covered in this volume, despite their complexity, are fundamentally questions of meaning which by definition “science” or “technology” alone cannot answer. Fr. John Berry reminds us, in his essay on contraception, of the basic need to make distinctions between virtue and technology. Today’s default means of interpreting seemingly ever more sophisticated bio-technological advances isn’t really to “interpret” them at all, but simply to assert power – our own will. The British doctor/writer Theodore Dalrymple describes with characteristic flair the creed that drives much modern decision-making: “What I do is right because it is I who do it; the customer is always right, and life is my supermarket.”

But reality takes no vacation and bends not to our whims or timetables. Fertility and gender are nothing like a supermarket, open 24/7, though this is the idea behind all those billboards and radio ads for In Vitro Fertilization.  Sad personal testimonials should make us seriously wonder if even the most sophisticated technological procedures can ever replace the intimate human bonds our wounded culture does not nurture and which technology ultimately ruptures. Indeed, as Helen Watt writes, non-sexual conception not only fails to unite spouses but essentially turns the child into a product rather than a gift, which ineluctably involves the domineering exercise of power and control over the child. 

This volume will be of interest to specialists, but it would also be instructive for journalists who cover these issues, and for students in a range of disciplines – particularly at Catholic universities. Its erudition would likely pose challenges for high school students, to say nothing about what level of detail in these matters is advisable for that age.

Yet every student at private Catholic high schools, some now charging well over $20,000 a year here in California, which just passed a law requiring public schools to teach “gay history,” should know that “sexual identity is ontological (given, deep-seated and perma­nent, rather than chosen, socially invented or medically manufactured).” Ontological would make a great SAT word. I suspect that most kids already know that, even if many reflexively echo a sentimentalized, pseudo-scientific notion of gender neutrality. But such is the work cut out for us: to restore sensibilities regarding even basic realities that once seemed obvious.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin de Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, which recently won a best-book award from the Catholic Press Association. His latest report, The Catholic Church & The Global AIDS Crisis is now available from the Catholic Truth Society, publisher to the Holy See in the U.K.
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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., August 04, 2011
Nice article. Beofre I pass it along I would like to request some calrification. First, is there a word missing from the last sentence of the first paragraph? Is it suppposed read "governed by their opposite"? Absent the word "by" the meaning is unclear. And in the final paragrapsh there is passage in quotation marks, but it is not clear whether the quote is from the Califoria law cited or from the book being reviewed. The latter seems improbable, since the idea "that sexual idenitity is ontological..." semes to support the secualr "born that way" position. What then is the intent of the assertion that "every student at Private Catholic high schools" should know what is in the quotation? Is this just some kind of irony that is simply over my head? Of mucch less importance is the fact that the pronoun "which" on the sixth line of the third paragraph has no antecedent. Okay. I know what was emant, but would like to forward this to careful readers, some of whom desparately need to read this piece.
written by Achilles, August 04, 2011
Daer Dr. Hanley, this is a stunning essay! It points to the immense shadow loominig over us and our children. Thank you so much!
written by Matt, August 04, 2011
@ Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.: Thanks for the careful reading and observations. The quotation in the last paragraph comes from the book – from Bishop Anthony Fisher. By that he meant to refer to the fact that our very being is marked by distinct realities as man or as woman; a sex change operation (“gender reassignment”), for instance, won’t change the underlying reality of who we are. (This is the general idea I suggested that high school students should know). He was not referring to the ‘born that way’ school of thought.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., August 04, 2011
Dear Matt: Thank you very much for your explanation AND for your patience with my many typos. My eyes are getting worse all of the time. I, too, live in California AND work for the Dept of Defense, so this business of pro-sodomy indoctrination is not a matter of gratuitous specualtion to me. I think that something has to be added to Bishop Fisher's ontological approach becuase a great number of honest and sincere people who are perusaded by the born-that-way use that as an excuse for accepting the resulting behaior as normal, healthy, and even God-willed. It must be understood that the involunatry nature of an disordered orientation does not exempt the related actions from moral evaulation and condemnation. What would happen if some day there is actually is discovered "gay gene"? We must be prepared to say that such a finding, no matter how empricial, would be irrelvant to the moral dimension. When presented with suppossed evidence for born-that-way, I ask the presnter what his or reaction would be to the discovery of pedophile gene. You can the imgaine the rage generated by the mere suggestion fo such a comparison. They protest: "Gay people are consenting adults!" Catholics need to learn both schools and pews that the supposed absolutely nothing to do with whether something is moral or not. I am afraid they are not hearing that from Catholic educcators,mainly becuase them have signed on with the Modernists, and also becuase the wouldn't want to be seen as criticizing the man who aid last year that "No one whold be denied the right to serve their (SIC) country becasue of who the are," and then recently revised that to bcaseu of who (SIC) they (SIC) love." First the bold assertion that homosexuality is what a person is, and they assertion that the realted behavior is "love." And it is no secret that many Catholics regrad criticism fo this most pro-deviancy of presdients a sthe sin against the Holy Ghost. The good news is that we now have great men Abp Chaput, Abp Dolan, Abp Gomez, and Cardinal Burke,who do fear to tell the faithful the truth.

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