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Contraceptive Eating Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Friday, 23 August 2013

As those who have been following this series may recall, a friend once asked the question:  “Let’s say there are two women who love one another and are committed to one another the way you and your wife are committed to one another, and let’s say they’re engaged in an act that, if their biology were different, might lead to children, but in this case cannot.  Why does the absence of this one, single dimension of the act – the possibility of having children – make it morally unacceptable?”

There are a number of challenges involved in answering such a question. 

First, many modern people think “sex” means any kind of sexual titillation, whereas the Church has a very specific understanding of what “sex” entails. 

Second, the Church does not think an “act” is defined simply by a certain arrangement of body parts, but by the formal object of the act, the intention with which it is done, and the relevant circumstances. 

Third, it’s important that questioners understand the Church will generally not be replying to this question in the usual ways: that is to say, the Church is neither utilitarian nor Kantian, so the answer to the question of why the act is morally unacceptable will not involve showing that it “harms” someone else or by demonstrating that the act is always and everywhere wrong. 

The act may not “harm” (at least physically) the two persons involved, nor are we going to say that “sex” is always and everywhere wrong or dirty or disgusting, something just barely made acceptable if done in marriage and then only for the purposes of having children, the advice being:  “Just close your eyes, and think of the Church.” 

Instead, the Church approaches moral questions by trying to get people to think differently about the way they live and about the nature and meaning of their acts.

Allow me, if I may, to use an example from an entirely different realm.  Suppose a young woman says to me:  “I’m a person who loves eating.  I derive great pleasure from eating. I just don’t want the food to become part of my body, so I purge the food after I’ve eaten it.  Why would the absence of this one, single dimension of the act of eating – namely nutrition – make  the act morally impermissible?”

The first thing we might say to such a person is:  “I’m not sure that’s actually eating.”  “No,” she may insist, “I chew, I swallow, and the food goes into my stomach.  Are you saying that whenever a person is sick and throws up, he or she failed to eat?”  At which point I might try going into a complicated discussion about the difference between involuntarily having something happen to one’s food because of disease and voluntarily choosing to purge it, although it might not help, especially if she’s already convinced that an act can be defined merely by what happens physically.  In both cases, someone physically throws up, thus to her it will seem that both acts are the same.

Notice the oddity, however, of suggesting that the goal of nutrition is merely “one, single dimension” of the act of eating, one that “eating” may lack (she imagines) and still be called eating.

Doesn’t it make more sense to suggest that while eating certainly (and agreeably) involves something more than merely nutrition, nutrition also seems to be one of the basic purposes of eating? And thus to cut out that dimension of the act is to violate its nature in a fundamental way, the consequences of which might not be altogether healthy.

“But I don’t want to get fat,” says our young woman.  “Getting fat isn’t healthy.”  No, it isn’t.  But there are other ways of not getting fat.  The problem is those involve temperance, and what our friend wants is the pleasure of eating without the consequences of eating.

Notice also how the “getting fat isn’t healthy” response ends up nullifying the “harm” principle.  If I suggest a possible “harm,” she can always trump my “harm” with one of her own – getting fat is bad for you – one that (surprise, surprise) allows her to continue doing what she wants to do.  Besides, no one else is getting hurt. 

Notice as well how feckless most Kantian unversalizability arguments would be:  eating is not intrinsically wrong.  Eating and throwing up is not intrinsically wrong.  Sick people do it involuntarily; people who have taken poison do it voluntarily. 

Can we do better?   

How about something like this:  What we want for you, young lady, is a different relationship with eating (to use the contemporary jargon), one that involves both nutrition and pleasure, that meets your physical needs and realizes your communal nature. 

Both of these dimensions of eating – the nutritional and the communal – are, as the philosopher and physician Leon Kass has shown admirably in his wonderful book The Hungry Soul, what characterize truly human eating. 

Take one dimension or the other out, and trouble begins.  Scarf down food alone, and you miss the joys of the social dimension of eating.  Eat and throw up and you destroy the nutritional dimension.  It is when both come together that we get truly human eating that will lead to true, human flourishing.

That sort of eating is what we want for our children and loved ones, isn’t it?  But let’s be honest:  that sort of eating requires discipline.  You have to choose the right foods and eat them in the right amounts to get the proper nutrition.  And you have to choose the proper times and places to eat communally with loved ones. If each person goes off on his or her own, there’s no communal meal.  In short, one has to develop the relevant virtues of both prudence and temperance in order to realize the human goods of eating.

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
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Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Bedarz Iliaci, August 23, 2013
The language that your friend uses is not very coherent. Firstly, two women can not be committed in the same way a husband and a wife are committed.
Secondly, the whole picture of being engaged in an act if their biology were different, might lead to children--is absurd.
What act?. Aren't acts defined by the biology for embodied beings such as us?

Thus, it does not require high philosophy to answer but only a clarity of language that even 10 year olds possess.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 23, 2013
I think it was Janet Smith who commented some years ago that sex, like eating, is pleasureable. Yet, the purpose of eating is not pleasure; neither is it for sex. For one, it's health of the body and for the other the procreation of children and the good of the marital union. God wanted us to both have physical health bodies and to have healthy marriages/ families so he made both acts pleasureable.
written by Meyrat, August 23, 2013
I really like this analogy. It has shed some light on all what the writer has been arguing about thinking differently about the church's teachings on sexuality. It also reminded me of a somewhat parallel phenomenon that occurred along with the sexual revolution: an eating revolution. Fewer and fewer people have meals together, even with their family. Many people I encounter rarely eat together with their family or their spouse. Often, they'll purchase a coffee table before a dinner table since they usually share company with a television or laptop when they eat, not really other people unless they want to join them in eating in front of a screen.

In the world of relationships, one can observe the same thing. People will neglect the wholesome aspect of sex and couple with another person without any kind of commitment to the other or any openness to new life. Others, who comprise an even bigger group of young people, will deny the social or relational aspect of sex and gratify themselves alone with the aid of pornography. Both groups insist they satisfy a healthy urge and harm no one, but they then develop incomplete and often distorted ideas of sex, which leaves them with psychological (moral) hangups with which they don't know how to cope.
written by Rich in MN, August 23, 2013
Wonderful article. I always have trouble answering the question, "Then why do we let old people and sterile people get married? Huh? Huh? Huh???" The eating analogy offers me some food for thought. (Sorry, I could not resist....)

In the 'game of life,' first we have denied that there exists a creator of the game who understands the rules and wishes to teach us; next we have denied that we can understand the rules by a careful examination of the board and the pieces. In the end, what we are left with is our own blind subjectivity drawing up only fluid guidelines based on this moment's pragmatic requirements.
written by maineman, August 23, 2013
Yes. Nicely reasoned and very helpful piece. I wonder if a similar approach can be applied to an even deeper, more insidious problem that I see brewing.

There appears to be a proliferation of cases in which the actual nature of the human being is being distorted, by the person and by the cultural system in which they dwell.

More and more people, many of them as young as 5 or 6, are being labeled "transgender", as though that is actually a state of being as opposed to a state of mind. Mental health professionals (typically) and parents (often) have bought into the delusion and thereby reinforce it.

What we have, as a result, is a kind of shared psychosis, a cultural assumption that one's sex is a matter of choice and, by extension, that being human can be whatever we conclude or want it to be.

I think this is very dangerous territory, not unrelated to the more narrow questions of sexual impulses, marriage, and family upon which many of us are currently fixated.

What is slowly being brought into question, it seems to me, is not just the goal and nature of sexual behavior, or eating, but the goal and nature of being human.
written by Rich in MN, August 23, 2013
I think you hit the nail on the head, and I would suggest that Randall Smith (on marriage) and you (on sexual identity) are both addressing what you have astutely identified as "the goal and nature of being human. Tragically, "restless hearts" that cannot "rest in Thee (i.e. God)" because they have lumped "Thee" with unicorns and spaghetti monsters will search down every blind alley. And sometimes they will try to force others to come along for the ride.
written by Joe Morton, August 23, 2013

1) I fear that your remark, "the whole picture of being engaged in an act if their biology were different, might lead to children--is absurd" is, at best, "not very coherent" -- at worst, it's...well...very much like the "at best" scenario.

2) "Aren't acts defined by the biology for embodied beings such as us?"

To assist me in understanding your question, please provide the following:

a) A definition or description of "embodied beings (such as us)"

b) An explanation of "defined by the biology." I haven't the foggiest what that means.

c) An effort, preceding your efforts to assist my understanding of your question, to recognize that "Acts" cannot be "defined by the biology" of anything. That phrase, though in highly philosophical style, is a category error.

P.S. I've just asked a 10 year old to explain to me your meaning. I'm afraid I'm still lost.

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