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.