Contraceptive Eating

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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.