Pope Benedict is back in the news for one of those sparse AP religious news pieces. He’s been praising a 1968 encyclical called Human Vitae which, among other things, definitively reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception. (It also happily makes up for the rather glaring omission of rape from the Bible’s otherwise absurdly comprehensive list of things God hates except when he’s busy ordering them). It would be nice to have the full speech, but it’s yet to appear in the usual places. But the snippets quoted by the AP are bad enough for a little fisking:
“What was true yesterday remains true even today. The truth expressed in ‘Humane vitae’ doesn’t change; on the contrary, in the light of new scientific discoveries it is ever more up to date,” the pope added.
And which scientific discoveries are those? That there is, after all, no “moment” of conception when a magical homunculus pops into being? That even a non-fertilized egg, or potentially any cell in the human body, can be induced to grow into a new human being? That the creation of a human person is a long complex process resulting, eventually, not instantaneously, in specific functional capacities?
The mark of the human search for truth, you see, is that it does change: it updates itself in light of new evidence, apologizes for error. This is doubly true in the case of moral understanding: better knowledge helps us make better decisions, alerts us to moral consequences we may have missed.
Now, I understand that Popes claim to be relying on insights supposedly proscribed by a higher power, and I suppose this is where we must differ. I don’t see any evidence of such insight. In fact, the contrary. What I see are doctrines formed in (perfectly understandable!) ignorance of human biology and social experience, now (less understandably) grasping at straws and cherry picking in an attempt to remain relevant, all the while resisting any re-examination.
And while Popes couch their declarations as sincere defenses of moral sense and human dignity, it’s hard to take them as seriously as they intend it. Perhaps mainly due to the nature of the institution they find themselves wedded to, there is very little room in which to confront the possibility of error. And when it comes down to admitting doctrinal error or real human dignity, which does history tell us is likely to bend to which?
“No mechanical technique can substitute the act of love that two married people exchange as a sign of a greater mystery,” Benedict said in his speech.
I quite agree that sex, as with all human experience, can be part of a greater mystery. But the Pope is sorely abusing the word here: appealing to positive connotations he has earned no right to. Indeed, his entire purpose is to routinize that mystery into the very specific form he believes the universe favors, all in service of a doctrine that is itself no mystery (except in the sense that it’s often philosophically unintelligible).
Benedict expressed concern that human life risks losing its value in today’s culture, and worried that sex could “transform itself into a drug” that one partner had to have even against the will of the other.
“What must be defended is not only the true concept of life, but above all the dignity of the very person,” the pope added.
You know what makes human life lose value and dignity? Cloudy, impenetrably confused moral thinking.
Like the sort that compares a experiencing, feeling human being to a nerveless embryo, and thus mangles any sense whatsoever of what makes human life, in particular, morally important.
Or the sort that stands in opposition to the distribution or even the education of poor people about contraceptive methods to prevent the spread of deadly disease. The one that treats knowledge as a temptation, and ignorance a blessing… if by blessing, you mean infecting your wife with AIDS because your priest declares that condoms are not permitted even within a marriage, even for that grave purpose.
Of course, voice these sorts of criticism within earshot of excitable apologists, and you’re bound to hear one or two responses.
The first is to loudly bemoan the supposed scientism-sans-conscience of Catholicism’s critics. This response is mere subterfuge. Us “moderns,” secular or no, are not nihilists: what we have are different values than the ones promoted by pontiffs, different ideas about where to draw the line on, for instance, stem cells. What we’re due in response is debate, not glib dismissals about our supposed moral blindness or vacuity.
The second response is that critics of Catholic doctrine are ultimately just narcissists: heedless pleasure seekers. Oh how they love this endlessly self-aggrandizing accusation! But the character of this sort of argument is both slanderous and baseless. Half the time it doesn’t even make sense, as when critics like myself are largely arguing on behalf of the liberty of others (such as homosexual rights that I myself have no need of).
The other half of the time, it’s just a backhanded way to justify injustices or restrictions that stand accused of causing harm themselves. It’s easy to frame any argument for progress as “selfishly” promoting pleasure and reducing suffering (how dare we desire to treat malaria, hedonists we!). Easy, but rarely helpful or sensible as a criticism of those ideas or improvements.
And worse, these declarations against demands for human happiness are insincere. For apologists often appeal to the idea that they know, better than everyone else, what best leads to happiest: they merely insist that they have a bead on the deepest sorts of human happiness. That anything other than their path leads to misery and ruin, not merely in an imagined afterlife, but here on earth. Very well: but others make the same claims about their own contrary paths and philosophies. Thus there is room for legitimate debate.
But, I suppose, such fair debates risk the unacceptable possibility of rational defeat. Simply accusing your critics of hedonistic animality is all the simpler and less dangerous.