I’m puzzled by the great Conrad Black’s article on NRO today. He deftly skewers the anti-Church critics of the new pope for their attempts to delegitimize what they claim isn’t legitimate in the first place, and for their predictions that the Church will decay because its teachings don’t constantly change to reflect the opinions of its members. But Black falls into the same pattern as these secular onlookers in calling for the Church “to execute a dignified climb-down” from its teaching on the use of contraception.
Black doesn’t directly discuss the Church’s reasoning on marriage, sexuality, and contraception, saying, “I do not underestimate, and am not qualified to discuss, the theological arguments involved.” He’s correct in this statement, in that he shows little understanding of why the Church teaches as it does, but it’s worth pointing out that these are not “theological” arguments. The Church considers its “prohibition” of birth control a recognition of the moral law, not something we can know only from revelation, such as the doctrine of the Trinity.
He does seem to give an implicit argument against the Church’s position, however. And it appears to be a criticism less of its teachings on birth control than of its understanding of human sexuality. He wants the Church to “declare the sexual act a consequential moral commitment appropriate to and generally reserved to marriage, but sometimes unexceptionable when undertaken with contraceptive precautions, and reprehensible only if entered into wantonly.” This is, as far as I can tell, a call for the Church to basically agree with the incoherent modern teaching on sexuality that the mainline churches have adopted. He also repeatedly claims that science and popular sexual practice have made the Church’s view on birth control “outdated” and, interestingly, “unnecessary.” But here, too, he seems to be criticizing not just the teaching on contraception but what the Church says about the procreative act more generally: “When almost any coupling with a woman of child-bearing age presented the potential for conception, the Church could plausibly counsel caution for moral as well as practical reasons. But for better or worse, the evolution of mores and the progress of paramedical science in the contraceptive age has routinized the sexual act.” I’m not entirely sure what “caution” Black is referring to here. Presumably it’s not specifically about the use of contraception, since he’s saying it did not exist in a really effective form. Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, he seems to think that the Church was against extramarital sex primarily because of the danger of illegitimacy. All of this is problematic for many reasons, but it’s first of all puzzling because Black’s argument against the Church’s teaching on birth control is basically that it has become unnecessary because . . . now we have really good birth control.
Also strange is the explicit reason he gives for wanting the Church to “accept” contraception: “The Church’s official position on contraception enables its enemies to portray it as an archaic society for the propagation of chaste humbug by an esoteric fraternity of superannuated clergymen in antiquarian costume.”
Black goes on to explain how important it is, for the whole world and not just Catholics, that the Church “be a mighty rampart against the outrageous gibe of Islam that the West is a completely profane and blasphemous society.” So, according to Black, it’s vital that the Church exist for the sake of Western culture, but it should fold on matters of sexuality so as not to be accused of irrelevance and hypocrisy. The organization that is so needed precisely because it has stood firm throughout the ages should buckle on contraception for the very important reason that people like to have sex just for fun and don’t want someone to tell them not to.