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Sex and the Church

In response to:

The Fifth Freedom from the October 8, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

M. F. Perutz’s article “The Fifth Freedom” [NYR, October 8, 1992] contains some of the grossest distortions of the Catholic Church’s teaching on human sexuality yet published. He asserts, “According to the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church, making love is sinful except for the procreation of children…” He does not document this point, nor could he, for it is wholly untrue.

The actual teaching of the Church, as given authoritative voice in Humanae Vitae, is as follows: “These acts, by which husband and wife are united in chaste intimacy, and by means of which human life is transmitted…do not cease to be lawful if, for causes independent of the will of husband and wife, they are foreseen to be infecund, since they always remain ordained towards expressing and consolidating their union…. That teaching, often set forth by magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God, and unable to be broken by man [sic] on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning (Humanae Vitae, articles 11 and 23, NC News Service Translation, Daughters of St. Paul, 1968, pp. 9–10, emphasis added).

While it is true that “each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life” (Ibid., 10), procreation need not be the intention behind every coupling and, in fact, it is “licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative function, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier” (Ibid., 13). While the rhythm method has been often maligned, the fact of its permissibility belies Perutz’s simplistic assertions, which distort the subtlety of the Church’s synergistic understanding of the sexual act.

His erroneous premise leads to the equally fallacious conclusion that Catholics hold abortion to be wrong “not only because it kills a budding human life but also because it relieves the mother of the consequences of her sin and encourages sin in others.” Again, this point is undocumented. While Perutz is correct in his understanding of the Church’s condemnation of abortion as fetal homicide, the idea that the Church sees an unwanted pregnancy as a form of punishment or the source of an example to others is plainly contradicted by the Christian message of forgiveness and the heroic pastoral work of those involved in crisis-pregnancy efforts. Catholics believe that judgment is for God alone and that the Christian community’s obligation is to aid all those who are suffering or troubled, without prejudice or condemnation. If the Church held the views attributed to it by Perutz, groups like Project Rachel, which offers post-abortion counseling and reconciliation, would not exist, much less be sponsored by the archdiocese of Chicago. In short, the Catholic Church never fails to remember that there are at least two victims of every abortion and seeks to blame neither of them.

The issues of contraception and abortion are ones that people of good will, including many Catholics, ardently disagree about. However, when commitment to one point of view obscures honest understanding of the opposing viewpoint, dialogue becomes impossible. Perutz’s passion is evident. But so, it seems to me, is its effect in clouding his judgment and accuracy.

Adam Schwartz
Chicago, Illinois

M.F Perutz replies:

Mr. Schwartz does not seem aware of basic Catholic teachings. In his Casti Connubii, promulgated in 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote: “…although the very natural process of generating life has become the way of death by which original sin is passed on to posterity, nevertheless, they (Christian persons) share to some extent in the blessings of that primeval marriage of Paradise…” (14) > But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose, sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.

Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times punishes it with death. As Saint Augustine notes, “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it”(34).

Pius XI continues,

Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin (56).

We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents, who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children” (60). “However, they should take care lest the calamitous state of their external affairs should be the occasion for a much more calamitous error. No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts that are intrinsically evil. There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the Grace of God, fulfil faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted” (61).

The same false teachers who try to dim the lustre of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man” (74). There follows a passage condemning the emancipation of women.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI confirmed his predecessor’s teaching in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. “Similarly excluded is any action, which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation….” However, he made the two new concessions quoted by Adam Schwartz: “If therefore there are reasonable grounds for spacing births…then married people may take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and use their marriage at precisely those times that are infertile….” The other concession is to infertile couples.

As to the Church’s forgiveness for the mothers of aborted babies, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes issued by Pope Paul VI in 1960 equates abortion with infanticide; he refers to both as abominable crimes. In Catholic Austria where I grew up, the mother’s penalty for an unsuccessful abortion was six to twelve months “severe” prison, and one to five years “severe” prison for a successful abortion. “Severe” meant prison with hard labor.

Mr. Schwartz’s carefully selected quotations gives an unjustifiably tolerant picture of the Church’s attitude to sex. In reality, successive popes have ordained that married couples sharing a bed must practice strict chastity unless they desire a child, with the reluctantly conceded exception of the woman’s short infertile period before and after menstruation. Such inhuman demands could only have been conceived in the minds of celibate old men who mistook their own envy of happily married couples for the voice of God.

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