Thursday, January 25, 2007

Et semini eius: The problem with arguing from natural law

If I understand the Catholic teaching on contraception correctly (and I'm sure I'll be told if I don't), it isn't derived solely from Scripture, but depends on natural law. The idea behind the "Theology of the Body" -- it seems to me -- is that we should look at the workings of the body, particularly the interaction of male and female bodies in sex, and discern the Creator's intent in His design. From that intent, we deduce what we must do to be in harmony with the Creator's intent for our use of our sexual capacity. Thus we discover laws of God that are not set out in Scripture, are not deduced by good and necessary inference therefrom, but are written in nature.

The danger I see in this approach to discerning God's moral will is that it is not solely dependent on the Word of God, which is God-breathed, or even (if you Catholics will feel more comfortable with this) on the Word of God and the Tradition of the Church, but is instead dependent on some theologian's perception and understanding of nature, at the point in time when he wrote. That understanding of nature is not God-breathed, infallible, or inerrant.

Consider the English words we use for the contents of male ejaculate: semen and sperm. semen is the Latin word for "seed." Sperm is derived from sperma, the Greek word for "seed."

("Contents of male ejaculate" is an awkward phrase, but for the purposes of this discussion, about the derivation and use of the words "sperm" and "semen," it's the only way to be clear.)

In Matthew 13:24 -- "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field." -- "seed" is a translation of the Greek word sperma. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate Bible renders the word as semen. This is the literal use of the word sperma -- the seed of a plant.

In Luke 1:55, the end of the Magnificat, sperma is used to refer to the descendants of Abraham, recipients of God's promises. Obviously, it isn't literal here. Again, the word is rendered in Latin as semen (actually, it's dative case, semini), and in English, it's "seed" or "descendants" depending on the translation.

In Genesis 38:9, the story of Onan, the Vulgate has Onan spilling his semen on the ground, while in the Septuagint, the word sperma is used to refer to Onan's late brother's descendants, but isn't there explicitly as the object of execheen (spill), although it seems intended to be understood, which means that sperma is used here to refer to male ejaculate and metaphorically to refer to someone's heir or descendant.

The fact that these words are treated as equivalent indicates the understanding of human reproduction throughout all but the last 180 years of history. The contents of male ejaculate was thought to be equivalent to a seed, and we know now that that isn't true.

A plant seed needs only nutrients and protection to reach maturity. All the necessary genetic information to make a new plant is already contained in the seed.

That isn't true of the contents of male ejaculate. In order for a new human to develop, a male gamete has to unite with a female gamete. At that point, and only at that point, you have the human equivalent to a plant seed -- the necessary genetic information is complete and only nutrition and protection are required for it to develop into a full-grown human.

But Augustine and Aquinas didn't understand that, nor did Luther and Calvin. They thought the male ejaculate itself contained the seed, complete in itself, needing only the hospitable environment of the womb -- the soil for the human seed. Given that view of reproduction, it's no wonder that ancient and medieval theologians regarded "spilling the seed" as a monstrous act, the destruction -- not the prevention -- of precious souls.

If you have that kind of mistaken understanding of the mechanics of reproduction, it would lead you to draw wrong conclusions about the divine purposes behind those mechanics, which would in turn lead you to wrong conclusions about what God expects us to do in light of those purposes.

So if natural law is the basis for your case against contraception, it isn't unreasonable that in 1930, for the first time, a Christian denomination would conditionally approve the use of contraception, because it had only been 100 years since the human ovum was discovered and only 55 years since the necessity of the union of sperm and egg for reproduction was confirmed.

I wonder what, if anything, orthodox Protestants who lived in this period of discovery, men like Spurgeon, Hodge, and Warfield, had to say on the issue of birth control.

Addendum: After re-reading this, I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

In citing the way the words sperma and semen are used in the Greek New Testament, the Septuagint, and the Vulgate, I'm not meaning to suggest that the Bible is mistaken in its presentation of human reproduction. The words were used by the original author (or by the translator, in the case of the LXX and the Vulgate) in the ordinary way that they were used by their contemporaries. The Bible isn't a textbook on reproductive microbiology.

John Calvin wrote often about God's accommodation to human limitations. "God's accommodation, as Calvin explains, does not so much comprehensively express who or what God is, but rather, puts who or what He is in language and types that we fallen creatures can understand." So just as parents adjust our vocabulary to suit the understanding of our children, so God communicated His word through His prophets and apostles in the language the people of the time and place understood, using words in ways that were meaningful to them.

God makes plain His expectations of His people in Scripture. We should heed and obey what is taught there, but I don't believe we should enslave ourselves to uninspired and inaccurate views of nature and science and the uninspired commandments derived therefrom.


Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

I think your conclusions, while the product of insightful and honest inquiry, are flawed, largely because of errors in your premises. I hope these comments are helpful, and I apologize for their length.

First of all, you seem to misinterpret the concept of natural law and man's knowledge of it. Aspects of the natural law can indeed be perceived in the world around us, but it is also part of who we are as humans. When St. Paul speaks, in chapter two of his letter to the Romans, of the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles, he is speaking of the natural law, the primordial consciousness of how the world should be that we possess as beings made in God's image. You would be correct in believing that the natural law cannot serve all purposes for us, for while it may help us to understand revelation, it cannot deduce it nor replace it. Thus, the Church has always understood the natural law as a useful rubric for helping understand human affairs, but not as a replacement for the revelation of the Divine Law in Scripture and Tradition.

Furthermore, the sort of conclusions that Thomistic natural law study derive from human sexuality do not derive from the sorts of very specific scientifically reliant premises, such as the chemistry of conception, to which you point. Rather, the most basic premise of the natural law and our Christian understanding of it is that creation itself is good. This is not itself an inference from nature, but is rather a revealed truth: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Thus, we can remain faithful that while the world has suffered through the fall of man, it retains in its inmost and most fundamental nature the goodness with which God endowed it. Thus, as example, mudslides that bury villages are a natural evil; but mud itself, being a Divine creation, is good, and when contemplating mud I must seek to distinguish between those of its qualities that are inherent to it ("in its nature"), and those that it displays at times merely by happenstance. If I bear in mind that the inherent nature of creation is created good by God, then this provides me with a useful check when attempting to think about such questions (e.g. killing people in mudslides must not be a component of the nature of mud because it is not good).

And so when Aquinas looks at humanity and human sexuality, he's not merely drawing theological conclusions from his 13th-century knowledge of biochemistry; rather, he's making inferences about the moral nature of acts from both his knowledge of revelation and his knowledge of human behavior. The Summa relies far more on observations that still hold true (e.g. the two sexes have compatible anatomies, intercourse is required for reproduction, people are inclined towards sexual gratification) and revelation (e.g. God created man male and female) than it does on medieval ideas about conception. In that regard, even, Aquinas was not of the belief, and the Church never taught as a matter of faith and morals, that semen contained a miniature person already possessed of a soul. Aquinas maintained that conception and ensoulment were separate events -- that is an example of inference from faulty scientific premises, but has much more to do with abortion debates than with this one. And so when Aquinas draws conclusions about human sexuality in manners that influence the long-term theology of the Church, he’s drawing those conclusions primarily from external anatomy: because God has created men and women in a manner so that it is both possible and efficacious for them to have sexual relations (i.e. God created the male and female bodies with parts whose purpose is served strictly or primarily by sex and reproduction), sex must be at worst a natural good. I am unaware of any accepted writing with more authority than mere pondering that based fundamental moral teachings about the nature of human sexuality on faulty understandings of the composition of semen.

The Theology of the Body, for its part, is grounded largely in Scripture -- JPII devotes the entire beginning of the work discussing the story of creation and the meaning of Christ's references to Genesis in the teachings on marriage. Thus, the Catholic natural law tradition is grounded far more in Scripture and in simple observation of the world than it is in precise scientific measurement. For modern work in the Thomistic natural law tradition, you should seek out the works Germain Grisez and John Finnis (Grisez is more the theologian, Finnis more the legal philosopher).

As for the story of Onan, we seem to have something of a linguistic snafu. The discussion of the various renderings seems to move between languages without clear demarcations, which I believe may be contributing to the confusion. The first thing to remember is that words that are spelled cognates between two languages (such as semen) are not necessarily definition cognates: they may look the same and are etymologically related, but don't have the same meaning. (For another anatomical example, take vagina: in Latin, this word is a 1st declension noun meaning sheath, as in what you carry your sword around in; the relationship to the English is visible, but to conflate the actual meaning of the two terms is either unforgivably Freudian or simply disastrous). Modern languages enjoy a much broader vocabulary than ancient ones; the ancients had far fewer words and got a lot more mileage out of them by relying heavily on usage rules, context, and idiom (why Latin poetry is so hard -- it's all gibberish if you translate it too literally). So it should not come as a surprise to us, then, that the Vulgate (I don't read Hebrew or Greek, can't talk to the original) uses a word we would translate literally as seed in reference to ejaculate, someone’s descendants, and embryonic plants. If our lexicon were as constricted as that of the ancient Romans and Israelites, we’d repeat words and expect them to carry multiple related definitions as well. In this case, though, we obviously know what the passage is saying: Onan had relations with his wife, and practiced coitus interruptus as a contraceptive; God struck him dead for so doing.

What we have to be careful of is that we not get so caught up in attempting to deconstruct the language of the ancient Israelites (or Romans) that we destroy either the meaning or the moral inerrancy of Scripture. As orthodox Christians we all maintain that Scripture is inspired and that the Holy Spirit guarded its moral and spiritual truth when it was written by men. Now, let's look at the case at hand. God smites people in the Bible for a reason (this only makes sense: God is just and rational). Thus, instances of God smiting people have to be read as having moral importance: if Scripture depicts God punishing men for acts that are not actually wrong, then its authority and credibility as a teaching tool has been destroyed. People can argue all day over whether or not God did or did not literally and in history kill so and so with lightning. That's irrelevant; what matters is that Scripture depicts an act of God, an event, of a moral nature, and our faith tells us that the moral quality of that act, the teaching it contains about God's law, is inerrant. So there is simply no way that the Holy Spirit could have permitted the Biblical author in this instance to craft a story such as Onan's and write an outcome that was solely dependent on his flawed understanding of science. Maybe the Biblical author uses a word that, because of their primitive understandings of science, his society applied in a situation where we would not. That's not the point; the point is the act, and the moral nature of that act, to which God chooses to attach sanctions. Onan's act is clearly engaging in coitus interruptus; God clearly strikes him dead for that act. The moral lesson (the part protected by the Holy Spirit) is that such an act is evil.

christian soldier said...

Or maybe the story of Onan is just a myth that tells us things about human nature, fears, and hopes.

Maybe you don't have to believe it all literally.

Paul said...

Christian Soldier,

My point was, in part, that the historical accuracy of the details of the story of Onan, or of the story itself, are not really relevant. Whether or not those events ever occurred is irrelevant to the moral lesson contained. That moral lesson has to, as a matter of merely common sense, have a significant relationship to the story used to teach it. Alternatively, you could just believe that the Bible is just symbolic and collects some interesting and at times insightful observations about humanity without teaching any hard and fast truths about the moral nature of the universe, but then you'd be seperating yourself from the judgment of historical Christian orthodoxy.