The comment that my friend Gene Bridges made, which provoked Matthew Bellisario was, as stated by MB: "He says that Catholicism does not condemn contraception, but only distinguishes between natural and artificial contraception."
In support of Gene's comment, I submit the following evidence: "The second area which His Holiness would stress is that of promotion. He repeats his encouragement and gratitude to all those who work for the promotion of natural family planning, whether directly with couples, or in medical and social endeavors." and "It is important that public authorities and international bodies, medical personnel and social workers, marriage counsellors and educators should recognize the high positive values that are to be found in the natural methods, in which the dignity of the human person is fostered: a knowledge and understanding of fertility help to assure personal autonomy by liberating couples from artificial means, while leading them to a degree of sexual self-mastery which is in direct contrast with the permissiveness and promiscuity that today constitute grave social problems to be solved." (source - note that this is from the official Vatican website)
The comments above are part of a message from pope Paul VI (sent by Cardinal Villot to Cardinal Cooke on May 24, 1978). If that evidence does not demonstrate exactly what Gene Bridges was saying, I don't know what would.
Nevertheless, let's examine Bellisario's rather interesting counter-argument.
1) He quotes this definition: "Contraception is "any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (Humanae Vitae 14)."
2) He argues that "Those using what the Church considers to be natural is not really contraception at all. In fact even if one follows the NFP [Natural Family Planning] it is never 100% and therefore the person is not acting in a way as to eliminate the pro creative [sic] from the act itself."
3) He ignores that even the use of barrier and chemical methods have a less than 100% success rate in preventing procreation.
In other words, if one ignores the plainest and simplest meaning of "contraception" (i.e. a practice that limits or avoids conceiving children - aka pre-conception birth control), in favor of a meaning that requires that the act have an 100% success rate, one can avoid distinguishing between NFP and artificial contraception - but at the cost of permitting most forms of contraception, including forms (such as the use of certain latex products) that everyone knows Catholicism opposes.
So, when one evaluates MB's accusation, "This Gene Bridges hasn't a clue as to what in the world he is talking about, nor what The Catholic Church teaches," one may find oneself arriving at a very different conclusion from that of Mr. Bellisario.
N.B.I have intentionally avoided discussing the issues raised in the debate regarding the significance (or not) of this matter to the topic of Sola Scriptura.
UPDATE: August 3, 2008 - MB has provided a second post (link - same 2nd commandment warning as above) in which he continues to refuse to let Gene Bridges' statement have any meaning. Apparently, Gene Bridges is not allowed (in MB's world) to disagree with MB's church over what constitutes "contraception." Why is this not just impolite but absurd?
Maybe an analogy would be helpful:
Suppose that Gene's church claimed to be against gambling, but suppose that they actually permitted betting on horse races. Someone would be within their rights to say that Gene's church was actually only against certain kinds of gambling. If Gene replied that his church defined gambling as betting on cards, and that consequently the critic has no idea what they are talking about, we'd laugh him out of town.
The same goes here. MB's church defines contraception (according to MB) in a way that excludes certain kinds of things that actually prevent conception. The fact that MB's church supposedly defines contraception only to include things that they prohibit is a laughable defense to the natural vs. artificial critique. In fact, Natural Family Planning (NFP) is often used expressly to engage in sexual intercourse without producing conception. That's a contraceptive practice, broadly defined - just as betting on horses is gambling, broadly defined.
MB's response that "The prior post I that put up explains what the Church teaches as a definition of contraception ... NFP does not fall into that category," is exactly as convincing as Gene's hypothetical response that "My previous comment explains what my church teaches as a definition of gambling ... betting on horses does not fall into that category," would be: not at all. If Gene in that hypothetical example then tacked on insults about the critic not knowing what he was talking about, or the like, we'd say he wasn't just absurd, but rude too.
Of course, the most absurd aspect of the whole discussion about contraception is the fact that MB's church is plainly wrong. If there is anything wrong with contraception (and there is no need to debate that here or at all), it has nothing to do with how that contraception is accomplished (whether by spilling it on the ground, using a piece of latex, or only having carnal knowledge of one's wife when there is low "risk" of conception). There's nothing inherently sinful about wearing latex, or particularly righteous about keeping track of fecundity with a calendar and thermometer.
In fact, if contraception is not an illicit goal, then arguably the technique of abstaining from that kind of physical intimacy for one to two weeks a month is wrong (because although contraception is not itself an illicit goal it may be an insufficient justification for withholding sexual relations within marriage), while wearing a contraceptive device would be acceptable in God's eyes (since it would permit the continuity of sexual relations).
FURTHER UPDATE: August 3, 2008 - MB has posted yet a third post on this subject. (link - same warning as usual). MB still does not get that NFP is contraceptive behavior. He even makes the claim: "So now am I going to let these two define what is an act or is not considered to be an act by their own musings? I think not. NFP cannot be a form of contraception because there is no act causing it. There is nothing that keeps the sexual act from happening except for abstinence. In order for Bridges and Tf to be right they would have to prove that every couple not engaged in sexual intercourse would be considered to be engaging in a contraceptive act. This is complete nonsense."
MB's argument falls apart again, when one scrutinizes it logically:
1 (per MB): NFP consists of not engaging in carnal knowledge at certain times.
2 (per MB): Not engaging in carnal knowledge is not an act.
ergo: NFP is not an act, consequently NFP cannot be a contraceptive act.
At first glance, this might seem to have merit. How can not doing anything be an act? But if we apply it to an analogy, we can soon realize how foolish it is:
1 (analogy): Neglect consists in not feeding one's children.
2 (analogy): Not feeding one's children is not an act.
ergo: Neglect is not an act, and consequently cannot be an improper act.
I hope everyone realizes that such an argument is absurd.
But MB tags on a little something extra: he claims that, "In order for Bridges and Tf to be right they would have to prove that every couple not engaged in sexual intercourse would be considered to be engaging in a contraceptive act."
On the other hand, however, that's a bit like saying that to be right about the analogy one would have to prove that every family not engaged in feeding their children would be considered to be engaging in neglect. Both claims (both MB's and that of the person in the analogy) are overblown.
All we have to show is what everybody with any brains already has figured out: people who are using NFP to avoid conceiving children are engaging in a contraceptive technique. The technique even has a name: the rhythm method.
In his pontificating, MB finally decides to expose his lack of familiarity with issues relating to contraception: "We can also see that TF still does not understand what NFP is either, after I have explained it in my earlier posts, because he says its failure rate is the same as the "withdrawal method?" What? Once again I am baffled here."
But the bafflement is really not our fault. MB should do his research. Here's a link providing an example of the statistics of failure rate for NFP/rhythm method (link). Here's a link providing an example of the statistics on the failure rate of the withdrawal method (link). As you can see, the failure rate is about 20% in both cases. Of course, that's the "in practice" failure rate, as opposed to the "perfectly performed" failure rate. One hopes that MB will read and learn.
MB even goes further and complains about GB and I supposedly being reticent to admit a mistake. MB's a bit hasty in this regard. GB probably hasn't even yet seen MB's correction regarding the withdrawal method, and I did not adopt GB's position. Apparently, MB is desperate for an example of an error, and so he's trying to latch firmly on to this issue of the withdrawal method not being kosher among papists.
But before we close, let's get back to that ridiculous logic that because NFP involves abstaining from sexual relations, therefore it cannot be considered a contraceptive technique. By that logic:
1. Fasting cannot be a meritorious act, since it is simply abstaining from eating.
2. Virginity cannot be a virtuous state, since it is simply abstaining from sexual intercourse.
3. Celibacy (i.e. what many mistake for chastity) ... see (2).
4. Sobriety cannot be a virtuous lifestyle, since it is simply avoiding drunkenness.
In short, no patterns of negative behavior can be good, if no patterns of negative behavior can be bad. Of course, no good member of the church that is in communion with Benedict XVI can rightly deny the virtue of fasting, virginity, "chastity," and sobriety, even though those are primarily negative activities: abstentions from various otherwise desired acts.
NFP (i.e. the rhythm method) is just another method of conception. It may be more natural than Onanism (spilling it on the ground - sometimes equated with the withdrawal method), but it is still an intentional act (of omission) aimed at preventing reproduction. A pattern of NFP behavior in which a couple engages in sexual relations at certain times rather than others in order to avoid conception, is plainly contraceptive behavior, just as eating a small amount of food every three hours can be a weight loss technique, and limiting yourself to one beer after dinner can be a sobriety technique.
YET FURTHER UPDATE: August 3, 2008 - Not able to get enough of this subject, MB has replied yet again (link - same warning regarding prominent violation of the 2nd commandment).
Now, having demonstrated his bafflement a number of different ways, MB demonstrates that he cannot address the actual arguments presented. Instead he states: "I guess every person now who is walking the face of the earth who is married and not having sex is engaged in a contraceptive act according to TF."
That, of course, is not what I have said. NFP can be used to enhance fertility, just as it can be used to promote infertility. Couples who are not making love today in order to make love more productively tomorrow are obviously engaged in conceptive behavior, just as couples who are consciously forgoing lovemaking today to avoid conception are engaging in contraceptive activity.
NFP is to sexual activity as dieting is eating. Both are negative activities, designed to alter the consequences of the abstained-from activity in some way, as part of pattern of behavior.
Finally, MB crosses the line:
"We also see that they can make false statements like telling us the "withdrawal method" is approved by the Catholic Church, and then once they realize they are wrong the [sic] try and [sic] sidestep the issue. Unbelievable here folks. But this is par for the course when dealing with these guys. Truth has no place in their thinking."
a) Truth has no place in their thinking? That's an outrageous statement, even for Bellisario. In fact, Bellisario hasn't even waited to hear Gene's response! Talk about not caring about the truth: Bellisario is rushing to accuse Gene of not caring about the truth without waiting to see Gene's response to the claim that Gene made a mistake.
b) Par for the course when dealing with these guys? More rhetorical banter.
c) They try to sidestep the issue? It would be more accurate to say that MB has been trying to dodge the issue from square one: the issue being Catholicism's irrational distinction between contraception using the rhythm method and other forms of contraception. Whether they also accept the withdrawal method is a moot point, except for Bellisario's urgent quest to find some mistake (not matter how small) in my friend Gene's statement.
d) "They" can make false statements? Even assuming that Bellisario could establish that Catholicism condemns the withdrawal method (not just by the ordinary, but by the extraordinary magisterium), how does Gene turn into "they"? Of course, we know how it turns into "they," because it's convenient for the rhetorical opponent-bashing that MB has decided to engage in.
Finally, MB wraps up his post with a link to try to bolster the invalid distinction between contraception and natural family planning.
And again, here's another quotation from materials from the Vatican's own web site, reinforcing Gene Bridge's original comment:
"6. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication by my predecessor Pope Paul VI of the Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae. The truth about human sexuality, and the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life and on responsible parenthood, must be presented in the light of the theological development which has followed that document, and in the light of the experience of couples who have faithfully followed this teaching. Many couples have experienced how natural family planning promotes mutual respect, encourages tenderness between husband and wife, and helps develop an authentic inner freedom (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370; Humanae Vitae, 21). Their experience deserves to be shared, for it is the living confirmation of the truth which Humanae Vitae teaches. In contrast, there is a growing awareness of the serious harm caused to marital relationships by recourse to artificial contraception, which, because it inevitably thwarts the total self-giving implied in the conjugal act, at one and the same time destroys its procreative meaning and weakens its unitive significance (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 13)." (link to source - Official Vatican website)
"Their humanizing character is all the more obvious from the fact that using the natural methods requires and strengthens the harmony of the married couple, it helps and confirms the rediscovery of the marvellous gift of parenthood, it involves respect for nature and demands the responsibility of the individuals. According to many authoritative opinions, they also foster more completely that human ecology which is the harmony between the demands of nature and personal behaviour." (link to source - Official Vatican website)
UPDATE: August 4, 2008 - MB still continues to hope to deny that rhythmic contraception is contraception. (link - same warnings about a big picture that aims to portray the second person of the Trinity) It's somewhat amusing, because MB rushes to call GB a liar (as noted above). Now, when GB starts to explain himself, MB continues to suggest the GB is just making stuff up. I think it is apparent who is more familiar with the topic, between the two of them. MB claims that he has proved that "the Church" has not endorsed the withdrawal method. Of course, a more carefully reading of Gene's comments is that Gene has asserted that there is no infallible condemnation of the withdrawal method. As far as I can see from MB's 5 posts (so far) on the subject, MB has been unable to point to any infallible condemnation of the withdrawal method.
MB points to individual statements of individual popes, but while there is a sense in which such teachings are the teachings of the Church, they are not normally considered "infallible," a fact that MB very well knows.
Furthermore, while MB claims that the very general remarks that he quotes "would include the 'withdrawal method'," they certainly don't specify that method. Furthermore, MB simply fails to address GB's point that those comments have been interpreted as referring to acts involving mechanical and chemical intervention.
MB even fails to see such an interpretation popping out at him from a quotation be pulls down from the Official Vatican web site: "Their experience deserves to be shared, for it is the living confirmation of the truth which Humanae Vitae teaches. In contrast, there is a growing awareness of the serious harm caused to marital relationships by recourse to artificial contraception, which, because it inevitably thwarts the total self-giving implied in the conjugal act, at one and the same time destroys its procreative meaning and weakens its unitive significance." (emphasis added for those who have trouble reading)
And, of course, as noted above - this is all just a minor tangent as far as I am concerned. Everyone sees that Catholicism promotes rhythmic contraception, whether or not anyone wants to argue about their promotion of other kinds of non-artificial contraception.
Additionally, MB provides an article that attempts to dissect the various intentions in rhythmic contraception as distinct from other kinds of contraception. The clarity of the article leaves something to be desired. But it reduces to this:
1. There is an intention to do the act (drink an elixir or abstain from sex); and
2. There is an intention for the act (to avoid conceiving children).
The problem with the attempt to divide these intentions (and it is not an invalid distinction), is that the condemnation of other forms of contraception than the rhythm method must incorporate the type (2) intention, while to permit rhythmic contraception, one must ignore type (2) intention.
In other words, there is nothing sinful about intending to wear latex or drink a draught of chemicals. There's nothing intrinsically evil about latex or progesterone (or whatever). There's nothing intrinsically evil about putting on one or drinking the other. If anything makes their use wrong, it is the type (2) intention: the intention that the act is aimed: avoiding conception.
But the same is true of rhythmic contraception. The acts of measuring body temperature and mucosal quality, and scheduling intercourse are not intrinsically evil, but (assuming that contraception is an illicit end) the use to which scheduling is put can be wrong.
In other words, the attempt to assert that it is ambiguity in "intent" that leads to a distinction between rhythmic and other kinds of contraception is not a legitimate attempt. It fails, as has been demonstrated.
UPDATE: August 4, 2008 - Mr. Bellisario has not yet had enough of the topic of contraception. Although he offers no defense of the faulty logic, he throws around a few insults and links to yet another article that he thinks proves that NFP is not contraception. Ironically, even the abstract of the article distinguishes between "artificial" contraception and NFP. (link to Bellisario's insult-riddled post - with the same warning as above, that one will be exposed to an enormous attempted portrayal of my Lord and Savior, the Alpha and Omega).
There is some sense in which the article that MB links to, attempts to address the objection that rhythmic contraception is just another form of contraception. It doesn't do so by the ipse dixit approach ("we just define contraception thus and so"), but by distinguishing the moral basis.
The core of the article's argument is this:
There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as moving the sexual act from one time to another time. Suppose one wants to say the act is “moved” from a fertile Monday to an infertile Friday. But one cannot say this. A human act is something that is unrepeatably defined temporally. A sexual act on Monday and a sexual act on Friday are two different acts. The act of abstaining from the sexual act on Monday and of engaging in a sexual act on Friday is not an act of transferring the sexual act from Monday to Friday, because it is a logical impossibility, strictly speaking, to transfer a specific act. The unrepeatable Monday-sexual-act cannot be moved to Friday any more than one can move the Monday itself to Friday.
This argument relies on the reader agreeing with the concept that a human act cannot be moved. In fact, such an expression is common. For example, one might say: "I will mow the lawn on Tuesday, instead of Monday this week, since Monday I will be too busy responding to articles linked by my esteemed colleague."
We would all be comfortable with such an expression. In fact it is quite an ordinary way of speaking. There's a certain poetry to saying that a specific act cannot be moved in time from one place to another, but - in fact - that is exactly what rescheduling is.
Furthermore, such rescheduling has moral significance. The law of the Sabbath provides a great example. As the reader may recall, labor is generally prohibited on the Sabbath. Consequently, it is necessary to move some labor from the Sabbath to another day. In the time of the wilderness journey, when the Sabbath was on Saturday, the people of Israel moved their food-gathering of Manna from Saturday to Friday, collecting twice as much as usual on Friday in preparation for the Sabbath (at least, those who were obedient did).
It is obvious that they are not transporting the act of gathering food through time in any mystical way, but simply rescheduling. Nevertheless, scheduling (and rescheduling) are real acts, and they do involve moving the action being scheduled from one time to another.
It may well be that "mowing the lawn on the Sabbath" and "mowing the lawn on Friday" are two "different acts" if one sophistically attempts to define the act to include the date of the act. Nevertheless, just as there is virtue in rescheduling the lawn mowing to Friday from the Sabbath (because avoiding work on the Sabbath is virtuous), there is evil in rescheduling sexual relations to avoid conceiving (if, in fact, contraception [trying to avoid conception] is an illicit end).
In short, we can see both from ordinary speech and the analogy to the Sabbath that the argument in favor of rhythmic contraception cannot be maintained on the grounds provided in the article by Alexander Pruss, to which MB linked.
UPDATE: August 5, 2008 - MB continues his campaign of accusations against my friend Gene, this time calling him a "plain liar" and an "obstacle to truth." (link - usual caveats) He compares him to Bill Clinton and says that Gene "is nothing more than a 'Slick Willy'."
Ironically, MB himself in his eagerness to find fault in my friend Gene, makes a rather fundamental lexical fallacy (i.e. that if a word can mean what one wants it to mean, that therefore it meant what one wants it to mean). It's the same fallacy we see time and time again in the form of eisegesis. It's a bit more blatant here, since MB is seemingly unwilling to read Gene's comments as part of a harmonious whole, hoping to set one of Gene's comments against another of his comments. The viva voce of Gene is ignored in favor of an attempt to make Gene say something Gene didn't mean.
Interestingly, MB's main basis for calling Gene a liar is that Gene hasn't proved Gene's assertion that Rome is not monolithic on the issue in question. I have to say, I rarely see this kind of impatient rush to accusation. MB doesn't even ask nicely, he demands. I suspect that Gene may be waiting patiently to see how much mud MB will throw and how extreme his assertions will get, before revealing his sources. In fact, having taken a peek around the Internet, I think I may be able to see where Gene is going with this.
Regardless, what is interesting is that MB has gotten so caught up in mocking and accusing (though his accusations have shifted) that he has lost sight of the bottom line.
*** end of update ***
Bottom Line: Rhythmic contraception (NFP applied to avoid conception) is a type of contraception, and (seemingly) the only kind currently widely accepted in Catholicism. It is considered "natural" and the other kinds are "artificial" or unnatural. That's the terminology Rome has adopted, and Gene got in trouble with MB for repeating. I suggest MB take it up with his bishop rather than picking on my friend Gene (who, by the way, is quite capable of defending himself, if one is willing to wait 24 hours ... check out the combox of this post).