Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Sexual morality is seldom simple
During the 1950s, a family vacation took us north of New York City, along the Hudson River. Like sardines packed in a can, many World War II ships were moored at shore. They’d been decommissioned. Mothballed.
Is the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-contraceptive morality in a similar fix, like the mothballed fleet of vintage World War II ships?
Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum supports his church’s stance on birth control: A husband’s and wife’s sex life shouldn’t disrupt natural cycles that produce babies.
Given Santorum’s conviction that using contraceptives is immoral, he sounds consistent and is in step with official Roman Catholic theology. Humanae Vitae, the 1968 Papal Encyclical, prohibits artificial contraception. Consequently, Santorum doesn’t sanction birth control. He wants to end embryonic stem-cell research. He outlaws abortion.
Santorum has a right, of course, to believe whatever he chooses regarding contraception. The Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control are allowed in the U.S. under the banner of religious freedom. However, many question whether the church’s morality should be mothballed because it’s out-of-date.
A recent CNN poll asked Americans whether birth control is wrong – against God’s will. More than 80 percent replied that contraceptive use of pills and condoms is not immoral. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics agree that contraception isn’t wrong. The respected Guttmacher Institute reports a wide majority of Catholic women of childbearing age wink at the anti-contraceptive doctrine. Two-thirds consistently use birth control devices.
Church prelates who have never carried an unplanned child press on with their moral stance against birth control. The bishops hang on to this convoluted argument: “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?”
Huh? Let me rephrase this odd argument to expose its silliness. Say I believe God wants Christians to eat green cheese because the moon is made of it. These eaters worship together as “The Green Cheese Society.” Their morning ritual dictates that everyone devours a bowl of green cheese. Although each devotee confesses to liking green cheese, the truth is that most never touch the stuff. They’re convinced the green color shows the cheese is rancid.
Does it make sense to argue that in theory, green cheese is good for digestion? If few eat it, does the prohibition matter?
Ideological purity rarely works because morality is not simple. Santorum, however, repeats simplicities to audiences who devour ideological certainty. He presents a menu that meets their demands. Santorum repeats Ronald Reagan’s credo. In his 1976 presidential run against incumbent Gerald R. Ford, Reagan roused listeners by waving a verbal “banner of no pale pastels but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on the issues troubling people.”
Speaking at Florida’s arch-conservative Ave Maria University in 2008, Santorum invoked Satan as the culprit who is pushing America into a cesspool of secularism. Wily Beelzebub, the “Father of Lies,” tells a whopper: It’s OK to use condoms and take the pill.
Church history reveals the trap of joining ideological purity to doctrinal certainty. In the early church, the apostle Paul brought gentiles into the fold. Many uncircumcised men came to Jesus. Jews for Christ practiced circumcision as a sign of God’s special relationship in a tradition rooted in circumcised Abraham. These power brokers in the church laid down the law. No uncircumcised gentile merited church membership.
The apostle Paul had to mothball such ideological purity, lest the church shrivel and die. He battled those who taught: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was called as Princeton University’s third president when the village in which the school resided was ravaged by smallpox. Edwards stirred the ire of Christian conservatives because he got inoculated. Bible believers howled in protest, arguing that inoculation was a devilish scheme the “Father of Lies” concocted to place the very germ of the disease under the skin. When Edwards developed pustules in his mouth and died of smallpox, religious conservatives replied, “You live a lie against right doctrine that rejects inoculation – you die!” Yet today, who denies the value of vaccinations?
Santorum’s belief against birth control is his right to practice. He’s campaigning, though, using a mothballed ethic that sunk in the 1960s when the pill replaced the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition against contraception.
Sometimes, ideological purity linked to doctrinal certainty loses more souls than it saves.
Ask most women.