Morality Plays

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Morality comes in three flavors: moral, amoral, immoral–good, null, evil. Eating by itself is amoral. Eating to nourish the body and maintain health is moral. Over-eating (aka, gluttony) or eating poison to commit suicide is immoral. Climbing stairs by itself is amoral. Climbing stars as part of a fitness exercise program is moral. Climbing stairs to rob someone's apartment is immoral. Running into the street is amoral. Running into traffic to commit suicide is immoral. Running into traffic to save a child's life is highly moral. The purpose or objective is what gives actions their morality. (We have no less of an authority on this last point than Thomas Aquinas (aka Thomas of Aquino).)

Aquinas (1225:1274)

The preceding does not imply that the end justifies the means. If the overall goal of some activity is moral, that fact does not justify a part of the activity which is inherently immoral. The immoral part remains immoral regardless of high-minded intentions. Mass murder is not justified because a coat is need to stay warm on a cold winter day. The distinction between means and ends is artificial–there is no real difference between the two. They are both part of the same activity.

We tend to think of events as discrete entities, with a start and an ending. However, actions take place in time and time is continuous, not discrete. [Review Zeno's Paradox and the concept of time. READ MORE: The Time of Aquinas.]

Life is a process; it has no exact start or ending. There is no exact moment of conception; there is no exact moment of death. We can measure an event to the second with a clock. We can measure an event to one-hundredth of a second with a stop watch. We can measure an event to a billionth of a second with a computer. No matter how exact we are, it is always possible to be more precise. Our measurements are only arbitrary estimates.

Actions are part of the process we call life. They ebb and flow. Sometimes an activity can be very intense; sometime an activity can be very relaxed. Activities can be interrupted. We can change our mind and stop an activity. Or we can change course and do the reverse. Many activities never get completed and just wither away. Actions consist of sub-actions, which in turn have their own component actions. All the parts are intertwined and blended together. Most of us are engaged in several activities at a time. It's all part of the process.

Take murder for example–something we can all agree is immoral. It usually begins with anger. Then a search for revenge. Probably some indecision before a conclusion is reached. Time passes. A gun is purchased. Second thoughts. Time passes. Drive to target's location. Stop for hamburger on the way. Bend index finger. BANG! It is an involved process–not just a simple squeezing of the trigger. No clearly defined start. Some vacillation. A lot of neutral activity along the way. Some of the neutral activity is immoral (gun purchase, driving car, bending finger), because it is part of the murder. What starts out as a minor moral infraction escalates into a major offense against God. The entire process is the morally evil act.

So, where is this headed? To the one place where I have a disagreement with my Church–artificial birth control. The Church's official position is flat out WRONG. (I must admit to have changed my position on this matter 180º since my youth.) It is my impression that even a majority of the clergy disagree with the Church's official position. Although as dutiful sons of the Church, they do so in private rather than in public. Even the Church's official position acknowledges a moral role for natural family planning. No one suggests that every act of sexual intercourse has to result in pregnancy. Nor is there any form of birth control which is 100% effective. (The exception being abstinence.) It's just a matter of changing the odds that pregnancy will occur.

Now, the Church acknowledges that, depending on the reason, natural family planning can be a moral activity. People who use artificial birth control have the same goal as those who use natural family planning. Thus the dispute is over means (or sub-activity) rather than moral purpose.

First, let's get past the name calling–artificial vs. natural. We live in an artificial world. We eat artificially grown tomatoes. We see with artificial glasses. Our home provides artificial shelter. We fly in artificial airplanes. There is nothing immoral about using or doing any of these unnatural things or activities because they are artificial.

The Church's policy seems to be: You play; you pay–at least when it comes to sex–actually, only when it come to sex. In other words: if you enjoy sexual activity, then you must accept the consequence of your action and the chance of pregnancy. Now contrast that with the Church's policy on artificial sweeteners–you know, those little pastel packets of white granules we put into our coffee. I can't tell you how much I enjoy all the wonderful pleasures of drinking cans of diet cream soda without accepting any of the caloric consequences of drinking natural cream soda and the ensuing health issues. Am I an immoral glutton? No.

Artificial birth control is NOT inherently immoral. In fact, there are occasions when it is the morally superior action–such as sexual activity between unmarried couples or between spouses if one has an STD. I understand nuns caught in the middle of civil wars have used birth control pills to prevent conception in the event of rape.

Natural family planning is really just intermittent sex. But we cannot just look at the sexual encounters. We must consider the whole activity–having sex when there is a low probability of conception and not having sex when there is a high probability of conception–in effect, trying to thwart the natural process of having intercourse spontaneously when the mood strikes, as an expression of love, rather than clinical event unnaturally scheduled by the calendar.

I must conclude that there is absolutely no moral difference between natural family planning and artificial birth control. Both can be either moral or immoral, depending on the purpose of the participants–depending of the morality of the overall activity, which can extend over many, many years. The means are inherently amoral–they take their morality from the overall activity or process.

What is the solution? Is there a way out for the Church? Can it dig itself out of the hole in which it finds itself? Yes, emphatically! How do we get away from the Thomistic concept that artificial birth control is:

The Church (that means you and me, as well as the clergy) needs to expand its horizons–get the big picture–redefine or re-emphasize the sacrament of marriage. It is not about the too-short acts of coitus. Marriage is primarily about creating the best environment for nurturing children. Sexual activity is part of creating a loving atmosphere for children, potential children, and even grandchildren. This is a quintessentially moral action.

Perhaps the Pope (the next Pope) will be inspired to write an encyclical. Meanwhile, the rest of us can pray that God so inspire the Pope. (We pray for him every Sunday, don't we?) And we can politely speak out and publish–bearing witness to the truth. We need to take the high ground in this debate and put the other guys on defense. We should not feel guilty and sneak around in the dark. We need some grass-roots activity–like troops in a Trojan horse, we need to wage our moral attack from inside the walls. We will find many allies on the inside. Perhaps, we can get involved in Pre-Cana education, Marriage-Encounter get-aways, and the like–which will give us an opportunity to promote our agenda. And we can educate our children–sooner or later they will become bishops and popes. Why is this so important? Because the Church is squandering its moral authority. It appears to be a bunch of cranky old men who are completely out of touch with the real world. This needs to change. Long live the Church!

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