In Book IV of his Confessions St. Augustine refers to his own youthful sexual relationship with a woman. "Not", he says, "in that which is called a lawful marriage", but evidently it was in what would nowadays be called a de facto one, for she was his only partner, to whom he apparently remained faithful during the period of the relationship. In that relationship he experienced, as he goes on to say, "what difference there is between the self-restraint of the marriage-covenant, for the sake of issue, and the bargain of a lustful love, where children are born against their parents' will, although, once born, they constrain love."
Such difference was more clear-cut in Augustine's day than it is today. There was certainly abortion and no doubt some elementary form of contraception was practised to prevent the conception of an "unwanted" child, both within and without lawful marriage. But generally it was understood that within marriage sexual intercourse was "for the sake of issue", if there was more to love between husband and wife than that. Outside lawful marriage, the sexual relationship was not for the sake of issue, but for the sake of the parties themselves. It did tend to be "the bargain of a lustful love". There was more cause therefore to employ means to prevent conception or birth of a child in this extra-marital relationship. The general picture, then, is that the birth of a child was "a happy event" within lawful marriage, even if "unexpected", but outside of marriage a matter of mixed feelings, even without taking into account the social stigmas then involved in having a child outside wedlock.
In relatively recent times the picture has changed, and in certain respects changed dramatically. Perhaps one may put the change as the virtual disappearance of the difference that Augustine alludes to. The notion of self-restraint has all but vanished from the marriage-covenant, as has the idea that it is in any way "for the sake of issue". Indeed, the force of Augustine's distinction between a covenant (a contract based upon solemn promises or vows) and a simple bargain (hardly binding) would not now be noticed. Even the law today makes no effective distinction between what is a lawful marriage and what is not. De iure and de facto come to the same. What is more the change has almost all been by way of reducing the marriage-covenant to the love-bargain. In general terms St. Augustine would have some difficulty in distinguishing "the marriage-covenant" of today from "the bargain of a lustful love".
What does this mean for the child or issue of the union? Well, it is mostly not good news. There are some incidental side-effects that from some particular child's point of view are good, such as the disappearance of the social and legal status of illegitimacy. Generally, however, the child loses not only its legitimacy within the family as a social and legal institution but also its very right to begin to be, let alone to be born, as a natural outcome of the life-long committed personal love of man and woman. It is simply not in the equation. "We will to make love", but "we do not necessarily will to make what love makes". The natural connection between sexual intercourse and human generation has been broken. The connection when now made will be purely voluntary. The right of the child to have life from the love of its parents has been replaced by the right of the parents to have the child, if they choose to.
One does not of course talk of the child's rights in the strict sense before it is conceived. But one can speak on its behalf, as it were, where there is a deliberate attempt to frustrate or abort its beginning. Contraception is not necessarily homicide, as is the abortion of a human foetus, but, as I believe St. Thomas notes somewhere, it is "next to homicide". There is indeed a connection between contraception and abortion as noted in Evangelium Vitae: "But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree". Contraception, which has become almost universally acceptable, expresses perfectly the contradiction of lovers denying what such love naturally desires.
Sadly, however, it seems rather pointless now to argue against contraception. For we have moved on from that fundamental issue. The current concerns have to do with the consequences of the breach of the natural connection between sexual intercourse and human generation. The argument now is in terms of the "rights" of the adults in regard to sexual love ("lustful love" in a more honest language), on the one hand, and to a child, as something lovable in its own right, on the other. It seems that we have settled the main issues to our satisfaction with regard to the first. Divorced from its natural connection with generation sexual activity can see no reason for self-restraint beyond what might be bad for one's health. All sorts of sexual behaviour that before were considered unnatural are therefore indulged in without restraint. These deadly deviations from morality, moreover, have acquired legitimacy in the eyes of the law. The idea of sex only within a lawful marriage seems to belong to the long distant past.
So the argument has moved quickly on to the second area of concern. Supposing that I would like to have a child, why should I be prevented from having that pleasure? The logic is hard to resist, once the natural connection of human generation with sexual intercourse between man and woman is broken. Science itself, indeed, seems to be conspiring with the critics of the connection. With modern means of producing children by IVF what need is there for the physical act of intercourse of a man with a woman? Moreover, if the child has no rights (no more than a piglet) to an upbringing by its "biological" parents, why cannot anyone who is able to care for the child be able to acquire it?
Those who have misgivings about these modern "developments" in our notion of the family endeavour to fight a rear-guard action. So, initially, IVF is limited to married couples, then extended to de facto relationships between man and woman. But it is amazing how rational logic can overpower natural feeling. What is the relevance of marriage in the traditional sense of a union of man and woman, de iure or de facto, if it is merely a question of providing for the child's needs, physical and psychological? Plato thought that the State could do just as good a job as any in this regard. Socialism and Communism think likewise. And what are we to make of Feminism? Is Extreme Feminism putting a caricature of woman in much the same dominant position as the State in Socialism? In its radical form is it the new form of self-satisfied political rationalism that debunks traditional attitudes, and any appeal to natural law or religion? Is what was previously ridiculed as relics of a bourgeois dominated economy now being vilified as vestiges of a male dominated culture?
Experimental social science is called in aid of the ideology of political rationalism, whatever form it takes. The facts are, the statistics prove, that many if not most children are now raised by single women. What is the relevance of a man, let alone a married one? It is easy to see how the right to have a child translates into a right of the single woman to have a child and then subtly shifts into an argument for lesbians to have a child by IVF and raise it without a father. That is how far the logic of the matter has driven us, if the legislators are not yet quite prepared to accept this particular conclusion.
Where will it all end? Who knows? It is quite certain, however, that the child is debased in the whole argument. It is in principle degraded to the level of an artefact, a toy to be possessed for the adults' good pleasure, something to be experimented with in the scientists' inordinate desire for knowledge and power. This does not mean that the people concerned have forsaken their human feelings and moral sense. But if they exercise them it is despite the logic that is driven by the original contradiction introduced into our thinking about sexuality by the practice of contraception.
But we must protest. We have no right to even consider distinguishing between children as "wanted" and "unwanted". The very suggestion of having them made to order is an affront to the human dignity of the child. No one, woman or man, has any such "right" to a child. We have a right to look after and care for a child that might in the course of things (natural) be born to those of us who are prepared to accept the personal and social conditions necessary to ensure its nurture and education. For that is simply the other side of an obligation to the child. The traditional expression that a child is God-given is much closer to expressing the real relationship between parent and child. The relationship at the most fundamental level is that of person to person, not of person to possession. But the latter is how the argument has been changed in the wonderful cultural shift in thinking about these matters.
It has become "technologically possible" now to produce foetuses on order. So, some believe, our moral sense has to evolve to deal with the "challenges to the established rules" thrown up by IVF and all the new bio-technologies. It is not hard to see how the status of the child has been diminished for the purposes of the argument, as is done when it is more in the interest of the adult person to dispose of the infant person, as just a foetus.
In order to bolster the argument, it becomes necessary to debase the notion of "nature" in relation to morality. Those who have succumbed to the "new morality" are not impressed with any suggestion that it is natural for a child to have a father and a mother, not only to bring it into the world, but also to raise and care for it. They trot out some rather tired arguments based on the association of "natural" with what is merely physical, or with what is primitive, or even with what is immoral. The subtleties of the use by moralists of "natural" as more aligned with what is rational, civilised and virtuous seem to be beyond them. They are thus able to set up a false antithesis between (human) nature and human culture; this enables them to treat morality as purely culture-determined. Bring on the new technology/culture.
Such progressive thinkers will find many a sympathetic ear. But they will also find that the vulgarity of our thinking on matters of sex and gender has "evolved" possibly more than they would be comfortable with. For in matters of morality our theory tends to follow our practice, rather than the other way round. Once we have debased ourselves in regard to only one moral principle our thinking cannot but be falsified in all that follows. In Vitio Falsitas.
Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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