Vile Bodies

Battle lines

            In 2009 Intelligence Squared staged a debate between two representatives of the Catholic Church, Archbishop John Oniakin and Ann Widdecombe, and two representatives of the more combative end of the secular intelligentsia, Stephen Fry and the late Christopher Hitchens.  The motion for the debate was ‘The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.’  Given the historical, geographical, sociological, anthropological and political complexity of the Catholic Church, this makes as much sense as asking whether the United Kingdom is a force for good in the world, and the result was perhaps inevitable.

The Archbishop made a nice speech, which included reference to the amount of work done in providing schools and hospitals under the auspices of the Catholic Church in the African experience.  That experience was clearly irrelevant to their adversaries (and most of those in the room) who were keen to point out the disastrous effects of banning the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS on the same continent.   Hitchens, a wonderful, trenchant rhetorician, inevitably made hay with the child-abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy and religious.  He and Fry made common cause in denouncing the Church’s stance on gay rights (at the time the gay adoption issue was to the fore).  The crusades came up, of course, and the choice of the book-burning Thomas More as patron saint of Europe.  Ann Widdecombe would have needed the charm of Orpheus to win the audience back.  What she had were some stock answers on these topics trenchantly delivered, some of which would doubtless have been persuasive to a different public.   Apparently the audience had been evenly split at the beginning of the debate, but by the end of it, the motion had sunk without trace.

            Roundabout the same time I listened to a leading Roman Catholic churchman address an audience in Oxford on the subject of different sorts of intolerance, religious and secular.  My memory may be doing him an injustice, but religious intolerance, I think, was briefly evidenced by the real difficulties affecting Christians in some Islamic countries, while secular intolerance was evidenced by the refusal of several western governments (including the UK) to make space for conscientious Catholic objection to certain gay rights (civil partnership and adoption).

So sexual freedom versus family values is becoming a defining issue in an emerging culture war between a state that desires to be neutral in matters of religion and an increasingly vocal Roman Catholic minority that desires its specific concerns to be democratically recognised.  ‘War’ is probably an exaggeration, though it makes a good rallying cry.  At this stage it is more like a squabble at a coffee morning.   But the differences are real and very public.  Like any good political debate it needs to simplify its arguments into a form that any party member can squeeze onto their cuffs.   Like all good cuff-based quarrels, it frequently manifests itself as a clash of the porcupines.   It is these I want to take time to explore in this essay.

First a couple of caveats: all matters concerning sex are complicated by the fact that people tend to have a very deep commitment to views that reflect their own personal sexual choices.  We all need to know that whatever we have done is basically all right.  We are affirmed as long as other people have and use the freedom to do the same. But as a result, to attack a view or a freedom is to attack us, and none of us is at our most reasonable when under personal attack.  Matters concerning the Church and sex are further complicated by the fact that it is in open forum very strict and in closed forum, often surprisingly understanding.  Add to this that its moral authority to judge other people’s sexual behaviour is seriously weakened by its institutional failures in matters of child abuse, and there can seem little reason for a non-Church person to listen to the Church.  That is not, however, to say that it might not occasionally have a point worth noting.

            At this stage let’s recall the characteristic of a porcupine argument.  It is an argument that starts from preconceived principles and draws its conclusions about what must be the case, without reference to any context or lived experience that might challenge that conclusion.

A secular porcupine

            We begin with a secular sexual porcupine.  Fry made a revealing remark in the course of his presentation at the London debate.   He spoke up against the Church’s demonization of sex and added a remark to the effect, ‘sex is fun’.  Almost immediately he corrected himself and added that of course it could go wrong and do damage.  But his first statement points us to an important and powerful view of the place of sex in human affairs that can lead to unhelpfully porcupine reasoning.

The view can perhaps be put in this way: sex is a legitimate natural pleasure that human beings can legitimately enjoy, provided only that those who do so are doing so of their own free will.  This is a private matter in which neither the state, nor anyone else, should interfere.   We freely choose.  We will therefore have fun.

Well, we might indeed be freely committing ourselves to a way of living out our sexuality.  But whether or not it’s all fun, only experience will tell.  Fry’s correction points us to the darker side of sexual experience, from which our optimistic principle cannot protect us.  In our ethical imagination there is a wall between rape, and the abuse of children and vulnerable adults – all of which we rightly look at with horror – and the rest of adult sexual behaviour.  But it is very unlikely that the boundary between a consenting adult and a vulnerable adult, however old or intelligent, is so solid.   There lurks here an uncomfortable tension between protecting sexual freedoms and protecting people from sexual harm that needs to be articulated and reflected on in the public sphere.

If we explore the level of experience more deeply, it seems likely that for very many people sex is inextricably bound up with needs for security, relationship, tenderness and (occasionally) offspring.  Given that we are the product of a billion year evolutionary history, it is hardly surprising that it is not entirely up to us to decide in advance the meaning, force and effects of our sexual behaviour by the pure power of reason.   De facto there will always be more and deeper emotional meaning than we rationally intend – for good and for ill.

            For related reasons we can also question whether it could be always true that sex is an essentially private affair.  Sex is after all how we bring children into the world.  Both bringing children into the world and not bringing children into the world affects the society we live in.  Accordingly the network of relationships supporting our children and enabling them to be good and happy members of that society is something that that society has an interest in.   But any discussion about how a society can promote optimal child-rearing networks (whatever they may turn out to be) will inevitably be entangled with the choices individuals make in their personal relationships.

How far can we balance reasonable autonomy and the common good?  How can a social system of expectations regarding sex and relationships become acceptable to the greatest possible number of reasonable individuals?  Here again lurks a tension that needs publicly to be resolved sine ira et studio.

Catholic Porcupines

            Two of the Catholic positions mentioned in the London debate, the use of condoms in AIDS prevention (don’t) and adoption by gay couples (don’t), have a curious profile.  To win a public argument, you have to find the sort of grounds that everyone can agree on.  In the case of AIDS, everyone wants to reduce the number of cases, so we can all agree that whatever action reduces that number should be undertaken and whatever increases that number should be avoided.   So, in one public forum a piece of research was quoted that suggested that simply promoting condom use increased AIDS.  The implication was that the Catholic position (don’t) was actually correct in a way that everyone could understand, because it gave a better outcome.  However, on closer inspection, this smacks slightly of grabbing the first bit of china on the mantelpiece to throw at your opponent (we have all done this under pressure and in the pub).

The problem is this, the statistic, even if correct, does not show that there will not be cases where judicious promotion of condom use as part of a more evolved and more deeply educating strategy might have a positive role to play – which is the claim of those who maintain that the ABC programme (condoms being the C) has had significant success.   One could make an analogous argument based on the data about the casual use of antibiotics and the rise of superbugs.  But this would not be an argument against the judicious use of antibiotics.    Statistical arguments are only as strong as their attention to detail, and they tell us nothing directly about causation.

A couple of similar china-grabbing movements were made in the case of gay adoption.  One interesting effort was the ‘religious freedom’ argument.  It runs roughly as follows.  The state has a duty to protect religious freedoms.  On religious grounds Catholics do not think it right for gay couples to adopt.  Therefore the state must agree that they should not be forced to help gay couples to adopt.  This makes the question comparable to being allowed to wear the headscarf in public places, or being allowed to make the sign of the cross in public.   Such a move is, however, more than a little disingenuous.  Catholics are actually making a much stronger claim about a civil right to pass judgment on other peoples lives and capacities, on religious grounds. Gay couples should never be allowed to adopt children.  They are, so runs the claim, in principle unfitted to the task.  It is a claim that might make Catholics socialized into a post World War II secular culture uncomfortable, especially if they have gay friends (substitute ‘gypsy’, ‘jew’ or ‘underclass’ into the previous sentence to see why).

A further argument attempts to help others accept this principle using the common ground of rights, specifically the right of a child to a male and female parent.  However, it is extraordinarily difficult to see what such a right could possibly mean in practice.   What does it mean for children whose mother or father has died, who are being brought up by relatives or in care homes?  What binding force could it possibly have, except to say ‘don’t’ in the very specific cases of gay adoption or the various IVF options for gay couples (for which the notion was devised)?  If we are talking about what is desirable for a child’s flourishing, it is very plausible to say that a mother and a father are highly desirable, where the vicissitudes of life allow.  However, my guess would be that other things being equal, personal parenting qualities and capacities together with the quality of the wider support network would be at least as significant as the gender and number of parents.

Which takes us to the porcupine.  To justify the position of refusing to allow gay adoption, we must make the pre-evidential claim that a child cannot in any respects flourish if brought up by a gay couple.   Now this might sometimes be true.  It has sometimes been true that the children of heterosexual couples have had miserable upbringings.  Some people should never be allowed to have the care of children.  However it seems highly unlikely to be true that this must apply to every case of same-sex parenting that there will ever be.  Think of the personal qualities of the gay couples you know and think of the different circumstances in which children you know have flourished.   A universal claim only requires one counter-example to be falsified.  The argument tells us in advance what our experience must be while our experience says, no, that is not how it is.  There is more to our reality than the argument’s logic will allow.

We could try and rescue our argument by reinterpreting it.  What we might be doing is conflating our (implausible) argument of principle with a (more plausible) hypothesis, which we could establish on the basis of human sociobiology, that other things being equal a child might have a statistically greater likelihood of flourishing with a male and female parent, than in other forms of upbringing.   This is a much more plausible claim and might very well be true (I don’t know).  However such an argument no longer provides the basis for the absolute prescription we require.   Statistics describe what happens but they don’t guarantee results.  Statistically, as a male I am more likely to be faster and stronger than the female sitting opposite me in the library.   The fact of the matter will only be proved in the race to the coffee shop.  If I formulate a rule on the basis of the statistic ‘always get the bloke to run for the coffee’ that rule will often, but not always yield the best outcome.  It is for this reason that sociological (and religious) universalisations about (for instance) one-parent families are so irritating to those single parents whose children are turning into normal, amiable human beings.  It is also for this reason that such argument cannot be used to exclude gay adoption in principle.


            But of course, as any fule no, the real reason why the Church does not want condoms used is not because it believes they increase the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Rather it is because it has a principled objection to all forms of artificial contraception.   Similarly in the gay adoption case the underlying issue is not what may or may not be better for children, but the Church’s continued commitment to a very specific view of human sexuality and its exercise rooted and re-rooted in various natural law traditions and the Jewish and Christian scriptures.   The Church cannot be seen publicly to do anything sanctioning that particular way of life.  Awareness of this underlying agenda makes non-Catholic audiences understandably sceptical towards the Church’s efforts to find ‘common-ground’ reasons to get other people to do what it wants.

            But here at least we can begin to talk more honestly.   We can name what we collectively care about.  We recognise ourselves dealing with attitudes and beliefs that are culturally evolved and reinforced from generation to generation.   Alongside and deeper than Church teachings, there is an unarticulated sense of family, family ties, the way families ‘ought to be’, the role of families in community life, God as the creator and source of life, children as the gift of God, the sacredness of the means of communicating life, sexuality as a destructive fury left to itself, but a powerful blessing if duly consecrated and socialized.  This visceral sense of the way things ought to be seems to take us to a primal world of social and sacred experience.  Arguments that threaten this world and its order also have a porcupine quality – they deny our pre-reflective experience of ‘rightness’.

John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’

John Paul II has probably done more than anyone else to find a formulation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality which yields all the right ‘don’ts’ and does justice to those primal senses of sexual rightness and wrongness found within and beyond the Catholic community.   He has created a ‘Theology of the Body’ that yields possibly the most positive account of human sexuality to be found in official Church writings.  It offers a vision of the place of human sexuality in married life and the meaning of celibacy outside it that is noble, romantic and for many people inspirational. In making our choices and shaping our lives there is an important place for imagination and narrative, alongside rules and maxims.  John Paul’s narrative offers a rich alternative to the cruder ‘sex is fun’ accounts of that inescapably significant part of our human selves.

I give a detailed account and critique of this theory in the section attached (see appendix).  Here I want to focus on the way the theory tries to yield rules in the two areas highlighted by the London debate.  Beautiful, admirable and inspirational though the theory is, and rooted as it is in that visceral, shared experience of sexual ‘rightness’, it has elements at its heart that form a porcupine argument.  I believe positive development of the theory is possible, but unless the porcupine is dealt with honestly, the theory is fatally flawed as a universal account of human sexuality and is an obstacle to fruitful dialogue with the wider world.

John Paul holds that our bodies, male or female are not simply material objects in the universe.  By their very nature, they convey a meaning and tell a story and that story is about marriage.   In complementary ways, they ‘speak’ of a personal self-gift, which bears fruit in childbirth.  They also speak of the covenantal relationship with the creator God and the life of the Trinity.   However, we, as we are, in our individual sexual choices can contradict the ‘intrinsic meaning’ of our bodies.  When we do this, we are ‘lying’ and doing what is wrong.

This is an interesting way of deducing the source of ‘wrongness’ of actions and has similarities to Kant’s famous categorical imperative.  Kant suggested that we (rationally) judge if an action is right or wrong, by deciding if we could turn it into a law obeyed by all rational beings.  The key to this moral test is consistency.  If a type of action (stealing) would be self-contradictory when turned into a law (let everyone steal) then that tells us that the action is wrong.  Similarly, John Paul claims that if our intentional actions contradict the narrative of our bodies then they are wrong and when they affirm that narrative they are right.

John Paul was above all interested in justifying previous Papal teaching on artificial contraception.  We can now see how his test does so.  To have sex with the intention of not conceiving a child is to deny the narrative of your body.  This is a lie and is therefore wrong.   Moreover, (though this was not John Paul’s primary concern when he worked on it) it is easy to see how the test could be applied to other areas of sexuality, including active homosexuality, as it has been by subsequent authors.  In contrast, on the positive side, for those that engage in intercourse in the married state and with pure intention, there is the bliss and innocence of Eden and participation in the life of the Trinity.

It is plausible to suggest that listening to one’s body in the area of sexual activity might be a good thing and lead us to a way of living out our sexuality that is in some recognisable sense better for us.  Indeed, after half a century of trial and error, there may be emerging as a side effect of the Church’s insistence on natural family planning a sort of Green Sex movement, which is not limited to the concerns of Catholics.  Such listening would equally apply to our eating, drinking and work-life balance.   The porcupine, however, makes its first appearance in the implicit claim that we all share a body-self independent of the particular body-self that we might actually try and listen to.  The problem is, what would such an artificial, idealised body-self actually have to do with the real us?

We can see this better when we look at the theory’s programmatic claims.   If we get sex right, our bodies are quasi-angelic, participating in prelapsarian bliss.  The sacred orgasm.  If we get it wrong, everything is vitiated.  Vile bodies, lying relationships.   Maybe that’s how things actually feel for many people, but I would be surprised if it corresponded to everyone’s experience all the time.   And such universal claims are vulnerable to just one counter-example in the history of humanity.  It could be argued that ‘what it feels like’ is not the issue, but if that is so, then what do the claims (either positive or negative, heaven or hell) actually mean beyond the prohibitions they are trying to justify?

This leads us to the last two porcupines.  A visiting preacher at a Church where I once worked came and spoke at length on a variety of topics, including the Church’s teaching on contraception and the theology of the body.  Afterwards a distinguished academic and stalwart of the congregation commented (unfavourably) that it was the first time that he had heard the use of artificial contraception compared to adultery.  This is however language that develops out of the argument just sketched.  It is a simple, if not crude, set of equivalences.  Adultery is the prime example of a sexual lie that breaks the covenant, and is a metaphor for all sexual lies.  The use of artificial contraception is a sexual lie that breaks the covenant.  Therefore the use of artificial contraception renders a relationship adulterous.

It takes a bold celibate, extremely confident in his theory (and in his right to bear prophetic witness about other people’s love lives) to stand up and tell a hundred couples who have shared their joys and sorrows, reared children in sometimes difficult circumstances as best they can – and endeavoured to do so as part of the Church community – that their relationship has actually been adulterous all along.  Once again we find the extreme implication that nothing of what they have shared has any value.  But this seems almost completely counter-intuitive to anyone not committed to the argument and is clearly contrary to the rich experience of those in the congregation.

We can see similar universal claims about meaning and experience in this extract from a recent popular text explaining the Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

‘homosexual sex, male or female, sees no sense in the idea that our flesh is made by God as a gift to another’.

This statement has some logic if we accept that acts have intrinsic meanings and intentions independent of the meanings and intentions of those who are involved in them.   However an abstract claim about abstract bodies is not particularly interesting to real ones.  To make it interesting, we have to personalize it.  But the moment we substitute ‘homosexuals’ for ‘homosexual sex’ and ‘their’ for ‘our’, the statement ceases to look remotely plausible as a universal claim.  Many will know homosexual couples who are deeply religious, who choose lifelong commitment to one another and for whom physical tenderness is a real and important part of that commitment.   Again the argument yields:

‘The Church hopes that homosexual persons can form loving friendships, but if these become genital they cause deadly harm to our faith, our dignity as made in God’s image and our development as persons’.

As in the adulterous contraception case the argument yields a universal claim that assigns zero value to what may be a lifetime’s partnership.  This may well correspond to the experience of some people, among them zealous proponents of the argument.  However it bears little if any relation to the lives of those Catholics I know who are in same-sex partnerships.  The evidence-light, prescriptive, binary flip from all to nothing again fails to do justice to the richness and complexity of lived experience.

Useful conversations

The church makes strong public claims in a number of areas about how society ought to be organized.  Some of those claims might well be plausible to people who are not Christians.   However, many of the premises for them are not shared by those with whom the church wants to engage.  The arguments about sexual matters are especially difficult, because everyone comes to the table with deeply personal reasons for accepting one sexual narrative rather than another.  The temptation is to use whatever looks like a structured argument to promote one’s viewpoint.  But that is exactly the way we end up proudly clutching our porcupines.  These often play well to a home crowd, but they massively inhibit adult conversation between opposed parties.

If secularists and Church people are serious in their desire to work out the best way of dealing with human sexuality as a shared social reality (and they really do need each other to work this one out) then they need to lay aside the porcupines, and recognize the complexity of experience, for the greater good of humanity.  Oddly the Church has the resources to do this.  There is a huge amount of collective wisdom in the pastoral experience of priests, religious and lay men and women, which is far more subtle and humane than the public rhetoric would suggest.  It is perhaps time for the rhetoric to change so that that deeper reality in the experience of the Church can be acknowledged and shared.