Priests don’t understand sex

This isn’t a post about priests raping children. I’m not Catholic, nor do I have any special insight into the scandal that continues to rock the Church, year after year.

Instead, this is a post about common sense.

It’s been clear for a while now that the Church is a little embarrassed by its anti-contraceptive stance, especially when it comes to overpopulation, poverty traps, AIDS, and the third world. We hear stories about nuns handing out condoms in rural clinics far from the prying eyes of the Church leadership. Even in the developed world, many Catholics I’ve talked to personally admit that they see nothing particularly wrong with contraception and just think the Church is out of step on this issue. A section of the priesthood in America at least actively ignores Church teachings on contraception, or just doesn’t make a big deal out of it.

And that’s understandable. Official church doctrine can’t just change overnight, so a shadow, unwritten, “living doctrine” has emerged that adapts to modern needs. Think of Constitutional law in the US. We have an 18th Century document governing a 21st century nation. The document itself says nothing about freedom of movement, non-discrimination based on gender, the right to marry, the right to education, and so on. Yet all of those crucial freedoms have grown up into a shadow, unwritten, “living Constitution.” In many ways it’s unfortunate that some of our foundational ideals aren’t written down in our most basic law. But it makes sense given how politically difficult it is to amend the Constitution.

In the end, the the ambiguous status of contraception and sex within the Church — the official doctrine disapproves, while a growing shadow consensus says, “eh, whatever” — isn’t terribly surprising. In fact, it ought to be expected by someone who understands the politics of large organizations. But one unfortunate outcome is that church officials who try to reconcile their official doctrine with informal accommodations just end up sounding completely stupid.

Case in point: this guy. Here’s the BBC’s interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols:

Any form of birth control that might interfere with conception, such as condoms or the Pill, is regarded as sinful by the Catholic Church. The Church also argues that, in any case, all children should be welcomed as a gift from God. … [Quoting Archbishop Vincent Nichols], “I think when it comes to Third World poverty and the great pressure under which many women are put by men, I can see the arguments, why, in the short term, [the] means that give women protection are attractive.” … “If we solve the poverty, then consistently we know that the birth rate comes down. If we provide people with security, then consistently birth rates will come down. And they’re the radical issues that we should be addressing, not short-term intrusive fixes.”

Sorry, Archbishop, but you clearly don’t understand sex. “Solving poverty” doesn’t bring down birth rates on its own. If you give a Bangladeshi woman living in poverty with 5 kids already to her name a sudden infusion of cash that can bring her living standard up to US average, she will not magically become less fertile. The real reason that birthrates fall as incomes rise is that richer people have more knowledge of, access to, and ability to afford contraception. Period. [Pun intended].

It’s almost as if this priest’s basic reasoning functions have been attenuated by the drive to rationalize the Church’s awkward, contradictory stances on sex.

We shouldn’t necessarily expect a unitary Church doctrine that makes sense within itself and in relation to the real world. We ought to expect a messy, contradictory mish-mash that is the result of centuries of political and ideological compromises and a rapidly changing secular world. But we can at least expect some basic common sense reasoning from the Church. I realize all churches are political, but it’s just embarrassing when your religious leader sounds like a politician trying his best to avoid answering the question.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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