Thursday, May 21, 2015

Parable: In a Pickle

Here's my latest at the Ink Desk.


I tried to lecture the Dirt Eater. "It's a disgusting habit," I said. "Eating dirt - which has no nutritional value, and some of the dirt you eat - straight from the manure pile! No wonder so many of you Dirt Eaters are malnourished and pick up various intestinal infections."

"People who eat what you call real food get sick, too," the Dirt Eater responded. "You may die from eating a mushroom, but I will never die from eating the dirt around it."

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Good is It to Use NFP but to Remain Selfish?

Here's a post from many years ago that may help elucidate some of this controversy ...


Is the YOUCAT, the Youth Catechism, a work tantamount to heresy, as some on the internet are suggesting, or is it an effective tool of catechesis that talks to young people at their level?

One answer to this question brings up one of the most profound analogies between Acting and the Faith.

But first, let me take a moment to agree with one thing the YOUCAT recall website says. The writer of this page quotes the YOUCAT as stating that the Church rejects "all artificial means of contraception". This is a common but flawed assertion, and it is one that is loosely and wrongly used by proponents of Natural Family Planning (NFP). For a long time this drove me crazy, as I couldn't understand why the Church would object to artificial contraception (such as the pill or condoms) and not "natural contraception" such as NFP. Are we Christian Scientists? I would ask myself. Or worse - are we New Age Pagans, who hate what is artificial and love what is "natural"?

I really was stuck on this teaching because it made no logical sense to me, and this was the biggest logjam I faced after becoming Catholic. Then I realized it: the Church prohibits contraception, period. Natural Family Planning is not contraception at all. It is simply periodic continence, or not having sex if there's a good reason for a wife not to get pregnant. When during the month the wife is fertile, if you don't want babies, don't have sex. This is not wilfully frustrating the procreative aspect of the marital act, which is what contraception is. The "natural" and "artificial" labels are not only misnomers, they cloud the coherence of the argument.

So that point is a good one - but I'm not so sure of the rest of the critique of the YOUCAT, and I don't really want to address that, since I haven't read the YOUCAT (though I have read the Catechsim cover-to-cover) and I'm not really here to talk about the YOUCAT itself, but instead the issue it raises that leads back to Acting and the Faith

So let's stop talking about sex and talk about something interesting instead.

At the Catholic Answers Forum, a commenter named Manualman makes an excellent point; and while I don't know if this applies to the YOUCAT debate, it certainly applies to the Torture Debate, the Super-Disciples Debate, and the Lying Debate.

Manualman writes:

... God is not arbitrary. Sin IS indeed sin. But what sin IS is something that by its nature damages our ability to give and receive love (both human and divine). Not just the commission of an act 'on the list.'

You technically cannot make a list of mortal sins in catholic theology. Even murder might not be a mortal sin if the killer is mentally incompetent. Look it up: mortal sin requires three elements: grave matter, knowledge that the matter is evil and consent.

What Youcat is trying to do here (IMO) is avoid the mistakes of previous generations. Masturbation is grave matter precisely because it twists the blessed gift of human sexuality that was meant to be re-gifted to one's spouse into a narcisstic experience. Youcat explains that to my satisfaction. It's not about 'demonizing' the temptation a person experiences, but helping him understand what is appealing about it and why giving into it is not just a violation of a rule, but a genuine harm.

Another later poster here fails to recognize that he makes my point better than his own: simply attempting to make people be good via following the rules never works. [my emphasis] They always find a loophole. The way to help people to do good and avoid evil is to explain to them what evil IS and how much damage it does. Again, Youcat passes the deeper test. The last thing teens need is a list of rules that appear to be arbitrary to them, have no clear explanation and seem disconnected to their own experience of reality. Youcat avoids that pitfall and speaks to people where they are at.

If you're looking for a rigid, rules based religion that doesn't require you to comprehend, [my emphasis] but only obey a fixed list of rules, then I agree Youcat isn't for you. But perhaps catholicism isn't either.

Yeah, I know, we were supposed to stop talking about sex, and this is all about YOUCAT's teaching on masturbation, the act being both grave matter for sin and also a habit that young men in particular can find almost impossible to break. Apparently, the YOUCAT is trying to acknowledge this by putting the teaching in context (so that it does not seem arbitrary) and by acknowledging the fact that someone addicted to this sin should not heap self-abuse upon self-abuse (as it were) and feel demonized by something they often can not control.

As I say, that's what the argument seems to be about, and whether the YOUCAT should have worded this section differently (see footnote below) I will not address. But what does interest me is the argument Manualman is making.

The argument is really this: Think with the Mind of the Church, which is no less than the Mind of Christ.

Or in other words: GET IN CHARACTER.

Every actor knows the feeling: you struggle with a role over and over again in rehearsal and even in performance and it never seems to click. Then, all of a sudden, a word or a gesture makes the whole character come together for you, and every line you speak in the play makes sense. You become engaged in the role, you discover the part, you get in character, and the organic unity takes care of itself. Suddenly you stop struggling over lines here or there that don't work for you, or looking to motivate certain moments that seem to stick out - for suddenly it all comes together and everything in the play works the way it obviously should, but the way you just couldn't imagine it working earlier in the creative process. Actors know this, and actors pray that this happens for them - at least before closing night!

The Faith is like that. That's why words like "artificial" or "natural" can cloud an issue, as can words like "demonize" when applied to certain sins. The Faith is a whole, the teachings are all one thing. The Church's view on sex, for instance, is rooted in love, marriage and mutual self-sacrifice. Once you see that whole, then you know instantly how wrong something like masturbation is. Outside of that whole, beyond that organic understanding, Church teaching may indeed seem like unrelated arbitrary bits and pieces - which it never is, for it is the Way of Christ, the most whole and complete Way in the world. It is a living teaching.

Thus St. Paul tells us "I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the understanding; I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding." (1 Cor. 14:15)

Our job as Christians and as Good Actors is to understand, not to follow or mimic from without, but to be transformed from within, so that the whole makes sense, and that with the understanding we will have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2:16)

Footnote - from the YOUCAT:

Question 409 (Page 222)

Is Masturbation an offense against love?

Masturbation is an offense against love, because it makes the excitement of sexual pleasure an end in itself and uncouples it from the holistic unfolding of love between a man and a women. That is why “sex with yourself” is a contradiction in terms.

The Church does not demonize masturbation, but she warns against trivializing it. In fact many young people and adults are in danger of becoming isolated in their consumption of lewd pictures, films, and Internet services instead of finding love in a personal relationship. Loneliness can lead to a blind alley in which masturbation becomes an addiction. Living by the motto ‘“For sex I do not need anyone; i will have it myself, however and whenever I need it” makes nobody happy.

Interview with Mark Shea

Here's a link to the podcast of my interview last week on Real Life Radio with Mark Shea.

Gandhi on Contraception and Selfishness

Since everybody on Facebook now hates me for daring to suggest that it is wrong to use NFP for selfish or trivial reasons; in fact, many are angry at me for daring to suggest that it is even possible to abuse NFP in this way, as NFP seems, to most of my Facebook friends, to be a gift from God, I am reposting this.

At any rate, it's the contraceptive mentality that is killing us.

A selfish couple using NFP rather than contraception is not a victory for Our Lord and Our Lady.  "I don't use contraception but I'm still selfish!" is hardly something to brag about.  And any tool can be abused, including even the "sacramental" called NFP.  Just because Natural Family Planning is not contraception does not mean that it cannot be used as a de facto substitute for it, and used without serious reasons, but merely for trivial and selfish reasons: not used to protect the health of the mother or the sanity of the family or because of looming poverty, but for mere comfort and bourgeois self-indulgence.  I am told by my Super Catholic friends that this never happens.  But I am told by young Super Catholic friends that these sorts of reasons are indeed why many of them are using NFP.

The problem is the underlying selfishness, which obviously a neutral tool like NFP cannot address.  Only God's grace, His cross and resurrection, can address the underlying selfishness in each of us.

With that in mind, here's a reprint of a post from 2013 ...


 Salon, of all places, has re-published a 1939 article by Mahatma Gandhi about the evils of contraception and of "wasting seed".

Here it is.  The boldface is me highlighting Ghandi's words; the red is my commentary.


It is the fashion in some quarters nowadays for the young to discredit whatever may be said by old people. I am not prepared to say that there is absolutely no justification for this belief. But I warn the youth of all the countries against always discounting whatever old men or women may say for the mere fact that it is said by such persons.
Even as wisdom often comes from the mouths of babes, so does it often come from the mouths of old people. The golden rule is to test everything in the light of reason and experience, no matter from whom it comes.
I want to discuss the subject of birth control by contraceptives. It is dinned into one’s ears that gratification of the sex urge is a solemn obligations, like the obligation of discharging debts lawfully incurred, and that not to do so would involve the penalty of intellectual decay. This sex urge has been isolated from the desire for progeny, and it is said by protagonists of the use of contraceptives that conception is an accident to be prevented except when the parties desire to have children.
I venture to suggest that this is a most dangerous doctrine to preach anywhere, much more so in a country like India, where the middle-class male population has become imbecile through abuse of the creative function.  This is an old fashioned way of saying that if you spend all your time on self-indulgent non-productive activities like contraceptive sex or masturbation, the character it breeds in you will be nothing short of mentally deficient.  No, it won't "make you go blind" except morally and spiritually blind.
If satisfaction of the sex urge is a duty, unnatural vice would be commendable. This follows as the night the day.  Perversion becomes not only acceptable, it becomes obligatory - enforced, a duty.  "Gay marriage" then becomes imposed on your society and your church, whether you want it or not. Even persons of note have been known to approve of what is commonly known as sexual perversion. The reader may be shocked at that statement. But if it somehow or other gains the stamp of respectability, it will be the rage among boys and girls to satisfy their urge among members of their own sex.  I am told that the peculiar phrase pan-sexual is all the rage among the pierced and spiked who work at Subway (i.e., the kids of your wealthy suburban neighbors), and for twenty years now, a young woman just ain't with it if she hasn't had a Lesbian encounter or two in high school or college.
To me the use of contraceptives is not far removed from the means to which persons have hitherto resorted for the gratification of their sexual desire with the results that very few know. And I betray no confidence when I inform the reader that there are unmarried girls of impressionable age in schools and colleges who study birth-control literature and magazines with avidity and even possess contraceptives.
It is impossible to confine their use to married women.  Apparently this was the argument being used for contraception.  Compare the arguments, "Abortion will be used only for hard cases" or "Divorce if there's no other alternative" or "Let's get a cell phone and only use it for emergencies."
Marriage loses its sanctity when its purpose and highest use is conceived to be the satisfaction of the animal passion without contemplating the natural result of such satisfaction. I have no doubt that those learned men and women who are carrying on propaganda with missionary zeal in favor of their use of contraceptives are doing irreparable harm to the youth of the world under the false belief that they will be thereby the poor women who may be obliged to bear children against their will. Those who need not limit their children will not be easily reached by them.
Our poor Indian women have not the knowledge or training that the women of the West have. Surely the propaganda is not being carried on in behalf of the middle-class women, for they do not need the knowledge, at any rate, so much as the poorer classes do.
The greatest harm, however, done by the propaganda lies in its rejection of the old ideal and substitution in its place of one which, if carried out, must spell the moral and physical extinction of the race.  "The moral and physical extinction of the race" - see the demographic crisis that threatens Russia, China and the West and the moral crisis that gnaws even deeper.
The horror with which ancient literature has regarded the fruitless use of the vital fluid was not a superstition born of ignorance. What shall we say of a husbandman who will sow the finest seed in his possession on a stony ground, or of the owner of a field who will receive in his field rich with fine soil good seed under conditions that will make it impossible for it to grow?  In the Culture of Sterility, we say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, to waste your potential and destroy our future."  
God has blessed man with seed that has the highest potency and women with a field richer than the richest earth to be found anywhere on this globe. Surely it is criminal folly for man to allow his most precious possession to run to waste. And so is a woman guilty of criminal folly who will receive the seed in her life-producing field with the deliberate intention of letting it run to waste. Both he and she will be judged guilty of misuse of the talents given to them and they will be dispossessed of what they have been given.
Sex urge is a fine and noble thing. There is nothing to be ashamed of in it. But it is meant only for the act of creation. Any other use of it is a sin against God and humanity.  
It was reserved for our generation to glorify vice by calling it virtue. "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Is. 5:20).  The greatest disservice protagonists of contraceptives are rendering to the youth of today is to fill their minds with what appears to me to be wrong ideology.
Let the young men and women who hold their destiny in their hands beware of this false god and guard the treasure with which God has blessed them and use it, if they wish, for the only purpose for which it is intended.

These But the Trappings and the Suits of Reality

To avoid the biggest charge against me when I say the sorts of things I'm about to say, the things that anger people, let me admit that I am a sinner.  I am not judging others.  I am not saying I get this right and you don't.  In fact, were I not guilty myself of the very things I see and write about in you, dear reader, and in others, I would not have the insight about these things that I do.

But salvation is not by technique.  Salvation is not by gimmick.  Salvation is not by getting your time card punched.  I need to learn that lesson as much as you do, but perhaps you do indeed need to learn it.

In my last post I quoted a priest who made the ridiculous assertion that the technique of NFP (Natural Family Planning) is, in effect, a sacramental - but more than a sacramental.  Fr. Hogan claims that "NFP then builds a respect for human life."  This is very surprising, as NFP consists of an awkward and elaborate system of taking basal temperature, analyzing vaginal mucus, and examining the thickness of the cervix.  If he means, however, that periodic continence builds respect for human life, it has been my experience that periodic continence can be used as a kind of penance, and that it certainly builds a desire for sex, but that it is hardly the sort of thing that builds respect for human life, simply by virtue of its being practiced - magically, as it were.  With God's grace, prayer and mortification, over the long haul, and with the proper interior disposition periodic continence may in fact build respect for human life, or build chastity or any other virtue, but it no more does that automatically than abstaining from meat on Fridays builds compassion for the poor - or does anything other than make you hungry for meat on Fridays.  The only automatic and guaranteed result that goes with practicing any kind of technique is the initial one of frustration in trying to practice it.  Beyond that, technique alone does not have any automatic consequences, for all techniques, helpful though they may be, are mere externals.

But the error is not Fr. Hogan's, even though he insists that those who pay to take NFP classes and who practice the thermometer-mucus-cervix technique are blessed with the charism of infallible discernment on matters of family planning - they always judge properly the question of whether or not they should take the chance of having more children, and they always answer the question, "Should we separate sex from babies this month?" with a correct answer (whether that answer is yes or no) by definition as NFP practitioners - they always do this, simply because the technique itself transfers the grace of infallible discernment to them automatically.  Bad as this error is (or, more correctly, shameful as this sales pitch is), the real error is with Devout Catholics who believe that any external act is a substitute for internal transformation.

As an actor I've learned that the externals - mimicry and stage technique - only go so far.  They sometimes help you to portray a character more genuinely from the inside out, but often they don't; often they can be mere substitutes for that.  With living the Faith, which is a serious business as opposed to acting on stage, which is trivial business, externals or sacramentals are only helpful in so far as they facilitate a new life in the believer; it is from that new life that virtue springs.  Even the sacraments themselves (which do automatically convey grace) can be abused by us sinners who tend to use them superficially as mere externals, not allowing the grace to operate in our hearts.  Thus, going to Mass will no more automatically make you a better Catholic than watching the game on Sunday will make you a better football player.  Going to Mass will indeed convey grace, but that grace becomes operant only when we cooperate with it, in our muddled, imperfect and hesitant way; only when we die to self and live to Christ.

The great and insidious threat, the primary threat, to our dying to self and living to Christ is this pride, this notion that since we're Devout Catholics, since we march under the banner and avail ourselves of the externals, we are therefore holy.  This is the great lie, and I see it everywhere I look in Super Catholic circles.  Thus ...

  • Christopher West is able to tell his followers that if they buy into his program, they need not practice custody of the eyes.  If you follow the Pop-Theology of the Body you have thereby achieved mature purity, and you are henceforth unable to look at a naked body lustfully, even (apparently) if you gape at them regularly on your smart phone.
  • Some Catholics who are vehemently anti-abortion begin to feel that they can ignore Church teaching on Torture, Lying, Just War and the Poor, since the proof of their sanctity is the baby feet pin on their lapels.  God bless them for being pro life, God have mercy on them for using that as a means of blocking the further conveyance of His grace.
  • Some Devout Catholics are contemptuous of those outside the subculture and pride themselves in their ability to shut out real life with various walls and barriers - as with the Barrier Method of contraception, so with many Devout Catholics; nothing seminal gets in and they become smug in their faux-sanctity.  In the same way that Hipsters and others believe that fashion and externals like music playlists and brand name products define a person's character, so many Devout Catholics believe that the trappings of the Super Catholic Club validate you as an individual: Latin, various devotions (most from the 19th century), going to one of the dozen seriously Catholic U.S. colleges (whether or not the college is any good), a lifetime devotion to NFP (even if used as a de facto substitute for contraception), and sometimes things as bizarre as whole foods, multi-level marketing programs and even yoga - all these are for some mistaken people the trappings that prove that you're a Good Catholic and the rest of the world is headed for hell.  Of course we pity them, those outside our incestuous little club, we pity them with a benign smile and a supercilious nod, but they don't have the fashion sense that we do - just look at these mantillas.  

Well, a friend of mine keeps telling me to "leave these people alone", but most bishops and many priests and deacons have given up on attempting any kind of fraternal correction, leaving it to miserable sinners like myself to write on blogs and hope some good comes out of it, while many of our readers keep telling us we're judgmental Pharisees and we need to go to confession.  So be it.

I'm not getting this stuff right myself.  But I repent that I'm not and pray that I might.  What I try not to do is become smug and certain that everything I do is good because I'm holy, or at least holier than thou.

The Birth Control Pill vs. the Magic Pill

Did you know that there's a way to become automatically virtuous, so much so that discernment and deliberation and uncertainty vanish and that every decision you make about a certain subject is automatically correct?

No, it's not by means of mortification or by the long and frustrating process of trial and error and increasing maturity.  It's by charting your wife's fertile periods, taking her basal temperature, analyzing her vaginal secretions and examining her cervix.  And by giving money to the NFP industry.

In addressing the question of "serious motives" or "grave reasons" that the Church teaches must be present for having sex only when you think your wife won't get pregnant, Fr. Richard Hogan of "NFP Outreach" makes a rather stunning assertion (my emphasis) ...

NFP ... builds a respect for human life. With this respect in place through the use of NFP, any decision by a couple to try to achieve a pregnancy or to avoid will be made for a good reason. It is not that serious reasons are not necessary—they are. But, a couple practicing NFP after taking the classes and knowing the method, practicing their faith attending Church and receiving the sacraments, with an active prayer life, and conscientious about the religious education of their children, will, if they decide to avoid a pregnancy, have serious reasons. 

In other words, NFP is the magic pill.  The NFP Outreach spokesman assures us that if you buy into the technique, BINGO! your discernment process is solved.  Any reason you come up with for separating sex from babies will, since you've come up with it, be a serious one! 

Thinking of not making babies for a few years in order to enjoy a more materialist lifestyle?  Hoping to put off, for the sake of convenience, being hassled by another immortal soul making a mess in the house whose smelly diapers need to be changed?  If you  answer Hell yes I'm thinking of avoiding that! and you've paid to take the NFP classes (plus if you've prayed and received the sacraments), your decision to put off making a baby is automatically valid and moral!  If you've simply prayed and received the sacraments, it is not.

Maybe this is why we can't evangelize well any more, we devout Catholics.  We're suckers - suckers who congratulate themselves for being Catholic and virtuous - and the rest of the world can see it.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The NFP Nightmare

I've recently had a glimpse into the NFP (Natural Family Planning) culture and the young "devout Catholics" who buy into it.  It is sick.

NFP is not contraception, but it is effectively used as such, for entirely selfish reasons by some young Catholics who think it's virtuous to use a neutral tool in a bad way.  The Church teaches (infallibly) that a married couple may avoid conception only by means of periodic continence (i.e., occasionally not having sex) and only for serious reasons, such as the health of the mother or not having enough money to feed another baby - not because a baby may mess up your perfectly arranged doilies or because you want to spend a few years married without kids so that you can get to know your husband better or have nicer material things that raising a family right away wouldn't allow you to have.  But young "devout Catholics" tend to be as narcissistic and self-centered as the rest of the world.  The only problem is, they are convinced of their sanctity and they get defensive if you point out to them that what they're doing is contrary to the infallible teaching of the Church they claim to love.

Some young "devout Catholics" are even willing to abstain from sex on their wedding nights and honeymoons if the charting, thermometer and analysis of vaginal secretions and cervical dilations (which are the tools of NFP) indicate that the wedding night and honeymoon coincide with the woman's fertile period that month.  This is not only insane, it's sacrilegious, for the very sacrament of Matrimony is only completed by means of the consummation of the nuptials.  No matter how fancy the wedding or how big the reception, a couple is not fully married until the act of consummation - until they make love as man and wife - a thing the NFP crowd won't do for as much as a week every month, in order to keep sex separate from babies (which is what the rest of the world is busy doing, but only doing more honestly by using rubbers and diaphragms and pills, so as not to be inconvenienced for seven or so days per month).

And not only is NFP becoming a way of life and a culture for these young "devout Catholics" (some of whom plan on using it throughout their entire marriage), but these young folk are separating sex from babies and congratulating themselves that they're good Catholics in the process!

They glory in their shame (Phil. 3:19).  They refuse to inconvenience themselves by bringing new life into the world (at least for long periods of time when new life would be irritating to them), and they congratulate themselves for doing so.  Why?  Because NFP, that's why.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Upcoming Appearances

I'll be on the radio with Mark Shea on Real Life Radio streaming live tomorrow (Wednesday, April 22) at 5:00 pm Eastern / 4:00 pm Central, and broadcast the following Saturday at 8AM EST and Sunday at 10PM EST.  I have absolutely no idea what we're going to talk about.

Then, on EWTN on Saturday, April 25 at 10:00 pm Eastern / 9:00 pm Central, I'll be featured as J. R. R. Tolkien in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - a Catholic Worldview, hosted by Joseph Pearce.  I think this is our first Tolkien special, which first aired many years ago and which features the discussion on Christianity and myth between Tolkien and Lewis ...