Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Why Pseudosex Leads To Homosex

by John Beaumont


John Beaumont explains how the initial victories of the sexual revolution occurred and illustrates the intrinsic connection between contraception and homosexual marriages, which is not obvious to those who are unfamiliar with natural law tradition. When contraception first came on the scene, many argued that it was immoral because it acted against nature. However, as the different methods of contraception became more sophisticated, this argument grew weaker. Beaumont cites the arguments of the leading contemporary philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe to demonstrate that it is illogical to accept contraception and still maintain that fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts are immoral.

Larger Work

Culture Wars


23 - 28

Publisher & Date

Ultramontane Associates, Inc., South Bend, IN, January 1997

In the trajectory of sexual revolution, at least as it got portrayed in the organs of popular culture, the traditionalist team was trailing for just about the entire game. This is the result of the concatenation of a number of forces. First of all, traditional sexual morality was never given a fair chance because the role the press assigned to itself was always that of the advocate of change. Secondly, men more often than not understand that something is right without necessarily understanding why it is right, or why its opposite is wrong. Thirdly, the theological tradition most capable of dealing with questions like this in the secular language of the market place — I'm talking about the Catholic natural law tradition — was in a state of revolution itself, as a result of the turmoil surrounding and following the Second Vatican Council. Taken together, these three reasons account for the initial victories of the sexual revolution, but it is by now becoming increasingly apparent that sexual morals are all of one piece, and that pulling any one of its threads will unravel the entire fabric. This is certainly true of contraception, the state of the art sexual issue of the '60s, and the one that still haunts us today in a number of other guises, the most notable at the moment being homosexual marriages. Many people oppose the latter, not many people oppose the former, and even fewer people see a connection between the two; but the connection is there and quite obvious for anyone familiar with the natural law tradition. In fact, the reason the connection is not more apparent to the average citizen is attributable to the desuetude into which the natural law tradition has fallen. In a nutshell, the situation is this: homosexual marriage is the contraceptive chicken coming home to roost.

Essentially, the story, at least according to the natural law, went like this. The moral law condemned, inter alia, homicide and acts of unnatural vice. So far as the use of contraceptive intercourse is concerned, this was seen as the commission of one or other of these sins. In relation to contraception by medical methods (as opposed to mechanical means), this was from a very early date treated, as was abortion, as homicide. The reason for this is that, in the state of medical knowledge at that time, it was assumed that all medical methods were abortifacient in type (one has to think of a time when there was no knowledge of the ovum, and the woman's body was thought of as the "ground" in which the seed was planted). The development of modern science changed radically the perspective from which these things had to be viewed. Some medical methods of contraception are abortifacient in operation, but by no means all. Leaving aside completely the whole question of the relationship between early abortion and homicide, what is clear is that the treatment as homicide of some forms of the birth control pill would be a fiction.

Turning to the concept of unnatural vice, or, as it was often termed by Catholic moralists, "sins against nature," what was meant here was a deviant act, a sexual act of such a kind as to be intrinsically unfit for generation. Under this heading would come such acts as sodomy, buggery or bestiality. Later on, the notion of the evil involved became referred to as that of perverting the order of nature. Now, it was relatively easy to encompass within this prohibition intercourse using contraception by "mechanical" methods, such as a condom. Such acts were seen as the perverse use of a faculty and condemned on that basis.

The notion, then, of contraception as a perversion of the order of nature worked tolerably well with mechanical methods of contraception. However, once the use of homicide was seen to have limited application in the area of contraception, an attempt was made to argue that all types of contraception, including medical ones, were covered under this heading. At this point the reasoning begins to look distinctly strained, if only because as a general matter it is not wrong to interfere with natural processes. Elizabeth Anscombe brings out the major difficulties:

So long. . . as contraception took the form of monkeying around with the organs of intercourse or the act itself, there was some plausibility about the position because it really amounted to assimilating contraceptive intercourse to acts of unnatural vice (as some of them were), and so it was thought of. But this plausibility diminished with the invention of more and more sophisticated female contraceptives; it vanished away entirely with the invention of the contraceptive pill. For it was obvious that if a woman just happened to be in the physical state which such a contraceptive brings her into by art no theologian would have thought the fact, or the knowledge of it, or the use of the knowledge of it, straightaway made intercourse bad. Or, again, if a woman took an anovulant pill for a while to check dysmenorrhea no one would have thought this prohibited intercourse (Contraception and Chastity, 1975, pp. 16-17).

The point being made here is that if acts of contraceptive intercourse are characterised as objectionable if they are perversions of the order of nature, then such a description becomes more and more forced as one moves through the various methods up to the pill, where the physical act itself is not changed at all. Also, as Anscombe points out in another place, "there may be further developments: it could be that in the future infertility could be secured by keeping certain chemical substances out of one's diet!" ('You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer', in Collected Papers, Volume III [1981], p.85). How could a simple avoidance of such substances be seen as a perversion of the order of nature?

So there was need for a development of the rationale of the Catholic Church's traditional teaching on contraception. This work has been done. It can be seen in Humanae Vitae itself. There are also a number of articles by moral philosophers and theologians on this issue. A good review of the best of modern reasoned arguments can be found in Janet Smith’s fine survey of the whole subject, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (1991), most notably in chapters 3 and 4. In particular, one should have regard to the work of Germain Grisez and his associates, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, William May, and Russell Shaw. These and other writers have put forward a number of arguments, which avoid the problems encountered by the arguments we have just considered. However, whilst acknowledging the force of some of these accounts, I wish to draw the attention of readers to another writer who, although cited in the literature, is not given the depth of treatment, which she perhaps deserves. This is the English philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe, perhaps the most famous living philosopher in the English-speaking world. Anscombe's work has a particular edge and power to it, primarily because she forces those who support contraceptive intercourse into a dilemma, which, if they retain an element of decency, and recognise in any way the binding force of the moral law, is a difficult one to avoid.

Elizabeth Anscombe's thoughts on the subject at hand are contained in a series of papers, two of which have been referred to briefly already. These are very similar in conclusion, but differ slightly in content. An early version is to be found in the proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress on 'Renewal of Religious Structures' (Toronto, 1968), which is reprinted under the title, 'You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer', in her Collected Papers (Volume III, (1981) pp.82-96). In what follows this is referred to as CP III. A later version of this paper, based on an address delivered to the Bristol Newman Circle and adapted from an article in The Human World, issue 7, was published in Britain in 1975 as a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet under the title Contraception and Chastity (C &: C). In the United States this later version is reprinted in Michael D. Bayles (ed), Ethics and Population (1976) (pp. 134-153). Also of value in the present context is an earlier article by Anscombe, 'Contraception and Natural Law,' in New Blackfriars (46, (1965) 517 (C & NL). What follows is based on these papers.

In words of one syllable, what Anscombe does in all of these articles is to claim that sexual intercourse is a particular type of activity. She then goes on to claim that if we deny this, we will be led inexorably to conclusions, which are morally abhorrent. Let us try to follow the process of argument. To Anscombe the essential character of sexual intercourse is that it is what she refers to as a "reproductive type of act," an "intrinsically generative sort of act."

The built-in purpose of sexual activity is… clearly the production of children. The very names of the organs, the reproductive or generative organs, shows that that is how the organs in question would be identified, e.g. in another species (C. & NL, p. 518).

The Catholic writer, Christopher Derrick, puts it a little less delicately:

Sex is about babies. Whatever further character or potential it may have — and there is no limit to the power and glory of this — it needs to be soundly and realistically founded upon that carnal, sweaty, and bloodstained fact. So established, it can become a path to the human and heavenly ultimates; otherwise, it can only lead to self deception, cruelty, and nightmare...[O]ur bodies include certain specialised parts, which — in any book on anatomy — are listed as "The Reproductive System". In initial and necessary fashion, they are precisely that; and if in our discussion of sex we evade or conceal or minimise the fact, we shall be — to that extent — talking about a fiction. . . Sex is about breeding and babies. It can be a great deal more than that, as we all know; but it cannot be made less than that without becoming an unreal thing, a fantasy-construct (Honest Love and Human Life [1969], pp. 86-87).

Let me just to pause to reinforce this point. It is made, albeit with a slightly different emphasis by Janet Smith. It is worth quoting her at some length:

Sexual organs are naturally ordered to procreation and nothing can render them not ordered to procreation. This ordination, whether capable of being actualized or not, is inherent. This is equivalent to saying that eyes that are being used to see, eyes that are closed, and blind eyes are still ordered to seeing; eyes blind at birth and eyes blinded by some deliberate act are still ordered to seeing. "Being ordered to seeing," means that the eye, even the eye that cannot perform its function, has a natural function and specific work. Only eyes can be "given" or restored to the power of seeing because only eyes do that kind of work; ears and noses do not. The same is true of sexual organs; sexual organs, whether fertile or infertile, temporarily or permanently, by the choice of the individual or not, are ordered to procreation. They are organs of the reproductive kind; thus, they are often called reproductive organs; the word genitals has Latin roots with the word birth (Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later, p. 80).

The point that is made by Smith can also be found in the scientific literature. For instance, Leon Kass argues that medicine cannot function without notions of purposes, goals and ends:

The parts of an organism have specific functions, which define their nature as parts: the bone marrow for making red blood cells; the lungs for exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide; the heart for pumping the blood (Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs (1985), p. 254).

Of course, as Smith emphasises, we must not go too quickly. Although it is legitimate to describe organs as having natural functions one must not make the crude error of trying to derive any moral norms from this. Anscombe's articles do not fall into this trap. In addition, we need to recognise that what these authorities are not claiming is that there are no other purposes of sexual intercourse. Of course, there are, as the Church itself has recognised. They are simply emphasising that, whatever these other purposes may be, sexual intercourse is intrinsically a generative type of activity.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that when Anscombe claims that the intrinsic purpose of the sex act is generative or reproductive, she does not mean that the act itself must be actually generative or reproductive; just that it is intrinsically a generative or reproductive type of act. Most sexual acts do not as a matter of fact produce a child. Anscombe rightly emphasises this point by drawing a comparison with other forms of generation:

In order to be an intrinsically generative sort of act, an act need not itself be actually generative; any more than an acorn needs to produce an actual oak tree in order to be an acorn, (In fact most acorns never produce oaks, and most copulations produce no offspring.) When we characterise something as an acorn we are looking to a wider context than can be seen in the acorn itself. Acorns come from oaks, and oaks come from acorns; an acorn is thus as such generative (of an oak), whether or not it does generate an oak; this is still true if it is planted in infertile ground or left on a shelf so that it cannot develop into an oak tree. In the same way, we may say that eating is intrinsically nutritive, the eye as such an organ of sight… And it is in this sense that copulation is intrinsically generative — though there are very many copulations, which in fact do not generate (CP III, p. 85).

So, what then is the significance in the present context of the fact that sexual intercourse is a generative sort of act? Anscombe goes on to show that if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive intercourse, then it is difficult, if not impossible, to claim as immoral certain other practices generally recognised as immoral. For, the rationale of the objection to these practices stems from the intrinsically generative nature of sexuality. One can start with the cases of fornication and adultery.

[T]he ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If you can turn intercourse into something other than a reproductive type of act… then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married? Restricted, that is, to partners bound in a formal, legal, union whose fundamental purpose is the bringing up of children? For if that is not its fundamental purpose there is no reason why for example "marriage" should have to be between people of opposite sexes. But then, of course, it becomes unclear why you should have a ceremony, why you should have a formality at all. And so we must grant that children are in this general way the main point of the existence of such an arrangement, but if sexual union can be deliberately and totally divorced from fertility, then we may wonder why sexual union has got to be married union. If the expression of love between the partners is the point, then it shouldn't be so narrowly confined (C & C, p. 5).

But why stop at this point? If the couple's use of one another's bodies need no longer be to perform a generative type of act, but rather for one or both to achieve orgasm (because that is what it now amounts to), why should not other sexual acts be deemed permissible.

[I]n contraceptive intercourse the intentional action is deliberately altered from being a generative kind of action to being an act of attaining sexual climax. . . If it is indeed all right to do this for good ends, then it is excessively difficult to see why after all the act need closely resemble a normal complete act of copulation (CP III, p. 96).

There would seem to be very little in the way of sexual activity that would not be rendered permissible once the initial step has been taken.

If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery, when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)' It can't be the mere pattern of bodily behaviour in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example (C & C, pp. 18-19).

What this whole argument is saying is not that contraceptive intercourse is just as bad as these other deviations. It may be judged as much less of a deviation than some of these other things. It is rather that someone who defends the use of contraceptive intercourse will have no good reason to condemn these other activities, no sound answer to a person who claims that these other activities are good as well. In addition, it's no use claiming that Christian tradition always said that these other things were wrong, because the person who defends contraceptive intercourse has ipso facto rejected Christian tradition.

At this point most people of decent inclinations should be convinced by the argument that has been put forward. If any remain who are not, let me ask them to contemplate the following somewhat robust expression of it.

[I] know no argument that purports to justify the use of contraceptive devices, which would not further justify what is also used as a contraceptive device, anal copulation. Yet I believe rather few people are so shameless as publicly to recommend this last; to suggest for example that midwives and health visitors should go round advising people to adopt this practice. (How furious the manufacturers of contraceptives would be!) (C & NL, pp. 520-521).

Yet, it may well be that one objection will still remain. It is usually expressed something like this: "The intention where oral contraceptives are used is just the same as when intercourse is deliberately restricted to infertile periods. In both cases the intention is to avoid conception. Yet, the first of these actions is said to be wrong. This is illogical."

This objection is one that must be taken seriously. In order to be able to refute it, one must appreciate firstly the relationship between an act and its accompanying intention, and, secondly, the important fact that there are different types of intention and the distinction between them may be vital.

As far as the first matter is concerned, the fact is that the wrongness of an action may depend on the intention with which it is done. That this is so should not strike anyone as unusual, since this is something, which is often the case. Let me take just one example from my own field, the law. It is an offense, inter alia, to attempt to commit murder, or to attempt to steal, or to attempt to commit damage to the property of another. In relation to, say, attempted damage, one and the same act which is sufficiently proximate to the crime in view will suffice, or not, according to the intention which accompanies it.

Suppose a man stops his car one hot summer afternoon by the side of the highway. He walks into an adjacent field and, standing next to a haystack, strikes a match. Whether or not he is guilty of an attempt to burn down the haystack, and thus criminal damage, will depend upon whether he intended to do just that or whether his lighting of the match was preparatory to, say, lighting his pipe so as to enjoy a quiet smoke before he went on his way. It is the intention, which, as it were, "colors" his act. That this is so should not, then, be a cause for surprise. It may well be that because what someone does, as opposed to what they intend, is something, which is visible, and therefore noticeable, that we tend to think of it as more important. It is not necessarily so.

Secondly, as stated above, there are different types of intention. Let us use an analogy from the criminal law again. In my country, and doubtless in the United States as well, the crime of burglary is committed when a person enters a building as a trespasser. That is the act involved and in respect of conduct on the part of the defendant, that is all that is required. Of course, it is also necessary for the prosecution to prove an intention on the part of the defendant, namely the intention to trespass, in the sense of knowledge on his part that he had no right to go in and was not there inadvertently. However, proof of this particular intention is not sufficient by itself to result in a conviction. The prosecution must also prove that the defendant had the intention of committing a particular type offence (usually theft) once inside the building.

Now, if we look closely at the actions and accompanying intentions in the case where an oral contraceptive is used and in that where the couple has intercourse during an infertile time in order to avoid conception, the distinction between the two cases should be easily seen. In the case of both intercourse using infertile times and contraceptive intercourse, one intention (what I have called the further intention) is that no child will result from the act of intercourse. However, in the case of contraceptive intercourse, the actual intention accompanying the act of intercourse is to render the act infertile, whereas in the case of intercourse using infertile times the parties intend simply to perform an ordinary act of marital intercourse open to the possibility of new life. There is a fundamental difference between the two situations, one of real moral significance. The distinction here, is expressed by Anscombe in this way:

Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. . . But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether (C & C, p. 17-18).

The sense of the above distinction, which is a common sense one, will be seen more clearly if one takes an example like practising a deception on a person in order to get money which is intended for use for a good purpose (for example to benefit a worthy charity). The intentional action, that of practising a deception, is a bad act and is not made good by the good further intention. And the reason for saying this, just as it is with contraceptive intercourse, is that the end does not justify the means.

At the end of the day, however, one can make no claim that the logical power of the Anscombe argument will overwhelm all those who come into contact with it. No reasoned argument will do that, however powerful. The cultural revolution, which to a great extent is a sexual revolution, has resulted in a whole generation unrestrained by the natural or moral law. Thus, there will be those who will see that Anscombe's argument holds, namely that if contraceptive intercourse is all right then so are all forms of sexual activity. But, don't expect this to act as an argument against contraception. To them these other acts are perfectly permissible provided that's what people want to do. Those who have been termed "degenerate moderns" will conform truth to their desires rather than conforming their desires to the truth. In addition, we all know in our own experience how a reasoned and logical argument may be accepted by a person and yet not acted upon; and how one may rationalise ex post facto those wrong actions which, as a weak human being, one always wanted to do.

All that can be said with confidence is that to those, religiously inclined or not, who still respect the basic rules of decent behavior, who accept the moral law, if only in an attenuated way, the above argument is likely to make an impact. As for Catholics, even poorly instructed ones are likely to know or feel somewhere in their hearts that the practices sanctioned by the cultural revolution are bad. That may not be much to work on, but St. Thomas Aquinas does assure us that the natural law can never be abolished from the hearts of human beings (Summa Theologiae I-II, 94, 6).

John Beaumont was until recently Head of the School of Law at Leeds Metropolitan University, England.

© January 1997 Ultramontane Associates, Culture Wars Magazine, 206 Marquette Ave., South Bend, IN 46617

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