Embarrassing pro-contraception plea gives NRO a Black eye

I’ve been reading National Review and NRO for many, many years, and I appreciate the fact that its numerous editors and contributors disagree about a host of issues, many of them political issues, but also many that are religious and moral. For instance, one of my favorite NRO authors, Jonah Goldberg, is a self-professed secular Jew who has strong libertarian leanings, apparently believes in God, and thinks “same-sex marriage” is just fine. [Edit: Goldberg has actually expressed support for civil unions, not “same-sex marriage”, although in this March 22, 2013, column, he writes, “I myself have grown both more pro-life and more sympathetic to gay marriage.”] In short, I read a lot of essays and articles written by people with whom I disagree on matters big (God), small (sports), and in-between (music).

That said, the essay, “Pope Francis, Say Yes to the Pill”, by Conrad Black is simply embarrassing, and that might be an insult to embarrassing people everywhere. Black is a former newspaper publisher, a convicted felon, an historian, a pundit, and a convert to Catholicism (he was an atheist/agnostic into his 30s) with a most interesting bio. I’ve read many of his pieces over the years; he is a very good writer with many thoughtful insights into political and cultural issues. But, as he essentially admits in his ridiculous plea for the Church to embrace contraceptives, he shouldn’t be writing about matters of theology: “I do not underestimate, and am not qualified to discuss, the theological arguments involved.”

Well! That’s like bringing a banana peel to a gun fight. Too politically incorrect? Okay. It’s like someone who has never played or watched a game of pro football wading into the current rules changes that will penalize players for leading with their helmets (if you just said, “Huh?” I salute you) and saying, “I don’t know anything about football, but players should run backwards on every other play.”

Black’s arguments—excuse me, “arguments”—boil down to two, um, things: he thinks the Church’s teachings about contraceptives are out of step with the times (I know—you’ve never heard that before), and he doesn’t like being mocked or seen as backwards because of said teaching. That’s basically it. For example:

The Roman Catholic Church’s desire to avoid trendiness and pandering is commendable, and distinguishes it from many other churches. The need to encourage the most principled and self-disciplined of the faithful is strong and admirable. I do not underestimate, and am not qualified to discuss, the theological arguments involved. But there are insurmountable problems with an enunciated principle of sexuality that everyone knows is largely ignored in practice and practically unnecessary, and that assists the Church’s numerous and influential enemies in discounting its moral influence as the principal ark of the Christian message. The Church’s official position on contraception enables its enemies to portray it as an archaic society for the propagation of chaste humbug by an esoteric fraternity of superannuated clergymen in antiquarian costumes.

As my pastor said, after reading Black’s essay: “In other words, instead of consistently teaching the same moral principle, change your mind on this one and people will respect your moral authority as you tell them what they want to hear.” Right. And:

There must be a dogmatically respectable way to execute a dignified climb-down and declare the sexual act a consequential moral commitment appropriate to and generally reserved to marriage, but sometimes unexceptionable when undertaken with contraceptive precautions, and reprehensible only if entered into wantonly. By clinging to the objection to contraception, even among married couples, the Church conveys the false impression of wishing to make sex risky and inaccessible, of opposing useful science, and of putting its hostility to safe sex ahead of its mortal opposition to abortion, a much more defensible and important cause that would be directly assisted by ending the failed war on contraception. The Roman Catholic Church, with all respect to the long traditions involved, should not be in the business of appearing to be the party of joyless behavioral philistinism, and should not needlessly subject itself to unjust imputations of hypocrisy. The secondary controversy over an all-male clergy can probably be dealt with by laicizing more activities with equal opportunities for women.

Nicely written. Badly considered. Sadly missing the point. (Say, since the war on heroin, meth, and crack is going badly, let’s allow those drugs to be legal. After all, some people enjoy them. More to the point: the Church did not start the war!) Does Black, an obviously well-educated and well-read man, really believe the Church holds her position just to avoid being trendy? Or to be different from Anglicans, Baptists, and the First Community Church of Billy Bob and His Four Brothers and Two Mothers? The theological reasons, as Pope Paul VI demonstrated in Humanae Vitae, are essential to the whole issue, because the key questions are either theological or touch on theological matters: What is man? What is marriage? What is the sexual union for? Why did God create man and woman as he did? Etc and etc.

This was taken up by Bl. John Paul II for several years in his catechesis on love and marriage, often called “the theology of the body”. John Paul II argued, in various texts, that the “contraceptive mentality” logically leads to abortion. And guess what? He (like Paul VI) was entirely correct to write things such as:

It is frequently asserted that contraception, if made safe and available to all, is the most effective remedy against abortion. The Catholic Church is then accused of actually promoting abortion, because she obstinately continues to teach the moral unlawfulness of contraception. When looked at carefully, this objection is clearly unfounded. It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”-which is very different from responsible parenthood, lived in respect for the full truth of the conjugal act-are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. Indeed, the pro- abortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected. Certainly, from the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being; the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of justice and directly violates the divine commandment “You shall not kill”. (“The Gospel of Life”, 13)

There is much more that could be said. And should be said. I will keep it to two items. First, to claim the Catholic Church, by standing against contraception, “[appears] to be the party of joyless behavioral philistinism” is astonishingly misguided. It speaks to a complete failure to comprehend both the content of Church teaching and the actual situation today, in which the real “party of joyless behavioral philistinism” consists of those who promote or give a pass to free sex, contraception, pornography, cohabitation, fornication, and abortion. Granted, a lot of people make the mistake that Black is making, but he should know better. Secondly, I still cannot believe that NRO published such a vapid, confused, and incoherent essay. There are plenty of other sites for such nonsense. It is, again, simply embarrassing.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.