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A Reader Has a Question about NFP and Torture

Monday, December 16, 2013 1:01 AM Comments (98)

She writes:

Recently on your comboxes, there has been a debate about "illicit uses of NFP". Like you, I'm not one who wants to put a heavy burden on others trying to follow what the Church asks of them.

Excellent!

I am curious though, how this fits into your view on the torture debate. Where some people seek to figure out the minimum they have to do to not be technically torturing prisoners (so they would say, "water boarding isn't technically torture, so the Church doesn't technically forbid it"), could it be said that the "illicit use of NFP" comes from the same kind of "minimum daily requirement of love found in the torture apologists?

So you know where I am coming from, I am a married Catholic who wants to conform my life to Christ, and submit to the Church as best I can. I am using NFP to space pregnancies for what I *think* are just reasons. I apologize if this comes across as muddled.

I don't think the two cases are comparable.  In the case of the torture defender, what is being sought is some way to get as close as possible to grave intrinsic evil.  In short, the goal is itself intrinsically corrupt, as is the quest to find it.  The better analogy for the torture defender who is laboring to figure out how much torment he can inflict on his victim without it (in his imagination) "crossing the line" into torture is not NFP but adultery.

To be sure, there is a place in, for instance, an abstract discussion in a moral theology seminar where a philosopher or priest-in-training might want to abstractly consider the psychology of temptation.

But it is quite another thing when, for instance, a married man in the throes of temptation starts asking around among his skankiest gym buddies, looking for the biggest sleazebag to give him "man to man" advice and then starts pressing him about just how far he can go with his hot new secretary before it is "technically" adultery, setting up phony "lines" between necking with her and "real" adulterous sex... well, we know perfectly well that for him to even be pursuing this line of "inquiry" is already to be guilty of grave sin. 

In the same way, an abstract moral theologian might dispassionately examine the question of how much force may be justly used by a soldier or cop in a moment of pitched physical conflict when subduing a prisoner.

It is quite another thing, however, when one's political tribe is advocating the use of torture in the middle of a hot war.  When that happens, our talk ceases to be theoretical and inevitably becomes either a demand that the State abide by the law of God, or else a complicated act of rationalization for the state's corrupt policy.  One is either arguing for or against the real world commission of crimes against God and man.  If we are not resisting the gravitational field of temptation, we are rationalizing giving in to it.

In the case of torture (and the similarly grave sin of adultery), the way to fight the problem is with the good old standby of Catholic moral teaching known as "avoiding the near occasion of sin".  Remember Fr. Emil, pastor of Garrison Keillor's Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church in Lake Wobegon, who succinctly says, "If you don't mean to go to St. Cloud, then why are you getting on the train?"  What is being sought by torture defenders is not a way to prudently do God's will, but a way to reject God's will while telling themselves the lie that they are obedient to him.  And when the matter under discussion is known to be gravely and intrinsically evil, the very attempt to figure out how to get away with it skates close to (and usually into) grave evil itself.  What the Church recommends is not tiptoeing up to the line of mortal sin, but running in the opposite direction.  In the case of torture, the "opposite direction" means, as the Catechism says, that prisoners are not merely to be "not tortured" but that they are to be treated humanely (CCC 2313).

In contrast, the person who is trying their best to do what God wills--not figure out how to avoid God's will and then get off on a technicality--is living in an entirely different moral universe.He is seeking virtue, not mere legalism.  You already intuit this, of course, in your good and holy desire to not sit in judgment of people who use NFP or to tie up heavy burdens for them.  People who use NFP are, quite simply, making it clear by that very act that they are not seeking a Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to their relationship with God.  They are actively seeking to please him, not legalistically trying to figure out a way to disobey him and get away with it. If they weren't, they wouldn't bother with NFP.  They'd just contracept, issue the usual bushwah about "conscience" and be done with it.

To be sure, you can find rigorists who will accuse those who use NFP of not being pure enough in their motivations (just as, conversely, you can find apologists for torture who complain that critics of torture are "rigorists").  But the basic difference of common sense is, again, that the NFP practitioner is trying, as you are, to do the right thing, while the torture advocate is trying to get away with doing the wrong thing.

The measure here is, as always, love.  The person advocating torture is trying to figure out a way to love the least.  The person seeking to use NFP prudently and justly is trying to figure a way to love best.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.