From Natural Purpose to God’s Will: A Fallacious Move
Brian Resnick at the Atlantic treats us to a couple of essays from the 1939 edition of the magazine, one making the case for legal contraception, and the other explaining the Catholic case against their use. Resnick and my fellow writer at the League Tod Kelly find both articles fascinating for their similarity to the disagreements we’re having about contraceptives today in light of the HHS mandate, the GOP presidential campaign, and the testimonies before Congress. I encourage you to read both essays, but I’d like here to zero in on a particular argument made in the second essay because it perfectly frames the sort of “natural law” argument about which I’ve lately had the bad habit of writing subversive things.
The essay’s author, Father Francis J. Connell, presented the argument as follows:
The most general norm of right and wrong established by this natural law is that a person’s actions are morally good when they are in conformity with God’s will, and they are morally bad when they are in opposition to God’s will.
Throughout the entire universe wisdom of God can be perceived, ingeniously adapting means to ends, coordinating causes and effects. This divinely planned harmony is particularly manifest in the constitution of living beings. Each organ has its proper purpose, each faculty its proper function. Now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends. He Himself directs the activities of irrational creatures by providing them with certain irresistible inclinations, so that they necessarily employ their faculties for their proper purpose. The effect of this guidance in animals we call instinct. The bird will infallibly use its wings to fly; the bee is certain to employ its marvelously constructed organs to gather pollen and to make honey. But to man, the most exalted of the living things of earth, God grants freedom of choice in the use of his powers. A human being can direct his faculties of soul and of body to the purposes intended by the Creator, or he can distort them to other ends. And on the way he chooses to employ them depends the morality of his actions. When a person uses his faculties for their proper purpose, his action is morally good, for it is in accordance with God’s will; when he deliberately frustrates their proper purpose, his action is morally evil, for it is opposed to God’s will. The gravity of the sin is proportionate to the gravity of the harm resulting from the action.
Fr. Connell went on to apply this line of reasoning to the sexual act: “when husband and wife deliberately and positively frustrate the procreative purpose of sexual intercourse, they pervert the order of nature and thus directly oppose the designs of nature’s Creator.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the sexual organs and human sexuality have the “naturally ordered” purpose of procreation and that God has designed them for this definite end. Does it thereby follow, as Fr. Connell asserted, that it is God’s will that the sexual organs and their vital powers should always operate toward the attainment of this end? Logically, it doesn’t, not unless one assumes, as Fr. Connell did, that God’s ordering of the vital faculties towards a particular or primary purpose means that God wills that this initial ordering always be followed.
Fr. Connell had no doubt about this assumption: “now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends.” He asserts the will of God as if it were a given, when really his assertion begs the question. That God ordered vital powers towards a certain end may suggest that God wills that those ends never be deliberately and positively frustrated, but being suggestive, if we can even get that far, is not tantamount to the moral certainty Fr. Connell posited. We cannot logically derive from natural purpose, even natural purpose initiated by God, a non-negotiable moral imperative. The connection has to be either assumed or proven through another route.
Aside from the fallacious leap, there are a couple of reasons for doubting there’s a necessary connection between the vital powers having a divinely-designed ends and God’s will that these vital powers are always exercised in accordance with these ends. First, given that vital powers can evolve, we cannot be certain that these powers will always function in the same way. For example, the belief that God created human beings as male and female does not, on its own, tell us whether the human species will always remain typically male and female, i.e., a species that reproduces sexually. Second, human intelligence has the capacity to reform or improve vital functions in creative ways, a potentially that at least raises the question whether God intended the human species to use its intelligence to change nature and natural purposes.
To be sure, these are two reasons for suspicion; they are not proofs. Nothing I’ve said above discredits the Catholic understanding of human sexuality and sexual morality, or even other conceptions of natural law; I’ve addressed only one of the arguments, an argument I’m prepared to dismiss as fallacious and would like to see tossed into the dumpster. Its problem is in moving from designed ends to a moral imperative based on what God wills. An argument against contraception that begins with what God wills for moral action would not make the same mistake.