Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The oppressiveness of God

Elizabeth Anscombe was an ardent and effective defender of orthodox Catholic doctrine in mainstream academic philosophy. Her essay Contraception and Chastity was originally published four years after, and as a defense of, Humanitae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and human sexuality.

The essay is, as you would expect from a philosopher of Anscombe’s skill and standing, a well-argued defense of the natural law sexual teaching of the Catholic Church.

The key framing of the essay, indeed of this whole mode of thought, is expressed as follows:
What people are for is, we believe, like guided missiles, to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It's this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God of such a kind as even to be sharing in his nature, which Christianity holds out to people; and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, must be treated as precious.
People, and their moral obligations, are defined in terms of God.

Which means they are not defined in terms of themselves, in terms of the human, but of something beyond the human. Which leaves open the possibility of defining people as being outside the properly human. Or as having “betrayed” their humanity by failing to conform to this defining purpose, or its derivatives.

It also means moral obligations are defined by criteria beyond the human. One can “fail” the test of morality due to considerations that have nothing to do with how considerate or respectful your behaviour is towards your fellow human humans.

The great potential for oppressiveness this has is obvious and is attested by plentiful historical experience.

In Anscombe’s essay, this grounding in the extra-human expressed through two salient features. Sex is not defined by its experienced reality—either among humans or in nature—but by its alleged defining purpose (reproduction: the purpose that connects sexuality to the creative impulse, the only way in monotheism sex connects us to the divine). Anything that falls outside that defining purpose is thus anathema: regardless of its human reality (and any role in catharsis, expressing love or intimacy, or as pleasure must be bound within that purpose). As Anscombe writes, in traditional Catholic teaching:
all artificial methods of birth control were taught to be gravely wrong if, before, after, or during intercourse you do something intended to turn that intercourse into an infertile act if it would otherwise have been fertile.
The second, and consequence of this, is that Anscombe has to work at making sure love is defined as only being “proper” if it falls within this defining purpose. Love is not defined by its human experience: human experience is judged by extra-human criteria. This has the very convenient effect (for doctrine and sacerdotal authority) of putting bounds on the “love thy neighbour” precept.

All of which has various consequences, including that humans who fall outside this defined “proper” nature are defined as being outside the realm of the “properly” human (as the Vatican makes quite explicit). “Love thy neighbour” gets doubly subverted: by the redefining of ‘love’ (in all its forms, confining it to within legitimating purpose) and the redefining of the human (and so ‘neighbour’).

But there is no single set of ways of defining God’s purposes, the purposes that trump the human. Just as Catholic thought defines the queers—those who do not fit with the binary identification of sex and gender, the demand that humans be defined by their genitals: gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, intersex—as outside God’s purposes, so Muslim thought defines Christians as being (in part) outside the ambit of God’s purposes: as being, through their failure to accept Muhammad as God’s Prophet, in revolt against the wishes of God.

Just as both Christian thought and Islamic scripture define Jews as similarly being (in part) outside the ambit of God’s purposes. The more Christianity subverts “love thy neighbour”, the more the commandment not to use God to strip people of their moral protections is subverted, the more its behaviour converges with Islam because the more the authoritativeness of God operates to trump mere human claims.

But this is a game anyone can play. This claim of “I have a theory, and you are to be punished for failing to conform to my theory”.

Anscombe is invoking a tradition that claims that this is not merely a matter of revelation, of scriptural authority. On the contrary, it is a matter of natural law, of the metaphysical structure of the universe. Now, the universe is the creation of God, so it still leads back to Him. Nevertheless, it is about how things are in a structure-of-things sense. As Anscombe writes:
In fact there's no greater connexion of "natural law" with the prohibition on contraception than with any other part of morality. Any type of wrong action is "against the natural law": stealing is, framing someone is, oppressing people is.
Tell that to the Jews and the queers, but let’s move on:
"Natural law" is simply a way of speaking about the whole of morality, used by Catholic thinkers because they believe the general precepts of morality are laws promulgated by God our Creator in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions. That is to say, the discoveries of reflection and reasoning when we think straight about these things are God's legislation to us (whether we realize this or not).
This “legislation” including how the universe is. (Such as reproduction being “the purpose” of sex.)

Natural law theorists, such as Edward Feser (a clearer and more effective presenter of Catholic natural law theory than Anscombe), insist that they are engaged in moral deductions from the metaphysical structures of the universe.

The problem with this is that, when one examines the conclusions of natural law theorists across time, they produce the conclusions one expects from their time and place. So Aristotle produces conclusions that fit in with C4th BC Greece, Aquinas that fit in with C13th Latin Christendom and Feser, George and Finnis conclusions that fit in within the ambit of contemporary moral conclusions. As we can see in their attitudes to, for example, slavery, human bondage, the role of women, the appropriate legal treatment of sex acts, contraception, infanticide, abortion, charging interest. Natural law moral theorising is not an exercise in “moral deduction” at all, it is an exercise in using a mode of reasoning that allows the conclusion to select its premises.

Very useful for a system of religious doctrine to be sure, but not one that justifies escape from the problems of defining the nature of the human, and moral obligations, in this extra-human way.

What natural law theorising, in its trumping-authority-in-the-structure-of-things mode, does provide a link to, however, is secular ways of doing exactly the same thing. What Nazism and Leninism have in common, for example, with such religious modes of thought is not being “religious” per se, but in setting up structures and authorities that trump the human. Not in their Godlessness, but in their substitute Gods, their substitute trumping authorities.

A common feature of these moral framings—precisely because each framing is deemed so utterly authoritative—is that people who fall outside its definition of the “properly human” can only escape from within the framing (and if the framing permits it). That is, they have to play that game, they have no claims against the framing. Jews have to become Christians or Muslims, Christians have to become Muslims, queers must fight their own nature, “class enemies” have to embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat and so on. With racism, of course, one cannot escape the framing: at best, one can become a “good nigger” and accept one’s inferiority.

And, of course, such structure gives great power and authority to those who are the “guardians of the framing”, who are the “gatekeepers of righteousness”. Hence its appeal to those who see themselves as such and its intimate connection to elevated claims of “guardianship”. To elevated concepts of priesthood and infallible Popes, to the Will of the Fuhrer, to various Great Leaders (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim, …). Plato has a lot to answer for.

So, if one wants to understand what is it about Catholic teaching that seems so oppressive, it is that it is extra-human in its claims and groundings and so is substantially at war with the human. But it is hardly alone in that.


  1. I despise those people who set themselves up as moral guardians.

  2. That piece of Anscombe's is surprisingly bad; I was expecting something akin to Finnis's arguments. She is a good thinker in other areas, although that said she did get herself nicked for public nuisance outside an abortion clinic in Oxford, which I think gave her a nasty shock. She wasn't prepared for the extent to which her views were not only in the minority, but barely tolerated by the usually phlegmatic British public.

  3. Not related to this subject but you might find it interesting.

    Aapparently a bunch of Jewish Orthodox Rabbis in the US (and only a few in Israel unfortunately) have issued a statement concerning the treatment of gays in their communities.

    It's not good enough, but it's progress, and it's relevant to your main theme about the dehumanizing of gays by religions.

    I also recently read a bit (very little in Wikipedia) about the existence of homosexuality as part of the religious rituals of the ancient Canaanites. This might offer an explanation to the original Biblical (OT) attitude toward homosexuality.

  4. Micha: Monotheism does, very much, draw a sharp distinction between its attitude to sexual behaviour and the role of sex and polytheistic/animist views where sex is part of, and connects us, to the divine. This is one reason why African Christianity is so traditionalist in such matters: it is in the position of Old Testament Judaism or early Christianty where polytheist/animist views are a great competitor (in some areas, the competitor).

    Thanks for directing me to the statement by Orthodox rabbis. Oddly enough, it is attempts to say "but they are people too" which make it clear how queer folk are defined out of the realm of the properly human.

  5. LE: Yes, but being a guardian is so attractive: all that moral and cognitive superiority in one package.

    SL: Perhaps I was being too generous. Anscombe may have suffered the problem of having the conclusion she had to reach pre-determined. Also, she was not really a natural law theorist as such.

  6. "Thanks for directing me to the statement by Orthodox rabbis. Oddly enough, it is attempts to say "but they are people too" which make it clear how queer folk are defined out of the realm of the properly human."

    It shows that it is becoming more difficult for them to exclude gays from humanity, just as it has become more difficult in the west to exclude women, blacks, and members of other religions from humanity.

    That's how things change, although too slowly.

  7. They are a mixture of exclusions from humanity and restricts to status as lesser forms of the human, but yes.