From “Sex: How Odd of God”

July 15, 1988
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The Stolen Kiss (Jean-Honoré Fragonard)

Sexual intercourse, Dorothy Day once wrote, has something funny about it: funny-odd, funny-laughable. She compared the mechanics of human coupling with the act of eating, which on analysis into its parts also looks odd: You push your fork into a substance, insert it into your mouth, gnash it about, swallow. It’s bizarre.

Day was using what a friend of mine calls “moon vision,” looking at copulation and ingestion from afar, as it were, and as though for the first time, seeing their strangeness. I don’t remember the context of her reflection, or where it led her. It may have been only an observation in passing. But it was common-sensical, in a Chestertonian way. […]

These thoughts are occasioned by the confluence of two events, the twentieth anniversary this month of the issuance of Humanae vitae and the recent publication by a committee of the American bishops of a draft pastoral on “women’s concerns.” Humanae vitae was a regressive moment in Catholic history and the history of human sexuality. Out of reflections on the “intimate structure” of the sex act, the encyclical says, we must conclude that having sex during the infertile period leaves the act “open to the transmission of life,” and is therefore okay, whereas sex with a condom separates lovemaking from babymaking and is not okay. Paul VI then added that “the men of our day are particularly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.”

The words are solemn but the argument is not serious. In the event, most men and women of our day have tended to regard the pope’s conclusion as a nonprinciple, fundamentally unreasonable and non- or even anti-human. With all respect to Dorothy Day, who would never have accepted use of her “moon vision” in opposition to a papal pronouncement, there’s just not that much truth to be derived from contemplating the intimate structure of the sex act. The same grave attention given to the mechanics of eating would lead to a ban on No-Cal soda, which may give pleasure and satisfy an urge but frustrates the nutritive purpose built into our ingestive equipment. […]

There are Catholics who will celebrate the anniversary of Humanae vitae as a reaffirmation of the church’s unique grasp of moral truth and of its claim to divine guidance. There are ex-Catholics who departed the fold for precisely opposite reasons. Among Catholics who hang in not because of but despite the encyclical, some regard it as a wound that’s healed, or as a piece of esoterica that is best kept on a shelf in the closet, or as a useful example, leading to religious maturation, of the limits of the reach of authority. And some think of it as an intellectual scandal in itself and a sign of deeper problems that must be confronted some day, though the day be ever so distant. These subgroups of hangers-in aren’t all that distinct; on a given day, I can agree with any or all of them.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: 

The late Robert G. Hoyt was senior writer at Commonweal from 1988 to 2002.

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