It sometimes helps to see the wider topography of an issue by broadening the context in which we look at it. I was reminded of this listening to Jordan Peterson reflecting on population levels.
He was discussing the way in which, in contradistinction to the constant media driven anxiety about over-population and sustainability, he thought we faced a wholly different kind of crisis.
The biggest problem in fifty years time will be not that there are too many people on the fragile skin of the earth, but that there won’t be enough people. We are at the beginnings of a population collapse. The numbers are falling off a cliff as all Western nations’ fertility rates fall below replacement levels.
And, in particular, there won’t be enough young people. That will matter especially because not only do the young provide the manpower and mobility, but they also provide the energy for risk-taking and innovation.
The Christian tradition has given a good deal of thought to this quality of life. It was St Iranaeus of Lyon in the early second century who wrote so compellingly that the glory of God was a human being fully alive.
It’s worth giving a little space to the original context:
“The glory of God gives life; those who see God receive life. For this reason God, who cannot be grasped, comprehended or seen, allows himself to be seen, comprehended and grasped by men, that he may give life to those who see and receive him. It is impossible to live without life, and the actualization of life comes from participation in God, while participation in God is to see God and enjoy his goodness.
“Jesus revealed God to men and made him visible in many ways to prevent man from being totally separated from God and so cease to be. Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.”
Catholic tradition has understood our capacity to love and make love as a development of this stewardship of life. We enjoy a co-agency with our Creator as we configure our lives and loves to his love and will.
It should come as no great surprise then that sex, contraception and abortion have become the battle ground of the struggle between the cultures of life and the anti-culture of death.
Contraception was understood instrumentally in the middle part of the last century. It was promoted as a practical solution for a practical problem. But as Pope Paul 6th saw and explained in Humane Vitae, the issues were far more theological, philosophical and spiritual. What was mistaken as a mechanism of convenience was in fact a way of living, or, as it turned out, dying.
At stake was not practicality and convenience, but a whole vision of the sanctity of the body and our capacity to contain our sexual longings within a framework that would channel them into an eruption of fertility within the stable family. But failure to do that would have disastrous consequences that were not obvious at the time, particularly to hedonists and secularists.
The ideological consequences of contraception were to make not only sex sterile but to set a shock wave pulsating through culture. It would degrade sexual intimacy, birth and death.
This sterility became not simply a restraint on fecundity, it spread into a wider sterilisation of people, culture and imagination.
Sex became recreational. And the immorality that this change contained was not simply a downgrading of sex, but a downgrading of the human person. People then became recreational. People became instruments of pleasure, and in so doing lost the association of sanctity of the human person in this movement from angel to animal.
Women rightly complained about being objectified. But they didn’t see the half of it. It was not that they were reduced to sex objects, but that they were reduced to objects. And if women were, then so were men, and inevitably, particularly in the womb, so were children.
It is often forgotten that the philosophical driver that lay behind both contraception and abortion was the neo-Malthusian eugenics of Margaret Sanger. Sanger was notorious for wanting to cull not only the white population, but more controversially to prioritise the cull of the black population.
It remains odd to the point of being incongruous that the progressive culture that adopted so many of her values doesn’t question them given her rampant racism. As it turns out, 79 per cent of planned parenthood facilities are located in “minority neighbourhoods”. The implications of that ought to shock progressives, but seemingly doesn’t.
The contagion of death that abortion releases stretching towards euthanasia was seen early by Jesse Jackson in 1977:
“Politicians argue for abortion largely because they do not want to spend the necessary money to feed, clothe and educate more people. Here arguments for inconvenience and economic savings take precedence over arguments for human value and human life… Psychiatrists, social workers and doctors often argue for abortion on the basis that the child will grow up mentally and emotionally scarred. But who of us is complete? If incompleteness were the criteri(on) for taking life, we would all be dead. If you can justify abortion on the basis of emotional incompleteness, then your logic could also lead you to killing for other forms of incompleteness — blindness, crippleness, old age.” ()
It is reminiscent of the passage in Deuteronomy 30.15: “Consider that I have set before thee this day life and good, and on the other hand death and evil.”
One of the most significant battles the Catholic Church has fought in the last century has been that of the choosing of Life. A rather different and more fruitful kind of pro-choice; as with salvation so with our sexuality; choose Life.
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