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Culture of Convenience

May 10, 2013

One thing that has always baffled me about the Catholic Church is its stance against contraception. If natural family planning is okay, why is using a condom not? Don’t both practices enable couples to engage in sexual intercourse without having a child? Yesterday I encountered a thoughtful explanation for the difference between natural family planning and other contraceptive practices in a book I’m reading entitled Fatherless, by Brian Gail.

In the latest chapter, John Sweeney, a Catholic priest, is having a conversation with Pope John Paul II. He mentions his uneasiness about confessions from parishioners who are on the pill and having vasectomies. He admits to telling one parishioner that she could still accept the Eucharist even while on the pill. The Pope responds to the priest’s distress by remarking that “love grows cold” when a man no longer faces consequences (i.e. children) for engaging in sexual intercourse. Not that he will necessarily stop loving his wife (although this is indeed a possibility), but rather his life begins to revolve around his own needs and desires rather than around God’s desires, which ultimately involve pure love; man begins “serving self” rather than “donating self.”

As the Church sees it, the freedom to engage in instant sexual gratification is at the root of the many other forms of instant gratification we have become accustomed to in the 21st century: instant food, instant television, instant everything at the push of a button. We have lost our patience and our appreciation for the basic necessities in life and for timeless pleasures that enrich our lives rather than degrade them: praying, meditating, taking long walks (without an iPod), watching the sunset, cooking a meal, planting and nurturing a garden, having an intimate conversation, attending mass, honoring the Sabbath.

With natural family planning, on the other hand, a man and a woman must be very deliberate and intentional about their actions and are forced to appreciate the potential consequences, an appreciation that then extends to other arenas: appreciation for one’s body and health, for one’s friends and neighbors, for life itself.

I’m not sure that I agree with the Church that artificial contraception is at the root of our culture of convenience, but I can certainly see how it is connected: it makes sex one more thing we can do whenever we want to do it without obvious consequences.

The invisibility of consequences is, I think, another problem in our culture of convenience. For in reality, no action is without consequences. Sex, while it might not result in pregnancy, affects the emotions of both parties—often in unbalanced ways. Our fast food results in poor health and in mounds of trash that doesn’t just disappear—it ends up in landfills. Entertainment constantly at our fingertips—quite literally now in the form of smart phones—reduces our interaction with each other and with nature.

Americans, especially the patriotic sort, often boast about our freedom, but I would argue that we have lost our freedom. We are tied to our house payments, our electronics, our toys. We are bombarded with a constant stream of new wants and “needs” generated for us by big corporations that require us to constantly buy, buy, buy in order for our economy to thrive. We are, in a way, the slaves of those corporations—willing slaves, but slaves nonetheless. We are quick to criticize our government for being compromised, but we fail to see that our whole society is compromised. Government corruption is merely a symptom of a much greater ill that begins in our homes, which in a way is good news—for if the problem begins in our homes, then we can end it in our homes. We can end it by choosing a culture of love, of simplicity, of inconvenience that fosters a renewed sense of appreciation for the truly important things in life.

  1. Well, the answer to the issues you address in your last paragraph may be to live the life that Epicurus did: “He regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires. The elimination of the fears and corresponding desires would leave people free to pursue the pleasures, both physical and mental, to which they are naturally drawn, and to enjoy the peace of mind that is consequent upon their regularly expected and achieved satisfaction.” (And doesn’t religion exacerbate this “fear of death and punishment” in the afterlife”–hell and eternal damnation and all that? Or take your cue from the Stoics instead: the way, isn’t it a little presumptuous for a priest to be talking about “God’s desires”? How does he know what God desires? Isn’t that anthropomorphizing God, making man the measure of God, rather than regarding God as being so beyond any kind of understanding we puny mortals are capable of as to be ultimately unknowable?

  2. I like what Epicurus said, and I do think fear has much to do with “irrational desires” and the overconsumption of goods and services in our modern economy. Nobody wants to end up like the poor soul at the traffic light begging for change because he lost his job and gave his life to alcohol or drugs. The more money we keep for ourselves, and the higher we climb up the economic ladder, the less likely we’ll be to end up in dire straights (or so we think). Although that may not necessarily be the case, for those on the lowest rungs are apparently more likely to help those in need according to a recent study revealed in The Atlantic–so if your friends are affluent, they might not help you when times get tough!Whether religion plays into this fear or not depends on how one relates to his or her religion. Some Christians take the hell-and-damnation view of God while others find peace in religion because they take solace in the promises of a better afterlife. Were all Christians (and Muslims for that matter) to follow the major tenets of their respective religions, I think religion would actually ameliorate the fears humans harbor because most of the world’s people would base their actions on love of neighbor and community. We wouldn’t have to fear “the worst” because there would always be someone there for us in our times of need. One thing that certainly DOES play into our fears is popular media, which thrives on stories of mischief, murder, war, and scandal–doesn’t exactly instill confidence in our fellow man!

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