Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Patristic prooftexting

Called to Confusion recently did a post on contraception in the church fathers. Perry Robinson then left some comments which draw attention to the perils of facile quote-mining to which many converts (to Catholicism, and I daresay, Orthodoxy) are prone:


Perry Robinson July 9th, 2010 9:40 am :

I beg to differ. They take contraceptive methods to be immoral because they take to them to be necessarily abortificants. And they take them to be so because they took the “seed” to be fully formed human beings in small. Men contained within themselves already human beings that were implanted in women. Women contributed nothing to the human being other than sustenance and a safe place for gestation. Hence women were often compared to the “soil” or “ground” for the “seed.”

Consequently, on a Stoic, Platonic or Aristotelian basis, any contraceptive method would be an abortificant. So the moral principle that murder is wrong would always be applicable. This is why, particularly for the Stoics the unitive function was essentially connected to procreation. Natural Law Theory didn’t just pop out of thin air. It is heavily indebted to Stoicism and the Stoic conception of “spermatikos” or “seeds.”

So, the moral principle was applicable because human beings were involved. But we know that human beings aren’t necessarily involved in all forms of contraception and so this is reason for thinking that the moral principle isn’t necessarily always involved either. If you take a look at the sources cited above, I think it is detectable that this is what they thought a “seed” was and I think any secondary literature on the biological understanding of the time will bear out that they thought the “seed” was an individual human being in small. The issue then seems more complicated.

Perry Robinson July 9th, 2010 11:22 am :

I understand that, but the question is to what extent that position turns on a faulty biology and a commitment to Natural Law Theory, which is or seems to be indebted to Stoic metaphysics to some serious degree or another.

The claim that Rome opposes it has to do with preventing the act’s life creating potential seems quite Stoic to me, in fact, one that any theological position could affirm (Christian or non) just so long as they affirmed Natural Law Theory. The claim then seems to turn on the idea that the life creating potential of the act is an intrinsic constituent turns on the notion of what constitutes the seed. But if the seed isn’t that way regarding a telos, but is unformed or partially formed, matters seem to be different.

July 9th, 2010 12:19 pm :

You assert that it is not relevant as to how they understood seed, but the argument doesn’t go through on just any understanding of it. In order to make your argument work, you’d need to show that out of a range of understandings, the argument still goes through.

To say that such a thing is a crime against nature depends in part on their ethical theory and what they thought “against nature” meant. I don’t think they uniformly meant “against nature” in the sense that Natural Theory has in mind.

I am quite aware of what Clement of Alexandria says, but that of course can depend on what he takes the seed to be. The question is, why does Clement think it is a sin? Why is the seed not to be vainly ejaculated? What is it about the seed that makes this so?

Someone who thought that the seed was a human being would also think that procreation was thus a divine institution and such to ejaculate vainly was contrary to divine institution. Hence it being of divine institution is not either incompatible with what I wrote nor does it necessarily imply that it is the sole reason for its prohibition. The same is true with respect to what they took “conception” to be.
I can’t see that there is anything in the citations you brought forward that addresses those questions and so I think they leave my points untouched.

I am well aware of the citations at the link you provide, but I think they leave my remarks untouched and amount to little more than spoof texting.

That said, I wasn’t aware that Lactantius was a saint and a “father” in the Catholic Church.
As for pure speculation, I would direct you to Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals as to the biology of the matter at the time. The same will be true by looking at primary texts of the Stoics as well as the heap of secondary literature on Stoic biology. Also, the claim that my view is grounded in skepticism is not relevant. Sometimes skeptics have good arguments. So the question is, not whether the argument is skeptical or not, but whether it is a good argument or not. Hence to dismiss it because it is “skepticism” is an ad hominem and so can be dismissed out of hand.

Some of the sources you refer to also argue against what we now know to be non-abortificant methods as if they were abortificants. This is especially true with say Tertullian.

To claim that they never argued on the basis that I proffered is a claim that I really don’t see any substantial reason to agree with. An analysis done by Catholics and non-alike, conservative and liberal shows what they thought conception was and what they thought the seed was.

To argue that an act against nature has nothing to do with science is to imply that nature has nothing to do with science, empirical or metaphysical. That seems quite strange, especially if theology is a science so that an act against nature as sin has nothing to do with theology.

Perry Robinson July 9th, 2010 2:57 pm :

You misrepresent my view. I didn’t claim that the fathers held “private opinions” about biology. This is a straw man.

I agree that the Fathers argued “X” and “X” was dependent on a specific view of biology. The argument then only seems to go through on that assumption. Putting forth the argument without defining what constitutes “seed” “conception” and “nature” leaves my position untouched and shows that yours hasn’t yet been demonstrated. The fact that the Fathers freely group the condemnations of abortificants with other practices supports my contention.

I already addressed Clement’s statement about divine institution. Do you wish to argue that he thinks it is wrong based on a matter of an external law only or because of an internal principle as well? If the former, then the Catholic position as grounded in an internal principle cannot appeal to Clement for support. If the latter, then the questions I raised are quite relevant. Either way it seems your position seems to be in trouble.

The question is whether the latter entails the former or not. If it does, that is, divine institution entails the faulty biology, then he’s clearly wrong. If it doesn’t entail it, the Catholic position can’t appeal to it for support since that position takes it as immoral because of intrinsic principles of Natural Law.

Since I concede the form of argument, showing that they used such an argument leaves my position untouched, since said argument turns on what they took seed, conception and such to be. So no, it does not prove your point. They incorrectly apply a correct moral principle because of their faulty biology. I accept the principle (murder is immoral) but can’t see how it applies here.

You mention “private belief” but I have never argued from what they supposedly privately believed. I argued from what they publicly took the facts of biology to be. So again, your gloss is a misrepresentation and a straw man.

It is spoof texting when an analysis of the relevant terms, upon debate on this issue for over a hundred years has turned, is left out and such texts are proffered bare naked.

Yes, you lumped him in with the fathers. I took that to be you saying he was a father. If you don’t think he’s a father, why list him with them? If he isn’t, what he thought is of limited value as far as normative teaching goes.

Do Catholics take “Father” in relation to church fathers to be an ambiguous term? Aren’t there conditions for one to be a father in the Catholic Church or has the Magisterium left that undefined? Where would I look for the magisterial definition on what constitutes a Father?

As for Chrysostom, I accept him as a Father. Now if we look at the citation you posted, he is arguing against castration and abortificants and takes castration in terms of preventing “conception” to be tantamount to murder. He does so because he thinks that the seeds are human beings in small. This is why the reference to the Manicheans is relevant. I can’t see any reasoning here that applies if the seed isn’t a human being and so that applies to non-abortificant methods. If so, can you point them out to me?

To say that my argument was that they argued Y instead of X is to misrepresent my position. My position concedes the form of argument “X” but notes that said arguments depends on the assumption of Y, namely the faulty biology.

It struck me that you dismissed it as “skepticism” by writing “The claim that the reason they prohibited contraception was because of limited scientific knowledge is pure speculation and skepticism”

I am not in fact giving the same faulty argument that liberals give for WO. First, that argument is based on false premises. The consensus partum regarding a male only priesthood didn’t turn on Aristotelian biology and plenty of the fathers contradict that biological outlook primarily due to biblical arguments. Second, I take it as uncontroversial that the Fathers and other Christian writers had the same faulty biological view and an analysis, even by Catholics bears this out. Third, tarring me with liberalism is irrelevant to whether the facts are what I say they are. So far, I haven’t seen a reason to think that the facts aren’t that way.

You will need to clarify your remarks regarding Tertullian. Do you mean to say that barrier methods that Tertullian argued against were not mortal sins, but somehow lesser since he was in fact wrong that such methods were abortificants? If so, then the Catholic position is wrong, since it takes barrier methods to be sin. If you are saying something else, please clarify.

I’ve gestured at what I take to be the uncontroversial academic consensus regarding the biology of human reproduction at the time, which you seem to have conceded to me. I’ve also referred to one of the most vociferous opponents of contraception, Tertullian as evidence of the line of reasoning I have offered, which you have left untouched.

If you want names, dates and an extensive discussion, that’ll take me considerably more time. Perhaps I will make a whole blog post about it over at EP and then you can come and discuss it there.

You claim again that the status of the seed is irrelevant to the question of the naturalness of the act. I know you claim this, but I need to see a reason to think these are separable. They argued it was such a corruption because of what they believed about seeds, conception and implantation.

I agree that the Apostolic Church has always condemned “contraception” because that always entailed, given the biology, murder. If I am right, then it would uphold the moral principle, but show that its application was mistaken.



  1. While it's true the fathers could have erred in thinking the semen is the child, what do we make of the Bible doing the same?

    "And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him." Heb 7:9,10

  2. Old post, but currently referenced.

    Re Heb 7:9,10. This is not inconsistent biology as inferring that the male contains a fully formed human inside, but is consistent with making the man chiefly responsible and representing a communal act of the union between male and female, as "in Adam all die." (1Cor. 15:22)

    Moreover, 1 Corinthians 11:12, teaching on the complementarity of the male and female, states, "For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God."

  3. Old post, but currently referenced.

    Re Heb 7:9,10. This is not inconsistent biology as inferring that the male contains a fully formed human inside, but is consistent with making the man chiefly responsible and representing a communal act of the union between male and female, as "in Adam all die." (1Cor. 15:22)

    Moreover, 1 Corinthians 11:12, teaching on the complementarity of the male and female, states, "For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God."