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Sex and Meaning: Humanae Vitae

The question I’d like to take up here is that of the role of religion - in this case, the Roman Catholic Magisterium of 1968, in its formulation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae - in binding sexuality within an order of meaning.

For Lacan, as later for Badiou, the domains of sexuality and meaning are irreparably disjoint: whatever we try to do with our sexuality, we can never quite get it to line up with the stories we tell ourselves about sex, however we polish our “sexual histories” or elaborate the Image-repertoires (Barthes) through which we represent the objects of our desires.

This is what Freud is supposed (by Lacan) to have discovered: that sexuality is a site in which the mastery of language - both our mastery of our own language, and the instrumental power of language itself as a technical means for mastering reality through representation - breaks down. This non-mastery manifests itself within language as the disruption of sense: Witz, slips-of-the-tongue, metonymic substitutions; the wild signifying chains investigated in the Lacanian clinic.

Psychoanalysis today is somewhat in everybody’s bad books, because it remains the exemplary bearer of bad news about “our bodies, ourselves”: that our self-possession, in and through language, is a bit of a joke; and that the Image-repertoire tendered to us as modern sexual consumers is of no real help at all when we come to negotiate the worldly vicissitudes of desire.

There is an upside, which is that we are not as beholden to our imagos as we (necessarily) imagine: it’s possible that our symptoms, our sexual dysfunctions and discontents, may be (or become) vital rather than merely sad and debilitating. But it’s notoriously difficult to become persuaded of this, especially when one remains invested in an untenable image of fulfilment. We’d rather live for our dreams than question them, even if we acknowledge that those dreams have been dreamed up for us by a range of ideological apparatuses that have never had our best interests at heart.

Anyway, on to Humanae Vitae. My aim in this post is just to establish the glaringly obvious, which is that the authority of the Church is bent on yoking the domains of sexuality and meaning together, and that challenges to that authority are consequently viewed as challenges to an entire framework of signification, an entire moral order.

Humane Vitae asserts that those who stand in the apostolic succession are “the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation.”

Those of us who were born after the Reformation will naturally want to ask: in what way is “the natural law” not accessible to, and interpretable by, everyone? In what way does it require “authentic guardians and interpreters”? But the position of Humanae Vitae is not that only the Church has access to the truth of natural law, but rather that the Church has a specific role of custodianship over truths that are already accessible to everyone through their own reason and conscience.

For example: “responsible parenthood…concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter”. The Church is thus the guardian of that moral awareness which “right conscience” would spontaneously dictate. Its role is to align the individual conscience with the authority of a tradition, so that the promptings of the former can be realised within the framework provided by the latter.

It is up to the Church to make explicit what is implicit in the workings of nature and in the individual conscience’s apprehension of its own nature: “the very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out”.

“Constancy” is an important term here: inconstant or variable teaching cannot have been in accordance with natural law, which is immutable. “The very nature of marriage” reveals the divine will (revelation as “making clear”); the church’s teaching systematises and transmits what has been (and is continually being) revealed.

So this is the basis of the authority claimed by Humanae Vitae: it is an apprehension and retransmission of natural law, and the terms of its argument are those of a particular (and from where I’m standing, extremely odd-looking) understanding of the modes in which “nature” can significantly and normatively express a divine intention. For example: “each and every marital act must of necessity maintain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”. What kind of necessity is this? It is less a moral imperative (“you must”) and more a normative statement (“it is the right order of things that this is so”).

The lynchpin of Humanae Vitae is the conjunction of two significances: the “unitive” and the “procreatory”:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

Inherent significance: the sexual act functions as a sign, within a system of meanings “established by God”. Nature is inherently meaningful and normative because it bears an intention, a divine will expressed prior to any “sua sponte” human “initiative”. It also bears an orientation towards specific ends: the human creature co-operates with the creator in the ongoing creation of human life. Hence this key argument:

…An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will. But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.

The injury inflicted on this universe of meaning by birth control is one of impairment, deprivation, etiolation. At the same time, it is an illegitimate seizing of initiative, an assumption of mastery in which “man” aims to replace God as controller of the “sources of life”. This continues to be the language of church authorities when faced with the new medical and bio-technical possibilities offered by cloning, gene therapy and stem cell research.

It is not claimed in Humanae Vitae that birth control is naturally harmful, but that it weakens the consistency of an order of meaning which expresses God’s “design” for human fulfilment. Outside of this order, aberrations multiply: men lose respect for women, governments intervene in the intimate lives of married couples, and every kind of “objective disorder” (recalling the current pontiff’s charming characterisation of homosexual orientation) is permitted to flourish.

The voice of the Church, as a locus of moral authority and defender of meaning, is positioned thus with respect to the surrounding culture and society:

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’

This sets an embattled, superior tone which today’s Catholicism seems reluctant to abandon. Of particular interest here is the reference to “modern means of communication”: wild signification, “clamorous outcry”, is what the modern world makes of meaning, promiscuously trafficking in signs and despising anything that clearly contradicts the rule of opinion. In standing as a “sign of contradiction”, the Church opposes not only the specific opinons of its age, but the very lack of “constancy” and steadfastness in the truth which takes hold once the barriers of sanctity surrounding human sexuality are breached.

Essentially, for Catholic thinkers in the tradition of Humanae Vitae, the choice is between a carefully circumscribed moral order, and complete moral chaos; between meaning stabilised by reference to a divine intention and purpose, and the outright collapse of signification into an empty circulation of signs. The choice made by today’s Catholic authorities is to cling to objectively stupid doctrines in order to stave off this utter collapse: the more everyone tells them they’re being idiotic, the more this demonstrates that the Church is performing its God-given role as a “sign of contradiction”, a rock of paradox. The question is: how do you talk a (wealthy, powerful, and still infuriatingly prestigious in spite of everything) institution down from a high horse like that?