by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
When the Twelve Southerners wrote I'll Take My Stand, the 1930 agrarian cri de coeur, one of their primary complaints about the industrial civilization of the North was that it was reorienting man's relationship to nature in a radical and unsettling way. Richard Weaver joined this small chorus years later, protesting what he saw as "a warfare between man and nature, a fanatical warfare, in which.we seek the total overthrow of an opponent." But, as he pointed out, nature is not an opponent; nature is "the matrix of our being." A proper outlook on the world, he explained, understands that "beyond a certain point victories over nature are pyrrhic."
What would it mean to see nature as the matrix of our being? It would mean respect for her design, affection for her beauty, awe at her mystery, and acknowledgment of our ties to her. If these sound old-fashioned it may be because they concept they represent, though genuine, is ancient. It is an old knowledge, now lost, that we need to relearn. We hear things vaguely like this in the pro-nature slogans of environmentalism, but that movement in its radical manifestations is reactionary rather than restorative: Eco-Jacobins proclaim a Gaian revolution, declaring nature to be a kind of goddess, man a kind of animal, and Western culture a kind of error.
The knowledge we need to recover is different. It sees nature as God's creation and sees man, made in God's image, as the summit--and the steward--of that creation. This knowledge is ours by birthright, but so forgotten is it that in English there is really no word for it. The best approximation may be the old Latin word pietas, with its connotations of natural piety, filial respect, dutifulness, responsibility, and reverence. The concept is older than Rome, of course. As Dietrich von Hildebrand remarked, "Reverence is a constitutive element of the capacity to `wonder,' which Plato and Aristotle claimed to be the indispensable condition for philosophy."
When did we stop regarding nature with that mixture of wonder and dutifulness? About four hundred years ago Francis Bacon began trying to persuade us to a different attitude. Rejecting supposedly sterile metaphysical speculation and embracing empirical observation, he sought in the physical sciences a kind of terrestrial salvation. The flight from pietas gained special impetus when the discoveries of Newton apparently dissolved what had seemed nature's mysteries. The new scientific knowledge, morally neutral in itself, suggested to human ambition the possibility that man, having reduced the universe to the regularity of mathematical formulas, could begin to mold nature according to his desires. (Voltaire, leader of the rationalist attack on Christianity in the eighteenth century, called Newton the greatest man who ever lived.)
In the nineteenth century the modern mind took a brief and somewhat eccentric detour through Romanticism, but for the most part the wonders of technological progress continued to replace the wonderment of pietas. And so it has gone to our day. Our modern environmentalist movement, though prey to alarmism and paganism, is correct to this extent: As Pope John Paul II has observed, man's spoliation of the natural environment is one manifestation of his self-centered wish to exercise total control over his physical surroundings. Man's goal of bending nature to his will by means of technology is evident everywhere, with its disquieting mixture of results: We have stronger medicines and deadlier weapons; we have mechanized agriculture with its tasteless tomatoes, and mechanized human fertility with its disposable babies.
These two last-mentioned modern projects show clearly the lack of pietas in our attitudes toward nature and toward ourselves. As the Rockford Institute's Scott Richert has written: "With our sense of participation in the cycles of nature declining" in the modern period, "we could no longer perceive any reason why fertility--either agricultural or human--should not be manipulated for our convenience, made to conform to our (unnatural) schedules. And so the modern manipulation of fertility began apace."
We should not press the parallel too far. The mechanization of agriculture, with all of its well-known problems, is at least inherently limited in the offenses it can commit against pietas: Tomatoes, after all, are only tomatoes. Human conception, however, is inherently likely to become the Devil's playground, a hotbed of sin and self-alienation, if taken to be freely manipulable on the same principles. For contraception is a radical offense against pietas and a deep rebellion against the Creator. Every time man willfully frustrates the marriage act he shakes his fist defiantly at God, presuming to assert his sovereignty over the creation of human life itself. The cult of contraception that has overtaken the United States and the West as a whole is--along with abortion--only the most obvious indication that our society has discarded any lingering attachment it may have had to pietas, replacing reverence for nature and natural law with a destructive self-indulgence.
As we know, the Catholic Church has stood nearly alone in its denunciation of artificial contraception and her diagnosis of the deformation of the human person and the spousal relationship that inheres in its use. At the same time, as Pope Paul VI explained in Humanae Vitae, a couple may for serious reasons forego the arrival of offspring through natural means, by abstaining from the marriage act during the woman's fertile times.
It is frequently alleged against the Catholic position that the difference between artificial and natural forms of birth regulation is illusory, that since in both cases the couple is seeking to prevent births, the two methods are morally equivalent. Now it is certainly proper to respond, with Paul VI and other moral theologians, that simply to refrain from an action can be morally neutral--that in the one case the couple has recourse to certain rhythms immanent in the generative function, and that in the other they actively thwart a natural process.
But there is more to be said, since from the point of view of pietas the two methods could not be more different. The couple using artificial contraception willfully defy the natural order, performing the marriage act on terms they themselves set. The husband and wife using Natural Family Planning observe the order that God has created, which includes periodic infertile cycles in the woman, and conform themselves to that order. Unlike the couple who introduce foreign objects and devices into a holy and intimate union, the NFP couple submit themselves in humility to the wisdom of God, making licit use of a faculty blessed by God, but without the Promethean desire to thwart His holy will by deliberately contravening the order He has established within the reproductive process.
The idea of nature as something not to dominate but to which we ought to conform ourselves allows us to participate in benign mystery as opposed to malign mastery. Pietas is fundamentally what distinguishes those who have resisted the snares of contraceptive propaganda from those who have succumbed. Far from embracing the contraceptive mentality, the couple using NFP issue a tacit but radical challenge to the disordered lust for domination that in recent centuries has deformed man's relationship to nature and its laws. In ordering their conduct according to the natural operation of God's creation, they return to a posture toward the workings of nature more consonant with that of classical antiquity and medieval Christianity.
It is no coincidence that the divorce rate for couples who use NFP is virtually zero. A husband and wife willing to trust in God, to make the sacrifices necessary to raise a large family, and to live even the most intimate part of their lives in conformity with the natural law are especially likely in other areas of married life to make sacrifices for one another, to subordinate their individual wills to the good of their marriage, and in general to view their union as not merely two individuals joined in a civil contract but as two in one flesh, joined by a sacramental seal.
Contraception is so widespread today that few give the matter a second thought. But the practice is more than a grave moral offense. It reflects a view of man and of God that is utterly alien to the Catholic. Artificial contraception offers deceptive benefits to the unreflective couple--a life of ease and comfort--but the stunted and self-centered love it encourages must always damage or even destroy the marriage bond itself. Against these false promises the Church offers instead a path of self-giving love, a life of heroic sacrifice that has its trials, but also joys that must always remain unknown to the couple using contraception. The Church is deeply in union with nature when she teaches us not to look upon the divine order and answer "non serviam." The Church tells us rather to observe a holy surrender to the wisdom of God. That path may look narrow, but blessed are those who walk in it.
originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of New Oxford Review.
Posted on the web with permission of the author by
The Augustine Club at Columbia University, 1999