Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

By Brian Earp

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Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

Rick Santorum thinks that birth control is immoral. Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania, is one of two human beings – if the polls have it right – likeliest to become the Republication nominee for President of the United States this election cycle.

Santorum is Catholic. I know this because Senator Santorum has made a point of highlighting his particular faith, as well a wide range of moral views he holds and which he believes are justified on the basis of that religious framework. One moral stand he has recently defended is that it is wrong for adult women to use birth control. As he explained in an October interview with an evangelical blog:

It’s not OK, because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They’re supposed to be within marriage, for purposes that are, yes, conjugal… but also procreative.

Non-procreative sex, that is, is impermissible because it is not consistent with how things are “supposed to be.” The way things are “supposed to be,” we can safely assume, is the way God intended them to be. And how God intended them to be is known to Rick Santorum through his reading of the Bible (God’s “word”) and through his extensive training in Catholic doctrines regarding reproductive technology (the Catholic Church is, like Rick Santorum, an expert on God’s intentions—also through its systematic study of the Bible, as well as through other forms of revelation).

To use birth control is simply to interfere with God’s “procreative” plan for sex within the context of marriage. And interfering with God’s plans, as a general problem, is sometimes called “playing God” – an accusation that charges the accused with presuming to know things that no mere human being can reasonably know, such as when pregnancy should or shouldn’t follow from intercourse. Rick Santorum’s view is that we shouldn’t “play God.”

Having set things up, I would now like to quote, at length, an important reminder about humility from Santorum’s fellow Catholic, the Australian philosopher C. A. J. Coady. He points out that “playing God” is not the province only of the irreligious:

The temptation to act in ways that ignore or make light of the in-built constraints on human knowledge, power, and benevolence is certainly one to which all humans are prone, including bishops, theologians, and priests. Indeed those who believe that they are privy to God’s purposes through revelation, inspiration, or tradition or all combined are perhaps especially open to the temptation.

We should recall in this connection with the sad history of religious wars, crusades, inquisitions, the preaching of erroneous doctrines, and the failure to preach important truths. I am a Catholic, and my own Church has its blemishes in all these regards. Rather than proclaim a litany of such offenses, it is enough simply to stress the difficulty of knowing God’s will and truth in so many complex settings and the deep tendency of the righteous to simplify both in the interests of the perceived good, but also, often enough, in the interest of power. Of course, for any given issue, the clergy are not playing God if they are actually in receipt of genuine information about what God has decreed. But the evident temptations for religious people to play God should at least give pause to those who believe themselves in that fortunate representative position.

And then, if you thought that Coady’s reminder could not be made more relevant to the current topic, he goes on to state:

A similar point can be made about conservatism in the face of technological or social change, whether that conservatism comes from a religious source or elsewhere. A conservative stance on innovation is often seen as necessarily less prone to [the problem of playing God]. But this does not ring entirely true. The attitudes involved in playing God can easily enough find a home in the defense of the status quo. Those who resisted the modernizing trends that promoted the equality of women were surely playing God with people’s lives. They were assuming knowledge about a woman’s role in the world that was presumptuous and ill based. The gleam of hubris is as likely to be found in the eye of the ardent traditionalist as in that of the fervent revolutionary.

I will add no further comment.

 

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Quotations from “Playing God” by C. A. J. Coady (2009) in Human Enhancement, edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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7 Responses to Rick Santorum, birth control, and “playing God”

  • E. Milco says:

    Obviously if you don't believe in divine revelation, or if you accept nominalist-type ideas about the inscrutability of the divine will toward humanity, then making any strong judgments about "morals" or "natural teleology" is a way of "playing God". But if, like Santorum and the rest of the orthodox Catholic world you believe that God has in the course of history made manifest certain truths about goodness and being in a way that is intelligible to those disposed to receive them, then questions of "progress" or technological development cease to be relevant. If God <b>is</b> truth (a common Christian belief), then general revelation concerning moral norms seems to override any newfound ability to escape the natural consequences of our actions. Santorum and company believe that general revelation is handed down through tradition and made available through the Church. Saying that they don't feel apt to change something they have received from an (apparently) divine source is hardly equivalent to "playing God", whatever recent advances in homone synthesis or latex fabrication may have taken place.

  • elisa freschi says:

    I am not sure that Santorum's stance is the only possible consequence, given his Catholic background. Apart from Coady's cautious words, one might, for instance, suggest that today's emancipation of women is also part of God's plan. The providentiality of history leaves room for the possibility of all history being the way God can make His message explicit to us. Traditional safeguard of the cultural and social situation of, say, Europe before the year 1800 is not safeguarding God's design, but rather cult of a certain (dead) time, i.e. "cult of the deads", superstition. Or am I missing some logical link?

  • E. Milco says:

    Well there area few problems with that line of thought. First, you're assuming that the moral and doctrinal norms the Catholic church continues to teach have no basis other than a (constructed, historically relative) cultural one. Since revelation as interpreted by the Church claims to be based on the actual nature of things and to show us certain facts which are practically necessary for the perfection of human nature and the attainment of happiness, cultural changes don't seem relevant. One might analogously try to argue to a philosopher that the mind-body problem is no longer relevant because it was something imperialists thought about. It's a non sequitur. If you were living in 13th century Spain, would it be true that democracy was a "cult of the dead" simply because it hadn't been a dominant political system since ancient times?

    Furthermore, the question of "emancipating women" by means of contraception is somewhat illogical. The fact that scumbags who knock up women and then refuse to take responsibility for their children have historically been able to get away with it doesn't mean that we should pursue the same "right" for women. This is going out on a limb a bit, but when I look around I'd guess that the utter lack of consequence to sexual relationships has led people on the whole to be more misogynistic than before.

    Anyway, even supposing your arguments were sound, they wouldn't change the fact that there's a viable (and reasonable) perspective from which Santorum's moral beliefs do not amount to "playing God", which seems sufficient to undermine the original claim of the post.

    • elisa freschi says:

      I am not sure I can completely follow your point, this is hence a tentative reply.
      1. Yes, there are doctrinary points which are independent of historical developments, but you will also agree that there are several others which are only due to some historical circumstances. The Vatican Council has, e.g., decided that the Mass can be held in the local vernaculars and that Latin is not an essential part of it.
      2. I did not write that contraception is tantamount to the emancipation of women. I mentioned the latter as a non-controversial (I hoped) example of positive historical change. I would anyway say that birth-planning within families has probably had a positive effect on the life of women (I include in birth-planning longer breast-feeding etc.).
      3. As for Rick Santorum, I do not know him and cannot judge him. I would suggest a more dubitative tone (something like "sex is for the sake of love and if one loves another human being, why should one try to avoid this love's fruits?").

    • E. Milco says:

      Fair points in general, although the change to the vernacular isn't new. Latin was the vernacular for a long time, and then for a long time after that it was the universal second language (grammar schools are called that because that's where one would learn latin grammar). But missionaries even well into the middle ages (I'm thinking especially of Cyril and Methodius) were told to render the liturgy into the local vernacular.

  • Robin H says:

    If we hold any litmus test for what is good or right, no one will pass. What matters is whether Rick will enforce the Constitution and govern for all the people. Many people have personal belief that are different than their professional practices. I can add a lot of my own dislikes for Santorum, but the real question is why out of Country of 300 million people, we have to choose from meager pickings.

    Robin
    god-gold-glory.org

  • E. Milco says:

    I'm with you 100% on the meager pickings bit. I wish Ron Paul were more popular…

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