Humanae Vitae and the Brave New World

What will our future look like? For in discussing the topic of human sexuality, we are, bottom line, discussing the future. Because it concerns reproduction, sexuality is future oriented. Sexuality raises the question of the future because, at least up to now and for the time being, it is the instrument of our human future. We carry within us the seeds of the future.

I want to use this question, “What will our future look like,” to approach a discussion of human sexuality from the Catholic point of view. I want to use this question as a way of getting us all thinking. And when I say, “all,” I do not just mean the people who may be opposed to Catholic teaching or disagree with it, but also those who are in ardent agreement with it. I would like to propose that there is some serious thinking for all of us to do in connection with this teaching, and sometimes thinking brings people together, even where they do not agree. In any event, no matter where we are starting—in a culture where we seem to be reduced to thinking in the equivalent of mental memes and slogans—we could all afford to think more deeply about it, and this is what I hope to prompt or to promote.

I am going to start talking about the future, ironically, by going back to the past, namely, to 1932, the year of publication of Aldous Huxley’s provocative, deeply disturbing, and by now, classic novel, Brave New World. I know that many of us have not necessarily just finished our second or third reading of Brave New World, so I will refresh our collective memories, meanwhile recommending you read the book for yourself if you have never been able to pick it up. The book is in the genre of utopian writing; that is, writing about the ideal, though still imaginary, society.

Only Huxley inverts the genre, so that what he depicts, though it is a society that has eliminated war, hunger, disease, and old age, is intended to appear to the reader as the opposite of an ideal society, an anti-utopia, because it has also eliminated history, literature, art, religion, and scientific inquiry for its own sake, and yet it has not eliminated death. It eliminates old age by retarding the aging process until age 60, when one undergoes mandatory euthanasia. Therefore, society must still reproduce itself if it is to have a future. But, this future has nothing to do with sex. Because, while there is an abundance of sexual activity in this self-avowedly promiscuous society, it does not include procreation.

In fact, the most conspicuous feature of Huxley’s imaginary utopia, or better, anti-utopia, is the complete severing of the relationship between sex and procreation, two things that are, of course, intimately linked in Catholic thinking. This severing of the relationship between sex and procreation is the most fundamental feature of Huxley’s anti-utopia, and therefore of his vision of a possible future. We are introduced, on the very first page of the very first chapter, to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and for the next 56 pages, about 20% of the book, we follow the Director as he leads his new students, and us with them, on a general tour of the facility with all its departments. We begin our tour “at the beginning,” as the Director says (5), in the Fertilizing Room, where the “week’s supply of ova” are kept in incubators, and the week’s supply of male gametes are kept in a separate, cooler incubator, all in test-tubes. Most women in this society are sterilized at a young age, but some have to be left intact in order to be a source of egg cells (for each egg donated they are paid a bonus of six months’ salary). At a certain point in the tour, we watch as an army of 300 employees called Fertilizers allows the eggs to be immersed in a bath of swimming sperm cells until they are all fertilized. Then they are developed in vitro, in technology that mimics the womb (currently in development), until they are not “born,” but “decanted.” Most people do not know what the word “born” actually means apart from a vague idea of an outdated and distasteful process, which is never mentioned in polite company.

In this society, people are not procreated, they are produced on a production line, in fact, they are mass-produced. We learn about “Bokanovsky’s Process.” Anyone who has taken Organic Chemistry will appreciate the dark humor here, since it sounds just as innocent as “Markolnikov’s Rule” and the like, until we discover that it is a technique for forcing one egg to produce identical twins by the hundreds. And it is enhanced by “Podsnap’s Technique,” which is a way of forcing eggs to mature more quickly than normal. The Director brags that so far, the record from one individual is from an 18-month-old toddler whose eggs have already produced over 12,700 children, “and still going strong,” he adds (9), all “bokanivskified” so that from each egg there are hundreds of identical twins. When one of the hapless students asks where the advantage lay in this, the Director “wheeled sharply round on him. ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see? … Bokanovsky’s Process is one of the major instruments of social stability!’” (7). The reason is that the millions of identical twins produced are put on production lines that deprive them of oxygen, in varying amounts, so that they are “decanted”—I almost said “born”—with substandard intelligence and creativity. These are the lower three groups of society, the “Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons,” the latter of whom are, in the book’s description, “semi-morons.”

All of this happens in what is, not without irony, called the “Social Predestination Room,” where the “Assistant Director of Predestination” (more dark Calvinist humor) decides which embryos will be malnourished and deprived of oxygen, and which will flourish into the two upper classes, the Alphas (managerial class) and the Betas (technician class). After birth, I mean decantation, in the “Neo-Pavlovian Conditioning Rooms,” all these classes are subjected to subliminal sleep conditioning, a kind of pedagogical hypnotism, so that no one, when they grow up, wants to be in a different class. The Epsilons are happy doing all the most menial work of society, and they are conditioned to hate books and flowers through the application of electric shocks. The Alphas feel only disgust, rather than compassion, for the lower classes, who all wear distinctive uniforms for easy recognition, so there is no pity to cause social instability or social reform. Anyway, the Alphas know the Epsilons are happy doing all the heavy dangerous work and cleaning toilets. They hate the idea of reading.

In their elementary school years, the children are required to play outdoors together in the nude in order to facilitate sexual experimentation so that they will mature into respectable, promiscuous adults who, we discover, are also conditioned against forming any exclusive sexual relationships or any that endure beyond a couple of months. The students are shocked to discover that, at an earlier time, sexual play among children was frowned upon, and they are embarrassed to the point of blushing when the Director asks them about the past, and, wanting to avoid smutty words like “mother,” one of them gets up his courage: “‘Human beings used to be . . .’ he hesitated; the blood rushed to his cheeks. ‘Well they used to be viviparous.’” The Director has to add, “‘In brief . . . the parents were the father and the mother’ The smut that was really science fell with a crash into the boys’ eye-avoiding silence. ‘Mother,’ he repeated loudly rubbing in the science’” (24). Later: “Try to imagine what ‘living with one’s family meant.’ They tried; but obviously without the smallest success. ‘And do you know what a “home” was?’ They shook their heads” (36). The past has been completely erased.

All European languages but English are dead with their literatures, and no English literature is taught; it is banned from the schools and there are no libraries. All architectural monuments, statues, etc., from the past have been torn down, along with all churches and any other architectural beauty that might indicate the past was worth anything. The purpose of society is to produce and consume, and wasting is encouraged so that more can be consumed, reminding us of Pope Francis’s analysis of a throw-away culture but on steroids. Religious services are replaced by “Community Sings,” and there is an “Arch-Singer of Canterbury” to lead these communal drug trips that end in orgies. “Everyone belongs to Everyone,” is a leading proverb hypnotically instilled in all children, in a parody of “Love Your Neighbor.” All stress in this society is dealt with through “vacations” on the drug “soma.”

I have dwelt on this vision of the future because, without being any kind of Catholic propaganda, for Huxley was not even religious when he wrote this, it puts before our eyes the way in which the separation of sex from procreation is not simply a private decision as the question of contraception is often treated, where it is said that what happens in peoples’ bedrooms is of no one else’s concern. In the society we have just looked at, it is everyone’s business: “Everyone belongs to Everyone.” Contraception is strictly enforced for those few in the upper classes who are not sterilized as a matter of routine, and abortion is the expected go-to for those who do not want to own the smutty identification “father” or, especially, “mother,” which is no one.

Huxley thrusts the question upon us: to think about the separation of procreation from sex is necessarily to think about the future society that will be formed by that separation. What social values are being created or suppressed by the separation of sex from procreation? What sensibilities are being favored and formed? What sensitivities are being eclipsed or fashioned? We see Huxley thrust these questions upon our attention as he shows us a vision of a society marked by the complete separation of procreation from sex.

He shows us the sensibilities it forms, for example, repulsion at the idea of parenthood, and the sensibilities it eclipses, for example, revulsion to all of education as we know it, education in history, literature, art, music, and pure science. Who would ever want to read Shakespeare? One has to understand sexual intimacy, family, striving for spiritual transformation amidst a welter of loyalties and bonds that are all, directly or indirectly, created by the social communities that arise from procreation. Who would want to listen to Mozart? A kind of “muzak” has developed, shallow and sensuous at the same time, which is satisfying and nothing deeper is appreciated or wanted. You may be thinking, this is all very extreme, and it is. But it is meant to be, because that is the provocation for thinking, for making us see that thinking about the separation of sex from procreation is thinking about the future shape of society.

Let us see if we can identify this same kind of provocation in official Catholic teaching. Let us start with the famous, or for some, infamous, encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the use of artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae. This is certainly a central text in contemporary Catholic sexual teaching, even though, according to polls, a preponderant majority of Catholics have rejected it, and certainly the sensibilities and sensitivities of our culture have been formed by such a pervasive social commitment to contraception that we feel it as a positive social good. Perhaps we wonder how the Church can be so backwards in clinging to an older, outworn sensibility, and her position often is explained precisely as an outworn sensibility, as an aversion to sex or as a form of misogyny, with no real reason behind it. No one gives it a second thought. But let us do just that for our purposes here.

The encyclical begins by proposing the cultural sensibilities, in the form of questions to which it intends to respond. Given concerns about overpopulation, new forms of life that make it difficult to provide properly for a large family, a new understanding of the place of women in society, and a more positive awareness of the value of conjugal love in marriage—all of this coupled with what the encyclical calls “the most remarkable development of all,” namely, “mans stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life . . . even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life” (HV §2)—would it not be right, the encyclical asks, “to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is felt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort?” In particular, “could it not be admitted . . . that [the connection between sex and procreation] applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act?” (HV §3).

These questions mark the cultural sensibility, the “common sense” one might say, of Western industrialized society some sixty-five years ago, and it is easy to recognize their persistence in our own cultural “common sense,” though ours has been expanded to include questions about why sex and procreation need have any connection at all, and why sex need be limited to marriage. The increasing popularity of sex dolls and sex robots even leads to the question of whether sex need have any reference to another person at all. To believe the promotional videos of the manufacturers, sex with robots will become the dominant form of sex in the future.

The encyclical answers these questions by appealing first to the Second Vatican Council, citing Gaudium et Spes, “‘Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children’” (GS §8 cited at HV §9). Famously, it goes on to interpret this, making the crucial specification. Noting that not each and every act of intercourse leads to conception, it specifies that “the Church, nevertheless . . . teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” The “nevertheless” is important. The “nevertheless” indicates that the “intrinsic relationship” of intercourse to procreation cannot mean that each act of intercourse results or must result, or be actively intended to result, in conception. The connection is not that tight. Nevertheless—we hear that important word—this marital union is the sole human action that contains within it a reference to procreation that is not accidental to it. Another way to put it: to act in a way that blocks or obscures the intrinsic relationship of the act to procreation is not just a private decision, but necessarily affects the character and sensibilities of the society at large. We have seen this same claim proposed in Brave New World, in both cases offered as a provocation to deepen our thinking and refine our sensibilities.

The encyclical continues: “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.” Here the “unitive significance” refers to the ordering of the act towards emotional and spiritual union of souls through the unique conjugal union of bodies, and the “procreative significance” refers to the ordering of the act towards procreation.

Continuing, Paul VI notes:

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman . . . . We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason (HV §12).

I will return to the idea of the “laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman” later, since this language is Church-clunky for contemporaries and hard to interpret, but for now I want to press on examining the logic of the text, taking seriously its appeal to the capacity of the reader to see the inherent rationality of this teaching. The text observes that any kind of violence or pressure in marriage with the intention of imposing an act of intercourse that the other spouse does not want, impairs the unitive significance and is “no true act of love” therefore. But also, and this is crucially important for understanding the inherent rationality of the teaching, it claims that, “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 . . . . 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” (HV §13).

I would argue that this last sentence, often overlooked, is the fundamental claim of the encyclical itself. It is the fundamental claim that we are most provoked to ponder, namely, that the human being is not “the master of the sources of life” and that to refuse to break the connection between the unitive and procreative significance of sex is to acknowledge this. Contrariwise, to act intentionally to break or obscure the intrinsic connection between sexual union and procreation is, in effect, to claim mastery over the sources of life. This will necessarily produce a very different kind of society, one that is shaped by that claim, one which has developed sensibilities shaped by that claim, mostly without even realizing it.

Huxley’s novel displays this. His imaginary society is shaped by the claim that human beings are the absolute masters of the sources of life. This entails seeing life itself as a product. Re-production has become production, and human worth has been fully reduced to social worth. From the point of view of the encyclical, to the extent that procreation is intentionally split apart from sexual union, to that extent procreation is thereby regarded as accidental to sex. To be even more concrete, this means that children are thereby regarded as accidental to sex. To that extent, one is already conceiving a future, or even a present, where other ways of producing children, are equally valid—perhaps even more desirable. The claim is really that, to the extent that we are willing to dissociate procreation from sex, claiming mastery over the sources of life, we are already thinking of procreation as a kind of production, and the bodies of men and women as so much reproductive technology, a biological technology to be sure but implicitly replaceable by more advanced technology. But to conceive of the child as a product of human technology, biological or otherwise, is an affront to the human dignity of the child. It is the incipient or actual production of a less than humane, a less human, society.

The encyclical continues, “Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born. We must give a clear reply to this question. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God” (HV §16), noting that an action “which of its very nature contradicts the moral order . . . must therefore be judged unworthy of man” despite an intention “to promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general” (HV §14). “Unworthy of man” means contrary to human dignity and ultimately, though it is hard to hear it, contrary to the very human welfare one is trying to protect.

For once it is admitted that it is licit to break the bond between the unitive significance and procreative significance of any sex act with artificial birth control, that is, technologically, you have crossed the line into conceiving of procreation as accidental to sex, as not intrinsically related to it, and therefore as a free-floating enterprise which could be accomplished in other ways. You have crossed the line into thinking of sex as a kind of technology of which we are the masters, with the reproductive organs characteristic of male and female as parts of this technology, important parts, at least for now, until replaced. For where would one otherwise draw the line, and on what basis, between reproduction as technology or, on the contrary, an irreducibly personal act? And what kind of society, what kind of future, are we shaping by our choices?

It can be wondered if there is really any difference between the use of artificial contraception and the use of periodic abstinence during times known to be fertile, which the encyclical permits. Paul VI addresses this issue directly:

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different (HV §16).

The encyclical concedes that the intention in both cases is, in one regard, the same, namely “for acceptable reasons . . . to avoid children” (ibid.). But, it adds, in the case of timing intercourse for the infertile periods, “the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature,” whereas in the case of artificial birth control, “they obstruct the natural development of the generative process (ibid.).

Does this mean that the text thinks it is wrong to interrupt any natural process just because it is natural? The text offers no grounds for such a reading, but mentions specifically the generative process. It mentions directly intervening, technologically, to block that process, a process that concerns “the sources of life.” To block that process is to refuse to acknowledge that the human being is “not the master of the sources of life.” To block that process is to refuse to acknowledge that reproduction is not production and the body not a technological extension of our own production of goods. On the contrary, to block that process is to assert mastery over the sources of life, even if only implicitly or dimly recognized, transferring reproduction from its status as an irreducibly personal embodied act to a technological act.

In the words of the encyclical, “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” (HV §13). Those whose abstinence in the fertile period reflects their refusal to claim mastery over the sources of life by technologically blocking conception, come to the use of the infertile period bearing witness to human dignity, first and foremost the human dignity of children, bearing witness that they are not products but gifts of which we are not the makers but the ministers.

This is a witness to what, in justice, is owed to children. They also bear witness to the dignity of the spouses as embodied personal agents of this ministry, and to their bodies as not just biological “plumbing” (as I have heard it described), on the one hand, a technology of insemination which could just as easily be taken over by a turkey baster (as in the actress Lily Tomlin’s 1991 play “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”), or a very advanced machine in the guise of a sex robot, and, on the other hand, a technology of reception and development which could just as easily be taken over by an artificial womb or “baby bag.” In their refusal to assert mastery over the sources of life, they uphold the irreducibly personal character of procreation and its human dignity.

Is this a difficult ideal to embrace? Yes, as the encyclical notes, and as it also notes we should have patience with the many, perhaps even with ourselves, who find it difficult. But what defense of justice and human dignity is ever easy? Standing up for the dignity of the human person always requires, in the words of the text, “a resolute purpose and great endurance” (HV §20). But, in advocating on behalf of this witness to justice and dignity, “the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization” (HV §18), a civilization that will avoid the progressive de-personalization of procreation, which is actually an increasing reliance on technology to produce a social commodity called children. Eventually, we will be able to design the genes of this product so it meets our social and consumer preferences more completely.

We see the extreme endpoint of this reliance in Brave New World, but one does not have to look too much farther than our own world to see it in our present and our near future. The title of one recent article reporting on the development of artificial wombs, says it all: “Artificial wombs: The Coming Era of Motherless Births.” “Ectogenesis,” as it is called, is eerily like the process described in Brave New World, where babies are gestated artificially without all of the still-not-fully-documented hormonal, psychological and social influences and relationship made between mother and gestating child. And, to return to the topic of sex robots, the manufacturers set as their long-term goal the production of artificial eggs and the ability therefore of a man to impregnate the sexbot and to reproduce without a woman at all. In the words of another article, in the 2016 volume of The Federalist, “The Real Goal of Sexbots and Artificial Reproduction is Making Women Obsolete.” In this brave new world, women, insofar as they are women, are the equivalent of machines and they have been replaced by better machines. The male is the standard of humanity and Genesis notwithstanding, the only “helpmate” he needs is a machine.

It is interesting, too, how in our own time, there is social pressure on the words “mother” and “father,” but, interestingly and just as in Brave New World, the pressure is on the word “mother,” in particular. “Birthing person” could have been in Brave New World a euphemism to avoid the more scientific, but smutty word, “mother.” Are we seeing a move to fashion our sensibilities so that this word becomes, if not smutty, embarrassing in polite company?  The point comes back to us with full force: to talk about the connection between sex and procreation is necessarily to talk about the shape of the future, and to split apart procreation and sex is to tend toward the transformation of reproduction into production and the conceptualization of the reproductive systems of men and especially women as biological technology, as machinery, subject to technological improvement or replacement. And the question comes back: what kind of future do we want?

We come finally to the view of men and women that is implicit in the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but developed more explicitly elsewhere. We can begin by noting that to the extent that you tend to separate procreation and sex, you render the words “man” and “woman” empty of any objective content and they become filled, instead, with cultural stereotypes. If procreation can be detached from the personal, sexual union of man and woman, such that better technologies can, at present partially, and in the future fully, replace this outdated one, then what is left of man as man or woman as woman? These begin to appear more and more as simply culturally constructed identities that have no objective grounding.

This is the position, for example, of Judith Butler, whose monograph “Gender Trouble” is the theoretical blueprint underwriting most curricula in Gender Studies today. Her theory is that both sex and gender are merely social constructs masquerading as objective reality, “performances” that are scripted by vested interests, such as the desire of those called “men” to keep control over those called “women,” cleverly matching these names to the set of bodily organs one possesses whereas these organs have no intrinsic or natural significance at all. Butler is therefore an ardent advocate of artificial wombs and of the complete replacement of biology with technology, as though the biology were an outdated technology. Because, for her, without complete and utter separation of sex from procreation, there appears to be something natural about the identities of “men” and “women” and something normative about heterosexual intercourse when what really needs to happen is the complete breakdown of the gender binary into a fluid continuum of constructed identities.

Only then will what are now called “women” be free, but, ironically, at the cost of not being women. In point of fact, at least so far, though, the category that tends to be erased is only one of the two: the category “woman.” Why should a man put up with dependence on women for anything but prompt and ready pleasure without consequences, when everything else about her is entirely, at least in principle, and at least for the wealthy, replaceable?

Catholic teaching, by contrast, can be viewed as a defense of the “Concept of Woman,” to quote the title of the magisterial four-volume work by the Catholic philosopher and historian, Sister Prudence Allen, R.S.M. Catholic teaching has as its touchstone an understanding of “man” and “woman” where both have an equal and irreducible reference to procreation and thereby an objective grounding in reality. The Catechism, citing the text of Genesis, puts it in the simplest way: “Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman” (CCC §369). Further, “God created man and woman together and willed each for the other. (CCC §371). “Not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be ‘helpmate’ to the other, for they are equal as persons . . . and complementary as masculine and feminine. In marriage, God unites them in such a way that, by forming ‘one flesh,’ they can transmit human life” (CCC §372).

Here, in summary form, is Catholic teaching on man and woman. These identities are objectively rooted in creation, and they are complementary to each other. We come here to the famous and almost always misunderstood doctrine of the complementarity of man and woman. This is usually understood in a way that is the direct opposite of what the CCC says here, namely, as though man and woman by themselves were only “half” persons, and only when they come together in marriage do they make one whole person. Sr. Prudence Allen calls this account of complementarity “fractional complementarity,” because each person is seen as a “fraction,” a complementary part, of the whole. She notes that this view trades heavily in stereotypes of what is “masculine” and what is “feminine.” You have probably heard them in cliché form: the man is the “head” and the woman is the “heart”; even less poetically, men are rational and women are emotional; man gives leadership and direction and women are natural followers; etc. It is easy to notice that in these accounts of complementarity, the positive stereotype usually applies to the man, and the more negative one to the woman. For example, even though it is true that rationality needs to be complemented by emotionality, reason on its own is better than emotion on its own. Fractional complementarity tends to the absorption of the concept of woman into the concept of man, as inferior to superior.

The Catholic account—though you will see a lot of literature claiming to represent the Catholic point of view but actually representing the fractional complementarity mentioned above—does not depend on stereotypes. Rather, “man” and “woman” refer to two ways of being embodied persons which are not reducible to each other and yet each of which has reference to the other. You cannot collapse woman into man as a kind of inferior version of him, as Aristotle and to some extent following him, Aquinas did. Sr. Prudence Allen, by contrast, traces the development of the idea of the concept of woman in its relation to the concept of man by showing that the true philosophical articulation of what is revealed in Genesis is the idea of “integral sex complementarity of man and woman” as she calls it, to distinguish it from “fractional complementarity.”

She shows that this is in fact a major achievement of the Christian philosophical and theological tradition which has its ups and downs, but which tended to develop in contexts where men and women were working together. For example, she demonstrates that the twelfth-century theologian and physician, Hildegard of Bingen, gave the idea a major impetus, leaving behind a concept of woman as simply an inferior version of man. Hildegard was abbess of a double monastery, where men and women collaborated in the work of the whole, though they lived separately. By contrast, the doctrine received a setback in the medieval universities, which were restricted to men and did not admit women.  

To be a man is to be an embodied person who reproduces outside of himself and in another; to be a woman is to be an embodied person who reproduces inside of herself—among other distinctions. But you can see that these two ways of being embodied cannot be reduced one to the other. It is impossible for a man to know what it is like to reproduce within oneself, to harbor and nurture new life with one’s own substance; just as it is impossible for a woman to know from the inside the experience of a man, whose relationship to his progeny is external. However, the two identities are complementary in that they have an irreducible mutual and procreative reference. You cannot know what a man is without knowing what a woman is, and vice versa. What is masculine and what is feminine? These are not determined by stereotypes, but rather, each sex is free to enact masculinity and femininity by living out their respective ways of being in the body. Whether or not they choose to marry and have children, though, the complementarity of these two ways of being embodied always has reference to procreation. It is when that reference is broken, that cultural stereotypes take over to fill the void.

It is interesting, for example, if you do any reading around in the literature of sex robots, that the “female” sex robots are designed according to exaggerated cultural stereotypes of what the ideal “feminine” woman would be. They are alarmingly young, perhaps if the robot were a person, illegally young, and otherwise verge on the pornographic. So, although it may seem initially surprising to someone whose idea of “complementarity of the sexes” is the fractional complementarity that trades in stereotypes, the Catholic view of complementarity is designed to separate masculine and feminine identities from cultural stereotypes and thereby leave intact and unerasable the concept of woman, as well as the concept of man.

Masculinity, on this view, is the acting in the world, or the witness, of a person embodied in a male way, and femininity is the acting in the world, or the witness, of one who is embodied in a female way. One embodied in a male way experiences the world and self-consciousness through that embodiment, with the particular potentialities proper to it, such as the potential to be a father. If he is living in a marriage with a woman, and enacts his role faithfully and lovingly as husband and father, whether that involves being the primary caregiver or the primary breadwinner, it is a masculine witness, irreducibly, which cannot be borne by a woman. Even if he chooses to renounce marriage, it is still the renunciation of potentialities that are uniquely male—he cannot renounce being a mother, for example, and so even in consecrated celibacy the masculine witness is there and has irreducible reference to the feminine.

The same is true the other way around. Being embodied in a female way means experiencing the world and oneself in and through potentialities that are uniquely female, for example, the experience of one’s body as having a cycle ordered around ovulation and thus around welcoming new life within herself, that is, of being a mother. Her witness in living out this form of embodiment is thereby irreducibly feminine, a witness which cannot be borne by a man, and yet is complementary to the man, whether in marriage or in renouncing it. In neither case is the complementarity dependent on fractional stereotypes. As Prudence Allen points out, “it is closer to the truth about a woman to say that she is a courageous woman than to say she is a masculine woman . . . . Similarly, I think it is closer to the truth about a man to say that he is a gentle man than that he is a feminine man” (vol. III, 501). His gentleness is a masculine witness to what it means to be good; her courage is a feminine witness to what it means to be good.

To stereotype courage as “masculine” and gentleness as “feminine” is to say, on the contrary, that sex and gender are cultural constructs with no reality underlying them. Prudence Allen shows that this idea of complementarity, far from being an ancient conservative, sexist, and outmoded way of thinking, is actually a hard-won philosophical and cultural achievement protecting the concept of woman in particular, but also of man, from being degraded into cultural stereotypes and thus disappearing. It is the way of preserving the human dignity of man as man and of woman as woman.

So we have come full circle. We have seen that thinking about the connection between sex and procreation is the same as thinking about the shape of society of the future. The texts we have looked at propose that separating sex from procreation is to welcome, or at least have no way of blocking, a brave new world in which reproduction tends to become a kind of production, reducing children to the status of something “made,” a commodity, a society which has a more and more attenuated sense of human dignity. We have also seen that to understand “man” or “woman” without seeing in these identities an essential, though complementary, relationship to procreation, is just another way of separating sex and procreation. Without the reference to procreation, these identities are left to vary at the mercy of cultural stereotypes, with no inherent dignity attaching to them, not even the dignity of being a “father” or a “mother,” and perhaps in the not too distant future, of being a parent. If there is no “there” there in sexual identity, then there is nothing wrong with replacing the personal character of procreation with technological, artificial reproduction and there is actually something desirable about it. “O brave new world!” to quote Miranda from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, ironically banned in Huxley’s utopia. “O brave new world”—it is brave—but is it human? That is what these texts invite us to ponder.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation to the teachers of the Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend.

Featured Image: Velazquez, Las Meninas (detail), 1657; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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