40 years after Humanae Vitae: Part 3, a note on counterpositions

by David Fleischacker

This last week, I gave a little talk on the role of the Church in the conversion of St. Augustine, and in preparation for this, I read through the first number of books of his Confessions. It reminded me of an important point that Lonergan makes regarding the notion of development and finality, and also of the difficulty of breaking from the deformations of the human soul that hinder the emergence of an understanding of the fullness of the intelligibility of conception.

Books seven and eight in the Confessions are particularly revealing. Augustine spoke many times of his inability to understand even himself, let alone God and evil prior to his conversions described in these books. What is amazing in all of this, is that theoretically, we can understand ourselves, evil, and the basic meaning of God through the natural light of our own reason. However, because of our distortions in life, we become blind to them. Augustine’s own “swirling mists of lust” (Rex Warner translation), kept him tied to the “out of doors” and would not allow him to grasp anything beyond immediate sensory and imaginative types of knowledge. He “pictures” God, Jesus, and his own soul as being made of this type of material spread throughout the universe. He created, as he says, merely figments of his imagination about his soul and God. And in the end, this means he understood virtually nothing about these non-imaginable realities.

The way many of us live in relationship to our bodies and to our procreative abilities indicates a similar type of distortion in our own minds, which ends up slanting our heuristic anticipations, which in turn distorts and severely limits the answers we discover when thinking about men, women, conception, children, family, and many other important facets of our humanity.

So, it is with a bit of fear and trembling that I continue to enter into this exploration of the intelligibility of conception.

We are in need of the same conversions through which Augustine passed. In book seven, chapter ten of his Confessions, he describes one of the first major stages of his conversion. It was a conversion of his mind, opening it from its material entrapment into the brighter and much larger world of the incorporeal. It was dispositively prepared for by the prayers and graces that came from his mother and Ambrose, his initiation into the catechumenate of the Catholic Church, and his reading of the Platonists. Through both grace and reason, God then prepared him for a moment of divine love that would flood his heart and open his mind. It allows him to grasp the very meaning of God for the first time, and along with it himself, the meaning of evil, and the deformations of his own soul caused by his own sin. However, this first conversion does not turn around his will, a second and more important type of conversion which he then describes in book eight.

Thus, I think for many of us, like Augustine, we need to pray for “the medicine of the Church” to heal our faith and to open our minds to the intelligible and true.

These conversions have direct bearing upon the topic at hand, perhaps more than many other intellectual and moral challenges in our modern world. Lonergan notes in his sections on metaphysics, that one of the reasons he put the notion of development (and its normativity rooted in operators) so far along in INSIGHT is because this notion is especially impacted by the counter-positions in philosophy. Since finality is a crucial element in the notion of development, exploring it within any facet of this universe requires a thorough-going intellectual conversion to the intelligible and the true, and how we become attuned to these through understanding and judgment.

And arguably one of the greatest and most powerful sources of the dialectic that causes intellectual and moral inauthenticity is that linked to the procreative dimension of human life. Thus, these conversions are in particular need for the current topic.

Understanding the fullness of the meaning of conception requires among correlative and statistical insights, insights into finality, both in relationship to the man and woman through whom generation occurs, and in relationship to the child that comes to be conceived and then has the potential to grow into adulthood, and even eternal life. If one’s heuristics are distorted by concupiscence, then there is little hope for breaking through into these intelligibilities.

Thus, with a note of caution, we proceed.