I have so very much admiration for Mr. A.P. Herbert, and so very little admiration for the decisions of the Anglican Bishops at their recent Council, that I have no natural impulse to defend the latter against the former. But as he has attacked them from the other side, I should like to point out one or two curiously neglected facts that are very evident to our side; in the business called Birth Control. First of all, may I implore Mr. Herbert to avoid a logomachy about the word “natural,” which arises accidentally out of a modern use of that word. He elaborately explains that shaving is artificial, being the result of human action on a non-human part of nature. Now really, Mr. Herbert, with his brilliant and genial personality, must have a number of Catholic friends and acquaintances; he must know that many of them are people capable of the use of reason, and guided by some sort of coherent philosophy, right or wrong. Lastly, with his shrewd and exact observation of life, to which we all owe so much, he must have noticed that Catholics put up umbrellas when it rains, put down doormats where it is muddy, summon fire brigades during a fire and send out lifeboats to a shipwreck. In other words, they do not mean by being “natural” that we must leave every non-human process in the cosmos to complete itself as if there were no human beings. It is in a very much deeper and more vital sense that we call contraception unnatural.
Roughly speaking, it was not till Victorian times that this conception of Nature, as the non-human order of things, was turned into a sort of impersonal person. The Victorian agnostic insisted sternly that it must be called She, and must on no account be called He. But to apply this to the Catholic and the other older philosophies is to make a historical mistake about the use of words. When Aristotle said that man is by nature a political animal, he was not thinking of the nineteenth century nightmare about Nature red in tooth and claw. When Catholics talk, as they have always talked, about the natural law, they mean something which could be better translated into modern English as the human law. They mean the law of man’s moral status, as it can be perceived by man’s natural reason, even without supernatural aid. And when they say that contraception is unnatural, they mean it as they mean that sexual perversion is unnatural. That is, it is unnatural in man, and not merely unnatural in nature. It is something which his own instincts, conscience and imaginative foresight tell him is unworthy of his human dignity; not merely something that interferes with what comes from outside, like a shower of rain or a thunderbolt.
There is no space here to do justice to our very vivid sense of this moral fact; so I will content myself for the moment with a parallel, which has always struck me as very exact, except that the subject is less serious.
If an epicure decided that he could lunch at the Ritz six times a day, and sup at the Savoy seven times in the same evening, by the simple operation of taking emetics between meals, I should have a very strong conviction that he was following an unwholesome course of life. I should think that unlimited gluttony, even when not followed by digestion (or indigestion) would probably in the long run be bad for his body, and would quite certainly be bad for his mind. I think the same of unlimited lust without its natural consequences. I think it would have other and much less natural consequences.
One proof of its unnatural character is that the theory starts everybody on an unnatural way of thinking; even Mr. A.P. Herbert. For instance, I feel it to be utterly unnatural, though it is already quite stale and conventional, to talk in this queer contemptuous way about the birth of a child. Mr. Herbert breaks out into a sort of romantic, not to say sentimental, indignation against the remark that the chief object of marriage is the procreation of children. He calls it all sorts of funny things which are supposed to be withering; such as masculine and mediaeval and smacking of the stud farm; an odd thing to associate with what is mediaeval, since the eugenic fancy is peculiarly modern. Well, Catholics will not resent being called masculine and are used to being called mediaeval. But what strikes me as truly extraordinary is the implication that there is something low about the objective being the birth of a child. Whereas it is obvious that this great natural miracle is the one creative, imaginative and disinterested part of the whole business. The creation of a new creature, not ourselves, of a new conscious center, of a new and independent focus of experience and enjoyment, is an immeasurably more grand and godlike act even than a real love affair; how much more superior to a momentary physical satisfaction. If creating another self is not noble, why is pure self-indulgence nobler?
I regret to see a man like Mr. Herbert getting into that rut of this vulgar but very conventional convention. He has the misfortune to live in an age of journalese, in which anything done inside a house is called “drudgery,” while anything done inside an office is called “enterprise.” This convention forces him to talk of the most incredible creative power in man, more amazing than any work of art, as if it were drudgery and too degrading a thing to be the object of marriage. Of course there are other objects, which those may enjoy who miss this one by no fault of their own. But I cannot for the life of me see why this one is not worthy to be called the greatest and the first. I will not debate here the other aspects connected with economics and genetics; merely remarking for the present that the enemies of child-birth have never even begun to prove their case, though they have often tried in public to prove it. I am only concerned with the human and instinctive ideals implied by Mr. Herbert himself; and I humbly but firmly state that they do not really come from Mr. Herbert himself, but from the cheap popular science and dull fashionable fatalism which have, in this particular matter prevented him from using his mind.