There is nothing like a health scare to sell more newspapers. Everyday for the past week, the major American news outlets have ran at least one story on the Zika virus, sending dramatic images around the world of babies with shrunken heads. If it were not such a tragic reality for these babies and their families, it would actually be humorous in a Halloween-movie sort of way.
Americans tend to view things like this with a kind of distant fascination, by and large, because in our insular world view, strange viruses are things of the developing and uncivilized world from which we are largely kept safe by two large oceans. While we may feel badly for the women of Brazil, our general response to the news is to move on to the next headline.
But unlike other more recent exotic virus scares, the Zika story took an interesting turn when scientists began recommending to women that they delay having babies for the next year or more. In heavily Catholic Brazil, this quickly became a question of whether or not the Church would soften its position on contraception, and even in one recent article from the New York Times, on abortion itself. Reason being that in the case of Zika, we’ve discovered a reason why (apparently) timeless moral laws can be bent.
A lot could be said about all of this, but one thing to note is that the story once again lays bare a troubling and pervasive modern notion that most of us in the West buy into without question, namely that changes in moral norms are inevitable as humanity moves forward in time and history.
To put it another way, every moral law governing human behavior is evolutionary, and is subject to the same forces that act upon all social conventions, or habits, as we move without deviation always in the direction of “progress.” It is just assumed that patterns, laws, customs, tools, technology, medical practices, manners of learning, ways of thinking are simply better than anything in the past because we are all smarter these days. This is sometimes referred to as the “snobbery of progress.” Twenty First Century people are smarter than Eighteenth Century people because we have the aid of science and computers.
In the face of this pervasive worldview, the Catholic Church makes the now radical proposition that progress is not inevitable, and that moral laws really are unchangeable, such that when new circumstances arise, or in this case dangerous new viruses are discovered, the default reaction should NOT be to decide that a rule has finally outlived its usefulness, but should instead be to figure out how to help impacted people live out the rule.
To put it another way, the Zika story and the sub-narrative about how its discovery poses challenges to the Church’s teachings on contraception and abortion is really no different than saying that a population that is on average growing taller poses a challenge to Newton’s position on the law of gravity. I don’t hear any tall people (or airline pilots, or high rise construction workers) lobbying to change the law of gravity. It just is what it is whether we invent/discover more ways to flaunt it or not.
Like building a taller building, the presence of Zika in certain territories poses new challenges to our patterns of living to be sure, but it does not change the fact that abortion and contraception are always wrong. Period.
And besides, quickly jumping to the conclusion that we can bend moral laws that are written into human nature allows us to rapidly run past some other important points. For example: since we are aware that a whole myriad of environmental factors can negatively impact child development in the womb, should we tell women not to have kids until we have eradicated all of them from the world? Is it helpful for us to consider that, well-intentioned as it might be, we can take too far the desire to avoid pain and suffering that comes in life to the point where our methods to avoid it actually do more harm to the human condition than good?
We have already gotten to the point in the West where we test heavily for potential birth defects and then, once discovered, pressure mothers to terminate pregnancies so that people don’t have to suffer (as though suffering is the worst evil in the world). Are we now to just back that all up one step further and tell people not to have kids in the first place? Even if they are not born with shrunken heads, surely they will one day be bullied, get dumped by a girlfriend, choke on a piece of ham, and even one day die.
Unless, that is, all of our faith is placed so heavily in the inevitability of progress that we believe even all those sources of pain will one day be eradicated, too. If you ask most people in the West, that is actually what they think. And it is what drives a vast sector of our social policy and activist thinking these days. All laws are changeable, and all suffering can be eradicated with enough science and research money.
I personally do not enjoy suffering. And I would prefer that no children be born with shrunken heads in Brazil or anywhere else. However, I also have to be smart enough to recognize the limitations of my power, and one of those limits is over the moral law itself. If I transgress that limit, what I end up eradicating, along with suffering, is humanity itself.