What does artificial contraception–the modern practice of using technology to defeat the procreative tendency of sexual intercourse–have to do with jousting–the medieval practice of fighting for fun and glory–and with dueling–the medieval and early modern practice of trying to kill a man to prove one’s honor?
Recently I was reading historian Barbara Tuchman‘s A Distant Mirror, her account–as her subtitle tells us–of “the Calamitous Fourteenth Century,” and her comparison of it to the also calamitous twentieth century. Among many, many other things, Tuchman observes that in the middle ages the Catholic Church condemned jousting repeatedly and insistently, but that for the most part nobody listened. Jousting went on among the noble classes, even though they were all Catholic, and even though the Church had said not to do it in terms that nobody could mistake or overlook.
Msgr. Ronald Knox makes a similar point in his excellent book The Belief of Catholics. He observes that the Church condemned dueling for a very long time, during which its pronouncements were mostly ignored. Eventually, of course, both jousting and dueling died out as civilization progressed.
It occurred to me as I thought about these things that there is an interesting parallel to our own times. The Church today is in the same position to the larger society–many ordinary Catholics included–with regard to its teaching on artificial contraception as it was in the past with regard to its teaching on jousting and dueling. It is faithfully proclaiming its teaching, even though many people dismiss that teaching as hopelessly unworldly.
And there is this parallel, too: The Catholics today who ignore the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, saying that it is hopelessly unsuited to the real world we inhabit, are in the same position as those Catholics of the past who ignored the Church’s strictures against jousting and dueling for exactly the same reason. Then and now, they would rather conform to the present culture’s understanding of what is “good” than to the Church’s teaching about what is truly good.