From July 17, 1993

Richard A. McCormick | Archived Article

Reactions to the silver anniversary of Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968) will predictably vary as much as the recent reac­tions of two cardinals. At the 12th Human Life International World Conference held in Houston (spring 1993), Alfonso L6pez Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, referred to the teach­ing of the encyclical as a “gift of God.” In a debate with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (published in the monthly periodical, Jesus, in May 1992), Franz Konig, the retired Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, referred to the “irritating distinction between ’artificial’ and ’natural’ contraception.” Cardinal Konig stated: “Here [on birth regulation] we have ended up in a bottleneck above all because of the distinction (cast into doubt even by medicine) between ’artificial’ and ’natural,’ as if even from the moral viewpoint what is important is the ’trick’ of cheating nature.”

It is quite possible to endorse both of these statements. The encyclical had many beautiful things to say about marriage and marital love. In this sense it was a gift. But its most controversial and “irritating” aspect was its rejection of every contraceptive act as intrinsically disordered.

When Humanae Vitae first appeared it caused a furor. My yellow and crumbling copy of the National Catholic Reporter for August 7, 1968, carries the headline: “Pau1 Issues Contraceptive Ban: Debate Flares on His Authority.” Tom Burns, then the editor of the London Tablet, has said the encyclical was “the greatest challenge that came my way.” Burns opposed the encyclical. He surmised that “never in the 150 years of the paper’s existence has an editor of The Tablet been presented with a problem of conscience and policy so grave as that which confronted me with the publication of Humanae Vitae.”

With that sentence Burns probably summarized the anguish of many bishops, priests, theologians and lay people around the world. Episcopal conferences began issuing pastoral letters on the encyclical. These ran the gamut from celebration to qualification. For instance, the Belgian bishops stated: “Someone, however, who is competent in the matter under consideration and capable of forming a personal and well-founded judgment–which necessarily presupposes a sufficient amount of knowledge–may, after a serious examination before God, come to other conclusions on certain points. In such a case he has the right to follow his conviction provided that he remains sincerely disposed to continue his inquiry.” Of those who arrived at conclusions differ­ent from Humanae Vitae, the Scandinavian bishops stat­ed: “No one should, therefore, on account of such diverg­ing opinions alone, be regarded as an inferior Catholic.” The Canadian bishops made a similar statement: ’These Catholics should not be considered, or consider them­selves, shut off from the body of the faithful.”

Charles Curran composed a statement critical of .the ecclesiology and methodology of Humanae Vitae. The statement concluded that “spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contra­ception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage.” This statement was eventually signed by over 600 theologians and other academics, including well-known theologians such as Bernard Haring, David Tracy, Richard McBrien, Walter Burghardt, Raymond Collins, Roland Murphy and Bernard McGinn. A group of European theologians met in Amsterdam on Sept. 18-­19, 1968, and issued a dissenting statement. The signato­ries included some of the best known theologians in Europe: J. M. Aubert, A. Auer, T. Beemer, F. Bockle, W. Bulst, P. Fransen, J. Groot, P. Huizing, L. Janssens, R. van Kessel, W. Klijn, F. Klostermann, E. McDonagh, C. Robert, P. Schoonenberg, M. de Wachter.

These were heady days indeed. Overnight, dissent became a front-burner issue. Any number of episcopal conferences mentioned its possibili­ty and legitimacy. The American bishops in their pastoral letter, “Human Life in Our Day” (Nov. 15, 1968), even laid out the norms for licit dissent. Expression of dissent is in order “only if the reasons are serious and well founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church and is such as not to give scandal.” Paul VI himself, in a letter to the Congress of German Catholics (Aug. 30, 1968), stated: “May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of God’s will.”

Summarizing in these pages (AM., 9/28/68) what had been said by several European hierarchies, Avery Dulles, SJ., issued this warning:

In view of the American tradition of freedom and pluralism, it would be a serious mistake to use the encyclical as a kind of Catholic loyalty test. Nothing could so quickly snuff out the spirit of per­sonal responsibility, which has done so much to invigorate American Catholicism in the past few years.

Nothing could be more discouraging to young people and intellectuals, upon whom the future of our Church so greatly depends. Nothing could be more destructive of the necessary autonomy of Catholic universities and journals, which have begun to prosper so well. Nothing, finally, could be more harmful to the mutual relations of trust and cordiality that have recently been established between bishops and theologians.

So what has happened in the past 25 years? Father Dulles’s worst fears have become reality. Five years after the publication of Humanae Vitae I wrote in these pages that the encyclical “produced shock and/or solace, suspension, silence–pretty much in that order” (7/21/73). I added that the matter of contraception pro­vokes a yawn of public boredom, and I worried aloud that the church, by doing nothing, was playing the ostrich in face of massive dissent and thereby compromising the credibility of the teaching office. I argued that “if dissent is to be taken seriously within the community, it cannot be viewed as simply legally tolerable, a kind of paternal eye-shutting to the errors or immaturities of a child.” It must be viewed as a source of new reflection in the church. Otherwise, personal reflection has been ruled out of order in the teaching-learning process of the church.

A source of new reflection? That has not happened. The uneasy silence continued, abetted by the fact that many bishops and priests just did not have their hearts in it.

On Sept. 26, 1980, the fifth Synod of Bishops began. Its subject: the family. There were several interesting interventions touching birth regulation. Cardinal Basil Hume of England insisted that those who experience the sacrament of marriage constitute “an authentic fons the­ologiae [theological source].” For some, the problem of Humanae Vitae remains a real problem not because of their frailty and weakness. “They just cannot accept that the use of artificial means of contraception in some cir­cumstances is intrinsece inhonestum [intrinsically disor­dered].” Hume concluded that “if we [the Synod fathers] listen to all the different points of view,” a right way will be found.

The most interesting intervention was that of Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. He noted that many men and women of good will do not accept the “intrinsic evil of each and every use of contraception.” This conviction is shared by a majority of priests and the­ologians, a conviction found among “theologians and pastors whose learning, faith, discretion and dedication to the church are beyond doubt.” Archbishop Quinn argued that this cannot be dismissed. He noted that the church “has always recognized the principle and fact of doctrinal development.” Therefore, he proposed three things: 1) a new context for the teaching; 2) a widespread and worldwide dialogue between the Holy See and the­ologians on the meaning of this dissent; 3) careful attention to the process by which magisterial documents are written and communicated. He then elaborated these three points.

This was a careful, realistic and courageous statement. Careful–because the problem was stated accurately. For instance, Archbishop Quinn noted that the problem of many theologians is not that they view con­traception as “simply something good, desirable or indif­ferent.” The problem is the usage of “intrinsically evil” to apply to every contraceptive act. Realistic–because Archbishop Quinn was absolutely correct in saying that “this problem is not going to be solved or reduced merely by a simple reiteration of past formulations or by ignor­ing the fact of dissent.” Courageous–because the sug­gestions were made in the presence of the Pope, whose views on this matter were well known and who therefore could not be thought to have called the Synod to have them questioned. I say “questioned” because Archbishop Quinn did refer to “doctrinal development” in areas such as biblical studies and religious liberty. In these contexts development meant change.

Archbishop Quinn’s remarks were widely publicized and bluntly rejected by some American prelates of a more immobilist caste of mind. Interventions like those of Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Quinn got nowhere. The interesting intervention of Durban’s Archbishop Denis Hurley (“the act of artificially limiting the exercise of one faculty of life is intrinsically evil while the act of exterminating life itself is not”) never even made the published synopses of the Synod. It finally appeared in The Tablet (1980, pp. 1105-1107).

Thomas Reese, SJ., a reporter at the Synod, summa­rized events of the time as follows:

The lay auditors were not representative of the church, but were in fact firm promoters of natural family planning. The majority of Catholic families, which practice birth control, were not represented. Nor were dissenting theologians welcome at the Synod. As a result no true dialogue was really pos­sible. Any criticism of Humanae Vitae was consid­ered scandalous. The final message ignored the population crisis. Some bishops were afraid to say what they really thought because they feared they would be misrepresented by the press or seen as challenging positions held by Pope Paul VI and John Paul II (AM., 11/8/80).

The Tablet referred to “foregone conclusions virtually imposed on a so-called consultative body” (1980, p. 1059). In a word, the Synod was orchestrated, and per­haps that was a sign of things to come.

What things? The well-known fact that for some years now acceptance of Humanae Vitae has become one of the litmus tests for episcopal appointment. The fact that the­ologians who question it are excluded from speaking in some dioceses and seminaries, and are regularly denounced by the right wing press as “dissidents” and “disloyal.” The fact that great numbers of Catholics no longer look to the church for enlightenment in the area of sexual morality. The fact that bishops do not feel free to state their opinions honestly.

At the present, therefore, we are far from Archbishop Quinn’s proposed worldwide dialogue between theologians and the Holy See, and from Cardinal Hume’s listening “to all the points of view.” Rather, the atmosphere in the church on the matter of birth regulation is one of coercion. Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., adverted to this at the November 1990 U.S. bish­ops’ meeting. Of the church’s teaching on birth regula­tion, he said: “Many would compare us [bishops] to a dysfunctional family that is unable to talk openly about a problem that everyone knows is there.”

John Paul II has become increasingly absolute and intransigent on the matter. On June 5, 1987, he stated to a conference on responsible procreation: “The Church’s teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral con­sciences of spouses into error” (L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, July 6, 1987).

Indeed, the Sovereign Pontiff raises the stakes by tying the teaching to central truths of the faith (e.g., God’s goodness), a move often described in Germany as “dogmatization” (Dogmatisierung). This was protested by 163 theologians from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland in the so-called “Cologne Declaration” (Jan. 27, 1989). The concemsof this decla­ration were subsequently endorsed by 130 French theolo­gians, 60 Spanish theologians, 63 Italian theologians and 431 members of the Catholic Theological Society of America (Origins, Dec. 27, 1990).

Bernard Haring, C.SS.R., the eminent moral theolo­gian, has pointed out that there are in the church today two schools of thought (Commonweal, Feb. 10, 1989).

The first is that the contraceptive act is always a grave moral wrong regardless of circumstances. This is God’s law inscribed in human persons and confirmed by revela­tion. Those who doubt or deny this deny God’s holiness and reject the teaching of the church as well as of their own conscience.

The second position insists that the basic issue is not primarily one of method, but of attitude. Spouses are called to generous but responsible openness to new life. Where methods are concerned, more intrusive forms of contraception will not be used where less intrusive ones (natural family planning) satisfy the needs of marital love and responsible parenthood. But artificial methods cannot be ruled out as intrinsically morally wrong.

These positions have hardened over the years, and rea­soned discourse has often been replaced by the accusato­ry rhetoric of intolerance, especially by proponents of the first school of thought. The inability–or refusal–of the magisterium to deal with this problem except by repeti­tion has resulted in a debilitating malaise that has under­mined the credibility of the magisterium in other areas.

The anniversary of Humanae Vitae provides the occasion to raise two questions: 1. What is the issue? 2. What can the church do about the present impasse?

1. What is the issue?

There are, of course, any number of important issues inseparable from Humanae Vitae: the role of the pope and the other bishops in so-called “natural law” teaching; the sources of such teaching; the place of experience and human reflection; the binding force of the teaching; the reformability of such teaching, and so on. But the single issue that provoked the hailstorm of reactions was the teaching that every contraceptive act is intrinsically disor­dered (intrinsece inhonestum, No. 14). It is clear that Paul VI meant by this phrase intrinsically morally wrong. Absent that teaching, Humanae Vitae would be bannered as a beautiful contemporary statement on conjugal love and responsible parenthood.

At this point it would be helpful to emphasize what is not the issue. Certain apologists for Humanae Vitae assert that those who disagree with its central assertion “pro­mote contraception” and by implication denigrate natural family planning. That is seriously to misplace the con­temporary debate. Natural family planning is highly method-effective for highly motivated couples. For some, perhaps many, people it might be the method of choice, though how many can sustain the high motivation is a legitimate concern. But its desirability is not in question. The basic issue is the moral wrongfulness of some other methods. “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life,” the encyclical states. That teaching is elaborated as follows:

That teaching, often set forth by the magisterium, is founded upon the inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative mean­ing. Indeed, by its intimate structure, the conjugal act, while most closely uniting husband and wife, capacitates them for the generation of new lives, according to laws inscribed in the very being of man and woman. By safeguarding both these essential aspects, the unitive and the procreative, the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love and its ordination toward man’s most high call­ing to parenthood (No. 12).

Paul VI believed that people of our day “are particular­ly capable of seizing the deeply reasonable and human character of this fundamental principle.” That has not happened. Indeed, the negative reaction was so widespread and intense that Bishop Christopher Butler stated that the encyclical was not received by the church, a phenomenon he viewed as “invalidating” the teaching (reported in The Tablet, March 13, 1993).

In Familiaris Consortio (1981), John Paul II repeated Paul VI’s condemnation of contraceptive interventions, but in more personalistic terms. Sexual intercourse is pre­sented as a language that “expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife.” But by contraceptive intervention this language is overlaid and contradicted by another language, “that of not giving oneself totally to the other.”

The hidden supposition of this analysis is that self-giv­ing is determined by the physical openness of the individ­ual act. The burden of the discussion since Humanae Vitae has been precisely the question of whether the giv­ing of self can be tied so closely with the physical struc­ture of the act. As Lisa Sowle Cahill put it in her John Courtney Murray Forum lecture: “I am confident that most Catholic couples would be incredulous at the propo­sition that the use of artificial birth control necessarily makes their sexual intimacy selfish, dishonest and unfaithful. Nor is their valuing of parenthood based on their experience of isolated sex acts as having a certain ’procreative’ structure” (AM., 5/22/93). This considera­tion points us back to earlier history.

In commenting on the single controversial issue of Humanae Vitae, the late Bernard Lonergan, S.J., a renowned theologian, remarked: ’The traditional views [on contraception] to my mind are based on Aristotelian biolo­gy and later stuff which is all wrong. They haven’t got the facts straight” (Catholic New Times, Oct. 14, 1984).

What Lonergan was referring to was the analysis of the sexual act found in Aristotle’s De generatione animalium. Male seed was viewed as an efficient cause that changed the nutritive material supplied by the female. According to this view every act of insemination (intercourse) is of itself procreative.

We now know, of course, that Aristotle was wrong. It must be recalled here that it was only in 1827 that Karl Ernst von Baer published his discovery of the ovum. The relation of insemination to procreation, we now know, is not that of a per se cause to a per se effect. The relation of intercourse to procreation is statistical, the vast majority of acts not leading to conception. Paul VI stated that “the conjugal act … capacitates them for the generation of new lives.” That is true of only very few conjugal acts.

Humanae Vitae correctly acknowledges that sexual intercourse has a “unitive sense”; it expresses and nour­ishes mutual love. But it argues that each act also has a “procreative sense.” This Lonergan, together with many others, contests. Even the encyclical seems shaky on this point. It notes that acts of sexual intercourse remain law­ful during foreseen infertile periods “since they always remain ordained towards expressing and consolidating their union” (No. 11). The rather clear implication is that there is no ordination towards procreation, no procreative sense. A procreative sense in every act would be under­standable if one accepted Aristotle’s biology. In this light phrases such as “an act per se apt for procreation” and “open to procreation” are linear descendants and contem­porary remnants of Aristotle’s view. Lonergan would argue, however, if the relation of intercourse to procre­ation is only statistical, then one must ask if this statistical relationship is inviolable. If it is, then even natural family planning is excluded. If it is not, then artificial contracep­tion can be permissible under certain conditions.

In summary, most theologians now argue that all forms of birth regulation–including natural family plan­ning–contain negative elements. These could be psycho­logical, medical, aesthetic, ecological. What they have denied is that introducing such elements in our conduct is always morally wrong. Attempts to establish this moral wrongfulness have been and still are viewed as unpersua­sive. As Cardinal Konig noted, a “bottleneck.” We could say that many theologians accept the inseparability of the unitive and procreative if this inseparability is applied to the relationship, not each act. Couples bind themselves to a covenant that unites the conjugal and parental vocation. Their love is generously open to life, and procreation is the result of their deep personal love.

This raises the interesting question of the relation of a conclusion to the analyses available to support it. Paul VI was aware of this problem, for in No. 28 of the encyclical he exhorted priests to obedience “not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church.” It is certainly true that a teaching can be correct even when the reasons are faulty. But it is quite a different thing to propose a teaching of natural law as certain when, after many years, most theologians can find no persuasive reasoning to support its absoluteness.

Several bishops at the 1980 Synod asserted that Humanae Vitae was “certainly correct” but that “better reasons” had to be found to validate its conclusions. But what if after many years “better reasons” have not been found, at least as most theologians view the matter? To continue to maintain the conclusion as certainly correct is perilously close to saying that the formulation is correct regardless of the reasons. Catholic theological tradition will not, in my judgment, support this. And that brings us to the second point.

2. What should the church do about the present impasse?

Undoubtedly, there are those who would say that there would be no impasse and all would be well if theologians would fall in line and support the teaching of Humanae Vitae, or at least remain silent. Yet many would–and correctly, I believe–regard this as an abrogation of theo­logical responsibility and an act of disloyalty to the church and the Holy Father. As the late and eminent Karl Rahner put it: “What are contemporary moral theologians to make of Roman declarations on sexual morality that they regard as too unnuanced? Are they to remain silent, or is it their task to dissent, to give a more nuanced inter­pretation?” Rahner’s response is unhesitating: “I believe that the theologian, after mature reflection, has the right, and many times the duty, to speak out against (widersprechen) a teaching of the magisterium and to support his dissent” (Stimmen der Zeit, Vol. 198, 1980).

Bernard Haring proposed that the Pope establish a special commission and charge it with the task of inquir­ing of bishops, theological faculties and important lay people which of the two schools of thought mentioned above should prevail in the church. Theologian Andre Naud of the University of Montreal believes that Haring’s proposal is far more acceptable than the para­lyzed status quo, but he finally rejects it for two reasons. First, he believes it represents an investment dispropor­tionate to the importance of the matter, and one very like­ly to obscure the hierarchy of truths and to deepen the painful existing polarization. Second, it would rehash what is already known, since the issues have been on the table for many years (L’Eglise Canadienne, April 6, 1989).

Whether one sides with Haring’s or Naud’s solution will very likely depend on where one locates the ques­tion. If the basic question is judged to be the problem of the means of birth regulation, Naud is probably right. No commission is going to affect the practice of Catholics. They have quietly taken this matter into their own con­sciences. But if the question is above all an authority problem, then something close to Haring’s proposal seems essential if the magisterium hopes to regain any credibility. Such a blue-ribbon commission would consti­tute a symbol of the church’s openness and willingness to discuss the matter afresh. It would renew hope in many alienated Catholics.

I view the matter of the church’s teaching on birth reg­ulation as dominantly an authority problem. By that I mean that any analysis, conclusion or process that chal­lenges or threatens previous authoritative statements is by that very fact rejected. Any modification of past authority is viewed as an attack on present authority. Behind such an attitude is an unacknowledged and historically unsup­portable triumphalism, the idea that the official teaching authority of the church is always right, never errs, is always totally adequate in its formulations. Vatican II rad­ically axed this idea in many ways, but nowhere more explicitly than in its November 1964 “Decree on Ecumenism”: “Therefore, if the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even in the formulation of doctrine (which must be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself), these should be appropriately rectified at the prop­er moment” (my emphasis, No.6).

But on this question that remains unthinkable. Thus Paul VI rejected the recommendations of his commission to modify church teaching because he was led to fear that his teaching authority would be eroded. Subsequent attempts (e.g., the Synod of 1980) to reopen the issue have been summarily rejected and the church’s teaching declared not “open to free discussion among theologians.” A similar fear seems to lurk behind such assertions. What would happen if national episcopates would hold truly open consultations on birth regulation similar to those that led to the pastorals on peace and the economy? I think the answer is only too clear. We would have a replay of the deliberations of the Birth Control Commission, and, if we did, authority would see itself as threatened. Therefore it cannot happen. As Bishop Untener puts it: “a dysfunction­al family.” The lesson of the open procedure on the pas­toral letters has not been learned: The best and only way to enhance authority in the modem world is to share it. To save our lives, so to speak, we must lose them. Catholics above all should know this.

On the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae it is important to point out, with Naud, that there are abiding substantial values that all disputants share and want to protect: the holiness of marriage, generous and responsible openness to life, the human character of the expression of married love, the fidelity and stability of marriage and respect for life. If these get lost in debates about the means of birth regulation, as I fear they may have, then to the malaise of polarization will have been added the tragedy of irrelevance. The means-question will have smothered the more basic message, a state of affairs from which only the Spirit can deliver us.

Richard A. McCormick, S.J., taught ethics for many years at the University of Notre Dame. Among his books is The Critical Calling: Reflections on Moral Dilemmas Since Vatrican II.


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