Sunday Forum: The search for moral truth II... (Sunday Forum)
In today's Sunday Forum, Kerry Gonzales, critiques a recent brochure put out by the Life, Marriage & Family Centre of the Archdiocese of Sydney to drum up support for Humanae Vitae. She argues that surely there are far more important, and relevant, issues the institution ought be addressing today if it is to remain a relevant force in society.
Why can't church leaders leave well enough alone? There are many times and many issues about which I would like to hear the Catholic Church speak boldly and clearly. Usually I'm disappointed by the silence, although I did see a headline today stating that the Pope was calling for an end to the violence in Gaza. Instead, with faultless regularity, the Church reminds the general populace about issues that have long since been dealt with by informed consciences and which hold little relevance to our lives today.
The issues addressed in Humanae Vitae is one such concern.
At a local Church on Christmas Eve, which I attended for the children's mass with my granddaughter, I found a brochure entitled "Humanae Vitae: a letter about life-giving love". I don't know when it was put out, but I believe it was about October 2008. It was published by the Life, Marriage & Family Centre of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for Marriage Sunday. The four page brochure was marking the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.
I have now read the brochure many times and while it uses a lot of words, it does not say very much to me and certainly nothing new. So I am left with my initial question of why the Church needed to spend the time and money publishing something that is of questionable relevance and necessity. Surely, as a teaching Church, with large resources at their disposal, there are many more worthwhile issues that they could present in meaningful and relevant ways.
Page 1 addresses the confusion around the encyclical and the false, yet prevalent, belief that Vatican II would herald changes in the Church's teaching in regard to contraception. The brochure contends that one of the "unfortunate features" of this false belief was that "discussion of the teaching, both inside and outside the Church, often generated more heat than light". I would certainly agree that there was a lot of heated discussion about the issue, but discussion is good and often leads in many productive directions. Not producing "light" I suspect simply means that the discussion led in the wrong direction.
When in doubt…
The brochure then advises that "the rejection of contraception was always a constant part of the life and faith of the Church, and recently reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI (Casti Connubi, 1930) and the Second Vatican Council". Given that this brochure was published in 2008, 1930 and 1968 can hardly be considered recent. Recent in the history of the Church perhaps, but old history in terms of modern understandings about humanity in general, and the workings of the human body in particular. The brochure highlights that as early as 1930 the Anglican Church altered their position on contraception, as did other Christian denominations over time. The majority of the Vatican II special papal commission, which included married couples, doctors and experts in theology recommended changes in the Church's teaching. Yet, "even though Pope Paul listened carefully to these opinions, he knew that he must shepherd the people of God along a path consistent with the Church's constant teaching in this area. This was because the Church's teaching about marriage, sex and children is both universal and timeless". When in doubt, it is always wise to fall back onto the words "universal and timeless".
Page 2 of the brochure reminds us of the prophetic nature of Pope Paul VI as he "predicted that there would be a "general lowering of morality" throughout society; a specific increase in marital unfaithfulness; a loss of respect for women; and the coercive use of contraception by public authorities". There is no doubt that the widespread use of contraception has had serious and not always positive effects on human society. However the "general lowering of morality" is a broad brush stroke that can encompass many things and can hardly be regarded as prophetic. The brochure then goes on the specify the things that validate the Church's teachings in this area:
"Contraception has made 'no strings attached' sex easier, and so there has been a dramatic increase in the incidence of extra-marital sexual activity, and, with this, an increase in the number of divorces, 'unplanned, pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted diseases". - While I don't have any statistics at hand in regard to the above, I would agree that there may well be a rise in these areas. Yet, to simply lay it at the feet of contraception is both naive and irresponsible as there are many other ingredients in the mix. It's a bit like the modern cry of blaming the internet for everything. The rise in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases can just as easily and simply be attributed to the Church's intransigent position on the use of condoms.
"There are many signs that respect for women has declined".
"Many women have been left to carry the burden of physical and psychological side effects of the pill…"
"Even within good marriages, the pill has left many women feeling disconnected and undervalued by their husbands" - Respect for woman is an issue very distinct from contraception and an issue I would like to hear more on from the hierarchy. The encyclical, which ironically is very much about women, addresses itself "To the Venerable Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops and other local Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See, to Priests, the Faithful and all Men of Good Will", quickly followed by "Venerable Brothers and Beloved Sons" – no mention of women there! Certainly there are side effects to all drugs and for some woman the negatives may outweigh the advantages, but again this is a different issue from contraception. Women feeling undervalued is very real, but linking it in any specific and widespread sense to the pill is once again a very general and inaccurate brush stroke.
"Throughout the developing world, coercive population control programs have used contraceptives without regard for culture and religions sensitivities, or the will to address more urgent needs such as famine, poverty and political instability". No argument here, however contraception of itself is perhaps more of a solution than the problem itself and again is not the real problem. The rest of the world should be much more active in shouldering some responsibility for famine, poverty and political instability within the global family.
The rest of pages 2 & 3 talk of the nature of marriage and sex. Marriage vows are an example of the love of God, where that love is "free, total, faithful and fruitful". The brochure says that "Love in which any of these is deliberately excluded is not truly marital love". I would not disagree with this idea, however experience tells me that marriage, as indeed all life, is cyclic in nature, and at different times and stages of marriage not all of these facets of married love will necessarily be the highest priority. As humans attempting to live in the image and likeness of God we all fail at times as we struggle to balance the, often competing, realities of our lives. So while using contraception negates the truth of married love, according to the Church, for many, this is not the truth that they live.
"Sex is life-giving love. Humanae Vitae taught that sex has two inseparable meanings….Sex is both unitive and procreative; both love-giving and life-giving". The brochure goes on the explain the belief that if sexual intercourse is not open, on every occasion, to the possibility of children, then couples "risk treating each other as objects of pleasure rather than lovers". I agree that sex "can be" not "is" much more that the physical and has layers of meaning that often take many years of sharing to truly unravel. However I think the Church is too narrow in its explanation of "life-giving". For me life-giving is the total package where procreation is one very wonderous and rewarding part. For within a committed relationship the intimacy of sex is "life-giving" in a much broader context, one that extends beyond the acceptance and nurturing of new life and where the ripple effect extends far beyond the bedroom.
I'd be interested to know what this actually means...
At the bottom of pages 2 & 3 Cardinal Pell has a small section in which he quotes Pope Benedict saying recently "If the practice of sexuality becomes a drug that seeks to enslave one's partner to one's own desires and interests, without respecting the cycle of the beloved, then what must be defended is no longer solely the true concept of love but in the first place the dignity of the person". If anyone can actually tell me what that means, I'd be interested to hear.
The final page of the brochure talks about natural fertility methods. I have no problem with natural methods as they have a significant role to play in fertility as they enable women to be much more in touch with the functioning of their bodies. However the brochure says that "It is true and important that Catholics should always 'follow their conscience'. But our consciences are not perfect and we need to make regular efforts to form them properly. Catholics are not free to 'make up their own minds' about what is right and wrong. Our consciences stand under the principles of truth and justice as revealed in Sacred Scripture by a teaching Church". Once again the Clayton's conscience ideal from the Church ie your conscience is only right if it agrees with the Church's teaching".
The brochure ends with a reflection from a couple about the impact on their lives in choosing "life-giving" sex. Yet, if you did not read these thoughts within the context of this brochure they could easily be any young couple faced with the realities of married life and children. Nothing they say seems to really be true only in relation to artificial/natural contraception.
A teaching that is largely disregarded...
After having had a good look at this brochure, my initial question is still unresolved. Without the 'sensus fidelium' of the Catholic populace, Humanae Vitae remains only a teaching of the Church that is largely disregarded. Catholics did not "universally and timelessly" follow the teaching 40 years ago and I cannot see it suddenly becoming an issue for Catholics in the 21st century. It has been done and dusted long ago. In fact the lack of acceptance of Humanae Vitae was quite possibly a major turning point for Catholics, as they came to realize that the Church did not have all the answers and was not likely to listen to the voices of the people. This in turn enabled Catholics to become more critical of other teachings as well. So perhaps that critical decision by Pope Paul VI way back in 1968 hastened the maturing of Catholic thought amongst the laity, so that today we have many Catholics able and prepared to give voice to the Holy Spirit within themselves and their own lives, even when it is different from the official teachings of the Church. A mature and thinking laity is indeed a scary and difficult to manage beast!
Like many issues that the Church has been unable to adequately address in the lives of people today, contraception is an accepted practice that, while having many negative aspects, has certainly not been the sole contributor to the ills of the modern world, or the Church for that matter. Perhaps when it is all said and done, the Church's lack of credibility in the personal areas of our lives, has created more problems than it has solved. So let's move on! I would hate to be around in another 40 years to find a similar brochure being produced and presented to Catholics that does not address the important issues, but uses words and tired clichés to prop up teachings that are in dire need of work.
- Sunday Forum: The search for moral truth II... - Brian Coyne, 2009-02-08, 07:45