"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Infallibility agonistes: contraception

In my two previous posts on infallibility in the Church, Infallibility again and Infallibility 2.0, I sought to establish two points:

(a) There is such a thing as the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium (IOUM)


(b) The normative criteria for identifying a given doctrine as having been taught with IOUM are clear enough in magisterial documents themselves to be authoritatively extended to particular teachings.

I supported (b) by exhibiting what John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger did about the traditional teaching on women's ordination. In this third and final post of the series, I shall argue that the traditional teaching about contraception that was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, and reiterated verbatim at CCC 2370 in 1994, is amenable to exactly the same treatment.

First, let's quote HV §14 directly (emphasis added):

...We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. (14) Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. (15)

Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.(16)

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.

Since I am not now concerned with the quality of expression and argumentation in the document—which ranges from the inspired to the dispiriting—I shall focus solely on the question of the degree of authority enjoyed by the teaching I have highlighted.

It is evident from HV §15, which immediately follows the above in the text, that by "action...specifically intended to prevent procreation" the Pope does not mean periodic abstinence, restricting sexual intercourse to the woman's infertile period, but physical action that actively and intentionally blocks any process of conception that might otherwise naturally occur in the circumstances. There can be little doubt that the Church has condemned action of that sort for as long as we have records on the subject. Indeed, prior to the Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference of 1930, Christendom as a whole can be said to have held by diachronic consensus that contraception is evil in itself. In response to Lambeth's cautious authorization of contraception in "serious" cases for married couples, Pope Pius XI at once issued the caustic, wide-ranging encyclical Casti Connubii to reaffirm the traditional teaching. The issue only became controversial in the Catholic Church when the anovulant pill was invented and marketed in the 1950s by (Catholic) Dr. John Rock. For reasons I shall shortly consider, the advent of "the Pill" led many Catholics to hope that the Church would permit its use by married couples.

By the time the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, the laity had been encouraged in that hope by not a few theologians, who didn't see what was supposed to be wrong with the Pill. A papal commission was appointed to study the issue, which was so sensitive that Paul VI, who became pope in 1963 after John XXIII's death, removed the issue from the purview of the Council and reserved it to himself. Eventually the majority of the commission recommended changing Church teaching so as to allow not merely the Pill but any non-abortifacient form of contraception—for married couples only, of course, and only for "serious" reasons entertained in good conscience, etc. After agonizing for several years, Pope Paul issued HV, which reaffirmed the traditional teaching in terms that covered the Pill as well as older contraceptive methods. The ensuing outrage in most quarters, including that of academic theologians, reverberates to this day and, in the opinion of many writers across the theological spectrum, entrenched a culture of dissent in the Church that remains intact, especially in the developed countries.

I have said that it was the Pill that had led to the hope, on the eve of Vatican II, that the traditional teaching would change. That was possible because, prior to the Pill, the popular shorthand for the intrinsic wrongfulness of contraception was that contraception was "unnatural." Contraception belonged, the Church taught, in the same category of evil as any form of sexual activity involving ejaculation somewhere other than the vagina, i.e, sexual activity that is not fit to lead to conception. Since "natural" sex was understood to be sex of the sort that is fit to lead to conception—even when one or both parties happened to be involuntarily infertile—any action intended to make conception impossible was accordingly thought to be "unnatural." Now until the 1950s, anything that one might readily do to render otherwise "natural" sex "unnatural" tangibly affected the experience of the sexual encounter itself—such as coitus interruptus, douching, or the use of condoms. But "the Pill" did not do that. The Pill was a dose of artificial hormone designed to trick the female body into treating itself as though it were pregnant, thus suppressing ovulation. The Pill did its work invisibly to the naked eye; and in the popular mind, that meant that contraceptive sex with the Pill was not "unnatural." It did not involve forms of sexual intercourse that had been called "unnatural," and it did not alter the experience of vaginal intercourse in any way. Of course the Pill was "artificial" in the sense that it was a human artifice affecting the body. But then, most therapeutic medicines were like that too—and their use was generally considered praiseworthy, not evil, by the Church! Accordingly, the hope was widespread that the Church would not condemn the Pill as "unnatural."

All of that was, at bottom, confusion. Once the concept of "natural law" is properly understood— as that divine legislation which applies to humanity in general, just in virtue of what we are by nature—any sort of action, non-sexual as well as sexual, that is "intrinsically" wrong must be said to violate the natural law and is, in that sense, unnatural. To be sure, the particular term "sin against nature" had been commonly used in scholastic theology for forms of sexual intercourse that involved ejaculation somewhere other than the vagina. That essentially rhetorical usage was only going to feed later confusion. But the belief it expressed was correct. "Wasting the seed" in such a fashion was believed, rightly, to involve the capital vice of "lust," i.e. the pursuit of sexual pleasure in a manner entirely unrelated to the natural (or, as we'd now say, the "evolutionary") procreative purpose of sex (see Thomas Aquinas, ST SS Q154 A11). Contraception was also thought to be a sin against nature because it impedes the production of the next generation. Why that was supposed to be so bad was never, in my opinion, convincingly explained; and that too helped cause confusion. But with HV, Paul VI helped to clear up the confusion.

I do not have time here to explain just how he did that. HV was part of a doctrinal development that first manifested itself with Casti Connubii and continued with John Paul II's "theology of the body." On this blog I have written extensively about that; the most directly pertinent post of mine is Development and Negation VI: Contraception. My point here is that even the majority of the birth-control commission, whose recommendation Pope Paul rejected, realized what was at stake: if the Pill were allowed, then for consistency's sake, so would any other form of non-abortifacient contraception. And if any such form were allowed, the ancient teaching of the Church would have to be altogether negated. And why would that have been a problem?

I'll let one of the leading dissident theologians of the period, Hans Küng, explain that. By way of presenting how the Roman doctrine of IOUM applies to the contraception issue, he writes:

A truth of faith or morals is (thus) infallible by the mere fact of being promulgated as binding by the episcopate in universal agreement; it does not have to await promulgation as infallible truth. And who could deny that such a consensus on the birth control issue existed for centuries, and that from the beginning of this century the condemnation of it has been upheld by numerous episcopal conferences and individual bishops whenever controversy about it became acute outside the Catholic Church or isolated Catholic theologians diffidently tried to raise questions about it? Thus the conservative minority of the Papal Commission (on reproduction) was able to point out that history provides the fullest evidence that the answer of the Church has always and everywhere been the same, from the beginning up to the present decade.

One can find no period of history, no document of the Church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant. The Orthodox retain this as common teaching today. The theological history of the use of matrimony is very complicated ... On the contrary, the theological history of contraception, comparatively speaking, is sufficiently simple, at least with regard to the central question: Is contraception always seriously evil? For in answer to this question there has never been any variation and scarcely any evolution in the teaching. The ways of formulating and explaining this teaching have evolved, but not the doctrine itself. Therefore it is not a question of a teaching proposed in 1930, which because of new physiological facts and new theological perspectives ought to be changed. It is a question rather of a teaching which until the present decade was constantly and authentically taught by the Church. (Source: Infallible? An Inquiry [1970]; Doubleday edition, 1983).

What Küng did in that passage, now nearly forty years old, was show precisely how Vatican II's doctrine of the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium, which I've been expounding and confessing in this series, applies to the case of Church teaching on contraception. If the doctrine of IOUM as presented in LG §25 is true, then the traditional teaching on contraception must be said to be taught with IOUM, and thus to be irreformable. Of course Küng made clear in his book, and has since continued to make clear, that he does not believe the Roman doctrine about IOUM—the same one I've been expounding and confessing in this series. But his description of how it applies to the issue of contraception is perfectly correct. And it makes clear why, given the doctrine on IOUM, Paul VI had no choice but to reject contraceptive use of the Pill along with all other forms of contraception.

So much is already recognized in Rome. For instance, the Pontifical Council on the Family's Vademecum for Confessors (1997) says: " The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable" (§4; emphasis added). So, why isn't that stated by Benedict XVI in a manner similar to how John Paul II's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis dealt with the women's-ordination issue? I don't know. That B16 too believes the teaching to be "definitive and irreformable" is clear enough from this if it isn't clear enough already. Perhaps he just believes that more groundwork needs to be laid if such a ruling is to avoid causing a mass exodus from the Church. If that's what he thinks, he's probably right. Of course I don't know whether that means such a ruling would not be the will of God. Only time will tell.

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