A National Catholic Reporter editorial addresses the pope's statements about contraception and family planning in the Philippines:
Francis needs to re-examine his statements. While the contraception issue has been largely settled in the West, where repeated surveys reveal Catholic birth control practices hardly differ from that of others, in developing countries such as the Philippines, reproductive health care is widely denied to the populace because of the strength and lobbying of the Catholic hierarchy.
And then it concludes,
The encounter we want Francis to have is with theologians, parish priests and Catholic couples who will speak the truth to him. Humanae Vitae has been a serious impediment to Catholic authority. It has created a disabling chasm between the prelates and priests, between the hierarchy and the faithful.
Very shortly after the encyclical's promulgation, sociologists, like Fr. Andrew Greeley, began to document its contributing effect to a decline of episcopal credibility, Mass attendance and donations, and even vocations, as priests who couldn't in good conscience defend the encyclical left ministry.
Paul VI pointed rightly to dangers to married life and human dignity, and, fearing a change in teaching would erode church credibility, prescribed the wrong medicine. It's well past time for Francis and the church hierarchy to rejoin the faithful on a human journey that very much needs them as companions. If Francis wants the church to be a credible witness, if he wants to be the pastor we think he can be, he needs take us beyond the Humanae Vitae impasse.
NCR is absolutely correct. Humanae Vitae has been an unmitigated disaster for the Catholic church, and as Jamie Manson's outstanding reflection on Francis's statements about contraception in the Philippines to which I linked yesterday note, it is poor women and poor children in the developing sector of the world who have paid the highest price of all for this papal disaster. Humanae Vitae precipitated an authoritarian crackdown on Catholic theologians, who were bullied by the Vatican and by bishops into silence about this and other related issues of sexual morality, so that the whole church lost the expertise of its teaching-prophetic class at a critically important moment of the history of the church.
Leading theologians like Father Charles Curran of Catholic University of America had their careers as Catholic theologians shattered by church authority in this period. The ensuing chill in Catholic theology, which Pope John Paul II deliberately cultivated with the active assistance of his orthodoxy watchdog Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), has resulted in a diminution of intellectual excellence in the field of theology in general, in the disconnecting of Catholic theology from important cross-disciplinary intellectual dialogues within the academy and in the public square.
Particularly in the U.S., the Catholic theological academy (along with Catholic journalism) has responded to this Vatican-created chill by turning inward, becoming exceptionally parochial and craven, and diminishing its credibility as an academic discipline that adheres to rigorous standards for truth-finding and for truth-telling. As I have noted in several postings lately, the wink-nudge approach to the question of contraception that has resulted from this sordid history has reinforced ugly fault lines between gay and straight Catholics, male and female Catholics, and Catholics in the developed countries as contrasted with those in the developing world.
It has served no one's interests well except for the interests of the very same straight male married Catholic men who are now the only folks around touting Francis's remarks in the Philippines as some kind of breakthrough in Catholic thinking about contraception.
Wink-nudge moral thinking that serves the interests of already privileged groups at the expense of marginalized groups — in the case of Catholic teaching about contraception, poor women and children in the developing sector of the world more than anyone — is unconvincing moral thinking. It's disreputable moral thinking.
The Catholic church can do better. It has, within its rich history of social teaching, the resources to fashion a sexual ethic more reponsive to the real-life situation of lay Catholics, and more reflective of the graced experience of these Catholics, who understand issues of family and sexuality far more than the men at the top of church who are dictating to them regarding family life and sex.
The Catholic tradition also has the ability, if it chooses, to employ its rich history of social teaching to its current magisterial teaching about sexual morality and to understand that this teaching privileges certain elite groups within the human community (men rather than women, heterosexual rather than homosexual people, affluent instead of poor folks), and that it is prima facie flawed, uncompelling moral teaching for that very reason. Jamie Manson's teacher Sister Margaret Farley was slammed by the American Catholic hierarchy for asking us to think about questions of sexuality from the standpoint of justice . . .
When the questions she asks us to consider about just love are the most sigificant questions of all to be considered at present, if the Catholic hierarchy and Catholic academy expect Catholic teaching about issues of sexual morality (or, indeed, any Catholic teaching about any issues at all) to regain any compelling influence in the global commons of the 21st century . . . .