Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Remembering Humanae Vitae: Whose Voice/Experience Counts?

The 40th anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, continuing the Catholic condemnation of artificial contraception, is eliciting a lot of commentary, some of it frankly unbelievable. After the national American Catholic weekly the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published a judicious assessment of the encyclical and its effects (a growing gulf between official church teachings and Catholic practice, overwhelming rejection of the encyclical by Catholic laity, sexual morality teaching out of sync with the experience of lay Catholics, an ongoing cycle of disbelief and dysfunction), the NCR blog for the editorial was blanketed with orchestrated right-wing Catholic statements accusing NCR of undermining orthodoxy (see

What strikes me as so strange about the right-wing commentary is its attempt to deny plain truth: Humanae vitae’s position on artificial contraception is a teaching that is not being received by the people of God, and for sound, rather than capricious, reasons. The teaching does not fit the deep intuition of Christian layfolks that human sexuality means more than cattle-like reproduction. Marital sexuality is as much about expressing and building love between spouses as it is about desiring to conceive.

And it is clearly possible to separate the two meanings of marital sexuality, despite the continuing insistence of right-wing Catholics that the attempt to do so undermines the “natural” meaning of human sexuality. When a teaching about something as central to human experience as the meaning of marital sexuality is widely rejected as flawed by the people of God, something is awry. And no amount of blustering and bullying is going to change that reality.

One of the most puzzling statements I’ve read about Humanae vitae in this period commemorating the encyclical's 40th anniversary is John Allen’s op-ed statement “The Pope vs. the Pill” in last Sunday’s New York Times ( Allen argues that Humanae vitae has demonstrated “surprising resilience” and is still “in vigor.”

What can those claims possibly mean, in light of well-founded research demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vast majority of Catholics reject this teaching—and not for capricious, but for considered, prayed-over, thought-through reasons, reasons that constitute sound discernment of the Spirit? Allen even admits the data showing that the encyclical has not been received.

What can it mean to claim that a statement of church teaching is “in vigor” and “surprisingly resilien[t]” when the large majority of believers not merely ignore but repudiate the teaching? The implication of Allen’s analysis—a nasty implication, I would propose—is that the faithful’s reception of doctrine means nothing at all, when Rome speaks. One can claim that Humanae vitae is still lively and effective only if one totally discounts the perceived effect of church teaching on real human lives and real human experience.

This is a problem I’ve had with Allen’s work for some time. When the Vatican began to make menacing threats about purging gays in the seminary, Allen wrote a fawning piece for the Times that sought to present this ugly scapegoating tactic (a diversionary tactic designed to convince us that the crisis of sexual abuse of minors in the priesthood is due to the considerable presence of gays in the priesthood) in the most favorable light possible.

When the Times published Allen’s piece, a number of theologians—including the well-respected lay theologian Paul Lakeland—as well as leaders of American religious communities objected to Allen’s thesis. Their responses noted the clear scapegoating of gay seminarians going on with the Vatican initiative, the refusal on the part of church leaders to admit what everyone knows: that this is a crisis of abuse of clerical power, a crisis of clericalism, not a crisis due to the sexual orientation of priests and seminarians.

I have long been perturbed by Allen’s tendency to be an apologist for Rome. I understand that one does not have entrĂ©e into the old boys’ club of the Vatican if one is not capable of seeming to be an insider. I realize that Allen’s analysis is devoured particularly by clergy, who find it “balanced” (read: non-threatening), in contrast to more incisive ecclesiological analysis such as Paul Lakeland’s.

Nonetheless, when one attains insider status only to speak with the voice from the center, one’s journalistic analysis is in danger of becoming special pleading and not “balanced” or “objective” reporting. Above all, I am perturbed by Allen’s elision of the effects of church teachings about sexual morality on the real lives of real human beings. I find Allen tone-deaf to the well-warranted expressions of pain on the part of gay Catholics, who experience church teaching about our human natures and lives lived under the impetus of the Spirit as destructive and unjust. I can no longer read any of his presentations of the Vatican inside story without sensing his strong inability to cope with the shadow side of church teachings such as the teaching on artificial contraception or on homosexuality.

Given the witness of theologians such as Paul Lakeland and of leaders of American religious communities about the shortcomings of Allen’s ecclesiology—a witness that concurs with my analysis, I believe—one has to wonder about the use of John Allen by the mainstream media to present “the” Catholic voice on the Vatican. The letters of protest to the Times following Allen’s glowing presentation of the Vatican initiative against gay seminarians and gay priests didn’t make a dent in the Times’ choice to continue publishing Allen’s pieces as authoritative analyses of Vatican events.

And Allen has now been picked up by CNN to be its Vatican correspondent. One can only conclude that the mainstream media have a vested interest in seeing moderately conservative analysis of Vatican politics and of church teachings as authoritative analysis.

This mainstream media assessment of Allen’s work overlooks—and, it would appear, deliberately so—the strong and justifiable critique of his work by those who experience church teaching on issues such as sexuality differently than Allen himself evidently does. The implication: our voices and our experience, painful though it be, simply does not count, in the eyes of those who determine whose voice counts and who doesn’t, in the halls of power.

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