Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gerald Slevin: Reviewing the Record about Paul VI's Birth Control Commission

When I posted two days ago about my own conclusions re: the Planned Parenthood debate, I noted that, in my view, the Catholic magisterial teaching outlawing artificial contraception works against the claim that the Catholic hierarchy is intently concerned to prevent abortions.  It is, in my view, logically inconsistent to oppose both artificial contraception and abortion.  Given the abundant evidence that the majority of abortions take place because pregnancies haven't been planned and because the couple or woman dealing with the pregnancy feels unable to provide for and raise a child, it seems to me that the logical (and humane) position for consistent pro-lifers to take vis-a-vis contraception is a position of support.  Of advocacy, in fact . . . . 

This discussion allows me to point readers to an article I had bookmarked some days back and had not yet written about, which refreshes the memory of Catholics about precisely how the magisterium has ended up defending the ban on artificial contraception when the very large majority of Catholics ignore that ban, and, in the developed world, use contraceptives when married.  This is Gerald Slevin's survey in National Catholic Reporter near the end of March of what happened when Popes John XXIII and Paul VI commissioned a group of theologians and lay Catholics to review Catholic teaching about contraceptive use and make a recommendation to the papacy about this teaching.

This birth control commission was addressing the situation of cognitive dissonance that increasing numbers of lay Catholics (and of priests in their pastoral ministry) were encountering in the 1960s, following the advent of the birth control pill.  Since large percentages of Catholics accepted and began using this contraceptive technology (and others), the question arose: should the official Catholic teaching about contraception be changed?

Though revisionist historians who want to defend magisterial teaching on contraception now seek to argue that the Catholic church has always unambiguously and officially opposed artificial contraception on the ground that it thwarts the divinely ordained purpose of human sexuality--procreation--the explicit ban with its natural-law basis is a relatively recent development in Catholic magisterial teaching.  It dates from 1930, when Pius XI issued his encyclical Casti Connubii.  As more and more Catholics rejected the magisterial position outlined by this encyclical, particularly following the development of the pill, bishops from many nations, particularly in the West, began to appeal to the Vatican to reconsider the stance Pius XI had taken on birth control, since it was not being "received" by the faithful--and the reception of doctrine by the laity is part of the process by which doctrine is determined to be true or false.

Hence the birth control commission . . . . Which advised Paul VI to change the teaching articulated (non-infallibly) by Pius XI.  The Slevin article to which I've just linked surveys what happened then.  Slevin is responding to an essay by Catholic moral theologian Germain Grisez published online by Jesuit Fr. John Ford, which, in Slevin's view, distorts the history of the birth control commission. 

I'll leave it to readers to work through Slevin's very thorough (and accurate) history of how it happened that Paul VI chose to ignore the advice of the commission he and John XXIII had convened to advise the papacy about the issue of birth control.  Suffice it to say, the commission was sabotaged by Curial politicians, who were determined that the papacy not reverse even a non-infallible papal teaching, in case its decision to do so would undermine belief in papal authority and papal infallibility.

And the entire church has suffered the consequences ever since, through the serious cognitive dissonance that has grown between what lay Catholics actually believe and actually do in the area of human sexuality and what the magisterium professes; through the shameful, insupportable hesitancy that Catholic organizations have displayed in recommending or distributing condoms in nations where AIDS is epidemic; through the silencing of significant Catholic theologians like Charles Curran, who dissented from papal teaching; through the loss of pastoral effectiveness by the entire clerical sector of the church, and so forth.

To a certain extent, the beginning of the determination of Catholic leaders to turn the Catholic church into a mean machine at this point in history is rooted in this period of Catholic history, when Curial officials played on the fears of Paul VI, a timid and vacillating papal leader, and succeeded in preventing him from accepting and responding positively to the counsel of the birth control commission.  The determination of leading Vatican officials to turn the clock back to a pre-Vatican II kind of Catholicism hostile to and at war with the modern world, which has characterized the papacies of the last two popes, began with Paul VI's refusal to shift magisterial teaching on birth control.

With dire consequences, as the church seeks to present itself as a caring pastor of the flock given into its hands by Christ . . . .

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