On Saturday (January 23) we looked at the schema of Gaudium et Spes, (AKA The Church in the Modern World.) I scanned it again this morning and was surprised at its length and the ambitious extent of its discussions about the problems and possibilities facing mankind, and the Church’s place in this new world (100 pages, single-spaced.) For today, however, I am going to replace my “ecclesiology” hat with my “moral theology” hat to discuss the impact of one portion of GS on the pastoral life of the Church.
Paragraph 47 of the document opens a section called “Marriage and Family in the Modern World.” Given that issues of marriage were generally treated in Canon Law and moral manuals, GS discusses marriage with almost poetic license by comparison. In a church where married life was still regarded as “runner up” to the preferred way of priesthood and/or the consecrated virginity of religious life, the description of marital conjugal love in GS was itself a remarkable change. In floor discussion of the conjugal realities expressed in the document, the majority of bishops expressed considerable enthusiasm.
Make no mistake, GS expresses a significant shift in Christian anthropology. Sexual intercourse in marriage had been defined since Augustine as ordered for the procreation of children. GS, without prejudice to the importance of creation, argues that sexual expression enjoys equal status for its unifying power in the life of a husband and wife. Paragraph 48 put it this way: Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love "are no longer two, but one flesh" (Matt. 19: ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them.
GS, as a statement of ideals, could not deal with some very practical questions of everyday life. In our discussion here, subsequent post-council discussion among moralists focused upon whether the mutual goals of sexual intercourse were required in each sexual act. In other words, was every intercourse event required to include the intention of conceiving a child, or could a couple engage in sex for the unitive joy of the event (or as a sacramental theologian might put it, as a powerful foretaste of the joys of heaven?) Curiously, in 1978 modern medicine raised questions about the reverse side of the question: could a child be conceived outside of the act of intercourse, as was the case with Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby,” alive and well as of this writing.
If in fact a couple could morally engage in sexual intercourse for its unifying grace, was it licit to take steps to avoid conception? In 1965 the Church forbade artificial birth control methods—barrier devices, to be sure, but now the newly invented pill. The Church did permit periodic sexual abstinence during the days most likely for conception, a method popularly known as the “rhythm method,” based upon an address of Pope Pius XI in 1930, Casti Conubii.
The Council fathers were also under advisement that both John XXIII and Pope Paul VI had appointed a committee of about 80 clergy, experts, and laity to study the question of artificial contraception and report to him directly. Paul instructed the Council that he was reserving the birth control decision to himself and not to the Council, and thus it was not directly discussed on the floor. Rumors did reach the press that the special committee, by roughly a 3-1 vote, had endorsed a change in the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control.
Immediately after the Council the majority of moral theologians concurred with the “two ends of marriage” emphasis of GS, the unitive aspect and the procreational aspect. Entwined with this was a strong feeling that the Church teaching on artificial birth control would be altered. Moralists after the Council brought the GS definitions of marital love into writings and course curriculums, and in 1967, as a college sophomore seminarian, I can recall a personal conference with my theology professor who took two hours to walk me through the Church’s development on the subject.
The next summer, 1968, I was newly arrived at the Franciscan novitiate, and on July 25 learned with the rest of the world that Pope Paul VI had indeed ruled on the question in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life.”) Paul elected not to change the Church’s teaching. The document, for all the controversy it caused then and even in the present day, was pastoral in tone and highly sensitive to couples who experienced great difficulty with his teaching. Commentators over the years have speculated that the pope did not want to contradict the teachings of recent papal predecessors, or to cast the Church’s teaching tradition in a bad light.
There are a number of Catholic observers who believe that Humanae Vitae constituted something of a last straw for many regarding the moral teaching authority of the Church. When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1969 to finish my philosophy and theology studies, Catholic University was ground zero for the protest of the academic community, in part because one of its moral theologians, Father Charles Curran, had been refused tenure over his dissent from Church teaching on contraception. A student strike led to his reinstatement and full tenure, though years later the Vatican intervened and Curran has since taught for many years at Southern Methodist University, though he remains a priest in good standing.
Even before Humanae Vitae, I had come to the conclusion that there was no meaningful difference between medical means and abstinence means of contraception. My seminary professors in grad school drew heavily from the theology of Gaudium et Spes; I did not have any who forced us student to hold the Humanae Vitae position. The general tenor was to avoid unnecessary conflict in the confessional or marriage counseling.
Thus prepared, I was ordained and I planned to walk gingerly through marital matters. But in twenty years as a priest I honestly can’t recall—in pastoral work—very many cases where birth control was addressed to me as a problem, and I began to assume that this was a case where adult consciences were (and are) carrying the day. The areas of stress occurred (and on rare occasions, still occur) when I was teaching in an official Church capacity, notably in the training of catechists.
Teaching and speaking in the name of the Church involves, among other things, corporate loyalty. I have learned over the years that if I expect my students to take me seriously, I cannot behave like a cherry picker. Thus, I do state the official teaching on contraception, but I do so as Pope Paul VI did, with full recognition of its difficulty and the exhortation to seek spiritual counsel in the confessional. Privately, I wish our Catechism and our sexual morality would reflect the fact and the sentiment of Gaudium et Spes.