Last Friday’s post on “Will Catholics ‘Come Home’ after the Virus?” generated the largest response of any posts on The Catechist Café blog this year: on my own Facebook site, email, and visits reported by my webmaster at Weebly, the blog platform. By way of review, the post’s intention was to examine the impact of the Covid-19 virus on present-day Catholic sacramental life against the backdrop of a steady decline in Catholic sacramental life dating back at least to 1970 and probably some years before. My pastoral intention here is to reflect upon sacramental life—specifically the manner the Church celebrates the rites—and to examine what might be happening to lead so many of our brethren to leave the worshipping family. As I noted last week, Catholic journalism and secular outlets are asking how many Catholics may not “come back” to common Sunday worship when Covid-19 conditions are contained. We will not know for some time, but I cannot think of a better time to discuss the long exodus from the Church, of which the pandemic is but a dramatic [and possibly temporary] spike.
Again last week, I chose the Sacrament of Penance and the fashion it was celebrated over the years since the Reformation to see if its theology and its style would compel penitents to return to the sacrament with heightened anticipation and enthusiasm. We got as far as the eve of Vatican II [1962-1965] when the Church in the United States and some other countries found itself in a quandary over the face of sacraments presented in the confessional box, for a cluster of reasons enumerated below.
 For starters, last week we looked at the two variant approaches to the judgments of the confessors rendered in the sacrament, dating from the post-Reformation reforms of the seventeenth century. One, reflecting the intellectual influence of the Jesuits, was a strict legal determination of the numbers and kinds of sin in confession, in order that absolution could be administered with near certainty in the eyes of God. The other approach, introduced by St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Redemptorists, brought an affective and devotional mood to the sacrament, whereby in issues of uncertain guilt, the penitent received the benefit of the doubt, an approach known in the textbooks at “probabilism.”
 The Redemptorist model was embraced by many pastors and even by popes, who agreed with St. Alphonsus Ligouri that the consciences of the faithful should not be unduly disturbed on matters such as birth control. However, in 1931 Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical, Casti Connubii, which reaffirmed the prohibition of artificial contraception but with greater length and reach than the Church had seen in several centuries. Pius XI had altered the trajectory of both confessional practice and professional moral theologians with his arguments. In the first instance, he made the case that every marital sex act without openness to conception was a grave violation of the law of nature and never permissible, i.e., evil deeds cannot justify good intentions in his train of thought.
It was also the style of Pope Pius XI that would impact Catholics in the pew in that the pope made this decision himself. On a matter so delicate and intimate to married couples, there was no broader, episcopal consultation, and certainly none from lay persons. Pius drew from select Biblical texts and ancient theologians such as St. Augustine, who held that sexual intercourse itself without conception was venially sinful. Redemptorist works and writers garnered zero footnotes in Casti Connubii. With the switch in moral emphasis from discernment of intention to a static, timeless, legal definition of acts and guilt, those who approached the sacrament of Penance—possibly the most intimate moments of contact with personalized grace and forgiveness for a Catholic with a priest, was reduced to a formulary. A penitent had no time to interact or, as we say today, “tell his story.” Confession was depersonalized, and academic moral theology had nowhere to go. The story goes that when one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, the Redemptorist Father Bernard Haring, was told by his superiors that he was to study moral theology in Rome, he argued: “'I told my superior that this was my very last choice because I found the teaching of moral theology an absolute crushing bore.'' His superior replied: “We are asking you to prepare yourself for this task with a doctorate from a German university so that it can be different in the future.”
 The horror of World War II and the Holocaust led Catholic scholars and philosophers to the conclusion that much of Catholic moral methodology was simply not working. Nazi Germany, for example, was a nation of Lutherans and Catholics who participated in antisemitic genocide. Scholars began to redefine the nature of human acts, and more specifically, what does the word “sin” mean? Is the direction of one’s moral life determined by a series of independent individual acts, or is sin better defined as an overarching direction or choice, known by the term “fundamental option?” The Redemptorist Father Haring mentioned above introduced this concept in his post-World War II writings, notably his moral text The Law of Christ [English translation 1961] Haring was a staple of seminary training of priests in my formative era; I had to outline Haring’s theory and writings during my oral masters comprehensive exams in 1974.
 Casti Conubii was declared in 1930, but events and science were pushing ahead. In the United States, thousands of Catholic servicemen returned home to start families. CC had forbidden birth control practices of the 1930’s, but the medical advances in reproductive health services became more advanced. Pope Pius XII, in a 1951 address to Italian midwives, removed any question on the morality of periodic sexual abstinence during fertile times as a method of spacing children. In my youth this method was called “rhythm” or later “Natural Family Planning.” [Every diocese has an office of NFP for education of the faithful.]
In my childhood [1950’s] I remember that my relatives of child-bearing years complained that “rhythm” was unpredictable and unreliable. In the late 1950’s the first safe contraceptive pills were prescribed in the United States. “The pill” was considered morally objectionable by the Church because it was an artificial intrusion against nature, though the rhythm method, many opponents argued, also appeared artificial as couples abstained from sex at the very time nature had prepared for them to conceived. Certainly, in the United States, there were more Catholics attending college—particularly Catholic colleges—than ever before, many by virtue of the GI Bill. It was a time of empowerment of lay Catholics, who were exposed to the intellectual side of Catholic life beyond what they were routinely taught in home parishes.
 Pope John XXIII stunned the world in 1959 with his invocation of an Ecumenical Council which we know today as Vatican II. The very idea of a council elated some and terrified others, depending upon whether one embraced the idea of “change” or “entrenchment.” Pope John, clearly aware of this, removed several “hot button” issues from the bishops’ consideration, notably priestly celibacy and birth control. But regarding birth control, the pope gathered a small working group, the “Papal Birth Control Commission,” to study the pros and cons of change in the Church’s teaching on contraception. One famous member of the group, Patty Crowley of the United States, was longtime president of the Christian Family Movement to which my own parents belonged in the 1960’s. The struggles of this commission are outlined in Turning Point  by Robert McClory. The existence of such a commission leaked to the public and led to widespread expectation that there would be official papal change in the moral teaching on contraception by Catholic couples.
Vatican II did not discuss the issue of conception directly, as it was instructed not to do so. But in December 1965, as the Council was wrapping up its work, the bishops approved a Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, “Joy and Hope,” a message of good will addressed to the entire world, not just the Catholic Church. In GS the Council, speaking of marriage and family life, articulated dual purposes of intercourse in the sacrament of marriage, describing married life as both unitive [bringing a couple closer to each other] and procreative. This phrasing was considerably different from earlier Church tracts which strongly emphasized the creation of children as the primary [and usually sole] reason for sexual intercourse in marriage.
In the 1960’s priests who were familiar with the debates of Vatican II, or like myself, were trained in that era, took a more conciliatory stance toward couples who approached them, either as individuals in the confessional or as couples in “the parlor,” the term given to intimate counseling which priests as a rule consider as inviolate as the secrecy of the confessional. On the other hand, there were priest confessors who believed they were bound to strict interpretations of Casti Conubii. It was quite common then that parishioners spread the word discretely about their local priests as to whether they were strict on contraception teaching, or didn’t ask about it in the confessional, or if asked, advised the couple to use their own consciences.
Finally, on July 25, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which fortified Pius XI’s 1930 teaching against artificial birth control. It was quite unexpected and bitterly disappointing to many priests and evidently to many lay Catholics as well. I would say that Pope Paul’s encyclical is a much more compassionate document than Pius XI’s teaching, and Paul goes to considerable lengths to explain his reasoning to people he knows will be upset and alienated. The temperament of Humanae Vitae is a good template for the hard discussions the Church is faced with now and in the future in that it treats its opponents with considerate respect. The same tenor has been notably absent in the so-called “culture wars” in recent times in the United States.
For our purposes, one of the sad outcomes of the birth control controversy was its impact upon those seeking the grace of the Sacrament of Penance. In a matter of intense moral concern, Catholics found themselves caught between their consciences and the conflicts of their priests and the moral governance of the universal Church. In the next post [sooner than this one, I hope] I will share with you my personal reflections from having lived on both sides of the confessional grill, with some thoughts about this Sacrament that might lead some of our absent brethren to pursue the conversion process with joy and hope, or gaudium et spes.
For further research I strongly suggest Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists [1968, 1986] by John T. Noonan, Jr.