The next several Monday posts will look closely at trends of moral thinking in the Catholic Church after Humanae Vitae in 1968, an encyclical which set the parameters of debate through the present day. The best summary of this era I have come across is A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century (2010) by James F. Keenan, which is available on Kindle as well as hardcopy. Chapter 6, “The Neo-Manualists,” focuses specifically on the immediate years after Vatican II and describes the players and positions.
The term “Neo-Manualist” hearkens back to the classical moral theology of the Church from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when moral theology was taught in propositions followed by interpretive case study. Moral Theology was nearly indistinguishable from Canon Law, certainly not the setting of philosophers. Recall that Father Bernard Haring in the 1940’s tried to beg off his order’s assignment to seek a doctorate in moral theology by volunteering to go to the missions. Haring, of course, did earn his doctorate and his The Law of Christ (1954) introduced a new method of moral theology that many of us instinctively apply today in our own thinking.
In his historical treatment of the post-Council era, Keenan highlights the writing of the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan who described the working philosophical differences of Catholic theologians of all disciples, including moral theology. The first position is “classical.” For Lonergan, the classicist holds that “the world is a finished product and truth has already been revealed, expressed, taught, and known. In order to be a truth, it must be universal and unchanging. Clarity is key. Its logic is deductive: we apply the principle to the situation and we derive an answer from the syllogism.” Change of a moral teaching is problematic, in this mindset, for it suggests that what was previously right is now declared wrong. (p. 111)
The second philosophical position is the “historical.” Keenan summarizes this stance as a “look at the world and at truth as constantly emerging.” Its proponents contend that “we are learning more, not only about the world, but about ourselves. As subject we are affected by history: we become hopefully the people we are called to become. What the world and humanity will be is not yet known, but rests on the horizons of our expectations and the decisions we make and realize. The moral law then looks to determine what at this period corresponds to the vision we ought to be shaping. It admits that the final word on the truth is outstanding but emerging.” (p. 113)
If you need to go back and read these two preceding paragraphs, I can’t say as I blame you. But if you get the philosophical difference in the two approaches to Catholic theology, many things will become clearer, and for starters, the final determination on the encyclical Humanae Vitae itself. Years after the event, the American theologian John Ford, one of three consulted by Pope Paul on the contraception question, told an audience that he put the question to the pope rather bluntly: “Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?” According to Ford, “Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said.” (p. 122) This account jells with other analyses I have read over the years, that one of Pope Paul’s greatest fears in changing the teaching of another pope was the damage that might befall the entire structure of the Church’s moral teaching, an excellent example of the classical approach to thought.
In the United States and other countries, the historical approach was well entrenched in academia and many seminaries. In practical terms, moral decision making became more a matter of conscience and personal circumstance than adherence to a timeless syllogism. Many Catholic moralists (and not a few Church historians) were not disturbed by the concept of an evolving morality, noting correctly that Church moral teaching had indeed changed with time on matters of slavery, the collecting of interest on loans, and rules of war. In fact, the possession and use of nuclear weapons was causing considerable discussion over the centuries old principles known as “just war theory.”
What was different in the later twentieth century was a lack of breathing room. I would guess that typically we carry both the classical and the historical approach to life in our mental spiritual operations. (The technical term for their interaction is synderesis, an ancient definition.) Keenan observes that through much of past five centuries—the classical manualist era—there was less of a “life and death struggle” (my phrase) over moral norms because (1) typically a Catholic layman did not have access to manuals, command of Latin, or training; (2) moral decision making was the province of the confessional; and (3) there was ultimately tolerance between the various schools of interpretation: the strict casuist Jesuits took issue with the more compassionate St. Alphonsus Ligouri and the Redemptorists. Arguments could be fierce but rarely was the good faith and conscience of a proponent called into question.
After Vatican II the classical position was more stringently upheld by Catholic authorities. For many Catholics, the authority of the pope was philosophically tantamount: something is eternally true because a pope stated it. This is not the true classical formulation. When Pope John Paul II spoke of the ordination of women, for example, he stated that he could not do such a thing because of the timeless principle involved that sacramentally only a man can serve as a true sign of Christ; he could not change the teaching even if he wanted to. This is more reflective of the classicist philosophy.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, but if you are wondering about the historical perspective and whether it influences the teaching Church, you might look at Amoris Laetitia (2016) of Pope Francis, which is a complex and more open ended reflection on the moral nature of love and the family. It is not a classically oriented document in the sense of Humanae Vitae. Little wonder that some churchmen are demanding more precision.
Catechetics and preaching over the balance of the twentieth century was hardly unaffected by the classical/historical dynamic, as we will see soon.
It was just about a year ago that I began the “Morality Monday” stream and tentatively started an overview of the sources and major players in the development of Catholic moral theology. In January of this year we have arrived at the point of Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed a previous teaching--Casti Connubii of Pius XI in 1930—that all forms of artificial birth control were sinful. The encyclical marks a turning point in the practice of Catholic morality—for the laity, the leadership, and the academics. It was the perfect storm of many trends which congealed into one pronouncement, an encyclical which in fact was a reaffirmation, not a new idea or precept.
Today seemed like a good moment to take the long view of 1968, because the continuation of our morality narrative will be shaped by new theory, new practice, and alas, new battle lines. In 2016 several cardinals addressed a public formal letter to Pope Francis—a very unusual thing—demanding a clarification of several of his teachings in his 2016 encyclical Amoris Laetitia on matters of sexual morality. Public and contentious debate on matters of sexuality have become part of Church life since Humanae Vitae.
Church Authority: Humanae Vitae remains as something of a decisive moment on the “reach” of papal authority into human decision-making. There was no public outcry in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared infallibly that Mary had been assumed, body and soul, into heaven, though there were enough educated Catholic laymen and clerics who knew that the doctrine had no historical basis and a shaky biblical one, and that no other Christian Church held this belief. My sense is that the doctrine was received due to the general devotion to Mary, the limited impact upon daily Catholic life, and a sense that Pius XII, acting within the scope of his power, knew matters best in this regard.
Casti Connubii/Humanae Vitae, by contrast, cut to the heart of marital intimacy and decision-making. Taken in its most technical sense, the Church teaching addresses the kinds of intimate acts that a validly and sacramentally married couple may undertake in their own beds (“that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”—HV, 11). It is hard to gauge the sense of the faithful on such matters in the 1800’s. But in 1968--rightly or wrongly—much of the Catholic community took umbrage at what might be called “overreach.”
Vatican II: Humanae Vitae was issued just three years after the end of the Council. Lumen Gentium, the decree on the Church, had emphasized the governing role of bishops in communion with the pope. The matter of birth control was never given a full episcopal consultation. Historian James Keenan cites three consulters/authors of the HV encyclical—two curial theologians and the Jesuit American moralist Father John Ford. [Ford was a remarkable priest and possibly the best of the U.S. “old school moralists;” his life, especially his involvement with Humanae Vitae, is a captivating story told here. Ford suffered professionally for his contributions to HV.]
Another Conciliar teaching, Gaudium et Spes, had elevated the unitive purposes of marital sexual love to the traditionally held purpose of procreation. GS was authored in part by Father Bernard Haring, who had established a new methodology of moral science through his The Law of Christ (1954). Theologians had very limited time to develop the content of GS and its implications for the theology of marriage prior to the issuing of Humanae Vitae.
In short, both the spirit and the letter of the Council did not seem carry weight in the first “test case,” so to speak, after the Council.
Personal conscience. In its obituary of the controversial Chicago priest-author Andrew Greeley in 2013, The New York Times observed that “[he] identified the controversy surrounding “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 papal encyclical reasserting the church’s condemnation of contraception, as a turning point for the church — a time when attendance at Mass dropped precipitously and Catholics began to question church authority on an ever-growing list of topics.”
I would say that there is much truth to Father Greeley’s observations, which imply that Catholics were increasingly making subjective moral decisions without recourse to established Catholic norms. Humanae Vitae was not the only factor, to be sure. A sizeable portion of Americans in 1968 protested the Viet Nam War on personal moral grounds, suggesting a cultural heightened sense of moral autonomy. Another factor, to be sure, is that the language and reasoning of Humanae Vitae, while quite profound, did not resonate with Western cultural mores, and perhaps led to the sense that “Jerusalem had nothing to say to Athens.” Or is it the other way around? I always mangle that old quote.
The sciences. Vatican II had shown a consistent respect for interdisciplinary scholarship, though in fact the Church had approved such an approach as early as 1943 in biblical scholarship. In rereading Humanae Vitae, one notes a thread of thinking that artificial contraception leads to the breakdown of family life. In 1968 this was a projection. A half-century later, in 2017 there is no research to my knowledge to suggest a cause and effect relationship between contraception and marital stability. If there is such evidence today, it would certainly be publicized in defense of the Church teaching. By contrast, Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on global warming and the condition of the planet, was issued in response to the serious concerns of science and concerned political and civilian leaders around the world.
A new definition of Church loyalty. Humanae Vitae was issued at a time of uncertainty and division. There is not a shred of evidence that Pope Paul VI intended to divide the Church with his teaching, but alas, in the environment of the day, such was the result. A teaching on artificial birth control immediately became a loyalty line in the sand that divided seminaries and rectories, not to mention bishops’ conferences.
To this day, on traditional Catholic blogsites, the term “contraceptive culture” or “contraceptors” (in a pejorative sense) is used to describe those who dissent from the 1968 teaching. Dissenters against HV are presently lumped together with those advocating abortion, same sex marriage, and a wide range of other ecclesiastical ills. What has emerged over the past half century is a public perception of the Catholic Church as a protector of classically defined moral propositions instead of a Gospel-based community of Spirit-filled believers focused upon the works of mercy and the attitudes of the beatitudes.
The summer of 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Grass roots movements are in the works to celebrate the event and call upon Pope Francis to solemnly reiterate the 1968 teaching. The last Gallup Poll on the subject, 2012, indicated that 82% of Catholics believe artificial contraception is permissible or morally acceptable. As one might imagine, the discipline of moral theology itself has had a momentous half-century, which we will return to next week.
I arrived in Washington, D.C., early in September of 1969 to undertake my junior and senior college years at Catholic University in the school of philosophy. This was precisely one year after Pope Paul VI had issued his Humanae Vitae, upholding the Church’s teaching prohibiting artificial birth control. The Catholic U. neighborhood where I lived and studied (sometimes) was an excellent observation point to watch not just the controversy over the papal teaching but to observe up close how the university itself and the Church at large were divided within themselves, in part by the birth control teaching, in part by interpretations of Vatican II itself, and in part by how Catholic universities were sorting out their identities as institutions of free speech and thought.
Catholic University, then and today, is chartered to award both civil degrees and ecclesiastical degrees [i.e., degrees chartered by the Vatican as “pontifical.”) The “pontifical status” carries both an approbation of the Church and the expectation of orthodoxy, that the recipient’s views and writings represented those of the Church. About eighteen months before I arrived, in April of 1967, the “Coup of Catholic University” took place when a professor of moral theology, Father Charles Curran, was refused tenure and contract renewal because of his teachings on sexual morality, specifically his contention that the ban on artificial contraception be lifted. This was over a year before Humanae Vitae was promulgated, which gives an indication of how heated the subject of contraception had become in the 1960’s. Curran was reinstated after a campus-wide strike of students and fellow faculty.
When Pope Paul issued his July 1968 teaching, most bishops of the United States maintained a gentleman’s silence. This is not surprising: it was not the practice of the time for individual bishops to publicly rebuff or criticize papal pronouncements. Cardinal Cushing of Boston, arguably the senior bishop in the United States in 1968, issued his famous national summary of the situation to the secular press, “Roma locuta, causa finita.” What individual bishops thought privately about the teaching can, in most cases, never be known. What would become a matter of record is how each bishop enforced the encyclical. [The Canadian Conference of Bishops took a different direction, issuing the famous “Winnipeg Statement” as an interpretive key to Humanae Vitae.]
Complicating matters further in the late 1960’s was the general distrust of authority often attributed to the management of the Viet Nam War. I went to Washington one month after the countercultural event known as Woodstock, and a year after the acrimonious 1968 Democratic National Convention. Of the latter, veteran reporter Haynes Johnson wrote in Smithsonian in 2008:
“The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart. In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”
It would be foolish to pretend that the turmoil across the United States had no impact upon Church parish life. One tiny sample: the Woodstock event occurred within the territory of one of the Franciscan parishes next to my junior seminary, and the pastor was significantly traumatized by the “relaxed morals,” shall I say, of the 500,000 participants. This was not an uncommon reaction of clergy to changing American life in general, who came to see Pope Paul’s teaching on sexual morality as a bastion of order and reason in the face of disintegration. My parents back home in Buffalo were participants in the Christian Family Movement, a popular home group discussion movement of the day. They recalled that birth control was a significant topic of discussion even before HV, and that it was not unusual for a participating priest to contradict the preceding visiting clergyman in his advice to the group.
Given that parish priests were divided, the prudent stance of a local bishop after the encyclical would be quiet discretion, not making a bad situation worse. (Despite years of ongoing controversy, Father Curran remains a priest in good standing at age 82 with the support of his home bishops in Rochester, NY.) Where bishops felt compelled to act on behalf of the encyclical were in circumstances of public defiance. Cardinal O’Boyle—my bishop for five years in DC—was quite public with his unhappiness over the 1967 unpleasantness at Catholic University, though his hands were tied somewhat by the University’s governance by a board of national bishops-trustees.
But another diocese encountered its own public conflict over the encyclical, which coincidentally was my home diocese of Buffalo. In that situation, several priest faculty members of (then) St. John Vianney Seminary signed a public statement of dissent against Humanae Vitae. Living away from home, I could not quite follow the details, but in fairness, the Bishop of Buffalo (whose predecessor died in 1962 at the Council, of shock, some wags observed) had inherited debt and the first serious waves of Buffalo’s economic decline, not to mention the changes from Vatican II. He was not a particularly popular bishop—prophets of bad news rarely are—and he never became an icon. The roots of his troubles are probably complicated: the seminary professors who had studied the moral theories of Bernard Haring and Charles Curran would almost naturally have had a visceral reaction to moral decision making by papal fiat. Whether the Buffalo bishop took note of how his confreres were dealing with restive clergy is unknown, but he probably should have.
Perhaps the Buffalo professors, one of whom had been a favorite youthful confessor of mine, thought that the success of dissenters in Washington might help them carry the day. However, Bishop McNulty summarily fired four of the signers from their positions on the seminary faculty. I do not know if other church sanctions were levied against them. By pure dumb luck I came upon a blog site called BeliefNet which interviewed the ordination class of the Buffalo seminary’s class of 1969; it contains a remarkable summary of how young priests navigated these difficult days.
By the time I arrived at Catholic University in September 1969 the student unrest on campus had shifted to the Viet Nam War. In fact, I did not take final exams in the spring of 1970 because the students had closed the campus again. The instruction in my junior year was rather poor; the School of Philosophy put its best faculty and money into advanced courses for those seeking higher degrees. The “bread and butter seminarians” were lucky to get jelly, truth be told. I would be hard pressed to recall anything I learned that junior year in the classroom. But on weekends I did work at several parishes in Alexandria and Arlington, VA, as a musician and cantor, where the parishioners were at each other’s’ throats over both loyalty to papal teaching and patriotism/protest over the Viet Nam War.
From 1969-74 I lived in a friary with about twenty-five theological doctors and seminary professors. How they were impacted by Humanae Vitae (or not) and what we learned in theology will be the subject of next week’s Monday entry.
It occurred to me today that unlike other forms of literature a blog is always a work in progress, leaving the author with “second chances” to elaborate, clarify, or even repudiate earlier material. If only for that reason I would like to be granted a longer life to return to this stream on the Catholic Church and morality. Per my impeccable notes attached to the computer screen, I am scheduled to write today about Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), a pivotal moment in moral teaching and practice issued three years after the close of Vatican II. It is surprising to me today that matters of contraception are still pastoral battlegrounds, as is evident from nearly every independent Catholic blog site. Even the discussion page of Wikipedia remains heated on the subject, though I don’t think a loyal supporter of Pope Paul intended to type “the barrier method is condomned as contrary to nature.” [sic]
I had received the religious habit exactly one month before the day the encyclical was made public; I heard about it on the CBS Evening News, one of the few programs we were permitted to watch in the rigorous agenda of the novitiate year. Personally, I thought the Church would divide over the teaching, as I had just finished reading John Noonan’s 1965 epic Contraception. I said as much to my superior, who took a more benign approach to the matter. Cardinal Cushing in Boston, probably America’s most visible churchman at the time, told the press that Pope Paul’s teaching was the final word: “Roma locuta, causa finita.” [The historian in me cannot pass over the fact that 1968 was a very hard year for the Cardinal: in June, he officiated at the funeral Mass of the assassinated Robert Kennedy, and in October he tendered his resignation to the pope after his public support of Jacqueline Kennedy, who married the divorced Aristotle Onassis.]
The full text of Humanae Vitae is linked above. Pope Paul explains the circumstances that inspired the writing of the encyclical and the advisors with whom he had consulted, including the special commission established by John XXIII and enlarged by Paul himself to include married couples. An interesting omission among his advisors is the collective wisdom of the assembly of bishops at Vatican II just a few years before, and an equally intriguing inclusion is the nearly 50% of footnotes to earlier papal pronouncements. Subsequent histories of this episode have suggested that Pope Paul did not wish to imply in any way that previous popes have been in error, fearing that he would damage the credibility of the Successor of Peter to teach the Faith without error. [If you recall Xavier Rynne's description of Vatican II of about a year ago, he reported that Pope Paul had removed the question of contraception from discussion on the floor of the Council, reserving the decision to himself.]
Humanae Vitae may have been the most tortuous decision that any pope has had to make in this century, maybe even harder than Pope John’s decision in 1959 to invoke a Council. For all of Pope John’s courage in opening the door to change, his was a general call to constructive change. Paul VI, by contrast, was the first pope to issue a concrete solemn Church teaching after the Council, and to do so under pressure of numerous conflicting factions, within the Church to be sure, but also in the face of a growing secular culture in the West where organized religion in general was falling under much scrutiny.
Compared to the standard genre of Roman documents, Humanae Vitae itself is a readable homily on the transmission of human life. There are portions of the text that create a devout and respectful atmosphere around the conjugal married life. The pope goes out of his way to console couples who might find his teaching too much to bear, a segment that has been widely interpreted as a recommendation to troubled Catholics to take their difficulties to the confessional for personal conscience determination. But in the final analysis, Pope Paul asserts that he cannot deviate from the timeless natural law of God…” excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or a means.” (para. 17)
I will treat of the immediate reactions throughout the Church in the next Monday installment. For this moment, I will describe the professional theologians’ dilemma. Pope Paul, in his appeal to the natural law of God (or God’s eternal ordering of the universe by purpose, law, and function), had not brought to bear Vatican II’s teaching in Gaudium et Spes (or Bernard Haring’s moral structure, for that matter), that the ends of marriage, including its sexual dimension, are joint—procreative and unitive—as a now well-established principle of sacramental marriage. Nor had there been much discussion in the encyclical of an interdisciplinary nature to moral determinations, as Vatican II’s Optatam Totius had recommended for seminarians as a basic principle of their formation and work.
With no irreverence intended on my part, the encyclical did come down to the arguments that the Church has always taught in this fashion on contraception, and God’s plan for nature underwrites this course of action, i.e., the prohibition. This put revisionist Catholic theologians in a bit of a bind, for it was true that in some form there had always been an awareness of contraception as an issue dating almost to Apostolic times. In an unusual twist to Catholic academics, the best friend of loyal dissenters proved to be a non-theologian. Theologians, even today, are sometimes accused of tallying the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin (a venerable late-Medieval parody.) A cogent counter-argument for a change in the contraception teaching would have to come from a different discipline—law.
John T. Noonan, Jr. has had a remarkable life. In his later years, he served with distinction in the U.S. Court of Appeals. As a young man in 1960 he joined the faculty of the Notre Dame Law School, and in 1965 he wrote a comprehensive study entitled Contraception, which reviewed the entire history of the Church’s treatment of the subject from the earliest days. Noonan had no axe to grind. He undertook the study before Humanae Vitae as a contribution to the private and public debate about the controversy. Pope Paul VI was impressed enough to invite Noonan to serve on the confidential commission studying the birth control question
I read this book during novitiate, and I came away with the impression that Noonan supported Humanae Vitae’s direction. What I failed to grasp in my youthful reading was the incredible complexity of the history of the question, from St. Augustine’s deep suspicions of carnal pleasure as a value in the fifth century to St. Alphonsus Ligouri’s desire to extend compassion and confessional latitude in the eighteenth century. The sheer complexity of Noonan’s study bore witness to the probability that in truth Pope Paul’s depiction of the teaching as a straight line from creation was at the least a significant oversimplification that might eventually create more contention than presently existed in 1968.
As this stream unfolds, we will look at ways in which four succeeding popes addressed Humanae Vitae in their public teachings. Next week I will address the immediate impact of the teaching on my little corner of the Church—which in 1969 and beyond then happened to be Ground Zero, the Campus of the Catholic University of America.