I am taking a break today from morality--there is some literal truth to this as Margaret and I had a long and substantive lunch at Disney's Polynesian Resort with delightful old friends who have paid their dues in the "family business" of the Church. I presently sit at the cusp of gluttony; soup for supper tonight.
The moral thread itself is becoming more involved as Catholic theologians--and ethicists in general--diversified through the latter portion of the twentieth century. I am learning new names and new systems, as well as struggling to put them into present day context. A great deal has been written and debated since my seminary days 40+ years ago. It is exciting work but this is an aging horse pulling the plow.
The encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 pressured Catholic theologians to take to the confessionals themselves, metaphorically speaking, to address the urgent questions of bishops, other priest confessors, and penitents in general regarding the status of those who lived in marital circumstances and used artificial contraception. In terms of science, the contraceptive drugs of the 1960’s were far superior in effectiveness than any other methods short of abstinence, and far less intrusive aesthetically. Today, when I teach, I sometimes hear traditionally leaning students condemn those who used or still use the pill, for example, as dissenting Catholics with no respect for the Holy Father or the teaching Magisterium of the Church. This is reading twenty-first century Church politics into a 1960’s pastoral dilemma, an apple and oranges comparison that calls for analysis.
In 1968 there was genuine confusion on the matter of birth control. The standing teaching was Casti Conubii of Pius XI in 1930, which for all practical purposes might well have been 1230. Moreover, oral contraceptives had not been invented in 1930. In the spring of 1968, several months before Humanae Vitae, my own curiosity led me to ask my seminary professors if I could present a pharmaceutical explanation of the pill at our school’s annual science fair. No one I spoke with on the seminary faculty expressed major concern, so I hauled myself into the little railroad stop at the foot of the seminary hill and consulted the town pharmacist. He was a stolid Dutchman, I believe, who puffed his pipe at the prescription counter (no smoking laws then) and listened patiently as I laid out my project.
He was amused, actually, and he turned to a rack of little boxes of medication, opened several, and slid that tightly folded long white data sheet out of several boxes and gave them to me. I worried a bit later about the advisability of removing pharmaceutical instructions from patients’ medicine boxes. I was too inexperienced to catch the more significant fact that in this little conservative farm town the pharmacy was doing a booming business in oral contraceptives. In any event I completed my project and talked to many townspeople during the exposition. As it turned out, some of my professors were annoyed with me, but not for the reason you might think. Many of the couples I met wanted to speak with a priest afterward, and I disrupted the Sunday afternoons of several who were probably watching baseball in the friars’ rec room.
I might add here that the faculty voted to approve me for entrance into the novitiate with no reservations (aside from eccentricity, perhaps). My involvement in birth control research reflected a wider general interest in the subject, particularly along pastoral lines. It is unfortunate that to the best of my knowledge there is little or no research available about the attitudes of Catholics—clerics and lay—dating back to that time. There is a lot of anecdotal material, to be sure, including mine, but there is no hard data to pinpoint, for example, how many Catholics were using the pill before Humanae Vitae, and how those numbers changed after July 25, 1968.
What can be said with confidence is that as a confessional issue artificial birth control was a cause of great concern in the Church prior to Humanae Vitae, by several years. We can determine this by the output of writings of moralists in the mid to late 1960’s. The literature is fairly consistent in this respect: theologians for the most part did not deny the Church’s teaching on the existence of intrinsic evil (the Classical position), but rather, they explored the relationship of absolute norms to the existential or real-life circumstances of married Catholics (the “historical” position.) In 1967, for example, the Sulpician priest-moralist Peter Chirico wrote of a “tension morality” which “recognizes that man is continually facing obligations that he cannot immediately fulfill but toward which he must ever move.” (Keenan, p. 146)
The various moral theories and strategies of this period were for the most part theories of compromise, the focus on sparing the penitent from two dangerous outcomes outlined by Chirico,” the despair of salvation because he cannot in the here-and-now fulfill the whole law or to fall into dishonesty by declaring the law to be non-existent.” Father Charles Curran, the Catholic University moralist at the center of the school’s 1967 crisis, observed that “some situations manifest the presence of sin in the world to such an extent that even a best possible solution cannot be called good, but is tolerated simply because it is the best compromise that could be achieved.” (Keenan, 147) Curran penned this text in 1965.
Keenan summarizes the approach of many moralists and confessors as “the law of graduality.” He writes, “Through this law, confessors encouraged the laity to understand that gradually they would make the law [against artificial birth control] a reality in their lives and that in the meantime the sacraments could accompany them on the journey. Keenan cites Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio in 1981 as an endorsement of graduality. Keenan writes “[Pope John Paul II] argued that the Church as teacher also had to be a compassionate mother and in the latter role referred to the law of graduality faithfully. He differentiated the practice from the gradualization of the law, that is, moderating the universality and/or force of the law itself. The law had already expressed itself; it was for the laity to gradually adhere to it.” (Keenan, 147) In other words, a confessor would absolve the sin of contraception if the couple recognized the moral ambiguity of their situation, permit the reception of communion, and recognize that relapse was a strong possibility. The linchpin of the graduality law is the couple’s evolving understanding of the Church’s teaching through repeated growthful experiences with an understanding confessor and reception of the Eucharist. The vision of future here is a point in the marriage where the couple embraces the Church’s teaching with appreciation for its wisdom.
This is a very optimistic outlook on confessional practice. One practical matter is human biology—what comes first, wisdom of the law, or menopause? But a number of Catholic moralists saw a significant philosophical problem, too. There is a sizeable gap between graduality and full compliance. Theologians could not help but notice that more grace and flexibility given to penitents could lead to, in Keenan’s words, a situation resulting in “sins without sinners.” (149)
Thus, after a period of developing theories and confessional practices to assist penitents comply with Church teaching, theologians turned their attention away from the subjective circumstance of the penitent to the content of the teaching itself, which expanded the debate beyond moral theology and into Ecclesiology, the nature of the Church itself and the methodology and sources that lie beneath the public teachings such as Humanae Vitae.
The last third of the twentieth century witnessed a tension between the “classical” and the “historical” methodologies of moral theology. Pope Paul VI had reinforced the classical stance in his 1968 teaching that artificial birth control is a timeless sin against the Divine Will or intent of God, unchangeable against the forces of time, changes in culture, or popular sentiment. The encyclical Humanae Vitae left the Church in something of a dilemma. Pastorally speaking, many lay Catholics disregarded the teaching entirely and continue to do so today. This kind of disparity between a Church teaching and many of its members, clerical and lay, is never a good thing.
Moral theology since the Council and Humanae Vitae has been faced with three basic challenges: first, the extent of the binding force of Church teaching; second, the extent and authority of personal conscience; and third, the very definition of what constitutes “natural law.” There are many precepts of moral law, of course, but from time to time one or several will come into focus in the life of the Church. For example, on July 25, 1978, the first child conceived through in vitro fertilization, Louise Brown, was born, and the moral issues of such medical intervention were thoroughly discussed by theologians around the world as well as the Vatican itself. From the classical Church understanding of moral theology, specifically reproduction, in vitro fertilization is considered an unnatural act and thus objectively sinful. The Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albano Luciani, expressed concern that wholesale use of the procedure “would lead to women being used as baby factories,” but he also noted that the Brown couple’s intention was simply to have a baby. Weeks later Luciani was elected pope (John Paul I) but died a month later.
For some reason(s) still unclear to me, for all my Florida years as pastor I was asked by the chancery to speak to the television press when such controversial matters made the news, as the day when the first child of a “surrogate mother” was born. That interview stands out in my mind for two reasons: (1) the reporter’s make-up powder worked perfectly to take the shine off my bald head, and (2) that night one of the CCD kids came up to me and said, “You’ve got to lose that sweater.” But on a more serious note, as I look back on my own memory of those years and more recently revisit the documents, I see that there was a subtle shift in the official Church’s own methodology of moral teaching.
In Humanae Vitae (para. 4) Pope Paul expresses concern about the danger of state-mandated population control (no doubt thinking of Communist China), the dignity of women, and the state of marriage in a rapidly expanding consumer-driven society. His concern centered on whether “easy contraception” (my quote) would in fact accelerate some of the most questionable tendencies, leading to a variety of societal ills. This is an existential argument—any moralist of the historical school would have little or no difficulty with the method, though there might be—and in fact there was—dispute about the interpretation. Then, in para. 10, Pope Paul states that finally “[r]esponsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter.” This is the classical moral understanding of reality, and in this encyclical, it stands as the central argument against artificial contraception.
That said, the pope did not teach publicly what he feared privately, injury to the Church’s Magisterium or solemn teaching authority. Privately it is known that he loathed the idea of countermanding a previous pope (Pius XI’s Casti Conubii in 1930). While the extent of papal authority is an important consideration we will address later, our matter at hand here is how a pope interprets Scripture and Apostolic Tradition in matters of morals. What is clear in our own times is that popes and synods have subtly and steadily teaching documents to lay out a context of a teaching in the broader context of what we call today “Evangelization.”
Pope Paul would reign for another decade till his death in 1978. Moral theologians approached his work in several ways. Classical theologians like John Ford defended the encyclical and its conclusions; the fact that he became something of a pariah in the seminary where he taught for three decades (Weston Seminary) for his collaboration on Humanae Vitae is a sad commentary on the arrogance that marked theological debate in the years after 1968. (There is an excellent reflection on Ford’s experiences here in America Magazine.)
Moralists who questioned HV did so for a multitude of reasons. From my own memory of classroom instruction and conversations with moralists in my friary, many theologians—in fact, many priests/confessors—expressed concern that the faithful were the innocent victims in the defense of a classical view of reality that -was no longer accepted—philosophically or otherwise—in the modern world. My own position at the time was concern with the encyclical’s rather narrow focus on physical acts against the framework of the broader realities of married life and moral disposition in general. Others argued from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes that the reproductive ends of marriage were outweighing the unitive realities of sexual expression. Then the issue of Church authority came under scrutiny, particularly given that, in the case of HV, the board of advisors begun by Pope John XXIII had been overturned.
Little doubt, then, that moral theology was not the place for the faint of heart. Matters were not helped by accusations that dissenters from Humanae Vitae were disloyal to the Church or heretics. The situation in moral theology would, of course, have consequences for catechetics, as instructors and publishers wrote and taught from varying degrees of outlook on the above questions. By the time Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, there was sentiment from many quarters that some kind of unity be reestablished in both the method and content of Catholic moral teaching. John Paul II would make major contributions in his elaboration of moral teachings in his 129 presentations under the title “Theology of the Body” (1979-1984), The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993), and his Veritatis Splendor (1993).