I have here sitting on my desk a work with high visibility in the academic Catholic world, Contraception, by John T. Noonan, Jr. I first read this work in 1968, during my novitiate year, which coincided with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Catholic moral stance against artificial birth control. The first edition of Contraception was published in 1965; a later and larger edition appeared in 1986, the volume I own, which includes a commentary by the author on theological reaction to Paul’s 1968 reaffirmation, including the writings of Pope John Paul II on the subject and more recent reflections from the author on theological debate and argument that continue as I write today.
I raise the example of Noonan’s study as the kind of theological and canonical (legal) debate that one might see in the age of the manuals of sin (1565-possibly present day.) The idea that marriage and intercourse were willed by God to populate the earth with believers was never really questioned by the Church, except by fringe groups who held that the body—and all matter, in fact—was evil. It is fair to say that the prevailing teaching over the Church’s history has been the priority of conception in sexual acts. As early as the age of the Irish monk confessors, there were confessional guidelines for penance on the different forms of contraception then known: The Penitentials cited a number of kinds of contraception known in the 600’s A.D., for example, ranging from the extreme of infanticide to coitus interruptus (or “withdrawal’) to oral sex, with appropriately graded punishments for each type.
The Renaissance and post-Reformation era Church did not change the teaching, but with the explosion of learning and science, and the intensive case studies that the Manualist Era is famous for, the teaching became more complicated. The Council of Trent in 1563 became the first council to speak of the role of love in marriage; this may be the first hint of a recognition of the psychological wholeness of marriage and the role that sexual union plays in the unity of a couple. This is more revolutionary than it sounds, because a second purpose of intercourse had been implicitly introduced, unity, alongside the purpose of procreation. Might there be times when these ends are separate? The twentieth century would inherit this question in full bloom.
Catholic moral teaching is not immune to circumstances. The invention of the microscope provided first insight into the actual process of conception, and the development of birth control devices such as condoms also added new considerations. In my view, this is the era when the sin of contraception began casting about for new moorings. For if previous Church teachings had focused on the priority of child-bearing, the nineteenth century began to focus more upon the integrity of the sexual act itself, a teaching specifically targeted against the new “barrier methods” of contraception. However, two further discoveries complicated matters: the discovery in the mid-1800’s of fertility cycles (leading to what we have called “rhythm” or, more recently, “Natural Family Planning,” and a century later a tablet form of contraception (or “the pill”) which arguably does not violate the integrity of the sex act. Paul VI’s inclusion of the pill in his teaching against contraception broadened the “physical” dimension of the discussion at a time when western societies were turning toward the interpersonal nature of marital relationships. The pontificate of Pope John Paul II altered the argument again, this time in the direction of obedience and orthodoxy. Contraception in some quarters is viewed as the line in the sand in terms of good standing in the Church, which seems to me a rather extreme approach.
The Manualist moral theologians over the last 500 years have had a sort of double duty: to categorize sins in terms of definition, gravity, and penalty, on the one hand, and to evaluate and recommend protocol within the confessional in regard to particularly complex moral situations. Again, contraception is a good case in point. In the early twentieth century Pope Pius XI inculcated a “duty of inquiry” about contraception whereby the priest in the confessional was supposed to specifically ask married persons if they were practicing birth control. In 1943, under Pius XII, this instruction to interrogate the penitent was dropped, or more specifically, not mentioned. The Vatican’s Holy Office was an intimate player in the Manualist debates, along with the religious orders and their universities. While it is hard to give black and white numbers, as a rule of thumb Jesuits tended toward strict interpretations of sin and confessional practice, while the Redemptorists, in the fashion of their founder St. Alphonsus Ligouri, tended toward a more pastoral approach. Enemies of the Jesuits called its members casuists, while foes of the Redemptorists referred to them as laxists.
Two characteristics of the Manualist Era jump out at me. The first is the importance of the role of the parish priest in clarifying the moral duties of his parishioners from the pulpit and more explicitly in the confines of the confessional. The issue here is not so much that doctrines of the Church varied from confessional to confessional, but that confessors were trained in a variety of Manualist traditions, influenced by the practices of their own dioceses, and no doubt shaped by their own piety and innate sense of human psychology. I might add here that after Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968, and even before, astute parishioners generally knew the confessional dispositions of their local priests. By the time I was in regular parish work just before 1980, discussion of birth control in the confessional had just about ceased.
The second point is that the Church at every level invested major amounts of time, research, discipline and writing into particular sins at the expense of others. There is much truth to the criticism that an inordinate amount of time and attention was devoted to sexual sins; looking at the bibliography of John Noonan’s book, it appears that some men made contraception virtually their life’s work. By the mid-20th century a new school of Manualist would seriously undertake self-examination of their discipline; by 1960 a new generation of moral theologians advocated a Biblically-based conversion model of morality whereby a man’s “fundamental option” toward goodness would become the cornerstone of moral discourse. We will look at these recent developments next Monday.
After the conclusion of the reform Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church turned to reforms in a number of areas of Church life, including the sacrament f Penance and, specifically for our purposes today, moral theology. Although Pope Innocent III had decreed in the early thirteenth century that every Catholic must confess sins annually, it is hard to say how seriously this mandate was taken over the next three centuries. It is generally accepted that the training of priests in this era was skeletal, and that many clerics did not know precisely what acts were in fact sinful, the gravity of the confessed sin, and the proper counsel and penitential reparation.
Our theological inspiration for today, James F. Keenan, (A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, 2010) makes another interesting point about the era of Trent. The expanding wealth of knowledge of the Renaissance era, which included the geographical expansion into the western hemisphere and the Far East, demanded more critical moral analysis as more information and more complex challenges came into being. The Church had taught from earliest times that charging interest on a loan, or usury, was sinful. But once the Portuguese and the Spanish began seafaring exploration in the late 1400’s, and particularly when Spain began shipping large amounts of gold and other precious goods back to Europe, the necessity of insurance became pressing.
In 1530 Spanish merchants asked the University of Paris for an overhaul of the morality of certain commercial practices; they were not seeking to reject the Catholic moral teaching authority, but rather, they were facing situations that Church morality had never faced before and essentially were asking the Paris scholars to sketch out the morality of banking for the new cashed-based economies of the western world. Thus began the Catholic juridical science of case law or casuistry, which would become nearly synonymous with the term “moral theology.”
After the Council of Trent, moral theology books took on the form of case law books. Scholars collected all the known sins—from both the Old and New Testaments, the Church Fathers, decrees of councils and popes, and even everyday experience--with every sin catalogued in a particular way. Moralists no longer resembled philosophers or spiritual directors; rather, the discipline became an extremely legal one, and today’s Canon Lawyer can trace roots to this era. The methodology of assessing sin and guilt became known as casuistry (from the root word “case”) and among its first and most famous practitioners were Jesuits, who were the most exacting in protecting original principles and not particularly lenient in granting exceptions of conscience. In fact, the lengths to which they would go to maintain moral order by complicated legal reasoning has led to the terms “casuistry” and “jesuitical” passing into English as derogatory terms.
The period from 1600 through at least 1960 is known in Church history as the “Manualist Era,” a reference to both the books themselves, the confessional practices of the times, and the debates among moral doctors of the time. The content of the list of sins was modestly affected—interest and slavery, to be sure—but the meat of moral debate was the subjective guilt of the sinner, and whether his particular moral dilemma was sinful or not given the circumstances of the casus or case. There was a dialectic among moralists between rigorous interpretation and generous. After a century or so of Jesuit precision, the eighteenth century saw a drift to a broader interpretation of law, and moral theology of the post-Tridentine Era produced its first saint and doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri.
Ligouri was much more than a technical moralist. He himself was an extraordinarily pious man who founded the Redemptorist Order and has left us a rich tradition of Catholic publishing in today’s Ligouri publications. His confessional approach we would probably recognize as pastoral and understanding. As a moralist he is considered in the Probablist tradition, meaning that if a penitent’s choice of action can find support from competent moralists on both sides of a question, the penitent could choose the option based upon his prayer and conscience.
Something that needs clarification about the Manualist Era is its emphasis upon the Sacrament of Penance and the subjective state of the penitent. It is true, as noted above, that some acts came to be regarded as sinful (slavery) while others were adjusted to new circumstances (charging interest, so long as it did not degenerate into loan sharking.) The greater concern, though, was the subjective state of the soul in determining how life circumstances influenced moral choice. For this reason, it is critical to recognize that there was and is a hierarchy of sorts regarding sin. The recognition of direct abortion as grave sin is part and parcel of Catholic morality for all of the Church’s history. Claiming a wide-screen TV as a tax deduction (unless you happen to make your living as a TV critic, poor soul) is cheating our duty to support the upkeep of society, and it is probably sinful, but we do not generally think of these two acts—abortion and tax evasion—as two peas from the same pod, so to speak.
There is another feature of the Manualist Era that drew criticism, particularly in the early twentieth century. The moral life embraces more than juridical correctness; it begins with baptismal rebirth and a positive commitment to live constantly in the imitation of Christ. The manuals were very useful for identifying dangerous life paths, but they had little to say about the Gospel teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful.” When can one say, with juridical certainty, that he or she has been “merciful enough?” Or cared for the poor enough? Or worked for justice enough?
In the twentieth century thoughtful Catholic and Protestant scholars began to ask this question with greater intensity, and this quest would have profound impact upon our personal and communal spirituality today.
It is still possible to find an obscure book for a bargain basement price, even in era of Amazon. In fact, Amazon and other megadealers are boon to small bookstores who can market esoteric texts side by side with the major league authors and publishers. It was at such an offbeat site that I came across a fairly good used copy of The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) translated by the Dominican H.J. Schroeder. This is a 1978 version of a 1941 translation, with $7.00 penciled inside the front cover. I purchased this some years ago for deep background, way before the Catechist Café was even a thought.
I pulled it down and blew off the dust, with the idea that it might be interesting to see the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation in terms of moral theology. The titanic struggle of Catholics versus reformers included a great many areas of Church life including morality. Before looking at the text, it is worthwhile to remember that Luther’s most basic challenge to the Church had been the nature of the forgiveness of sins and the satisfaction owed to God for sins whether they were confessed and absolved or not. The concept of indulgences—the Church remission of afterlife punishment in Purgatory—and the manner they were made available, often through cash purchase, led the young monk to nail his famous 95 Theses for public viewing in Wittenberg, Germany, on Halloween of 1517.
The Protestant/Catholic clash, in terms of moral theology itself, was less about the conduct of sinning than the power of religion to absolve sin, and more importantly to Luther, the irrelevance of rites, money and good works to God, whose forgiveness was free, extravagant, and trustworthy to those who believed in the words of Sacred Scripture. Roman Catholicism’s most significant statement of principle in this debate was its insistence that Jesus had instituted a sacrament of forgiveness necessary for salvation, that through the Holy Spirit Jesus’ power to forgive was willed to the Church, and that the Church had the right and duty to establish the liturgical and juridical ways that forgiveness was granted.
As Luther continued his writing, he would come to accuse the Church of “man-made sins,” so to speak. Abstinence from eating meat on Friday, fasting during lent, and mandatory celibacy were among the early targets of reformers. On the other hand, a number of Luther’s German followers, the “radical reformers,” began small scale civil wars during the decade after 1517 directed toward civil authorities over social and economic reform. Luther’s writing during this era (he was in hiding from papal forces who sought to arrest him) reveal his rage and anger at the disobedience of his erstwhile followers in disrupting the civil order ordained by God. He evidently did not believe that the “freedom of the children of God” was without limits. Modern day Baptists abstain from alcohol, and Christian Evangelicals have been leaders in the Pro-Life Movement for decades, to this day.
The Catholic Council of Trent, of course was intent upon preserving its tradition of authority, and as I noted above, this included matters of Biblical tradition, sacramental history, and confessional discipline. The teachings of the Council on morality, as such, are wrapped together with the Sacrament of Penance in the documents from Chapter 14 of the Council, November 25, 1551, by Pope Julius III. This teaching begins with the insight that if everyone remained faithful to baptismal purity and dedication, a sacrament of later forgiveness would never have been necessary. But, to quote the translation directly, “God, rich in mercy, knowest our frame.” (p. 88) There is a note of realism here that has distinguished Catholic morality throughout the ages.
Chapter 14 places the institution of the sacrament of Penance on Easter Sunday night, when the risen Christ breathed the forgiving Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. It goes on to describe the difference between baptism and penance, as both sacraments do forgive sins. The forgiveness associated with baptism falls upon those who have been outside of Christian life and thus are in many respects less culpable than the Catholic making confession, where some element of judgment of guilt is necessary on the part of the confessor.
It is clear from the Trent documents that while the proper rites of forgiveness must be observed (remember ex opere operato, or “by the work of the work” or rite?), the fathers saw nothing mechanical or magical about sacramental forgiveness of sins. Paragraph Two contains an insight that speaks powerfully today: “We are by no means able to arrive by the sacrament of penance without many labors and tears on our part, divine justice demanding this, so that penance has rightly been called by the holy Fathers a laborious kind of baptism.” (p. 90) In Chapter Four the importance of contrition of sin is emphasized, calling for a new resolution to reform with a hatred of one’s old life of sin.
Paragraph Four recognizes that our contrition for sin will not always be perfect, and it goes to pains to say that the penitential sacrament, even if embraced haltingly, does not make one a hypocrite [emphasized in text] but opens doors to an ongoing and a more intensive penitential spirit. Chapter Five reiterates the need to confess all mortal sins in confession, with a side bar that sins of the ninth and tenth commandments (the “coveting commandments”) are sometimes more harmful to the soul than sins of actual behavior, a wise psychological insight. Likewise, the document urges the confessor to engage and educate the penitent on the nature of the sin and levels of engagement, so to speak, and to exercise caution in not upsetting the penitent more so than necessary.
Chapter Eight addresses Luther’s charge regarding indulgences, stating that forgiveness of sins does not include a full remission of the punishments for the sin. As the text puts it, “And it is in keeping with divine clemency that sins be not thus pardoned us without any satisfaction, lest seizing the occasion and considering sins as trivial and offering insult and affront to the Holy Spirit, we should fall into graver ones, treasuring up to ourselves wrath against the day of wrath.” [Emphasis in text, p. 97]
The Council of Trent, as a product of its times, reflects the fear of death and punishment in the afterlife so ingrained in the human psyche of the times. I often wonder if our forebears of five centuries ago weren’t wiser than us in their sacramental sense of guilt and restitution. In the years following the Council, 1563 through the twentieth century, Catholicism would find itself in conflict with itself about the attitudes of its new books of guidance for confessors, the manuals, swinging between strict and compassionate interpretation of the penitential guidance books. Today, incidentally, is the feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the eighteenth century Doctor of the Church noted for, among other things, his wisdom as a moralist and confessor, who according to legend denied absolution in the confessional to no one.