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.