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).