To the Confessionals, Men
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.
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