The Life of Humanae Vitae
Mary Eberstadt (“ The Vindication of Humanae Vitae ,” August/September 2008) does an excellent job reporting the disastrous results of widespread contraception. But she doesn’t answer a question that might be honestly posed by a married couple: Why shouldn’t we contracept? What’s the big deal about a plastic device or a small dose of steroid hormones? Probably the best answer draws on the “personalist” reading of sexuality proposed by John Paul II: Marriage involves a total gift of self, and we rightly call sex the “marital act.” When a couple uses the Pill or a condom or gets sterilized, they are saying to one another in the language of the body: “In this, the most intimate act of our marriage, I am going to give myself to you, but only up to a point .” Or conversely: “I want you to give yourself to me, but I don’t want your fertility; we have to put a plug on it.” As Janet Smith points out, the name given to certain contraceptives is revealing: They’re called the barrier method. Sex at that point is no longer a total exchange of persons.
It’s not surprising that the divorce rate has tracked the use of contraceptives. The Catholic Church is nearly alone in understanding that a couple who frustrates the procreative end of sex are also frustrating its unitive end. Which is perhaps why there is so much sexual boredom out there. We seldom hear couples using natural family planning complain about their sex lives. I think that this is partly because natural family planning provides an element of asceticism that keeps a couple’s sex life interesting, and partly because they are respecting the mysterious procreative power of sex, not shortchanging it with chemicals or plastics.
The dissent against Humanae Vitae , as Benedict XVI has pointed out, is part of a bourgeois mentality that thinks Christianity is fine so long as it makes no demands. But it turns out that in the area of sexuality the Church is right to raise the bar as high as it does. Nobody at this late date can argue that the spree of sterilized sex that began in the early 1960s has been a blessing to anyone.
George Sim Johnston
New York, New York
Mary Eberstadt’s essay nicely collected and summarized the actual religious, moral, and social consequences of the sexual revolution that have transpired since Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical. On this score, Eberstadt has done an admirable job.
In my view, however, Eberstadt gives far too much credit to Paul VI’s encyclical as a prescient predictor of all the sexual aberrations and effects that American and global societies have experienced during the past forty years. Quite apart from Humanae Vitae , the sexual revolution was well underway in the 1960s and was defining new standards of sexual morality, both inside and outside of marriage.
If one reads Humanae Vitae closely, one sees that the pope’s focus was on the conjugal relationship between husband and wife. Nowhere does the encyclical speak of contraception outside of marriage. His whole natural-law thesis, such as it is, is grounded in “the moral teaching on marriage, a teaching founded on the natural law.” The pope’s natural-law arguments shift between St. Augustine’s teaching, that intercourse by a married couple is gravely sinful unless the couple subjectively intends to procreate, and what later became known as John Paul II’s theology of the body, based on a variant of anthropological phenomenalism called personalism . St. Augustine’s teaching on procreation as a primary purpose of marriage reflects his attempt to use the views of Stoicism to refute Manichean teaching supporting contraceptive intercourse in marriage. The personalist argument of the pope emphasizes that for marital intercourse to be moral it must involve the total reciprocal personal gift of each partner to the other. There is no such self-giving if there is a contraceptive intent or means in performing intercourse.
Given the limited scope of the pope’s stated concern in Humanae Vitae about contraception within the framework of marriage and his view that sexual relations should be limited to marital intercourse, Humanae Vitae ‘s proscriptions and predictions cannot be logically extended to nonmarital contraceptive intercourse. For instance, the arguments that total self-giving is the expression of mutual conjugal love of husband and wife and that marriage is the only appropriate milieu for raising offspring do not logically apply to extramarital contraceptive intercourse. This is not to say that fornication and adultery are condoned. They are not. Such sins are dealt with in other teachings of the Church. But extramarital contraception cannot be condemned based on the textual teaching of Humanae Vitae. Rather, the broader sexual revolution condoning intercourse and contraception inside and outside of marriage is behind the last half century’s degradation of society’s sexual moral standards that Eberstadt describes in her essay.
Thus, I find it difficult to attribute to Humanae Vitae the vindication that Eberstadt gives it.
Bernard J. McNamee
Mary Eberstadt makes an excellent case showing the numerous disastrous effects of widespread use of artificial contraception. She points out the vote of the Anglican bishops in 1930 “to allow married couples to use birth control in extreme cases.” Note the statement specified “married couples” and “extreme cases.” This was not a universal license for unrestrained use by those who are unmarried, or teenagers, and such. As moral theologians remind us, any good can be perverted, resulting in all kinds of evils. She also mentions the Protestant movement Quiverfull, which prohibits natural family planning “as the Catholic Church does not.”
It would seem logical that couples having intercourse in the wife’s infertile period are intending to prevent conception”otherwise what could be their motive? “Family planning” and “spacing of children,” if legitimate ends, require careful calculations of the female menstrual cycle and avoidance of marital relations at certain times. Though the end does not justify the means, the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” contraception loses force in actual practice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to send a mixed message: “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life,” and “every action which . . . proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.” Is the solution that Catholic couples may have marital intercourse only during the fertile period?
Rev. Richard Tumilty
Grass Valley, California
After reading Mary Eberstadt’s essay, I wondered how the war in Iraq, terrorism, and rock music escaped from her list of things contraception was responsible for. Perhaps had the editors allowed her a few more pages she would have touched on these areas as well. Her article seems to smack of smugness”“We were right about this and now it is quite funny and by the way would you dissenting Catholics please refrain from receiving Communion.” Perhaps if Eberstadt had put the dissent into a context of human evolution and the rapid changes in society during the 1960s, including the Second Vatican Council, she might have been able to feel a little less righteous.
Dissent has been a part of the Church’s history and teachings since Paul and Peter disagreed over gentile conversion in the Acts of the Apostles. Even the Canadian bishops struggled with Humanae Vitae , and they issued the Winnipeg Statement in September 1968, stating that “couples may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.” Dissent should never be feared in the Church. Without dissent much of the abuse perpetrated by the clergy in the 1990s would have gone unpunished. John Paul II declared that the issue of female priests was no longer open for discussion, but one day the Church will open its doors to female priests, because the Catholic people will demand changes. Today in North America many parishes are run by women, and most parish congregations are predominantly female. Priests say the Masses but are not available to run these parishes due to the growing number of churches they must serve.
Supporters of Humanae Vitae seem to struggle with the possibility that a couple who were blessed at the altar on their wedding day and prayed for guidance and support from our Lord for their marriage would be capable of getting that same guidance from Him concerning contraception. Gaudium et Spes exhorts: “Let [parents] thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.” There is a lot more mercy and compassion in that statement than in anything Eberstadt espouses in her essay.
Maybe Eberstadt longs for the good old days before contraception. How about five pregnancies and three miscarriages in eight years like my mother had? Or how about the women who lived with abusive or neglectful husbands and sought the counsel of their parish priests, only to be told that the Church forbade them to leave their husband or to refrain from sex? Would contraception have improved their lives and the lives of their children? I believe most Catholics, including the millions who rebelled against Humanae Vitae , would take offense at the notion that contraception means supporting abortion, pornography, divorce, or aggressive males who have no regard for a woman’s body. Eberstadt provides ample evidence of society’s ills, and I have witnessed all that she writes, but it serves no purpose to blame Catholics who have practiced contraception for these problems.
I think we can look to Christ as an example of mercy and compassion for very difficult decisions made by Catholics all over the world, many of whom continue to serve him in fighting the evils present in our society. So Mary Eberstadt can feel vindicated and rejoice in Humanae Vitae ‘s teachings and continue to chuckle when she thinks about it, but it adds little to the journey most Catholics are walking with our Lord.
Patrick J. Sheahan
I subscribe to First Things because the articles are usually more thoughtful and informative than in most religious publications. Mary Eberstadt’s article, however, seems to say that all our sex problems are linked to artificial contraception, ignoring other possibilities. This simplicity is not the usual thinking I associate with First Things .
There is no question that having effective artificial contraceptives greatly lessens the fear of pregnancies, particularly among women, which has undoubtedly led to an increase in casual sexual activity. But attributing all sexual immorality to the availability of artificial contraception ignores a long history of sexual immorality as well as recent developments. “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae ” places the blame for pornography, the “implosion” of the Anglican Communion, the shortage of priests, and the sex-abuse scandal on artificial contraception, ignoring other significant factors.
For example, Eberstadt says that “we might add recent public reflection on the Pill’s bastard child, ubiquitous pornography.” Ubiquitous pornography owes much to the development of video and the anonymity of and ease of access to the Internet. Lust has always been with us, and sex sells. The connection to the Pill escapes me.
Eberstadt writes: “It is about as clear as any historical chain can get that this implosion is a direct consequence of the famous Lambeth Conference in 1930, at which the Anglicans abandoned the longstanding Christian position on contraception. If a church cannot tell its flock ‘what to do with my body,’ as the saying goes, with regard to contraception, then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.” Your companion article “The Death of Protestant America” suggests that matters are a little more complicated.
In the 1960s my diocese had an effective bishop, who went on to become archbishop of Baltimore. He was followed by bishops who were theologically sound and good administrators, but not leaders. The number of vocations fell. A few years ago, a young, energetic bishop was appointed. The number of seminarians has doubled. From 1968 to 2007, my parish did not have a single candidate enter the seminary. Now we have two in the seminary and several more contemplating it. Leadership counts more than artificial contraception.
My diocese was spared the worst of the scandal because our bishops took prompt effective action where necessary and cared for the victims. The real problem with the sexual scandal is that too many bishops considered it more important to conceal sin among the clergy than to protect children. I do not see any evidence connecting it to the “collusion between a large Catholic laity that wanted a different birth-control doctrine, and a new generation of priests cutting themselves a different kind of slack.” John Paul the Great appointed theologically safe bishops, not real leaders. He and they are accountable.
I am active in my parish and a member of the Knights of Columbus. I see many men who are practicing Catholics, good fathers and active with their children. None has more than three children, which suggests that they and their wives are using artificial contraception. When Humanae Vitae came out, I was active in our parish religious-education program. Members of the program, particularly women, were very vocal in their opposition to the Church with respect to its position on artificial contraception. These men and women seem to be morally good Catholics, who try to practice their religion, except for their use of artificial contraception. They see sex as a positive good in their lives and also
as a tool to control when they have children. Could their moral understanding of sex be better than that of a celibate hierarchy?
I see the problem of sexual immorality as quite different from what is presented in “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae .” Our hierarchy relies heavily on the thirteenth-century teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. It does not explain natural law to the lay members or how it was arrived at. Our hierarchy does not participate in licit sexual activity and does not seem to study or discuss it with those who do. Open and frank discussion with married members of the Church, as well as psychiatrists and sociologists, might lead our priests to a different and better understanding of sexual morality, or to a more effective way of presenting the current teachings on sexual morality.
James M. Huddleston
I would like to add two small codicils to Mary Eberstadt’s magnificent jeremiad. I graduated from high school in June 1966 and entered the Society of Jesus in September of that same year. (I belonged to the last class in my province in which a majority of us entered right out of high school.) We, of course, were well aware that Paul VI would soon rule on the matter of contraception, but most of our energies were caught up in studying the documents of Vatican II, just out in Walter Abbott’s translation.
Even in my adolescent naivete back then, a sentence in Gaudium et Spes caught my eye: “Relying on these principles [of conjugal chastity and openness to children], sons of the Church may not undertake methods of regulating procreation which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”
Since that sentence carried a footnote citing Pius XI’s encyclical of 1910 Casti Connubii condemning artificial contraception, I could not understand the keyed-up expectations that Paul VI would overrule an ecumenical council. When I mentioned this discrepancy to my novice master, he said that the papal commission looking into the matter was convened solely to investigate whether the ovulation-regulating Pill was artificial (and thus banned) or could be seen on the order of diet and exercise that might make a woman’s fertility cycle more predictable, within the bounds of nature.
When the commission by a large majority voted in favor of the Pill, however, it did not do so on the basis of its brief from the pope. Rather, by approving of the Pill, it also went on to advocate the approval of all forms of artificial contraception. In other words, the members implicitly agreed that the Pill was artificial (in the technical sense, which was their mandate to determine), and therefore, since they wanted to approve it, they had to approve all other artificial methods as well. But such methods were already forbidden”not just by Popes Pius XI and XII but also by the liberals’ favorite Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes . As that document said in the next sentence: “Everyone should be persuaded that human life and the task of transmitting it are not realities bound up with this world alone. Hence they cannot be measured or perceived only in terms of it, but always have a bearing on the eternal destiny of man.”
This brings me to my second codicil: Dissent against the encyclical, above all in Catholic circles, was clearly premised on the commission’s view that the connection between sex and procreation ought to be, as it were, decoupled. Thus, once dissent had become institutionalized in chanceries and seminaries, all the props that promoted chastity (conjugal and clerical) collapsed, as Eberstadt devastatingly depicts. The best sign of that severance was, of course, the notorious Report on Human Sexuality , commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America, which could not even bring itself to condemn bestiality.
Eberstadt is obviously an aficionado of the darker shades of humor, so I offer her this twisted tidbit from the Report : “Sexual relations with animals is another form of behavior that is severely punished by some societies and commonly practiced or tolerated by others.” In contrast, so the Report laments, our hidebound Catholic Church comes down hard on such “commonly tolerated” practices: “Particularly with regard to sexuality, it was believed that there is a meaning intrinsic to the very nature of the act itself”a meaning that is absolutely unchangeable and in no way modifiable by extenuating circumstances of special context. Thus, masturbation, any premarital sexual pleasure, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, sodomy, and bestiality were considered intrinsically evil acts, seriously immoral, and under no circumstances justifiable.” But we have all grown out of such rigidities, these mandarins of the CTSA inform us: “Biblical, historical, and empirical evidence raise serious questions regarding such an approach.”
When the final history of the sex-abuse crisis finally comes to be written, the historian will have to devote at least one chapter to the role of mainstream theologians in this bizarre display of relativism and perhaps another chapter to how they used their expertise to browbeat bishops into taking a therapeutic, rather than moral and disciplinary, approach to wayward priests. To date”one is not surprised to learn”the members of the CTSA have yet to acknowledge their role in contributing to the malaise so vividly and instructively described by Eberstadt.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
I have a very different take on Humanae Vitae than Mary Eberstadt’s. I think that Paul VI’s encyclical is the single most damaging thing done to the Catholic Church in the last hundred years. Yes, more damaging than the sex-abuse scandal. By rejecting the clear recommendation of his own advisors and with his retread of old “solutions,” Paul VI made the Church part of the problem rather than the solution. Could the unreality of his encyclical be part of the death of the Church in Europe? His solution has been overwhelmingly rejected by practicing Catholics who do go to Mass weekly. Could this indicate that the Holy Spirit is alive and speaking from below as well as from above, the sensus fidelium of Catholic theology? I suggest the Church leadership listen from above to the faithful and reexamine this flawed position.
Eberstadt notes Paul VI’s prediction of four trends. The fact is the four resulting trends have happened, but the suggestion that they are the result of the use of contraception in marriage is not established in any way. Paul’s point was that even married people cannot morally use any “artificial” method to regulate conception. Eberstadt notes the “deleterious effects of the sexual revolution,” adding Lionel Tiger’s prognosis, “Contraception causes abortion.” This is argumentation? She employs the ageless student approach of lathering statistics to her non sequitur s, as if that were analysis. Or she simply makes statements”which, for her, makes them true.
Eberstadt tells us that the “overpopulation scare” is the reason why married people use contraception. (Could there be any other reason? Other than selfishness?) She notes that governments now enforce “one-child” rules. Causation, however, is not established. Government enforcement is by abortion. Later Eberstadt adds the clincher from “one social observer”: “The power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time.” As the father of four, I can tell anyone not married who thinks that, once married, sex will be “on tap all the time””you are in for a rude awakening! Different schedules, sick kids, out-of-town trips, work exhaustion. I submit that, within marriage, the power and charge of sex are amplified and recharged when undue pressure from unnecessary fear of pregnancy is, at least partially, removed. If birth control is only 97 percent effective, then every act is open to conception”if you want to go there.
In section V, when Eberstadt notes the “widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae ,” she actually provides evidence Paul VI damaged the Church. He has “socialized,” created conditions, for the “cafeteria-belief” she decries. He has weakened the moral force of the Church’s position on abortion in the public sphere, and unfortunately among Catholics. But her later connection between contraception and the number of priests defies analysis!
Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B., my Scripture professor at St. Vincent Seminary, often said that Scripture does not give us answers. It gives us guidelines to apply what Scripture means in ever new and emerging situations. In spite of Eberstadt’s statistical overload, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the devout Catholics I see each week at Mass, whose life experience tells them that Paul VI has made the Church part of the problem rather than moving to become a part of the solution. The results for the Catholic Church have been, as Mary Eberstadt described, harmful. Will simply restating the flawed Humanae Vitae , louder, and again and again, be effective?
Are Catholics really required to deny mathematical truths? Mary Eberstadt implies that Malthus’ work, “rooted in other times and places,” was “as pseudo-scientific as phrenology.” But what Malthus noticed”that populations, when they multiply unimpeded, grow geometrically, and that geometrical growth must very soon outstrip any environment, so population growth must necessarily be impeded, by one means or another”is as certain and universal as the Pythagorean Theorem. Malthus described it as “the doctrine of the constant tendency of population to increase beyond the means of subsistence.” If the 1960s predictions of catastrophe have not come to pass, it is due in large part to the unexpectedly wide use of the means Eberstadt opposes. What, I wonder, would our situation be today if the Catholic Church had been successful in banning all contraception and abortion? What would the next century look like? Mass migrations”like those from overpopulated, poverty-stricken, Catholic countries all too familiar to us from past centuries”would be no solution for a whole planet.
Eberstadt asserts that “today’s cutting-edge theory worries about precisely the opposite : a ‘dearth birth’ that is ‘graying’ the advanced world.” Her myopia is breathtaking. Has she perhaps not heard of ongoing and accelerating mass extinctions, habitat destruction, droughts, forest fires, collapse of fisheries, pollution, food- and oil-price increases? All the stresses we are putting on the environment are the mathematical product of lifestyle multiplied by population. The task of adjusting our economic systems to accommodate stable populations would be trivial compared to the burdens we will otherwise place on countless future generations of a severely degraded natural world, in which the population will eventually have to stabilize anyway, at a far higher level of what Malthus aptly described as misery.
Humanae Vitae has always seemed to me a reductio ad absurdum of the Catholic faith. Most Catholics are right to reject it. Where they err is in preserving respect for an authority that could produce something so morally flawed. Eberstadt calls Malthus’ ideas pseudo-science. On the contrary, Humanae Vitae is pseudo-morality.
Gerald D. Lame
San Diego, California
Growing up in the wake of the sexual revolution, a woman’s right to promiscuity, birth control, and choosing to end the life of a child resulting from an unplanned pregnancy has been the innocuous paper on the walls of my adolescence”its pattern hardly noticeable and its source never questioned. In an unconscious revulsion to the disorder of our society and its blurred morality that masks personal indulgence as personal rights”but ultimately through grace alone”I found the Catholic Church. And so, as a recent convert and more recent wife, it was with no small interest that I read Mary Eberstadt’s article “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae .” I found it overflowing with statistics evidencing to the wisdom of Humanae Vitae . But I also found it lacking in love and smacking of “I told you so.”
Eberstadt writes: “Considering the human spectacle today . . . one can’t help but wonder how [Paul VI] might have felt if he had glimpsed only a fraction of the evidence now available”whether any of it might have provoked just the smallest wry smile. After all it would take a heart of stone not to find at least some of what’s now out there funny as hell.” I had to wonder, if God speaks and the world does not listen, shall we not weep and pray and continue to speak God’s message of truth in love? Or shall we”wrapped in our vindication”wag our fingers and laugh at the poor suckers who refused to listen?
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Mary Eberstadt replies:
Sincere thanks to all who have written in about my essay, whether privately or in these pages of First Things . It’s heartening to know that Catholic moral teaching”a subject we’ve all been told is hopelessly antiquated and moribund”shows to the contrary such signs of life and summons such informed passion as many correspondents have shown.
First, a clarification to those who have wondered whether I was claiming too much prescience for one single document. In arguing that Humanae Vitae foresaw the sexual chaos that would follow once that contraceptive genie got out of the Pill bottle, I did not mean to suggest that it was the only Church document to condemn contraception. To the contrary”and contrary especially to what dissenting Catholics claim” Humanae Vitae was neither revolutionary nor a departure in any way from longstanding Church teaching. Rather, in focusing on that document in particular, I was in part invoking it as synecdoche for Catholic moral teaching more broadly.
Casti Connubii (1930), for example, which was Humanae Vitae ‘s most recent and important predecessor on the subject of marriage, declares similarly that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” So do any number of documents stretching back through the centuries of Church teaching, as signaled in my essay. One may take issue with Humanae Vitae over all sorts of points, but the consistency of Catholic teaching is not among them. It’s all the more important to stress the continuity of that teaching, because so many Catholics who dissent from it believe that the document issued in 1968 is somehow responsible for the American Church’s current disarray. That’s not true. What’s responsible for the disarray is the widespread dissent from that teaching.
McNamee, if I understand him correctly, makes the point that, since Humanae Vitae limited itself to discussing (and condemning) contraception within marriage, its condemnation of contraception cannot therefore be extended to cases outside marriage. I would put the matter differently. If Humanae Vitae foresaw that a number of ill events would be attendant on marital contraception”promiscuity, degradation of women, and so on”I think we can safely infer that the document’s authors understood that widespread contraception outside marriage, where the parties have even less connection to one another, would have the same results, only more so. And so they have.
Rev. Tumilty raises the interesting theological point that the use of natural family planning can be at odds with the Cathecism’s injunction that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” Don’t couples using NFP violate that openness, he wonders? This is, I think, a serious question. I would draw his attention to the rest of the Catechism’s language, specifically where it explains that what is “intrinsically evil” is the action which “proposes . . . to render procreation impossible.” It seems to me that the “impossible” there demands our focus. Few couples using NFP believe procreation to be impossible at certain times of the cycle (and if they do, they should probably read up on the probabilities). On the other hand, almost no one whose body is being ordered around by Norplant, say, or the Pill, or an IUD, has adopted that regimen without wanting to render procreation impossible. One helpful analogy the NFP people are fond of using is that of a car. We both want one, but how we get it”you buy yours, and I steal mine”makes all the moral difference in the world.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that some people using NFP do have the equivalent of a contraceptive intention, in which case a trip to the confessional for guidance is probably in order to sort out these difficult questions. It’s a comforting thought that the confessional can be used for such purposes, and not just as a transmission belt for dissenting priests to tell Catholics that Church law is something other than what it is.
Mr. Sheahan, like a couple of other writers, did not understand that I was using irony in saying that some aspects of our predicament are, for example, “funny as hell.” I would have thought the conjunction of the words funny and hell in the same sentence in First Things might have been a giveaway that figurative language was afoot, but maybe not. He gets a pass for being humor-challenged (as does Naomi Graf, whose touching letter reminds us all that the Church continues to draw people on account of her moral teaching”even as others continue to reject Rome for that same reason). Mr. Sheahan does not get off the hook, though, for his significant hope that “one day the Church will open its doors to women priests because the Catholic people will demand changes””because he there captures exactly the kind of thinking that has led so many American Catholics into dissent.
That’s what dissent ultimately boils down to: the notion that the Church “must” change because “we” demand it. But who among us would really want truth decided by a democracy, however good? Today’s dissenters want the ban on contraception lifted; tomorrow’s might want the Church to require greener cars. Who would have confidence in an authority that acted like a weathervane and not a “sign of contradiction”? To repeat a point made in my essay, there is such a church”actually, there are several”and you can read all about what’s happened to them in Joseph Bottum’s tellingly titled recent essay, “The Death of Protestant America” (August/September 2008).
Mr. Weaver also speaks for many in his assertion that “ Humanae Vitae is the single most damaging thing done to the Catholic Church in the last hundred years.” That is a curious locution and worth scrutinizing. Why isn’t the disobedience itself “the single most damaging thing done to the Catholic Church””rather than the reiteration of millennia-old teaching found in Humanae Vitae , Casti Connubii , and for that matter, any number of pre-1930 Protestant sources as well?
This brings us to Mr. Huddleston’s letter, which puzzles a little. First, he puts the “implosion” of the Anglican church in quotes”as if there’s so much as an iota of ambiguity about the declining fortunes and dwindling ?Western membership of that institution.
I understand his frustration, though. People who want the Catholic Church to abandon the teaching on contraception are particularly reluctant to ask what happened when the Anglicans did it. They also don’t want to acknowledge that abdicating the teaching about contraception turned out to be the camel’s nose for open homosexuality and the rest of the hands-off agenda that the Anglicans and like-minded churches adopted after abandoning the longstanding ban on contraception. But just not wanting to see these clear patterns isn’t a refutation of them.
Mr. Weaver erroneously says that my essay cites “the overpopulation scare” as “the reason why married people use contraception.” Since this may cause head-scratching among people reading the essay for the first time, let’s toss that red herring back. What I said was that dissenters within the Catholic Church who hoped for a change in Church teaching seized on the popular antipopulation movement of the time, in the hopes that it might provide a justification where others had been found lacking. Of course it did no such thing. But it was indeed lamentable science, as a spate of recent books, including one discussed at length in my essay, have all gone to show.
In sum, the empirical record increasingly speaks for itself. It shows that”as George Sim Johnston puts it well in his reminder of the positive sexual vision of John Paul II”“in the area of sexuality the Church is right to raise the bar as high as it does.”
Finally, I would especially like to thank Edward T. Oakes, S.J., for drawing my attention to the Catholic Theological Society of America and its Report on Human Sexuality . His observation that the document “could not even bring itself to condemn bestiality,” while horrifying, raises a critical point about Catholic moral teaching that can hardly be emphasized enough when decades of public dissent have left so many Catholics confused and ignorant about what that teaching actually is.
Many human beings, it seems safe to say, find the sexual discipline demanded by the Church to be the most challenging aspect of their daily lives as nondissenting, faithful Catholics. For many of those people, in turn, what’s most challenging is the proscription of artificial contraception. But not for all. For others, it may be the proscription of homosexual activity. For others still, it may be the laws against polygamy and polyandry whether concurrent or sequential. And for others, no matter how few, what’s most difficult of all may indeed be the injunction against preying on the family pet.
The point is that singling out any one of these rules for special treatment cannot help but invite the rejoinder, what about me? That’s why the widespread disobedience about birth control has led many American Catholics to ask in turn what right the Church has to impose rules of any kind, on any sexual or bodily activity whatsoever. That’s the road that dissent inevitably if also logically leads to, and the one that Humanae Vitae , like so much else before it in Christian teaching, refused to embark on.
The Once and Future Council
The tendency to treat issues as frozen in a particular time is both natural and dangerous. We must always maintain the essence of Christian teaching exemplified in the life and words of Jesus as the basis for our efforts to understand it within the context of our contemporary culture. It is that task that Vatican II took up, and it is that task that continues.
Contrary to Richard John Neuhaus’ observation (“What Really Happened at Vatican II,” October 2008), Vatican II occurred at a time of profound social change over which the Church had no control. John XXIII had lived through some of the most difficult times, and he was uniquely prepared to take steps to meet an on-coming crisis. The council undertook some very profound issues. Naturally, it was incomplete. The crises swirled around it, but the Church has survived.
What recent popes have tried to deal with has nothing to do with liberal or conservative agendas. In fact, John Paul possessed an almost unbelievable sense that transcended these differences. Alas, he was not well-served by some of his associates, who used their positions to push their own views. Benedict has understood this problem and keeps a tighter control.
If Catholics look around, they will see that their divisions are not grounded in an understanding of the place of the Church in the modern world but in the security blankets of their own views of the Church. Fr. O’Malley took on the rather clear but extremely difficult task of telling what happened at Vatican II. Now we need to look at the world in which Vatican II was born and imagine what would have happened without it.
James M. Powell
Syracuse, New York
You mention that the Common Ground Initiative is now defunct. The seamless garment, however, is still here in Texas. It was explained in Sunday’s homily, with references to Fr. Richard McBrien and Cardinal Bernardin. We also sing a Gloria with hand clapping: “Glo-ri-a,” clap-clap, “Glo-ri-a,” clap, clap, “in excelsis Deee-o,” clap-clap-clap. This is the rousing refrain. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei are in the jazz tradition, with a noteworthy piano introduction that warns you of what’s coming.
In years to come, I think tour buses will come here to see The Church That Time Forgot. We’ll have the Seamless Garment under glass hanging behind the altar, and the choir will be singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun.” I can probably get you tickets.
Richard John Neuhaus’ comments on what counts as a miracle (Public Square, “On the Question of Miracles,” October 2008) invite a couple of thoughts from this puzzled Protestant. (One who does, by the way, believe in miracles, along with countless other evangelicals.) First, Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, Christ’s changing of the water to wine, and his raising of Lazarus from the dead, to cite just a few biblical examples, may not be so miraculous after all if indeed “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
But they are, by their nature, at least, out-of-the-ordinary events that for that reason alone draw attention to themselves. Why else would they be remarked on? Second, it seems to me that “the miracle of the Mass” is of a different order altogether and should not be compared. In the former cases we are witnesses, either in person or by testimony, to extraordinary events that by themselves inspire awe and wonder,and beg further explanation. In the case of the Mass, by contrast, we are instructed that something miraculous has occurred despite the fact that nothing apparently extraordinary has happened at all.
Mount Airy, North Carolina
I confess to being somewhat puzzled by Neuhaus’ juxtaposition of the Protestant/Catholic debate over the “limited age of miracles,” and the Lewis-Anscombe debate. One who was unfamiliar with Lewis’ Miracles: A Preliminary Study (either the first or second edition) might suppose that the book is largely dedicated to defending the miraculous events of the life of Christ and not so much interested in discussing the reality (beyond the mere possibility) of the miraculous on an intimate, regularly occurring daily basis. The truth, however, is that the first three quarters of the book (either edition) is dedicated specifically to developing the notion that human reasoning and nature’s own existence (both originally and continuing) give ongoing and pervasively intimate examples of supernatural miracles, with the corollary that, while God may perform more particularly special miracles at the ganglia of history, we are not in much of a position to say where those ganglia are (aside from the Incarnation, Life, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ)”and therefore we ought not to be prejudiced before the fact about rejecting stories of miracles. This is far from being an argument against expecting a regular transubstantiation of the Communion elements and so on. It is, in fact, an argument that the miraculous happens uncountable billions of times every day.
The Public Square piece on Bernard Lonergan, S.J., (While We’re At It, October 2008) seems to ask what it is about Lonergan that makes him so great.
I write as a sixty-year-old retired civil servant who enforced federal pension laws for about thirty years. I have been married for thirty-eight years, my wife and I raised seven children, and we have been blessed with nine grandchildren. I have thus lived a practical life and have not been a professional academic. Nonetheless, I write to answer the implied question.
I was introduced to Lonergan in the early 1970s by Harry Kohls, S.J., at Seattle University. Thanks to Fr. Kohls’ instruction and my own efforts, I appropriated the fact of a cognitional structure operative within me. This dynamic structure was a triple cord of understanding, judgment, and will. It is dynamic in that wonder, reflection, and desire drive the triple cord. It was suggested to me that by using Lonergan’s findings the Gordian knot of philosophic materialism and idealism could be severed and ground into a critical realism. I have found that, when reading philosophic sources or intellectual writings of other kinds, I am often able to grasp and judge the cognitional base of the writer’s assertions and conceptions. This is truly helpful to understanding the contours of arguments and to determining to what road they may lead. For example, Plato, Kant, and Hegel confuse the real, in one manner or another, with the intelligible; Locke and Husserl bind themselves to the experiential as the real. Lonergan’s real includes the experiential (material) and the intelligible (ideal) but reaches the concrete (real) in only judgment. For me, of course, Lonergan’s teachings on common sense and bias and oversights was of paramount importance.
To the extent that a restoration of philosophic Thomism to our Catholic colleges makes sense, Lonergan provides a contemporary, critical, and productive program of study largely located in his masterwork Insight . Although I am aware of his theological project as stated in Method in Theology , I am personally unable to evaluate it. However, based on the gift he provided me in knowledge, I trust that what he has to say is well worth scholars’ and the Church’s prayerful study.
In my retirement, I am studying his The Triune God: Systematics . It is instructive and joyful, after a long time working a day job, to return to deeper study. The psychological analogy he uses is the same as that taught in Insight . So far as I can tell, it may well be an improvement on St. Augustine’s analogy (where imagination is much used) or Karl Rahner’s (where understanding and judgment are fused as knowledge).
Lonergan may never become great. The potential is completely there. The Lord will decide.
Richard John Neuhaus (While We’re At It, October 2008) inaccurately records the context of the now infamous phrase of Tony Blair’s press secretary, “We don’t do God,” and loses the sense thereby. In fact, a question was posed to Blair in the course of an interview with Vanity Fair , at which point Alistair Campbell interjected”referring to talking publicly about God, not about the role of religion in government decision-making. Not “doing” God as a topic of discourse in public life is difficult to imagine for those of us who live outside the United Kingdom”especially Americans”but it is the quotidian reality of British politics. As Blair said elsewhere, “You talk about [religious convictions] in our system, and, frankly, people do think you’re a nutter.” Clearly, a society in which even talking about faith is verboten is in the kind of trouble that made it possible for the Blair government to implement a raft of legislation offensive to most mainstream religions.
While Neuhaus misunderstands the sense of Alistair Campbell’s words and thus misses the gravity of the problem in Britain, he also fails to parse Blair’s Westminster lecture accurately. By “the idea of faith itself,” I take the former prime minister to be alluding to what is classically called the fides qua ”if you like, the subjective structure of the human being that allows the possibility for faith in any particular thing. Blair may be expressing here his discovery of the anthropological God-shaped hole”and may well be a shrewder theologian than Neuhaus thinks.
Wagga Wagga, Australia
It delights me to read Richard John Neuhaus’ recommendation of Ron Hansen’s recent novel Exiles (While We’re At It, October 2008). As Neuhaus notes, the novel is at once a lovely and moving tribute to Gerard Manley Hopkins, his poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and the five Franciscan nuns whose deaths the poem commemorates. Such deserved recognition brought to mind this quote from Hopkins, written to Robert Bridges in 1886, a decade after “The Wreck” had been rejected by the Jesuit publication The Month , three years before Hopkins’ unnoticed death, and twenty-two years before Bridges brought Hopkins’ poetry to our attention: “Before God, I would have . . . all true poets remember that fame, the being known, though in itself one of the most dangerous things to man, is nevertheless the true and appointed air, element, and setting of genius and its works . . . . To produce, then, is of little use unless what we produce is known, if known widely known, the wider known the better, for it is by being known that it works, it influences, it does its duty, it does good.” One might add the phrase the Jesuit Hopkins had always in the forefront of his mind: Ad maiorem dei gloriam .
Thomas A. Cavanaugh
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California