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When I was asked to sign the Appeal critiquing Paragraph 137, I initially agreed with the reading of the authors of the Appeal—but as I studied the paragraph more carefully, it became clear to me that it could be read in a much more benign fashion, and that the benign reading is the correct one. My reading of the text holds that it is faithful to Church teaching but unfortunately written in a way that allows for a reading (or misreading) that would permit the use of contraception in some instances. The English translation improves upon the original Italian text by shaping it to be more evidently in accord with Church teaching, but it does not succeed in removing all ambiguities. Here it is in both languages:

In relation to the rich content of Humanae Vitae and the issues it treats, two principal points emerge which always need to be brought together. One element is the role of conscience as understood to be God’s voice resounding in the human heart which is trained to listen. The other is an objective moral norm which does not permit considering the act of generation a reality to be decided arbitrarily, irrespective of the divine plan of human procreation. A person’s over-emphasizing the subjective aspect runs the risk of easily making selfish choices. An over-emphasis on the other results in seeing the moral norm as an insupportable burden and unresponsive to a person’s needs and resources. Combining the two, under the regular guidance of a competent spiritual guide, will help married people make choices which are humanly fulfilling and ones which conform to God’s will.

Tenendo presente la ricchezza di sapienza contenuta nella Humanae Vitae, in relazione alle questioni da essa trattate emergono due poli da coniugare costantemente. Da una parte, il ruolo della coscienza intesa come voce di Dio che risuona nel cuore umano educato ad ascoltarla; dall’altra, l’indicazione morale oggettiva, che impedisce di considerare la generatività una realtà su cui decidere arbitrariamente, prescindendo dal disegno divino sulla procreazione umana. Quando prevale il riferimento al polo soggettivo, si rischiano facilmente scelte egoistiche; nell’altro caso, la norma morale viene avvertita come un peso insopportabile, non rispondente alle esigenze e alle possibilità della persona. La coniugazione dei due aspetti, vissuta con l’accompagnamento di una guida spirituale competente, potrà aiutare i coniugi a fare scelte pienamente umanizzanti e conformi alla volontà del Signore.

Paragraph 137 identifies two common dangers that impede making good decisions about contraception. One is giving in to one’s subjective assessment that abiding by the norm against contraception is too difficult. The other is seeing the norm as something legalistic and not truly in accord with the good of the person. Those who seek wise guidance will, it is implied, learn to put aside their distorted, subjective, arbitrary judgments; they will come to understand why the Church’s teaching is in accord with the truest nature of the human person and thus will freely choose to do what is both humanly fulfilling (subjectively fulfilling) and in accord with God’s will (objectively true).

I agree that it takes some work to extract that reading from paragraph 137, but I do think (and hope) that is what the authors intended to say, however clumsily. Among the reasons it is difficult to extract the above reading is that the paragraph seems to identify the conscience with a subjective element that threatens to be selfish and to see the conscience as in tension with the objective norm whereas a true conscience (one trained to listen to the voice of God) cannot be selfish and will readily embrace objective norms.

In spite of the fact that I think paragraph 137 is faithful to the teaching of Humanae Vitae, I fear that it lends itself to the reading put forward (and rightly considered dangerous) by the Appeal. That reading can easily be used by those who wish to permit spouses to follow consciences that counsel them to use contraception (consciences that are not educated to hear the voice of God) rather than abide by Church teaching.

Although I think the authors of the Appeal misread paragraph 137, I agree with their identification of what leads too many people to think that appeals to “conscience” can trump objective norms (nominalism and relativism). The final report of the Ordinary Synod on the family must present God’s plan for sexuality as one that, although challenging at times, can be lived. Moreover, it must make clear that living by God’s plan helps spouses have a truly selfless and satisfying marriage and to advance in holiness. Finally, it must make great use of the resources provided to us in Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

The failure of the Church to teach the Church’s teaching on contraception has had catastrophic effects on marriages, on individuals, and on culture. Evangelium Vitae very clearly identified many of those effects. But it didn’t anticipate some of the disastrous effects we are now experiencing: Not only do most people in developed nations approve of men having sex with men and women having sex with women, but developed nations have also have made it legal for men to marry men and women to marry women. And the aberrations of marriage won’t stop there. The Synod must call upon bishops to insist that young people learn God’s plans for sexuality early on and that those who marry in the Church are taught the full beauty of the Church’s vision for marriage. Doing anything less would be a tragic waste of an opportunity.

Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. 

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