I find it hard to put myself behind causes unless I know the reasons that I believe something. This doesn’t seem to be a universal trait; I have many family members and friends who believe things strongly without being able to justify them with words. I simply have never been able to buy into a cause without seeking a logical reason why the cause is defensible. Perhaps the inability to submit any question of significant force in my life solely to authority is a weakness in me. And it is not that I don’t respect authority (though I have been known to have problems with authority at times and keeping my head down) and give authority proper deference, it is that when the authority has little foundation for holding a position and demanding that its adherents do the same, I am not so bound as many seem to be by the offices above me. Where reason is missing or has holes, I will seek other answers. If none are to be found, I will submit and defer. As you may know, I have been thinking heavily about the issue of birth control in marriage and dissent from the Catholic Church. To me, the official Church teaching on birth control and its foundations being laid in Humanae Vitae strike me as missing fully forceful and convincing argument. I simply do not know if I am convinced of the natural law approach on this issue. In a way, I am scared to openly disagree on such a sensitive issue, not because of the allegiance I think I owe the authority of the Church (I think we have a moral duty to disagree with authority where it is not applicable to experience), but rather because I am not sure I am right about how far one can disagree on this issue and I would not want to teach contrary to God’s Will…
But I do think I can voice my thoughts of skepticism, where they stem from, and why I have trouble accepting what the official Church teaching holds. Charles Curran is known for dissenting on this issue, and he sums things up well here, but I have a few more points to add or develop.
First, I want it to be clear: “It is totally irresponsible to view human sexuality merely as a source of pleasure” (Props to Father Beaver). The Church says (per Vatican II), and I agree, that the primary purpose for sex is dual: for the furtherance of love between couples, and the creation of human beings. Pleasure may be incidental to these ends, but it is not the primary purpose of sex, nor should it be placed in front of either of the other two. Doing so has had incredibly destructive social consequence, from single parenthood to prostitution to widespread abortion on demand to untold personal psychological devastation, and on and on. This being said, I do believe the dual purpose does not require both to be present at every instance of sex, for a few reasons.
There has never been a moral teaching that the Church has handed down infallibly. The Church through the Magisterium has taught few mores that it holds absolutely, since morality is not a simple equation that can be solved under all circumstances uniformly. Human experience and circumstance cannot be relegated to cut and dry moral absolutes. Killing another human being has always been the most useful example. Killing someone in revenge is wrong. But killing someone who is attempting to kill your wife is not necessarily so. This lack of absolutism in differing circumstances is one of the reasons that the Church has never infallibly taught a moral law. This includes the practice of birth control within marriage. In fact, the teaching on birth control is relatively recent, a development that took place in the latest century. Perhaps one of the reasons the teaching is not infallible is because it is recent, and it has not become an integral part of tradition within the Church – one of the requirements for infallible treatment of a belief (There are ways around that requirement being explicit, but for purposes of practicality, this could be a good reason). Does the lack of infallibility mean that the Church is wrong, simply since it has never infallibly taught birth control is wrong in marriage? No, of course not. But what is does mean is that it is not necessarily the case the disagreement on the issue puts you outside the umbrella of that which is definitively Catholic – especially in light of the natural law and administrative reasons that follow, which I believe conflict with other Church teaching, human experience, the human purpose as given by God, and even common sense.
[For practicality’s sake, from now on when I say “birth control,” I mean “birth control use within the context of marriage.” The use of such things outside of marriage, if possible to credibly dissent on at all within Catholicism, is an entirely different discussion that I am not prepared or even willing to address in this post. But yeah. “birth control” = “birth control within marriage.” To some, the issue within marriage is a commonsense answer, probably predominantly on the pro- side. But the answer isn’t so clear within Church teaching, which is why I am limiting my discussion to that topic.]
Before I go any further, I need to address practicality. Simply because a moral belief is impractical in today’s world, or extremely difficult, or anything else in practice alone, does not make it incorrect. Additionally, the widespread practice of some behaviors does not mean that the practice is morally correct or grounds enough for dissent from moral authority. In fact, it is perhaps the moral issues that we question least that need the strongest justifications for dissent on philosophical grounds, as to protect us from the comfort or justification of our sins that we may be engaging in by dissenting. For example, gluttony. America is now the fattest country on earth, and as a moral practice is concerned, overeating ourselves to the point that our metabolic processes cannot keep up is probably the most widespread sin in America. That does not mean that the sin of gluttony ceases to exist. In fact, it means that the pervading practice of overeating needs examination in our own lives to a degree higher than we give most things, so we don’t grow comfortable in our lives by justifying our behavior as “normal” or “too hard to avoid.” Birth control is the same to me. Widespread use does not give moral force in the positive…
The above discussion about absolutes segues into the main conflict of Church teaching with the birth control issue: the primacy of conscience in the human intellect. Absolutes are difficult to come by precisely because the Church holds that as human beings created by and in the image of God. Our properly-formed consciences have a wide deference of right and wrong in situations presented to us, given the variables thrown our way by the chaotic nature of the world to our circumstantially shortsighted brains. This does not mean that there is not a right or wrong answer in each situation. What it means is that if our consciences are given an honest, informed exposure to as much information as possible in a moral conundrum, the right decision will come to us naturally. (Of course, you can have an uninformed conscience on an issue you are seeking to resolve. But there are resources within the CCC and writings of all manner of Catholic theologians, clergy, and laity that can help one wade through the intricacies of almost any moral issue that could cross your path. I am speaking of a properly-informed conscience, that seeks moral direction from the Church on an issue and yet feels that the moral answer given will not suffice – not because it makes them uncomfortable or puts them in a bad position with family or friends, but because it does not seem to fully be in accord with the nature and purpose of individual human beings on earth.)
Why is our conscience given such high regard? Science cannot explain why we find good better than bad, why we prefer right to wrong, but for some reason we do. We as Catholics believe that God has given us a gift in our consciences that allows us to make decisions that are morally correct when we make them in light of God’s plan for us. The decision cannot be made simply because we disagree with the authority of the Church, but must be made honestly as an attempt to resolve a moral conflict in the manner most attenuated to God’s Will. It is almost hard to describe, because the only answer to why we prefer good to bad is “God.” However, the Church has always held that there exists a primacy of conscience in morality, which cannot be replaced by simple obedience when a serious issue arises that a person has fully theologically explored. The Church has held this principle to be the most important factor in decision-making, even since it was developed by Thomas Aquinas. And yet the idea conflicts with the honest disagreement many Catholics have with the official teaching on birth control. So which principle is more important? Is it up to us to decide? To me, informed conscience is the most important line we have to God (but of course, not everyone agrees). Accordingly, I believe that honest and informed rejection of the teaching on birth control is acceptable dissent within the Catholic Church…
The natural law is not, and has never been to me as straightforward as St. Thomas Aquinas and the Vatican [officially] maintain it is when it comes to a few biological questions, birth control in particular. Or perhaps the natural law doesn’t necessarily coincide with banning contraception. The Church has always been a lighthouse shining when it can and when other, more dangerous heresies are not menacing the world, to rid the world of the darkness of materialism. (I say more dangerous heresies than the outright lie of materialism, because it is those heresies that are almost true that pose more threat to the world than those that are fully false, like materialism. As Father Beaver always said, a half-lie is more dangerous than a lie, because like half a brick, it can be thrown twice as far). Materialism has always maintained that man is no more than a mere beast, one step up from an ape in intellect and therefore reducible to naught but neurons and biological function from the highest of the jungle’s fauna. This thought has been a dangerous one, and it has pervaded much atheistic and nihilistic philosophy for as long as man has been looking at the world and noticing he is similar in many respects to the animal kingdom. And of course, he is similar; our biology is a necessary definition of our being. But it is not a sufficient definition. We are more, creatures of spirit and intellect placed on earth to live in the greatest expanses of love God could muster while allowing us free will. Here it is that the Church meets materialism, and the place where my brain ceases to follow John Paul II’s most persistent crusade. The Church, in teaching that sex must be primarily biologically-oriented (that is, for the main purpose of creating children – a purpose now displaced as dual along with “for the furtherance of love” in official Church teaching after Vatican II), relegates man to a place alongside his animal brethren. The Vatican equates human sex with purely biological sex in requiring that it be open to the possibility of children in every instance. But human sex is not merely biological sex, and half of the dual purpose of sex must not be forgotten: to create and foster love. Human beings, the only phenomenal beings capable of true and selfless love, should not be required to practice love that is only biological. Yet the Church requires that they do so, else they are sinning. This materialistic requirement does not satisfy my intellect, because I cannot say that sex must take place only for biological consequence. We are called to more than average love, especially in married life. Sex can be a vehicle toward that end, and I simply do not believe that human sex is necessarily always biological sex.
The rhythm method is evidence that the Church believes the same, as is the Church-acceptable practice of sex during pregnancy or while one partner is sterile. If one may intend to have sex without pregnancy during certain times, how is it that intent in other times is intrinsically evil? The introduction of any sort of natural manipulation toward avoiding pregnancy (whether purposeful or not) seems to be a very cheap answer from the Magisterium, since the idea of intent is present in both circumstances. Birth control can hardly be said to be more artificial than some of these answers, since it is the introduction of chemicals into the body that are found there presently already. For many, the rhythm method does not even work, is stressful, and kills any hope of romance in a relationship. Spontaneity extinguished in romantic love is dangerous and can verge on making clockwork machinations of our sexual expression. It does not always foster love, but tension, between one’s biology and spirit, one’s self and extension of self in their spouse. It is not acceptable to me in the least that a practice the Church claims is for ensuring love exists through sexual expression actually does no such thing when a couple’s sex drive doesn’t fit a set of very narrow and timed parameters. Relatedly, the Church’s policy also fails to speak to human nature and diversity. Sexual need differs in different people. Sure, some people have an easy time practicing the rhythm method or abstaining for long periods of time. Perhaps they are biologically wired differently. But to condemn a large portion of the population to bitterness and resentment at their partner for never being able to be spontaneous or passionate for the biological/materialist constraints on sexuality that the Church has put on them (like the ryhthm method) is not acceptable. The policy clearly does not reside within normal human experience, and perhaps needs to be examined in light of the fact that it was made by a group of old celibate men who do not have family, spousal, or significant sexual life experience. I hate the argument “you don’t know what it is like, so you can’t say anything about it.” But in this case, perhaps the celibacy of the Vatican is a limitation that should not be overlooked so quickly as it is by the conservative laity who offer no resistance to the birth control teaching.
The elements of human nature/experience and biological vs. human sex are my main issues of contention. However, the more I have learned about how the Church came to the conclusions it did on the issue, the more I feel that the official teaching on birth control was derived from questionable foundations. Historically, the case for birth control is further muddled by the Church’s track record on the issue. In 1963, John XXIII established a council to study birth control and report their findings at Vatican II. The council was established in a very conservative fashion, and Pope John selected men who were known to agree with the previously noted position of “no” on the birth control question. Of the 15 men chosen (bishops and theologians), 9 were against any use of the contraceptive pill. Only 2 leaned toward allowing it, and only slightly so. After sessions of debate, discussion, interviews of lay families, and contemplation, 12 of the council members said the teaching could or should be changed in favor of a more lenient view toward the pill. Where previously 9 men believed birth control to be intrinsically evil, only 3 remained. By this time, Pope Paul VI had taken over. In July 29, 1968, his encyclical on the matter was published, affirming Pius XII’s conservative views on the birth control issue as evil and completely disregarding the findings of the council set up to look into the matter. The lack of unanimity on the issue speaks to me of an abuse of papal power that did not account for the experiences of the council or laity in general. For more background of the decision and how the council on birth control was essentially railroaded by the pope after Vatican II, I would recommend the book Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. The process truly is fascinating and seemed to be overruled by simpleminded and stagnant Monday-morning quarterbacking by Paul VI.
Some have said to me, “yes, but the Church has believed this since the issue was proclaimed in Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, and taught consistently so .” This is true. Officially, the Church has held its ground on this issue. Yet there are two things to note about this. The Church also held its ground for nearly two thousand years on the issue of slavery (only formally condemning it in 1965, and with a few theologians supporting it with biblical exegesis until as late as 1957) and usury. Both are supported by scripture. A ban on birth control is not. There is no biblical or revelatory reason the teaching on birth control is held by the Church the way it is. No voice in the bible lends its hand to strike down dissent on this matter, nor to ensure us that it is an issue paralleled by others tradition has decisively formed. The sole basis for its justification lies in the natural law. And I don’t find those reasons strong enough to believe it when other reasons suggest it is not even necessarily the natural law we are looking at, but the biological boundaries of humanity. Simply because the Church has held a position does not mean that it is correct – even if it was held from the time of Christ. A teaching developed in the 50s is not persuasively “tradition” as to scare off dissent. Second to the point of “time and tradition does not create certainty” is that there has been significant dissent on this issue, by the laity and clergy, and even by the bishops. Concerning the first, least important rejection – that of the laity not accepting the teaching – as I said before, widespread practice of a sin does not make it any less sinful. But there is an issue with the reception of the teaching, and the idea that if a teaching is not received by the laity in significant part, it cannot be said to have binding force on the laity. A 1980 study determined that 76% of lay Catholic women used birth control (you can be certain the number is much higher now). Teaching is not a one-sided activity. For a teaching to exist, there needs to be a learner. When a teaching is not received (especially if it is supposed to be based on the light of reason founded in the natural law), there is a failure by the teachers to either be teaching what is correct, or present the material correctly. What about priests who dissent? Only 29% of the clergy believed in 1980 that use of contraceptives within marriage is immoral, according to the results of the same study. The Jesuits developed a method of informing Catholics in the confessional of their moral options that applies around birth control called Probabilism (click it for more info, since it is a bit of a tangent), which is now the accepted form of moral exploration the clergy are advised to give laity. According to Probabilism, birth control is an acceptable position for Catholics to hold. There is not even a consensus among bishops worldwide on the issue of birth control. Over 600 U.S. theologians and 20 European theologians signed dissenting statements. 60% of priests in the U.S. do not believe use of contraception within marriage is wrong (Only 13% refused to absolve presently-practicing Catholics). 87% of all American Catholics favored use of birth control within marriage. 26 countries’ councils of bishops wrote either dissenting or hesitant statements on the teaching (in numbers of bishops, this represents only 17% affirming the teaching)…
To me, this sounds like a teaching not received, and one that needs much more justification before being accepted as the necessary answer. I either need a much better explanation than I have been given on the issue, or else my dissent will remain. I simply cannot give the current explanation much credence. I still have yet to read John Paul’s Love and Responsibility, and when I do, my views may change. But that is not certain, since my research on this issue has been extensive and I still cannot slake my conscience’s moral thirst by using the Official Church Teaching.
Thanks for reading.