What About Contraception?

Over the past few weeks, many public commentators, in their zeal to make their case, have grossly mis-characterized the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding contraception, and inadvertantly, pointed to some of the basic problems facing pastors in communicating the teachings of the Church.

Last night, Sean Hannity ranted that the Obama administration was asking Catholic institutions to violate a “core tenet” of their faith. Certainly, the Church’s teaching on contraception is one of the most widely known of its teachings, but is it properly understood as a “core” teaching? We all stand and recite the Creed each Sunday, but I do not see contraception – or any other moral claim – mentioned therein. There is nothing in the Creed about sexual morality and also nothing about social justice. We skip over the life of Jesus in silence, except to note He was born and he died. The “core” teachings of the Catholic Church are doctrinal, then anthropological, and finally ethical and I encourage anyone who attends a lecture of ethics to ask the presenter to start at the beginning, and if they don’t start with the Trinity, ask them what is distinctively Catholic about their views.

Throughout the debate, we have been told that 98% of Catholic women use birth control, that Catholics in the pews do not follow the Church’s teaching, etc. Of course, we do not take polls to determine the truth of things within the Church: Unlike the Cole Porter musical, we know that fifty million Frenchmen can be wrong. We know that Nixon won. Twice. Democracy determines many things, but the truth of something is not among them. And, the fact that fifty percent or ninety-nine percent of Catholics do not follow a certain teaching is also beside the point. Just because there is a spike in the burglary rate does not mean that we legalize burglary.

Of these two mis-characterizations of the Church’s teachings, the Sean Hannity example is the more dangerous for the Church. Christianity is not a rule book but, at a time when people feel their society and their culture has lost its moorings, when the changes in attitudes towards something as basic and profound as human sexuality confuse them, it is easy to want a rulebook. Following on my post yesterday, no one can escape the necessity of cultivating and exercising their own conscience. Fundamentalists treat the Scripture as a rule book: All the answers to all of life’s questions are contained in the Bible if you know where to look. We Catholics do not view the Bible, nor the teachings of the Church, that way.

Indeed, I recall a priest once telling me, “The laws of the Church are the stars to guide you by.” That is different from a speed limit. When driving, you are either going 45 mph in a 35 mph zone, with a radar-generated photo to prove it, or you weren’t. The Church’s notion of law is more organic than that, also more didactic. Our common law tradition is not didactic in its intent or its form.

This is, I believe, especially true when it comes to the Church’s teachings on contraception – and the other hot button sexual issues. I have said before that I think Humanae Vitae reads better every year and, Lord, does that produce a host of nasty comments! But, if you reduce Humanae Vitae to the headline “Pope Bans Pill,” you have not read Humanae Vitae. You may disagree with the conclusion. I will readily submit that, in conscience, in good conscience, you may think the ban on artificial contraception is something you cannot follow and, in that case, follow your conscience!!!! Even a conscience that is objectively wrong must be followed. But, a conscience also must be informed. My worry with Humanae Vitae is that, because we reduce it to “Pope Bans Pill” and find that unreasonable, we throw the baby out with the bath water, and ignore the basic intellectual and moral reasoning that led Pope Paul VI to the conclusion that artificial birth control was illicit. Again, even if you disagree with Paul’s conclusions, you owe it to yourself to consider his arguments.

And, what is that argument? When you get past the difficult and, I believe, stilted natural law reasoning, you find a key moral insight: We humans, so capable of hubris and of that deadliest of the seven deadly sins, pride, have a moral obligation to be respectful of nature because with the best of intentions, we can convince ourselves that something is good and necessary that is, in fact, gravely harmful.

It is 2012. How many times have I heard Rachel Maddow say that when discussing contraception the past few weeks, trying to place the Catholic Church’s teachings firmly within the category “obscurantism.” But, I would submit that in 2012, when you look at all the degradation we have wrought upon our environment, do we really have to debate the validity of Pope Paul VI’s moral insight that we humans, when we ignore nature, or see it merely as something to manipulate for our own happiness, can do great evil? I am betting that if you go back and look at the newspaper clips when the nuclear reactors were built at Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, or Fukushima, most of those articles praised the new constructions as evidence of progress, of humanity harnessing the power of nature. Forget about nuclear power - Go back and read the news accounts that greeted the advent of the atomic bomb! It was a new day, a great day, alas not for the people of Hiroshima, but for us, for the United States of America. We had built this thing and it was ours and, dammit, we were mighty proud to have it and to use it. It is chilling, positively chilling, that at no point in 1945 did anyone seriously consider the possibility that we would not use it.

How often do we read that some new wonder drug has come on the market, only to read six years down the road that this FDA-approved medicine actually causes a different and far more terrible harm to those who use it? Are you not tired of those ads from trial lawyers – “if you used X drug and you were afflicted by difficulties, call Dewey, Cheatham and Howe now on our toll-free number.” But, those ads tell the tale of progress gone awry. That, in large part, was the moral concern I find in the words of Humanae Vitae. Progress can go awry. Because something can be done does not mean that it should be done. There are varieties of poverty that keep us from seeing what a great gift a child is, and the need for a convenient lifestyle in the West is just as surely a form of human poverty as is the abject lack of resources in the less developed countries of the world. This is what I take from Humanae Vitae and I think it is profoundly true. How you or I apply that truth is a different matter. But, I would love to see someone ask Mr. Hannity if his concern about the “core teaching” of the Catholic Church extends to his views on the Keystone Pipeline.

There is one other aspect of this that must be addressed and it brings us back before Humanae Vitae, all the way back to Casti Connubii, issued by Pope Pius XI on the last day of 1930. During a discussion on the HHS mandates with my good friend Sally Steenland, whose views on the HHS mandates were exactly the opposite of my own, I was asked about the Church’s teaching on contraception and I responded as I have above. But, I also pointed out that, in this area of human sexuality, the Church, condemned at the time as old-fashioned and obscurantist, had proudly stood up against eugenics at a time when the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger was championing it. Ms. Steenland said she did not see what the issue of eugenics had to do with contraception, and then we had to break for a commercial. Here, then, is the connection. In the late teens and 1920s, eugenics was specifically cited as one of the reasons for the introduction of birth control. If you go back and read the early issues of the Birth Control Review that Ms. Sanger published, the praise for eugenics is consistent and central to her reasoning. As we know, in their landmark ruling, Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld a law in Virginia granting the Commonwealth the right to sterilize a young, mentally handicapped woman against her will. All in the name of progress. This is not ancient history and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who justified the ruling with the famous words “three generations of imbeciles is enough” was one of the smartest men ever to sit on the bench.

It is not hard to see why these great champions of progress could dismiss the obscurantist writings of Pope Pius XI. The language is archaic and formal to a degree that makes it difficult to scan. But, here was what Pius wrote:

For there are some who over solicitous for the cause of eugenics, not only give salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child - which, indeed, is not contrary to right reason - but put eugenics before aims of a higher order, and by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, they wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness; and this they do not propose as an infliction of grave punishment under the authority of the state for a crime committed, not to prevent future crimes by guilty persons, but against every right and good they wish the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.

So, who got it right? Margaret Sanger and Oliver Wendell Holmes or Pope Pius XI? Holmes and Pius were dead before Josef Mengele gave eugenics a bad name. I once researched Sanger’s early life but not her later years, so I do not know if she ever responded to the moral horror perpetrated at Auschwitz by the eugenicist-murderers there.

Obviously, I am not saying that using contraception is the same thing as sterilizing someone against their will. I am saying that there is usually more to the Church’s teaching than just what you read in the headlines. I will have more on how the Church teaches tomorrow. But, it is curious to me that people denounce Humanae Vitae as breezily as people once denounced Casti Connubii. I do not see the moral dangers in the use of contraception that seem so obvious to me in eugenics, but, if very smart people did not see the danger of eugenics, or of nuclear technology, or of any other technological advance that now imperils our planet, we need to ask ourselves why we think we will be smarter now? That is why I encourage everyone to re-read Humanae Vitae, with an open mind, not because I hope to see millions of Catholics abandoning birth control, but because I think it contains great truths.


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