Birth control and church teaching

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Many commentators expressed surprise or dismay over the pope's comments on contraception a few weeks ago in the Philippines. I too worry that the contraception policy -- based on an idealistic metaphysics of self-gift and, no doubt, a centuries-old discomfort with sexual pleasure for its own sake -- causes great and unnecessary harm nowhere more than in the third world.

I am intrigued, however, by two things.

First, the pope's approach is to praise Paul VI as a "good pastor" with the "courage to defend openness to life" and with a "broader vision" of opposition to "neo-Malthusianism."

It is notable that Francis cites Paul VI but not John Paul II, whose apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio is responsible for the language of "total reciprocal self-giving" that attempts to justify the proscription of contraception on the basis of the intrinsic nature of each individual sex act. Francis paints with broader strokes, more concerned with the social justice dimension of the question than with the theology of the body.

In this he follows his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was also inclined "to look less at the casuistry of individual cases and more at the major objectives that the Church has in mind."

It is worth pointing out that the major objectives outlined above are, in fact, quite noble ones of which any Catholic can generally remain proud. (As for the spirituality of "total reciprocal self-giving," it too can be profoundly life-giving for some couples; but mandating it for those who are not in a position to prioritize it can be destructive.)

My point is that if Francis "strongly defends" the Catholic teaching on birth control, he spins it is as a contribution to culture rather than as a natural law; and this while reminding us to consider other goods besides openness to life.

The second thing that intrigues me is the possible relevance of Francis's pronouncements to the question of the development of doctrine, a "meta-issue" that has always seemed more important to me than debate over any single teaching.

Judge John T. Noonan famously explored a number of cases -- slavery, usury, religious freedom, the sacramentality of marriage -- in which church teaching has actually changed. Yet it is profoundly difficult for people with a certain ecclesiology and a certain epistemology to believe that the church, like any other human institution, can ever be wrong. "Who is competent to modify the magisterium of other popes?"

Cardinal Velasio de Paolis recently expressed his fears. "This would constitute a dangerous precedent."

Another cardinal, Lorenzo Baldisseri, argued robustly for dogmatic evolution. Of course, he clung to the safe distinction between doctrinal change and doctrinal development, yet this distinction, however tenuous, may be enough to suggest how papal magisteria can be "modified."

Francis has spoken of himself as a "son of the Church," and has said, "The object is not to change the doctrine, but it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and to ensure that the pastoral ministry takes into account the situations of each person."

Still, elucidating and contextualizing the reasonable concerns and wisdom of a prior pope's contributions to tradition -- which Francis, as a Jesuit trained to give the best possible interpretation to others' arguments (Spiritual Exercises #22), was in a perfect position to do in Manila -- may provide a hermeneutic of continuity that makes future theological development more possible in the long term.

I am not denying the pope's words should have been stronger, but perhaps they were better than nothing within the constraints of a slowly developing religious tradition. I say this, trying to be sensitive to both sides of the debate over doctrine.

On the one hand, the church's resistance to change is frustrating. What is the whole purpose of education if not to teach us that it is an inestimably powerful virtue to be able to open our minds and admit when we're wrong? On the whole, we remain at the infantile stage of being incapable of admitting we have room to grow, incapable of demonstrating a truly religious epistemic humility before the divine mystery, preferring instead to imagine that the Holy Spirit makes us magically infallible.

On the other hand, I understand the desire for stability and unquestioned truths, and how could I not? I too, in the midst of my most inspired theological deconstructions of everything I once felt so sure of, have known the torment of nights when, in Mother Teresa's haunting phrase, God no longer seems like God -- have known the stomach-sickness of mornings when, as soon as the eyes open, they open only onto the void of vanished confidence and evacuated beliefs.

The most important point, I think, for admirers of Paul VI is that for the rest of his life he was haunted by the possibility that Humanae Vitae was the biggest mistake of his life. Indeed, he never published an encyclical again. Making overly rigid pronouncements can menace our systems of meaning just as much as deconstructing them can.

Chesterton once faced his own existential crisis, when he felt that nothing could be known to be real and despaired that everything in existence is illusory. That is when, falling asleep once in a tavern, he was jolted awake and saw, across the table, "The sight of all my life most full of grace: / A gin-damned drunkard's wan half-witted face."

The face of the other reminds us that she is real and important, and must always be our guide through moral and metaphysical quandaries before we begin reaching for universal moral-theological prescriptions.

Perhaps a human appreciation of all that is good in Humanae Vitae -- alongside the necessary admission that it is incomplete, that it is one resource among many, and that it cannot be applied in every situation -- can provide a way out of our impasse, saving us from religious crisis and freeing us, spiritually, to look at the face of third world poverty with courage; to be attentive to the particularities of people's suffering; and to develop responses that are both practical and theologically informed.



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