Open letter to the U.S. bishops: Let's not be a laughingstock, OK?

by Robert Blair Kaiser

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Catholic Girl Scouts with Troop 508 sell Girl Scout cookies in late February at a shopping plaza in Great Neck, N.Y. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)


Back in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas warned his fellow scholars about taking positions that brought ridicule upon the church. "Ne fides rideatur," he said. Literally, "Don't let the faith be laughed at."

Last week, we learned the U.S. bishops were launching an investigation into the supposedly subversive activities of our Catholic Girl Scouts. According to The Associated Press, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Ft. Wayne-South Bend, Ind., and his fellows on the bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth will be looking into the Scouts' "possible problematic relationships" with groups like Doctors Without Borders, the Sierra Club, and Oxfam International "because they support family planning."

Only a few weeks ago, we were laughing over the news that our bishops are investigating the doctrinal purity of our religious sisters, the most admired Catholics in the land. Who of us is not hooting this week over something even sillier, this latest attempt by our bishops to swoop down, Taliban-like, on our Girl Scouts?

What, pray tell, is wrong with family planning? Rhoades would have us believe it's against Catholic teaching. He is referring, no doubt, to the so-called papal ban on birth control promulgated in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," which took the position that every marital act had to be "open to the transmission of life." The pope's courtiers said that meant couples were guilty of grave sin if, while making love, they used any artificial means of birth control, like condoms, IUDs or the pill.

Since then, Catholic couples have vetoed the pope by simply exercising responsible parenthood in good conscience. They do so emboldened by their own common sense; an open worldwide debate on birth control during the 1960s; and a leaked report from Pope Paul VI's own Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth, which advised the pope to reverse the teaching of his predecessor, Pius XI, which stated that Catholics who practiced any form of birth control, including rhythm, would go to hell.

Paul VI did not follow the advice of his own commission, not so much because he disagreed with its reasoning, arrived at after three years of serious debate, but because his ultra-conservative advisers in the Roman Curia couldn't figure out what he was supposed to do with all those souls he and his predecessors, Pius XI and Pius XII, had condemned to hell. I paraphrase the pope's actual words: If he dared change the not-so-ancient (1931) teaching, he would lose his moral authority. The ironic outcome: He didn't change the teaching and lost his moral authority. Most of the Catholic world ignored his thoughts on marital morality that were so antithetical to the thoughts of his own commission. Almost half of the Catholic bishops in the world issued statements that nuanced "Humanae Vitae" into nothing. In the next 10 years of his reign, the pope never wrote another encyclical.

In effect, the papal teaching on birth control was not, as the theologians were saying, "received." Therefore, it is not a teaching at all. In my exhaustive history of the papal birth control commission and its aftermath, I cite a learned paper, "The Doctrine of Reception" by James Coriden, a former president of the Canon Law Society of America, which lays the rationale for that position. In that paper, he gives a pretty good account of Catholic history, where the common sense of the people (the sensus fidelium) often overrode papal nonsense.

What appalls me most about Rhoades is he seems ignorant of the relatively recent history of Vatican II, when the papal birth control commission had its meetings. I suspect that what he knows of the council, which began when he was 5 years old, is what Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI wanted him to know of it, which is to say, not much.

The best thing about Vatican II: It reversed centuries of Catholicism's standoffishness toward "the world." I will never forget one day during the council's fourth session, when members of the press were given a draft of the council's crowning document on the church and the world. The world was a good place, it said, because it was redeemed by Christ, and where it wasn't so good, it was our job as followers of Christ to help make it better. I was covering the council for Time magazine, and at a session of the American Bishops' Press Panel later that day, I remember trying to understand the implications of this "new stance toward the world." I asked the panel of theologians, "Does this mean that Catholics can, for example, start working together with all kinds of organizations (not necessarily Catholic), like Planned Parenthood, for instance?"

I will never forget my sense of euphoria when almost everyone in the room applauded the reply of Francis Connell, a moral theologian from the then quite rigid Redemptorist Order. He said he didn't see why not.

I think it is important that we, the people of God, including our bishops, study up on Vatican II, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Folks were not laughing at us then.

[Robert Blair Kaiser has just republished his history of the papal birth commission and its aftermath, The Politics of Sex and Religion, as an ebook. It is available for free.]

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