Saturday, September 13, 2008


TURNING POINT by Robert McClory - Chapter 3

This chapter examines the position of 20th century theologians on the subject. It reveals that the Jesuit moralist we met in Chapter 2, Arthur Vermeersch, who took a hard line on encouraging the priests to probe married couples for infraction of the rules, was the author of Casti Connubii promulgated by Pius XI four months after the Anglican Church voted at the 1930 Lambeth Conference to approve contraception. The encyclical was a response to Lambeth.

We are also told in this chapter that Dietrich von Hildebrand was instrumental in promoting the idea that sexual experiences within marriage "display a depth and gravity which remove them altogether from the province of other bodily experiences":

It is precisely through these experiences, he said, that humans can rise to a realm that is psychological and even spiritual. The marital act has not only a function of generation of children; it also possesses a significance for human beings as such--namely, to be "the expression and fulfillment of wedded love and community life." To overlook the union between physical sex and love or its significance and to recognize only the purely unitarian bond between sex and the propagation of the race is to "degrade man and to be blind to the meaning of this mysterious domain." (p. 20)

German theologian Herbert Doms expanded these insights:

...marital intercourse, was a means of achieving holiness. Doms claimed the marital union is not simply or even mainly a physical union; it is rather a union that is metaphysical because it leaves a permanent imprint on the personalities of husband and wife. (p. 20)

Dom claimed that marital intercourse is not sin. It almost seems amusing that such would have to be stated given that the marital act is a component of the sacrament of marriage, but this development in theological thinking would appear to be quite recent and contrary to the theology of St. Augustine.

Vermeersch believed

...rhythm would certainly spawn a contraceptive mentality among Catholics, leading ultimately to "the heresy of the empty crib." (p. 23)

Jesuit moralist Gerald Kelly claimed

"Only exceptional couples can take up the practice of the 'rhythm-theory' without exposing their married lives to grave dangers; and even those couples usually need the special grace of God." (p. 23)

Today, of course, NFP is taught to couples as they prepare for marriage, and it is taken for granted that they will use it, whether they are "exceptional" or not.

In 1952 the pill arrived on the scene, and disrupted all of the theological speculation.

One reason for its popularity, at least among Catholics, was a growing disillusion with rhythm. It did not work nearly as well in practice as in theory. Lighthearted references to "rhythm babies" were not so funny to couples who found another pregnancy a severe hardship. (p. 25-26)

...[Belgium] theologian Louis Janssens, a veteran commentator on marital morality, declared he could find no essential difference between the use of the pill and the practice of rhythm. In rhythm, he noted, the couple intends to suppress reproduction and does so by carefully calculating the time of ovulation and the time required for the disintegration of the ovum. "All these calculations show quite well that a temporal obstacle is intentionally being placed in the way of the ovum's performing its reproductive function (just as the use of mechanical methods or of coitus interrupts places a spatial obstacle for the same purpose.) (p. 26)

Then a bishop broke ranks on television:

William Bekkers, bishop of 's-Hertogenbosch, Holland, spoke on national television and said the Church does not have answers on these complicated issues and should stop pretending it does; in the meanwhile, couples must rely on their faith and common sense....the married couple--and they alone--can answer the question of what God requires of them concretely in their vocation. They must decide how large their family should be and how their children should be spaced...This is a matter for their own consciences with which nobody should interfere...The Church does not judge situations from a prejudiced, aloof point of view...It knows that what may be attainable for one person is not necessarily so for another. (p. 26-27)

A few thoughts...

It was not known at this time that the pill was abortifacient. Had it been known, the discussion would have changed. No one is suggesting that abortion be deemed moral.

The discussion about marital sex devolved into a discussion of methods to prevent conception. I would submit that in the process the discussion of the meaning of the marital act lost its significance, resulting in the casual sex we have today. Had birth control been accepted, the discussion started by von Hildebrand as to what the act signifies within marriage--specifically the bond that the act represents--might have continued to take place within the general Catholic population. It might have been preserved to its real purpose instead of becoming a recreational pasttime.

Once the marital act had been reduced to whether a child would be conceived or not, and its unitive bond in marriage largely ignored, the advances in birth control that were taking place at the same time opened the sexual act to recreational purposes within the general population, and undermined it's purpose of cementing the marriage commitment. Widespread Catholic divorce followed.

It is easy to see in this disagreement within the Church over BC the sowing of the seeds of dissent that advanced into other areas of theology. Once the teaching of the Church on this one subject became irrelevant to a majority of married couples in the pew, the credibility of the Church's pronouncements on other topics became irrelevant as well.

I personally believe, given the long history of non-reception in the pews of any pronouncements against means of limiting conception, that until non-abortifacient means are approved, the crisis in Catholicism will continue unabated. Advances in medical science are only going to increase the need for reliable contraception as cancer treatment and AIDS is demonstrating.

If a burden is going to be placed on married couples that they find impossible to carry, they are left with two options: 1. Leave the Church, 2. Lie about their sex life. Both of these are unacceptable to anyone who has embraced the faith wholeheartedly.

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