Thursday, September 25, 2008
THE BIRTH CONTROL COMMISSION
TURNING POINT by Robert McClory - chapter 12
This chapter concerns the second of the final three meetings held in 1966.
The last two weeks of May and the first week of June 1966 may have been the most productive--and the most tense--during the entire history of the Commission. It was during this time that the three most important papers were written and a final position began to jell....(p. 109)
Dr. John Marshall, an original Commission member who had served on its steering committee for more than two years, was told by de Reidmatten that he need not return for the final session....Marshall was one of those who had begun convinced the old doctrine was irreformable, but, he openly admitted to his colleagues, the testimony and evidence of the meetings persuaded him the doctrine could be reformed and should be reformed. Also, an official of the Holy Office, not a Commission member, was assigned by Cardinal Ottaviani to sit in at all meetings of the theologians and take notes--a practice that some found a bit threatening.
The three papers consisted of the Minority Report, the Majority Rebuttal, and the Majority Report. The Minority Report was authored primarily by John Ford which "reviewed the Church's position on birth control over the centuries, citing authorities from St. Augustine to Pope John XXIII". He then asked:
"Why cannot the Church change her answer to this central question? The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true....It is true because the Catholic Church, instituited by Christ to show men a secure way to eternal life, could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of history....The Church could not have erred...even through one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose those burdens....If the Church could err in such a way...the faithful could not put their trust in the magisterium's presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters."(pp 110-111)
Ford's offensive was not based essentially on proof from the natural law because, he admitted, such proofs do not exist. "If we could bring forward arguments which are clear and cogent based on reason alone, it would not be necessary for our Commission to exist, nor would the present state of affairs exist in the Church," he wrote.
This would appear to be the sum and substance of the opposition to barrier methods of birth control, though at the time it was made the pill was also under consideration. The sole argument for a refusal to change is that the Church cannot change.
Yet today, after 40 years of Vatican II implementation, could anyone make such a claim? The Church has changed in countless ways over the last 40 years. Those of us who were cradle Catholics prior to Vatican II struggle to still recognize the Church to which we pledged our allegiance all those years ago. Clearly the Church can and has changed.
Today the argument against birth control most often cited is that same natural law that the major opponent on the Birth Control Commission in 1960 claimed could not be substantiated. Is this rational in the face of all of the compelling reasons presented by the Birth Control Commission for a need to change? In the face of medical advances that can cure or control cancer, but which can sometimes seriously damage a fetus? Can this be rational in the face of modern medicine's alteration of nature in countless ways that have the blessing of the Church?
The Majority Rebuttal addressed
...a kind of creeping infallibility [that] had tended to blur the distinction between teachings and give almost every statement an absolute authority. They categorically denied that Casti Connubii represented infallible doctrine since the argument from reason given in the eycyclical is "vague and imprecise," and the unbroken tradition to which the Pope referred neither goes back to the apostles nor is it an expression of universal faith....
An unconditional respect for nature as if it were the voice of God fails to understand the call to take command of nature and shape it to human purposes, said the document: "The order of creation does not require that all things be left untouchable just as they are, but that they reach the ends to which they have been ordered....Churchmen have been slower than the rest of the world in clearly seeing this as man's vocation."...
Rhythm was called "deficient" because "only 60 percent of women have a regular [menstrual] cycle." The document flatly denied that approval of contraception would foster indulgent attitudes toward abortion since abortion deals with life already in existence. It was less specific about the other potential sexual deviations cited by Ford. (p. 112)
Birth Control was not approved. Today what we see is that the dire predictions attributed to approval have come to pass in any case. Could it be that these consequences are not the result of approval of contraception by the Church (which, of course, did not take place) but rather the result of reducing every discussion about sex to the mechanics of avoiding pregnancy while the possibly even more important discussion of the nature of the sexual bond has been ignored? Did lay Catholics, in finding that in the majority of situations they could not escape the necessity to control the number of births, find themselves, in reaction to the Church-imposed guilty conscience, willing to reject everything else the Church taught about sex as equally irrelevant? Did this guilt that could not be avoided or addressed undermine the marriage bond to such an extent that today Catholics divorce at the same rate as non-Catholics? And did the laity, who were told at Vatican II that they are church, inadvertently sanction by their presence the rest of the world in acceptance of birth control in all of its forms including those that are abortifacient? The Church, after all, was a major influence in Western civ. 40 years ago.
My thoughts refer again to that discussion between St. Peter and St. Paul about the need for circumcision. If an impossible demand is imposed, and the official pronouncements of the organization render the majority of its members anathema because they cannot find a way to comply, is it likely that the organization will endure? I would submit that it is only by grace that we have endured, and that the sexual abuse scandal and coverup is a direct result of reaction to Humane Vitae. It would seem that the same effort to defend the Church against error was active in both the argument against birth control and the argument for cover-up of the scandal.
The Majority Report was titled "Responsible Parenthood". It was, according to McClory
...far less polemical than either of the working papers. Since it was intended to convince the Pope, a serious effort was made to show how a change in Church teaching can be reconciled with tradition, especially with Casti Connubii: "The tradition of the Church...developed in the argument with heretics such as the Gnostics, Manicheans and later the Cathari, all of whom condemned procreation...as something evil....Consequently, this tradition...intended to protect two fundamental values: the good of procreation and the rectitude of marital intercourse...It is not surprising that in the course of centuries this tradition was always interpreted in expressions and formulas proper to the times....Nor was there maintained always a right equilibrium of all the elements....But what is of real importance is that the same values were again and again reaffirmed."(p. 113)
...the document took special care to add among the "facts" the contribution of the Crowleys and other laypeople. "Then must be considered the sense of the faithful: according to it, condemnation of a couple to a long and often heroic abstinence as a means to regulate conception, cannot be founded on the truth."
Far from suggesting that these changed conditions open the door to sexual irresponsibility, "Responsible Parenthood" took great pains to insist that sexual activity makes sense only within the context of a chaste, permanent relationship of man and wife who are open to new life, but that does not mean that every conjugal act must be so open "The morality of sexual acts between married people takes its meaning first of all...from the ordering of their actions in a fruitful married life, that is one which is practiced with responsible, generous and prudent parenthood. It does not then depend upon the direct fecundity of each and every particular act....For a conscience correctly formed, a willingness to raise a family with full acceptance of the various human and Christian responsibilities is altogether distinguished from a mentality and way of married life which in its totality is egoistically and fraternally opposed to fruitfulness." It is this latter, "contraceptive" mentality which the centuries-old tradition, most emphatically in Casti Connubi, intended to condemn, said the authors. (pp 113-114)
...no one seems to remember if a vote by all Commission members present occurred before the report was given to the cardinals and bishops in the final week. Several published reports state such a vote of the assembly was taken and the result was 52-4 in favor of the [Majority] report. All other papers produced during the course of the Commission meetings, including Ford's Minority Report and the Majority Rebuttal were viewed as working documents...(pp 114-115)
In the commission discussion that followed the issue of the three reports de Riedmatten polled the body on the question, "Is the Church in a state of doubt concerning the received teaching on the intrinsic malice of contraception?" The response was thirty-five yes and five no--to which Dr. Andre Hellegers commented, "The debates have convinced me more of the intrinsic danger in irreformable statements than in the intrinsic evil of contraception." (p. 115)
In a pastoral letter published in the Catholic Herald, Cardinal John Heenan of London
...tried to prepare his people for what might come. Notions of right and wrong continually change, he wrote, noting that at the beginning of the century English law approved the death penalty for adults convicted of forgery and for children caught stealing--crimes no one today would consider deserving of capital punishment.(p. 115)
As I recall the climate in the Church just after H.V. was promulgated, no one I knew thought the Pope could be serious in a condemnation of contraception. It was largely ignored. Perhaps this background information about the surveys taken and the results along with the general attitude of the members of the commission gives us insight into why.
I still remember the pope poster showing Pope Paul VI posed in the Uncle-Sam-pointing-finger posture and the tag line, "The pill is a no-no". The poster was thought to be humorous.