Of Sex and the Catholic Church

When the bishops' synod on the Christian family convened in Rome last fall, there were hopes that the Church would reform its position on such crucial issues as birth control and divorce. But, despite pleas from liberal prelates around the world, the Vatican-dominated synod reaffirmed the precedence of law over compassion.

Immediate preparations for the synod of 1980 had been auspicious. Clerical conferences in most nations had entered into discussions with their priests and people to discover the mind of the faithful on the issues involved. A Roman consultation of individual bishops as well as of episcopal groups resulted in a Vatican working paper that was to be used not as an agenda but as a guideline to keep the synodal discussions within the limits of family life.

The document met with heavy criticism, most severely from Africa, where Pope John Paul had spoken frequently on the ideals of Christian marriage during his ten-day visit to Central Africa in May 1980. A pastoral consultation in the diocese of Arusha in Tanzania called the Vatican paper "flawed," saying it gave its attention exclusively to the European concept of monogamous marriage and the nuclear family. This marital structure did not represent the reality of the universal Church, particularly in Africa and in the Orient, where the extended family, with its tribal and blood relationships, still prevailed.

The laity in other sectors of the Church, in pastoral consultations, had also criticized the document. They faulted its failure to confront married love, divorce, the sexual revolution, homosexuality, and the population problem in a realistic fashion. They felt that the Roman document repeated pious platitudes about the sanctity of marriage and that, while dodging the reality of the population explosion, it insisted on the virtues of "natural methods" of family planning as a type of conjugal asceticism. What bothered many commentators was the ease with which these clerical experts, with no experience of the pains of childbirth, the incessant worries and tragedies of rearing teenagers, and the thousand and one difficulties of conjugal cohabitation, spoke so glibly of the Cross as part of a family's Christian witness.

Aware of the potential explosions they faced, the Pope and his principal advisers had no intention of allowing the synodal prelates to wander far from the strict, legalistic Roman line in regard to the areas of marital concern currently disturbing the Church. In the immediate preparations, however, Vatican authorities stressed the collegial character of the gathering. John Paul maintained that he had called the synod into being to give him authentic information on marriage and family life throughout the Church, which information he could then evaluate in keeping with his prerogatives as the Church's supreme pastor.

More than 200 bishops, cardinals, and prelates were involved in the synod, as well as twelve superior generals of male religious orders, one of whom—Father Gabriele Ferrari of the Society of St. Francis Xavier—spoke for, as he said, a million nuns who, though voiceless, form the backbone of the Church's evangelistic efforts. The Pope appointed some twenty members, including Cardinals Terence Cooke of New York and Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, and the gathering was completed by the cardinals and prelates who preside over the principal Vatican offices.

Curial strategy ensured that the forty-three observers—including five doctors and sixteen married couples, some with infants in arms—were hand-picked by a special Vatican Committee on Family Life. They gave witness to the authenticity of the so-called Billings method of natural birth control. (Many of the prelates considered this entrance of the Church's higher authority into such a delicate matter as a means of birth prevention requiring vaginal temperatures and mucus observations unworthy of the Holy See's tradition of nobility of principle.)

Meanwhile, the Pope had inaugurated a series of Wednesday talks dealing with "the nuptial meaning of the body." While he discussed the intimacies of conjugal love, nudity, and shame from a personalist viewpoint, he insisted on the teachings of Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI's disputed encyclical "On Human Life"), which condemned artificial contraceptives, as incontestably binding. But he was careful to make no direct reference to the synodal discussions. And in his frequent appearance at the general sessions of the synod, he kept his own counsel, greeting the members graciously, granting individual audiences, and inviting as many as possible to dine with him.

The Pope's opening talk on Friday, September 28, gave some hope that full freedom of discussion would prevail. For the actual inauguration of the synod, he selected as relator, or whip, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, the comparatively youthful opponent of the controversial theologian Hans Küng. Ratzinger presented a summary of the views forwarded to Rome by the conferences of bishops. Doctrinally speaking, he said, the majority of the bishops were satisfied with the Church's teaching on the family; hence the synod should speak out prophetically against the ideologies and abuses alienating men and women today. Of the topics that would certainly come to the fore, he mentioned the role of women in the Church, the institutional and public character of marriage as a Christian witness, the dangers from consumerism as well as extreme poverty, and the need for a profound restatement of the truths contained in Humanae Vitae. It was clear from the start that Cardinal Ratzinger had not touched the central concerns of his audience.

The actual discussions were begun by Archbishop Joseph Bernardin of Cincinnati, who called for a positive theology of human sexuality that would enable the Church to convince people of the validity of its tenets. Such an approach, he said, would consider the body not only in relation to the physically identifiable purposes of its parts but also as an expression of the dignity entrusted to the man and woman who were to function with the twofold purpose of dispelling each other's existential loneliness and cooperating with the Creator in the injunction to "increase and multiply." By enlarging its concept of man's sexual relationships, the Church could disabuse people of the notion that it had nothing but prohibitions to offer in the field of morality.

Others sounded similar themes. Bishop Lawrence Samanchit of Thailand pleaded with the speakers to get down to the solid facts of family life. "We are afraid," he said, "that otherwise the outcome of the synod will be a mere repetition of ideals and principles with which everyone is familiar." And the energetic Cardinal Vincente Enrique y Tarancón of Madrid, outspoken critic of the Franco regime, insisted that the complex of problems confronting the Christian family today could not be faced without a fresh output of energy and imagination. In practice, he said, this required listening to the laity who live in families. The synod must pay attention to developments in social, economic, and other aspects of modern life that have given new shape to old questions.

The assembly suddenly snapped to attention with the unexpected speech of Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A former Vatican official who had served as bishop of Oklahoma before assuming leadership of the West Coast bastion of Catholicism, Quinn addressed himself directly to the subject of contraception. Denying categorically that he was attacking the doctrine of Humanae Vitae , he nevertheless faced the fact that this teaching was contested by priests and people whose faith, practice of their religion, and good will simply could not be called into question.

He pointed out that Pope Paul's hope that "people of good will" would see the validity of his teaching had not been fulfilled: more than 70 percent of churchgoing Catholic women of childbearing age were using artificial contraceptives, and fewer than 30 percent of U.S. Catholic priests considered this practice sinful.

The archbishop drew a practical conclusion: the credibility of the magisterium, or teaching office of the Church, was challenged by an ever-widening circle of the faithful. And while the Holy See claimed to have a demographic policy regarding responsible parenthood, it was not coming to grips with the fact that 350,000 babies were being born each day while only 200,000 people were dying. Besides, by the year 2000 another billion people would be added to already severely overcrowded cities with their enormous slum areas and millions of abandoned children. Thus, increasingly, conscientious couples were becoming convinced that they had no right to beget large families, either because of their own straitened economic or psychological situations, or because of the precarious state of world population, a factor considered in the Vatican Council's constitution dealing with responsible parenthood. Nor could these people be dismissed as selfish or hedonistically oriented, as Church officials frequently labeled them.

To resolve the impasse between official teaching and widespread dissent, Quinn proposed that greater attention be paid to the Church's teaching on the transmission of life. He suggested that certain nuances and clarifications could amount to a development of the doctrine. He recalled instances of such evolution at Vatican Council II in the understanding of sacred scripture and the new attitude of the Church toward human rights. But he did not venture a guess as to where such development might lead in regard to the crucial sentence "Every conjugal act must be open to the transmission of life."

This speech electrified the synodal hall; being the first piece of truly hard news coming from that assembly, it was treated in the press as a challenge to the Church's official teaching by the American episcopate. Repudiating this interpretation in a press statement the following day, Quinn reiterated the fact that he had nevertheless offered proposals to the synod for dealing with the personal and demographic problems of the modern world, which had to be recognized if the Church was to retain its credibility.

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