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.

Quinn's call for an honest confrontation of the world's demographic situation was echoed by several speakers from different sectors of the globe. Bishop Patrick Iteka of Tanzania said that while Africans have traditionally regarded large families as a blessing, the socioeconomic situation had turned parenthood today into a burden. Hence, if the quality of life was to be improved, families would have to be planned. Bishop Sudartanto Hadisumatra of Indonesia said the Church should be offering practical help not only on how to reduce the number of births but on how to bring out the full meaning of human fertility before discussing the theological aspects of birth control.

Archbishop Angelo Fernandes of New Delhi made a strong plea for the millions of families who, because of destitution and ignorance, have no hope of achieving the dignity of a true marriage and whose ability to exercise responsible parenthood is nil. He asked the synod for a pastoral statement concerning contraception that would keep in mind the plight of his people.

The question posed earlier by Bishop Alberto Tobar of Quito, Ecuador, was how could such marginal families, in their ignorance, economic misery, and irregular marital unions, be expected to form the "domestic Church" being exalted by so many speakers? While living totally outside the sacramental life for lack of priests, how could they be "instruments of evangelization" in keeping with papal ideals? Most priests and bishops involved with these areas had simply turned their backs on this impossible situation.

It was the bishop of Beauvais, Jacques Jullien, speaking for the French hierarchy , who attempted to bring a truly theological element into the debate. He said that as the essentials of life and love are of the heart and spirit, the quality of a couple's Christian commitment could not be gauged in terms of their contraceptive means. After consultation with some 60,000 French Catholics, he said, the episcopal conference was convinced that "techniques of [ovulation] observation" were not practical for large sections of the faithful. These families must be aided by the synod so that they could live without constant anxiety occasioned by the rigidity of Church teaching.

The cardinal of England, George Basil Hume, tall, affable, a former Benedictine abbot and a sports addict, said that in the synodal working paper, stress was laid on the "prophetic mission" of the family based on the experience of husband and wife in their understanding of marriage. The cardinal suggested that the mind of the faithful, as expressed in many pastoral consultations around the world, must be considered as a fons theologica , or "source of doctrinal awareness," to which the Church's pastors had to pay attention. Then, confronting the problem of contraception directly, he said the well-being of the Church was suffering from the controversy over birth control. While some couples discovered new richness in their married life through the teaching of Humanae Vitae , others simply could not accept the prohibition of artificial methods and found so-called natural means intolerable. Nor could it be said that these people had failed to overcome their human frailty and sinfulness. The problem was more complex.

Support for the Vatican position came from some unexpected quarters. A number of Third World prelates shared the view of Bishop Dennis de Jong of Zambia, who blamed the difficulties affecting marriage and family morality on the social and economic injustice induced by both capitalist and communist systems. These evil policies resulted in enormously widespread starvation, infant mortality, the separation of workers from their families, and the degraded living and working conditions of a third of mankind. Such factors, he said, were worsened by the campaigns of governments and voluntary institutions in industrialized nations that made birth control programs a necessary condition of economic aid.

His accusation was echoed by Bishop FranqoisWolff Ligondé of Haiti and, surprisingly, by Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro of Pakistan and the tall, stately Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts of Lima. The latter challenged the data of the Club of Rome on population statistics and the more recent Brandt report on population overage. He complained of organizations and governments that, under pressure from such sources as U.S. AID and International Planned Parenthood, were forcing people to restrict the number of their children drastically, threatening or imposing abortion or sterilization on uncooperative citizens. Despite numerous disclaimers by U.S. AID authorities, this accusation was a theme in many speeches. Deploring the anguish of heart and conscience such violations of human rights induced, these same Church officials seemed unconscious of the anxiety and deprivation through which they put their faithful by the intransigence of their anti-contraceptive position.

To the consternation of many observers, several Indian bishops, including Henry D'Souza, president of the Conference of Indian Bishops, praised the generosity of parents who brought large families into the world as if they did not have evidence, on every street corner of their large cities, of people dying of starvation. Critics likewise looked with cynicism on the Vatican's lauding of the success of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, one of the official synodal observers, in spreading natural family planning methods among the poor and abject. While she is doubtless one of the world's most dedicated apostles to the destitute, her experience, though an inspiration, can hardly be used as proof that natural family planning is the answer to the world's demographic ills.

In a speech as frank and unexpected as that of the American Archbishop Quinn, Derek Worlock, the usually reserved archbishop of Liverpool, startled the assembly on the topic of the Church's dealings with the divorced and remarried. Commenting on the desire of men and women for a more satisfying fulfillment within their conjugal relationships, on the availability of means to control marital fertility, and on the new role of women, Worlock said that it was all too easy to dismiss these factors as materialism and hedonism. Despite the best efforts of the faithful and their pastors, he said, some marriages fail and the family unity is destroyed. For these victims of misfortune, and not necessarily of personal sin, the Church must have a healing ministry of consolation. Then getting down to the heart of the matter, he described the suffering of literally millions of Catholics who are living in a second, stabilized Christian marriage and feel an agonizing need for the sacraments. "Is their spirit of repentance and desire for sacramental strength to be forever frustrated?" he asked. "Can they only be told they must reject their new responsibilities as a necessary condition of restoration to sacramental life?"

To these pleas, the curial bloc, led by the Church's chief legist, the rotund Cardinal Pericle Felici of the Segnatura (the equivalent of the Church's supreme court), turned a deaf ear, with the observation that the law and not compassion was the criterion of the Church's moral code. Dermot Ryan, archbishop of Dublin, said in echo: "In expressing sympathy with those who experience difficulty in their married life, the synod cannot substitute compassion for moral principles." It was a most unfortunate observation coming from a biblical scholar acquainted with Christ's dealing with the adultress and other sinners throughout the New Testament.

Fortunately, truly Christian sentiments were upheld by the master general of the Dominican Order, Most Rev. Vincent de Couesnongle, who reminded the gathering that "too many Catholics believe they are condemned by the Church because it is difficult for them to follow the teachings about sexuality." God's design is a design of love, he insisted. "This is the fundamental law of the gospel. We must return to it without fail in all things. For it is on love that we will be judged."

For the Rome-trained prelates and theologians, arguments pointing to the disregard of the Church's teaching in matters of birth control and of the divorced and remarried by literally millions of churchgoing Catholics had no significance. Statistics, they said, do not make morality.

There was a sophism involved here. From the start, the Church had observed the principle of Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus : "What is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all." While great developments in doctrine had occurred through the ages, this rule remained an essential factor in the living out of the gospel under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It was precisely at this point that the conciliar and the Roman curial theologies clashed. In opposing the notion of collegial rule of the Church by the bishops with and under the Pope, Vatican officials claimed it was the magisterium that determined authentic doctrine. Conciliar theologians insisted that the Church's faith was preserved equally in the belief of the faithful. Hence they felt that, in structuring the results of the synod along curial lines, the Holy See was being unfaithful to a primary rule of faith.

One topic—the only realistic solution to the Church's dilemma in regard to illicit second marriages—was not openly discussed. It was the fact that, by the thousands, priests in the confessional were helping people to arrive in their consciences at solutions to their irregular marital states by decisions based on their sincere conviction of the invalidity of their first marriages. This strategem, known surreptitiously in the ancien Holy Office as "the Häring solution" (from the Redemptorist Rev. Bernard Häring, who became its champion over a decade ago), is a matter of tremendous annoyance to the Congregations for Doctrine and the Sacraments, for it is a revolutionary approach to the problems of the divorced and remarried. What Rome continues to demand in this matter is that each broken marital situation be examined by an ecclesiastical tribunal for judgment regarding the marriage's validity. This is an obvious impossibility in view of the multitude of cases, their costs, the intricacies of the legal requirements, and the comparatively small number of such Church tribunals.

Following achievement by Vatican Council II of the description of marriage as a permanent covenant of love resulting in an intimate union of persons and their actions, many pastors and theologians have concluded that where love never really existed, or actually died, the marriage covenant ceased to exist. This is particularly the case in a marriage where implacable hatred has replaced love, thus destroying both the couple and their children—not a rare phenomenon.

Roman legalism rejects this notion. Instead, Church courts hand down declarations of nullity, asserting that, for legal or psychological reasons, no marriage ever existed, despite the length of time a couple has spent together or the number of children they may have produced. In the eyes of many, this mechanism is a grave insult to the couple, reducing the idea of Christian marriage to a travesty. Today's moral theologian prefers an existential approach to the dissolution of irrevocably broken marriages. He applies the formula "Until death do us part" to the love covenant in the same manner as it is applied to physical dissolution.

Likewise of considerable concern to a large number of prelates was Roman teaching regarding "mixed" marriages between Catholics and partners of other religions or of none. The reserved, stoical cardinal of the Netherlands, Jan Willebrands, former prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, suggested that in view of the progress made in mutual appreciation of each other's theological traditions, among Christians at least, the old stringent rules of Catholic predominance should be greatly modified. He felt that couples who were striving to achieve a truly Christian family life should be encouraged to participate in each other's liturgical and sacramental lives.

His plea was repeated widely, particularly by Bishop John Gran of Oslo and Bishop Paul Yasuda of Osaka. Both these prelates, with their microscopic groups of Catholics in vast Protestant and pagan areas, asked for a more benevolent attitude on Rome's part. By allowing the local bishops to set their own rules for such marriages, the Church would become more acceptable and would allow the Catholic party to give authentic witness to the reality of his or her faith.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.


Is Minneapolis the Best City in America?

No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In