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.

What struck the observers watching these churchmen assemble in the Vatican each day was the truly international character of the gathering. In the biblical perspective, they were "devout men from every nation under the sun." And, like the Apostles gathered in Jerusalem for what is considered the first Church council, in 51 A.D., they represented widely differing viewpoints. This fact became immediately evident as speaker after speaker addressed the gathering in eight-minute interventions, giving witness to the particular needs or customs of his people.

As the synodal debate progressed, a considerable proportion of African prelates played an important part, putting the Church's true catholicity to the test. Many African bishops demanded a thorough revision of the Christian marriage rite, in keeping with that continent's tribal customs. Grave damage had been done to the African Church by the original missionaries, who, lacking any sense of the cultural and anthropological situations with which they were dealing, ruthlessly condemned pagan customs as idolatry. Nevertheless, Christianity took hold in most of these lands; Africa now has ten black cardinals and the vast majority of its bishops are natives.

The first black cardinal, Laurian Rugambwa of Tanzania, said that churches in Africa felt they had the right to ensure that marriage and family life within their regions were authentically Christian and authentically African. In finding solutions on the pastoral level to problems arising from the clash of Christianity and African cultures, the bishops' conference should supply guidelines. The difficulties to be encountered in such adaptations came to the fore as cardinals and bishops from the emerging nations spoke out frankly.

Archbishop Gabriel Wako of Khartoum maintained that the Church's current marital rite is extraneous to people's lives. Instead of being encased in tribal customs and family traditions, the ritual is centered on the priest, even though Catholic doctrine teaches that the couple administer the sacrament to each other. Under the present law, he pointed out, distances and shortages of priests have reduced the number of recorded, canonical marriages in most Sudanese dioceses to one or two a year, an obviously ridiculous situation. In reorganizing the rite, the roles of the community, the extended family, and the elders must receive greater emphasis.

Bishop Andre Kaseba of Zaire described the process of tribal marriage, a ritual first celebrated in the residence of the parents of the chosen woman, then at the homes of her maternal uncles, then in the family of the young man, thus gradually introducing the couple to a mature realization of what is being achieved. This process makes for a dynamic marital experience and renders such notions as prenuptial and trial marriages impertinent. A truly pastoral adaptation would include the presence of the Church at each stage of this process.

The courage of these African prelates in discussing their difficulties has to be seen against the background of Pope Paul VI's call for the Africanization of their churches in his visit to Kampala in 1969, and of Pope John Paul's visit to Central Africa last May, when he insisted on the sanctity of the monogamous marriage, based, in the European fashion, on romantic love and the nuclear family. John Paul had likewise stressed the ideal of priestly celibacy as a model for the fidelity to their calling that should motivate a married couple. The Africans were knowingly defying the papal viewpoint.

While it was recognized that polygamy is a dying institution owing to economic and social pressures, conscientious pastors felt that the polygamous family should be welcomed into the sacramental life of the Church on the principle of gradualism. They should be thought of as occupying an intermediate state between the ancient Hebraic patriarchal family of Abraham and the new law of Christ, but in need of the grace of the sacraments. In particular, the demand of Rome that the polygamous man give up all his wives but one involved injustice to all concerned.

Once again, suggestions for a revision of the Church's family teaching were held in check by Cardinal Felici's final, long, and intricate plea for the predominance of law in all the Church's conjugal considerations. Citing the enormous increase in annulment cases being handled by ecclesiastical tribunals around the world (he quoted a 5000 percent increase, which comes nowhere near the reality), he said he was concerned less with the numbers than with the levity with which many of these tribunals were dealing with such sacred matters. Insisting that, for the good of society, the Church adhere to the favor juris (the presumption that the validity of a disputed marriage enjoys the favor of the law until proven otherwise), he urged the jurists to expedite cases but to follow canonical procedures faithfully. When questioned about the impending publication of the new marriage legislation in the revised Code of Canon Law, he said that the text was in the hands of the bishops, and a final decision on its promulgation was up to the Holy Father. It was on that note that the finale of the two-week discussion was reached.

The synod dispersed into various language groups—three English, three Spanish, two French, one German, one Italian, and one Latin, indicating the Church's geophonic extension. In these small meetings, vigorous attempts were made to argue out the problems presented during the first two weeks. Nevertheless, the pall of Humanae Vitae hung over each of these assemblies. They found themselves forced to proclaim a loyal adherence to its teaching as a "prophetic document." While reluctant prelates were allowed to opt for an aprofondimento , or "deepening of the doctrine," it became quite clear that this consideration in no way included a revision of the teaching.

It was the Latin-language circle, composed mainly of curial cardinals (Seper, Oddi, Felici, Palazzini, and several prelates from behind the Iron Curtain), that betrayed the convolutions of the curial mind and presumably Pope John Paul's own thinking. Beginning with a statement that the "doctrinal method should prevail," Cardinal Palazzini, as spokesman, derided the idea that pastoral practices could be justified if they were not in keeping with the authentic doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. As marriage was a sacrament instituted directly by Christ, he said, it was an irreversible covenant created by the mutual consent of the contracting parties.

He made the astounding statement that although Vatican Council II had not used the term "principal and secondary ends" of marriage, that term had been implicitly retained in its teaching. As a consequence, traditional Church doctrine that procreation is the primary end of marriage had to be upheld in keeping with the constant mind of the magisterium.

Considering the conciliar battle to eliminate this clause from the Church's definition of marriage, which had been fought during the fourth session of the council and had involved Pope Paul personally, Palazzini's statement was a bold-faced prevarication and a warning of the course of things to come. The council's determination to do away with the idea of procreation as the primary purpose of matrimony had been aimed at restoring the early Church's sacramental conception of marriage as a bond of love, a fact even Palazzini could not ignore as he deplored the placing of love in the marriage covenant on the same level as consent. The latter, looked upon as an indissoluble contract, was the principal concern of the jurists. Palazzini condemned any deviation from the tenets of Humanae Vitae with the apodictic observation that sexuality has as its goal the transmission of life. The duty of pastors and theologians, he concluded, was not to correct or diminish divine law, of which the cardinal and his colleagues in the Vatican were the custodians, but with maximum charity to help the faithful to observe it.

At the close of the language-group meetings some twenty prelates delivered speeches, most of them cut to the curial cloth. Shockingly, three interventions were eliminated from the official transcript.

Archbishop Dennis Hurley, an exceptionally well trained scholastic theologian from Durban, South Africa, spoke challengingly on contraception: "Certain fathers represent countries where there is a problem, the problem of making the teaching against contraception convincing, especially in circumstances of real hardship. Couples who have done their duty to God, to one another, and to life find it extremely difficult to accept that if they yield to anxiety and make use of artificial means of birth control, they are guilty of an objectively grave sin.

"It is not easy to explain to them that the act of artificially limiting the exercise of one faculty of life is intrinsically evil, while the act of exterminating life itself is not. For in certain circumstances, a person may kill, as in self-defense or in a so-called just war."

His remarks never appeared in the press synopsis of the meeting. In the minds of the Roman authorities, the analogy Archbishop Hurley chose was the great offender. He touched exactly the weak point in the papal teaching on birth control. Not only is the ban on contraceptives biologically questionable, but the Church's tolerance of killing a human being in a war or police action ultimately calls into question the logic of its intolerance of abortion.

Concluding this phase of the synod, Cardinal Ratzinger blandly essayed a summary of the principal points of the debate, indicating that a significant consensus had been achieved on all the major issues. This was hardly in keeping with the facts.

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