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.

When he opened Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII said: "Frequently in the past the Church has condemned error with the greatest severity. Nowadays, however, the Church of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy."

In this context, the sermon with which Pope John Paul closed the bishops' synod came as a shock. For in that address, the Pontiff signaled his intention to dismiss the achievement of a majority of the Church's theologians in their attempt to update Catholic moral thinking in keeping with the prescriptions of the council. He ignored the pleas of responsible prelates for greater institutional compassion for impossible marital situations. Choosing to repeat traditional legalistic formulas, the Pontiff refused to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to participate in the Eucharist—Christianity's central sacrament—but nevertheless demanded that they live in accord with Catholic teachings.

In so doing, John Paul recreated an excruciating anxiety of conscience for millions of Catholics who, after a disastrous first marital experience, were trying to stabilize their own lives and those of their children while remaining within the Church. The issues of marital policy and the papal reaffirmation of the Church's ban on artificial contraception are not simply intramural Catholic affairs. In most developed countries, Roman Catholics constitute large and influential communities, repositories of human ethics in an increasingly inhumane world. That the Pope chose to ignore statistics pointing to a 2.6 billion population increase by the year 2000 A.D. hardly seems in keeping with the Church's claim to exercise a catholic care for all the world.

Behind the Roman intransigence is apparently a return to the concept of the Pope as an omnicompetent Christian witness that characterized the last two preconciliar pontiffs, Pius XI and Pius XII. This conviction rests on the presumption that religion is primarily a deposit of divine truth to be believed and practiced in a specifically Roman fashion, rather than an experience based on faith and the imitation of Christ as a person who called himself "The Way, the Truth, and the Life."

The cerebral concept of Catholicism—propagated increasingly since the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 and exercised in the dictates of the ancien Holy Office on every possible issue from communism to ectopic gestation and organ transplants—had prompted the condemnation of curial "triumphalism" in a highly emotional session of Vatican Council II. The result was a view of the hierarchy as a service to the people of God rather than a domination. After the council, however, this achievement was repudiated by Vatican-based prelates. Their demand that Pope Paul VI reverse many of the conciliar decisions kept that conscientious Pontiffs reign in turmoil.

In his summation of synodal accomplishments, John Paul insisted that a unanimity had been achieved in which prelates with pastoral care of married couples rejected any dichotomy between instruction and doctrine. It is not, he said, a matter of keeping the law as a mere "ideal" to be obeyed in the future. It is a question of the command of Christ that difficulties should constantly be overcome: the "law of gradualness" is not possible unless a person obeys the divine law.

With this injunction, the Holy Father seemed intent on destroying a line of Catholic moral development that began with the early churchmen who looked upon Christ as the pedagogue gradually coaxing sinners onto the path of holiness. He seemed to be turning away from the final section of Humanae Vitae , in which Paul VI gave great encouragement to those who could not immediately achieve the ideal of the encyclical. Paul had counseled the merciful use of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist as a remedy for frailty.

John Paul also seemed to repudiate the advice given their faithful by many episcopates, particularly the French and the Italian, who had originally interpreted the encyclical precisely as an ideal, assuring their people that while they strove to live up to its demands, they should not consider themselves in grave sin if they failed.

Paying no attention to the witness of the other Christian communions, the Pontiff called for an adherence to absolute truth in these matters, as if the history of the Church's theology and doctrinal disputes had no bearing on the achievement of that precious gift. Then, in his final admonition, instead of the love covenant as the basis for family life in Christ, John Paul spoke of the need to "do charity" in truth as the apex of the Catholic involvement in marriage.

In his zeal to unify the Church's moral teaching, John Paul went beyond the traditional understanding of the papal role by proclaiming a set of ideals representing one particular theological school. He seems to have ignored an age-old conviction that the Church has never taught indisputably in the area of concrete moral situations. As Thomas Aquinas testified, the two absolutes of divine law are "Do good" and "Avoid evil." The moment an attempt is made to define good or evil in concrete situations, difficulty arises. Karl Rahner, probably the most competent Catholic theologian of this century, confirms this wisdom: "Apart from wholly universal norms—your conduct must be just; do not kill—there are hardly any particular rules of Christian morality that can be proclaimed by Church authorities as unequivocally true."

From time immemorial, theologians have defended moral positions contrary to the official teaching of the Roman magisterium. In dealing with penitents, confessors must allow them to follow the opinions of reputable moralists in keeping with Rome's own response to appeals for clarification of its teaching: "Consult approved authors." There is thus no reason that current problems of conscience concerned with birth control or the perplexities of the divorced and remarried cannot be solved by confessors and theologians on the same principles.

While the Pope remains the Church's supreme teacher, the ideals he enunciates cannot always be carried out. Following a long tradition, emphasized in particular by the man recognized as the "Prince of Moral Theologians," St. Alphonsus Liguori, individual consciences—even if not fully in keeping with papal prescriptions—are to be followed, particularly when they have been formed with the aid of prudent and merciful confessors.

By a peculiar transformation, Karol Wojtyla as John Paul II seems to have forgotten the realistic teaching he championed in his book The Acting Person , written while he was still a cardinal and a philosopher. There he described three features of an authentic Christian community faced with the problems of the hour as "solidarity, opposition, and dialogue." Defining solidarity as the attitude of a community in which the common good initiates and conditions the participation of the members, he saw opposition as a function of this communion. "The one who voices his opposition to the general or particular rules of the community does not thereby reject its membership. Instead, he contributes to its growth."

In a final judgment on synodal accomplishments, theologians and critics could take consolation in the fact that while the official results were cut to the Roman cloth, the earlier witness of the synodal delegates, representing the oikumene , or truly catholic community, had expressed authentic opposition to Roman dictation vis-à-vis marriage and family life. Out of this dispute within the Catholic communion may yet be born a new dialogue involving all Christian churches as well as the Katholike, or the whole wide world.

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