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.

In the midst of a general audience in the Vatican last October, Pope John Paul II said: "If a man gazes on his wife lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The statement caused an immediate sensation. Reconsidered, though, it may have been one of the Pope's more enlightened pronouncements on women and sex. John Paul had simply insisted that, in conjugal relations, a woman is the equal of a man—a subject, not an object, of sex. That is an attitude that has not flourished in the Church historically; nor does it today.

A misogynistic prejudice has pervaded the Church's moral thought down through the ages, based on the incident of Eve as the temptress in Genesis, and confirmed by the Stoic rhetoric in which the early Christian thinkers were trained. It reflected the Platonic conviction that man's proper activity was contemplation. Churchmen from Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century to Jerome and John Chrysostom in the fifth delighted in denigrating womanhood as the source of the human race's downfall.

While attributing mankind's woes to the lubricious enticements of woman, preachers with awe-inspiring inconsistency harped upon a wife's rendering the conjugal debt contracted in marriage by giving her husband the sole use of her body. That the contract worked both ways was also on the books, but little attention was paid to this consideration because it was taken for granted that the sex act had been created for the man's convenience. Most women in the Christian tradition were taught that there was something distasteful about sex. They had to submit to their husband's advances with some regularity to keep peace in the household and beget children. Few Christian wives, even the educated ones, had any idea that, biologically, the sex act was made for the woman. Fewer still seem to have achieved the earthy wisdom of the Wyf of Bathe, who said:

In wyfhode i wil use myn instrument
As frely as my maker hath me it sent,
If i be dangerous, God give me sowre
Myn housband shall have it at eve and at mowre
When that him lis com forth and pay his dette.

St. Paul's injunction "Husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church" was interpreted in a mystical sense, divorced from any connection with conjugal affection and coital satisfaction. Despite the heavy use of sexual imagery throughout the Old Testament to describe the relations between Yahweh and his chosen people, Christian exegetes avoided the Canticle of Canticles as mysteriously salacious, or interpreted it in such a fashion that it reinforced a propensity for sexual asceticism in conjugal relations. This puritanical tendency infected Christian thinking from the late second century until shortly before Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Traditional teaching on sexuality had been reduced in most preconciliar moral textbooks to the inhuman prescription: "It is grievously sinful in the unmarried deliberately to procure or to accept even the mildest degree of true venereal pleasure; secondly, it is equally sinful to think, say or do anything with the intention of arousing even the smallest degree of this pleasure..."

As late as 1944, Pius XII had said: "If the exclusive aim of nature or at least its primary intent had been the mutual giving and possessing of husband and wife in pleasure and delight; if nature had arranged that act only to make their personal experience joyous in the highest degree, and not as an incentive in the service of life; then the Creator would have made use of another plan in the formation of the marital act..."

In direct opposition to that papal statement Vatican Council II declared: "[Conjugal] love is uniquely expressed and perfected within the marital act. The actions within marriage by which a couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones. Expressed in a manner that is truly human these actions signify and promote the mutual giving by which the spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful will."

With Pope John's council, the Catholic Church had made a heroic effort to look realistically at the signs of the times. Turning its theological thinking upside down, the council decided to consult the facts of life before applying moral principles to the regulation of human conduct. It acknowledged love and mutual assistance as fundamental features of the marital union; and, while continuing the ban on sexual indulgence, it acknowledged the necessity of responsible parenthood. The council's pastoral constitution described marriage as a "togetherness in love and life," acknowledging that carnal affection was endowed by the Creator with "special gifts of healing, perfecting and exalting" the spouses in grace and charity.

Despite this achievement of fifteen years ago, a preconciliar sexophobia seems to have resurfaced within the Church's hierarchy. To be sure, the Polish Pontiff has frequently denied that a Manichaean streak of sexual embarrassment predominates in Vatican thinking, and he has attempted in the course of weekly audiences over the past year to stress the personal rather than the procreative aspect of married love. Nevertheless, the result of the 1980 World Synod of Bishops on "The Role of the Christian Family in the World of Today" has been an attempt to restore the notion of procreation as the primary end of marriage to its preconciliar dominance. At the same time, both Pope and synod ignored the pleas made by diocesan cardinals and prelates for a compassionate approach to the marital problems of their people. The synodal structure was dominated by intransigent Vatican functionaries still wedded to a pre-Copernican concept of the universe, and behind all lay the obsessive dread of hedonism—represented by sex—that still afflicts many Rome-oriented prelates and theologians.

As cardinals, bishops, theologians, and journalists descended on the Eternal City for the synod in late September, they were involved in a tradition that went back beyond the practice of the primitive Church to the administrative customs of the Roman Empire. A synodos was a meeting of roads where the civil and military governors of the colonial provinces gathered to discuss problems and policies in the light of the emperor's instructions.

Almost immediately after achieving a relative catholicity, early Church leaders found it necessary to imitate imperial practices by holding local meetings of bishops to evaluate difficulties regarding doctrine and discipline. There is evidence of this practice during the latter half of the second century. Under Bishop Denis of Corinth, around 180 A.D., a series of synods was inaugurated to deal precisely with an alleviation of the Church's rigorist attitude toward adultery and other marital problems.

The Oriental churches, particularly at Constantinople, established a so-called synodos endemousa , or permanent synod, imitated today in the sobornost of Russian and other Orthodox synodal assemblies. In these gatherings, the testimony of prelates, theologians, and lay experts regarding doctrinal and disciplinary problems is weighed in the light of tradition and of contemporary necessities under the guidance of the patriarch. Gradually a consensus is achieved and attributed to the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Only then can the patriarch make a pronouncement, which has to be in keeping with the mind of the synod.

Pope Paul VI sought to reintroduce this synodal machinery into the government of the Catholic Church immediately after Vatican Council II in compliance with the assembly's call for collegiality—the rule of the Church at the top by the bishops with and under the Pope.

The first of these triennial Roman synods was held in the fall of 1967. Its path was not smooth. Curial cardinals, particularly Alfredo Ottaviani and Michael Browne of the ancien Holy Office, sought to intimidate Pope and prelates with the charge that heresy was rife throughout the Church. But the bishops in attendance rejected this contention and achieved a substantial independence in their discussions and decisions. A permanent secretariat of elected noncurial prelates was established with headquarters in Rome to prepare for future synods.

The special synod of 1969—called to discuss the use and abuse of authority in the Church—achieved an explicit acknowledgment of the new orientation of Catholic theological thinking. The synod rejected a priori reasoning in the solution of pastoral problems; consideration was given instead to the sensus fidelium ("the mind of the faithful") in the formulation of the Church's teaching. This procedure was actually a return to the origins of Christian theology, in which the elements of the Church's ethical teaching were adapted to the cultural practices of the local communities—Judaic, Greek, and Oriental—to constitute the Christian way of life. Thus a pluralism in its ethical thinking characterized the Christian Church from its beginnings. At Vatican Council II the Eastern churches played a decisive part in their witness to pluralistic solutions for doctrinal and disciplinary problems.

It was therefore taken for granted that Pope Paul wanted the synod to develop into a true sounding board for the Church's universal self-awareness. Eventually, it was to be hoped, the assembly would grow into a sort of parliament. It would relieve the Holy Father of the present curial structure, which governs the Church through countless directives regarding the sacraments, clerical conduct, education and marriage, and so forth, to which the Pope lends his authority.

A comparative freedom of discussion was exercised by the bishops at the 1969 synod. However, with the synod of 1971, which concentrated principally on the problems of the priesthood, curial control suddenly reasserted itself. Debate on the request for optional celibacy in the Western Church was curtailed and the synodal conclusions were dictated by "higher authority" within the papal household. The curia employed similar though less obvious tactics in the synods of 1974 and 1977, which discussed, respectively, evangelization and catechesis, or Christian formation.

A political truth quickly surfaced in the postconciliar period. When Rome consulted the diocesan bishops individually, the Vatican authorities usually obtained answers in keeping with their desires. But when these prelates were assembled in a council or a synod, they achieved the courage to speak their minds. In dealing with this phenomenon, curial officials had learned to allow a free discussion of synodal issues during the general sessions and only gradually to exercise a refined guidance in the inner group discussions. By reserving the publication of the synod's decisions to the Pope, they had full control over its results.

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.

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.

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.

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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