In the aftermath of 'Veritatis Splendor'

In the aftermath of 'Veritatis Splendor'

B.A. Santamaria

More than one writer has pointed out that in a total of 179 pages, the Pope's most recent Encyclical contained 15 lines on contraception. Nevertheless, they effectively dominated the headlines. In the light of that fact, what will be the effect of its publication at this particular moment in the Church's history?

In the view of the London Times correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, because of the inclusion of the fateful 15 lines, Veritatis Splendor would lead to "an exodus from the Catholic Church." It won't: basically because the exodus has already taken place, although not a few of the Church's leaders affect to believe that it has not. To admit the obvious would be "pessimistic". "Pessimism" is code for describing things as they are.

The figures concerning the pre-existing exodus are sufficiently clear.

In his Religion in Australia, published in 1970, Dr Hans Mol estimated that 60 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. The most recent official statistics of the Archdiocese of Melbourne show that in 1993 the figure is around 20.5 percent. In other words, two-thirds of the 'clientele' has gone. And Melbourne's percentage of practising Catholics is probably higher than that of any other capital.

With or without the Encyclical, the trend already established in figures which go back to 1986 ensures that by the year 2000, the Melbourne figure will be down at least to 15 percent. Probably lower, since not a few of the age group of over-50s, who constitute a disproportionate percentage of those still practising, will have begun to disappear. Since less than 7 percent of young Catholics go to Mass on leaving Catholic schools, the over-50s will not be replaced. Hence 15 percent is inevitable. Discounting supernatural factors, it would not be difficult to establish a strong argument to support the proposition that by 2010, Catholicism will have become little more than a sect.

While the reasons are complex, it cannot be said that the exodus to date has been due to any rigorous teaching on contraception. While the Church in Australia officially supported the official teaching in principle, in practice many of its priests told Catholics that they could act according to their respective consciences. That was logically different from saying "Do what you like." In practice, that is how it was popularly interpreted.

For quite a while, that is what many did - used contraceptive measures, attended Mass, received Holy Communion. This period has long since passed.

The largely emptied Catholic churches, with few young faces, bear mute witness to the change. The official figures show that large numbers no longer bother. Why should they, if the Church to which they belong seemed to adopt the position that it had nothing to say on that aspect of life which is so powerfully linked with marriage, the family and children?

The position of the last two generations which have passed through Catholic schools is, if anything, worse. They also have been taught that personal conscience is final. What they have come to understand is a logically different proposition which, in practice, leads to the same conclusion: namely that there is no objective code of morals, so that you may do anything you yourself decide.


Abortion was once a dividing line. There is no longer any difference between the view of most young Catholics and that of their peers.

Those who believe that the Catholic Church might have saved its situation had it only adapted itself to the new age and changed its teaching on contraception - as the Anglicans did at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 - are simply deluding themselves. In Britain, regular Anglican religious practice is down to four percent of its nominal adherents. What the remnant believes and how it acts is thus all-important to the future of Catholicism. The Pope's Encyclical is aimed at the beliefs and conduct of that remaining percentage. It is in order to safeguard their faith that the Pope told the bishops - to whom the Encyclical was exclusively addressed - to do their job, particularly in relation to "all of those who, by mandate of their legitimate Pastors, teach moral theology in seminaries and faculties of theology..." (par 110).

Whether the Encyclical succeeds or fails in the Pope's objective depends entirely on whether the bishops throughout the world give real, or merely notional, assent to its contents.

To the non-Catholic the Encyclical can hardly be expected to make sense. He begins from different, and would believe, more rational premises. Yet, despite the familiar catcalls - "hardliners", "moral despots" and so on - perhaps some may be interested in understanding why not-unintelligent Catholics actually believe and actively support what the Pope has written.

Being a Catholic involves accepting (i) the contents of Revelation and (ii) the Church's authority in defining what they are and how far they go. If one cannot in conscience accept that that is so, one should do the honourable thing. The well-known English novelist, Piers Paul Read, outlined the problem:

"In a society where the only truth is one arrived at by science or agreed by public opinion, the idea of Revelation is difficult to convey. But Revelation is integral to the Christian religion - the proposition that God has spoken to man through the Prophets of Israel and through Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor (who) set up the holy Church by entrusting the apostles with their mission as he himself had been sent by the Father ..." (Quo Vadis?, p.9)

As to authority, Read added that "the idea of authority, too, is distasteful in a society which believes that everyone is entitled to his own opinion." In a sense, everybody is. For the Catholic the problem is whether his opinion is compatible with Catholic belief.

A religion is more than just a club. Nevertheless, every member understands that his club has its own constitution and rules, to which he undertakes to adhere, and that it has a committee in which it vests the authority to safeguard the rules. No Catholic has ever been in any doubt as to where that authority lay in his Church. If he had, the Second Vatican Council, generally regarded as "liberating," got down to specifics:

"This loyal submission of the will and intellect," it declared, "must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally either by the character of the documents in question or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated" (Lumen Gentium, 25).

No less than 26 debates and 26 votes took place before the Second Vatican Council adopted that text by 2159 votes to 32, with one abstention. Both the number of the debates and ballots and the overwhelming size of the majority illustrate how deeply held is the idea of such an authority among orthodox Catholics.

The Pope's critics are very keen to propagate the idea that the "spirit of Vatican II" changed everything. One must suspect the bona fides of those who define "the spirit" by flatly opposing the letter.

No intelligent Catholic can therefore be under any illusion as to what he is committing himself when he becomes - or, equally important, decides to remain a Catholic. The ancient teaching binds every pope, bishop and theologian, as well as the odds-and-sods like the present writer.

Those 'progressive' Catholics who affect to believe that, if they only hang on until the death of the present Pope, everything will be changed under a more liberal successor - Cardinal Martini being frequently named - are deluding themselves. The next Pope will disappoint the 'progressives' as much as Paul VI did when he opposed the popular expectation and issued Humanae Vitae.

This Encyclical is against what has been described as "the privatisation of morality" by which, as the Pope pointed out in Denver (U.S.A.) during August, "each person can build a private system of values." It just isn't 'on'. Stalin no doubt conscientiously believed that there was a higher morality which justified the liquidation of 40 million people to build a future Communist Utopia. Not 'on'! Hitler certainly believed that to ensure the supremacy of the Nordic race, he was morally entitled to eliminate all inferior beings, including the Jews. Not 'on'! The various nationalities of what was once Yugoslavia may believe that "ethnic cleansing" is justified. Not 'on'! All these activities come under the judgment of an absolute moral law, to which the private conscience is ultimately subject.

In relation to those particular practices, few intelligent people would have any difficulty in accepting the existence of an absolute moral prohibition, or in agreeing with the proposition that it is the duty of a Church - whatever about the State - to safeguard it.

The general rules which bind any Christian Church are fundamentally incorporated in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments): "Thou shalt not kill"; "Thou shalt not commit adultery"; "Thou shalt not steal"; "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods"; "Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother", etc. These fundamental moral norms were consecrated by Christ himself. In some cases he strengthened them, as, for instance, he did with the Mosaic law concerning divorce.

Nor was anyone left in any doubt as to their mandatory or prescriptive nature. They were meant to be binding.

There was no question of a person's "conscience" entitling him to pick and choose among them, constituting a kind of "cafeteria Christianity." To repeat: any person is entitled to believe that his personal conscience is finally sovereign. But that belief is not compatible with Catholic belief.

Few morally serious persons, whether Christian, Jewish or other, would find much to object to in the proposition that a religion must propagate and safeguard those broad heads of conduct. The difficulty arises over its competence in relation to detailed rules. Yet, to use a rough secular analogy, a State cannot function if Parliament merely legislates general propositions - such as, that its citizens must treat each other justly - and does not apply them in detail, in specific laws, regulations, by-laws and so on. Not even a lowly municipality can function without them.

"In proclaiming the commandments of God and the charity of Christ," the new Encyclical states, "the Church's Magisterium (i.e. authority) also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them, in conscience, morally binding" (par 110).

Seventh Commandment

Far from concentrating on matters relating to sex, the new Encyclical, for instance, lists certain detailed applications which flow from the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." It describes as morally wrongful (or sinful): "... theft, deliberate retention of goods lent or objects lost, business frauds, unjust wages, forcing up prices by trading on the ignorance or hardship of another, the misappropriation and private use of the corporate property of an enterprise, work badly done, tax frauds, forgery of cheques and invoices, excessive expenses, waste, etc." (par 100).

In other words, the moral prohibition against stealing is not merely about larceny in general. If the many offences possible in a modern economy are not spelt out - from rigging markets to insider trading - the actual force of the Seventh Commandment is lost.

It is ironic that, since the publication of the new Encyclical, no objection has been taken to particular prohibitions which deal with business practices. The opposition is concentrated on a single prohibition falling under the head of the Sixth Commandment, which deals with sexual relations. Here the opposition, nonexistent elsewhere, is often ferocious. But this Encyclical (like its predecessors in the matter of sex, Casti Connubii (1930) and Humanae Vitae (1968)) sees no more reason why it should not spell out the detailed prohibitions required to give effect to the Sixth Commandment just as it does those to give effect to the Seventh - "Thou shalt not steal."

The purely philosophic principle with which the Catholic Church sustains its teaching on contraception is well enough known: namely that it is wrong to separate sexual relations between spouses from the possibility of procreation, for which - primarily or secondarily - the sexual function exists.

The modern mind dismisses such a philosophic proposition as too thin to guide marital conduct. If, however, one moves from considerations of abstract philosophy to those of daily practice, the consequences of repudiating the principle become clear. The wholesale sexual revolution of the past twenty-five years is ultimately based on that repudiation, in favour of the opposite principle that, whatever its link with procreation, sex is primarily about pleasure.

The Anglican Church changed its laws on contraception at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, in the interests of adapting its teaching to the different circumstances of modern civilisation. The Rev Richard Kirker, General Secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which claims 4000 members, pointed out that the Lambeth resolution - which logically accepted that pleasure was a sufficient purpose for sexual relations - led inevitably to the justifiability not only of contraception but of homosexual relationships. "If sex can be valid for the pleasure it gives heterosexuals," he stated, "so gay people enjoy their sex in a different way" (The Age, 8 January 1988). It was on that proposition that he founded his movement.

Nor could this view be regarded as that of an individual eccentric. The Catholic moral theologian who organised American opposition to Humanae Vitae in 1968, and has now re-emerged as a foremost opponent of the new Encyclical, is the Rev Charles Curran. He possesses a sharp intellect and understands what he is saying. He has since made it clear that, behind his opposition to the teaching on contraception, he espoused a far wider general principle:

"The possibility of dissent," he wrote, "was seen as extending to all other specific moral questions (Journeys, Ed. Gregory Baum, p.97). "A theory of compromise applied, for example, in the question of homosexuality, in which the presence of sin in the world (not personal sin) sometimes forces people to be content with less than what would be required if sin were not present, and, in this sense, justifies homosexuality for the Catholic" (Journeys, p.109).

Whatever about the atheist or the agnostic, this is a remarkable argument for a Catholic priest, since that argument, obviously leads to the justification of pre-marital sex, adulterous relationships, bestiality. Nor does Fr Curran recoil from this general position. His view is that the Church must teach doctrinal truths but that it may not define moral propositions, since the area is too complex for detailed application.

Fr Curran is thus either more honest, more logical or more far-sighted than the mass of Catholic dissidents who rarely if ever examine where the logic of their position on contraception leads them. Once Fr Curran's proposition is accepted, there cannot be any moral bar to conduct which might once have been regarded not merely as immoral but as obsessive or depraved.

The Catholic Church can hardly be expected to extend its moral teaching to legitimise the acts with which Curran is apparently at ease. Nor, I suggest, should society at large.

Social cost

"The cost to society (of the new morality) is incalculable," the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sachs, wrote recently: "... above all in terms of the millions of children now being raised in a moral wasteland, without the shelter of a loving home. Is it any wonder that from their number countless embittered, selfish, lonely and sometimes violent citizens are recruited to swell the ranks of the anti-social? ..." (The Times, 22 September 1993).

Is modification of the traditional teaching a fair price to pay for the "liberation of women" and for their "control over their own bodies", the central questions for the feminists? In the view of Germaine Greer, who might be regarded as an expert in these matters, apparently not.

"The most popular contraceptive method," she has recently written, "continues to be the Pill precisely because it renders the vagina accessible at all times; instant gratification is as much the theme in sexual relations as it is in the imagery of Coca Cola".

It is ironic that one of the earliest advocates of women's liberation now accepts that what has actually been achieved is man's liberation, a point made by the present writer as far back as 1969.

"American women," she writes, "are as vulnerable as women everywhere to the responses and manipulations of their male sexual partners. The persistence of unwanted and unplanned pregnancy despite the billions of pills sold reflects women's helplessness in an interchange in which men are prepared to withhold tenderness and intimacy in order to produce desired behaviours in their partners, and women simply are not" (Guardian Weekly, 3 October 1993).

Neither the Pill nor universally accessible abortion has changed the balance of power between the sexes: they have actually loaded it further in favour of the male.

The new Federal President of the A.M.A. (Dr Brendan Nelson), who described himself as a Catholic, reportedly criticised the new Encyclical to the National Press Club, presumably a not unfriendly audience, saying that "it was time the Church considered the world's population problems" (The Age, 30 September 1993).

It is perhaps equally time that the learned doctor brought himself up-to-date with the most recent specialist medical literature. The British Medical Journal presumably does not publish non-scientific articles. The latest issue to arrive in Australia (18 September 1993) publishes a three-page article by R.E.J. Ryder, Consultant Physician, Department of Endocrinology, Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham. The headnote is as follows:

"During 20-22 September Manchester is to host the 1993 follow-up to last year's 'earth summit' in Rio De Janeiro. At that summit the threat posed by world overpopulation received considerable attention. Catholicism was perceived as opposed to birth control and therefore as a particular threat. This was based on the notion that the only method of birth control approved by the Church - natural family planning - is unreliable, unacceptable, and ineffective.

"In the 20 years since E.L. Billings and colleagues first described the cervical mucus symptoms associated with ovulation natural family planning has incorporated these symptoms and advanced considerably. Ultrasonography shows that the symptoms identify ovulation precisely. According to the World Health Organisation, 93 percent of women everywhere can identify the symptoms, which distinguish adequately between the fertile and infertile phases of the menstrual cycle. Most pregnancies during trials of natural family planning occur after intercourse at times recognised by the couples as fertile. Thus pregnancy rates have depended on the motivation of couples. Increasingly, studies show that rates equivalent to those with other contraceptive methods are readily achieved in the developed and developing worlds. Indeed, a study of 19,843 poor women in India had a pregnancy rate approaching zero. Natural family planning is cheap, effective, without side-effects, and may be particularly acceptable to and efficacious among peoples in areas of poverty" (p.723).

Ryder concludes his survey with these words:

"The case for and against this may be argued and debated, but whatever the standpoint there is no doubt that it would be more efficient for the ongoing world debate on overpopulation, resources, environment, poverty and health to be conducted against a background of truth rather than fallacy. It is therefore important that the misconception that Catholicism is synonymous with ineffective birth control is laid to rest" (p.725).

Population policies

To believe that Catholicism - an infinitesimal minority religion - bears any responsibility for the population policies of countries like India and China (with two billion people between them) - or of the 'machismo' of the Latin American male - is, of course, fatuous. If it had any possibility of influencing the population policies of India or China, it would constitute an enormous advance in human happiness if the so-called "Catholic" method of population control were substituted for the mass sterilisations and mass female infanticides which are everyday practice within them.

Despite the investment of millions of dollars, bodies like the World Health Organisation and the International Planned Parenthood Association have had little influence on their reproductive measures. Since the statistical base for natural family planning is so strong - despite Professor Singer's statement to the contrary on Four Corners (October 11) - why not back something which works, even if it costs the pharmaceutical companies access to growth markets in which their methods have proved signal failures?

There are obviously a number of Catholics who are not merely apparently deprecating these developments, are not merely unwilling to back the Pope in his single-handed effort to turn the tide, but prepared effectively to join those who attack him. Many are in good faith. The only truly despicable group among them are those who attack the Pope's position and then, when the question is bluntly put to them, assert that they support him.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.