Tag Archives: doctrinal change

Humanae Vitae: Cracks in the Wall?

In the complex house of cards that is Vatican sexual doctrine, a key element at the base is that on artificial contraception. Remove that, or even just weaken it, and the entire edifice above teeters and collapses.

house-of-cards

That is because it rests on the dubious claim that every sexual act must be open to procreation. As Peter Steinfels points out in an important article at Commonweal, that “every” is unambiguous, admitting of no exceptions whatever:

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

Yet both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have admitted some limited exceptions, and both sessions of the Bishops’ Synod assemblies on marriage and family  carefully avoided reaffirming HV’s core insistence – that every sexual act must be open to procreation.

This is the way Church teaching has always evolved over the centuries – one small step, one minor adjustment, at a time – until the substance has changed so substantially that it becomes possible (according to temperament) either that change has come – or that teaching has “always” been thus. Herein lies substantial hope for LGBT Catholics. Once the umbilical cord tying every sexual act to procreation has been broken, it becomes possible to fully recognize the unitive value of sexual love between two people where procreation is simply not possible – and that includes the case where the couple are of the same sex.

So, let’s take a closer look at these cracks in the wall.

First, recall that some years ago, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that in the case of a (male) prostitute who used condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, this could represent a degree of responsible moral judgement. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but nevertheless, a crack in the wall.

Much more recently, Pope Francis has said that under the threat of the Vika virus, contraception might be justified, reminding us of the approval of contraception for nuns threatened with rape in the Congo. Again, not a ringing endorsement, but in direct conflict with the substance of Humanae Vitae, as Steinfels spells out:

Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur.  He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another.  He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy.

Leading up to the first Bishops’ Synod assembly on marriage and family, I was confident that there would be significant attention paid to Humanae Vitae, and the entire question of contraception. The evidence from the global consultation with lay Catholics was overwhelming – worldwide, the formal doctrine is simply not supported by people with real-life experience of marriage and family. I was surprised then, when that discussion simply did not happen. (So was Peter Steinfels, he notes).

For the second assembly, it was a little different – there were a few references to HV, but only in its support, which on a cursory reading I found disappointing. Steinfels sees it differently, noting that what is important is not so much what was said, but also what was not said. In this case, what was not said was any repetition of the irrevocable link between every sexual act and procreation. And what was said, included a new emphasis on the importance of “responsible” parenthood and family planning. To be sure, that was assumed to be by means of “natural” as opposed to “artificial” family planning, but that distinction is itself an artificial one, which in the long run, surely cannot stand the close scrutiny that is becoming inevitable.

Writing about the references to HV in the final document approved by synod fathers for Pope Francis’ consideration, Steinfels notes the crucial feature:

In sum, while some may assume that the “intrinsic bond” between conjugal love and procreation or the “inseparable connection” between the unitive and the procreative or “openness to life” must apply to each and every instance of sexual intercourse rather than a larger pattern of marital behavior, nowhere do the Synod fathers spell out that conclusion.  The bishops were surely aware that this is the nub of the contraception controversy. Yet not only in these paragraphs but in many others, they refused to repeat the linchpin of the official teaching.

 This is remarkable, especially in the context of something else that did get serious attention from Pope Francis, before during and after the synod assemblies: renewed emphasis on the importance of the sensus fidelium, on the “interior forum” in moral judgements, and on the primacy of conscience.

This was highlighted further much more recently, with the formal announcement of a new dicastery on laity and .family life, and a recent Vatican seminar on the assembly, in which bishops recommended much greater involvement of laity in the planning and conduct of future synods.

Step by step, inch by gradual inch, the voice of the people will increasing be heard on contraception – and that voice, the sensus fidelium, clearly does not support the core message of Humanae Vitae. Certainly, Catholics in general are overwhelmingly “pro-life” (including those already alive as well as the unborn), but that does not imply that this is applicable to every sexual act, nor does it negate the importance of personal conscience in decision taking.

Steinfels concludes his piece:

What Francis will say about contraception, if anything, is anyone’s guess.  I hope but doubt that it will be the straightforward treatment needed in my opinion to restore the church’s credibility.  But if he follows the 2015 Synod’s lead, the teaching on contraception is well on its way to quiet modification.

Amen!

cracks in the wall

 

“Gradualism” and the Inevitability of Doctrinal Change

One of the key themes of the family synod has been the idea of “gradualism”, which has meant in this context, the idea that those whose lives currently fall outside of the approved moral norms, can move step by step closer to ideal moral states. The task of the church then, should be to encourage such transitions, rather than simplistically condemning the initial state as unacceptable. One example which makes clear what is meant, is that of cohabitation, which is clearly unacceptable in standard doctrine. However, cohabitation and commitment to a single partner represents a clear improvement on a single life of sexual promiscuity, with a succession of one – night stands In turn, civil marriage, while not formally recognized by the Church, is a public commitment to fidelity and permanence in the relationship, and so is an improvement on mere cohabitation – and leaves open the possibility of later upgrading to sacramental marriage, in church:

In this respect, a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. Very often, however, cohabitation is established not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship.

Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

From this perspective, “gradualism” is a one – way process, whereby Catholic practice by individuals and couples, is brought into ever increasing conformity with Catholic doctrine. There is however, another use of the word in Catholic discourse, but one which has not featured in official summaries of synod discussions – that “gradualism” can also apply to slow and incremental change in Catholic doctrine itself, bringing it by degrees into ever closer conformity with real world Catholic practice. This could be why the more conservative bishops are setting themselves so resolutely against significant change in pastoral practice, as well as against change in doctrine. They know, and are afraid, that change in pastoral practice frequently leads to subsequent change in doctrine.

One simple example of how change in official doctrines must change if the proposed adjustments to pastoral practice are accepted, is in the matter of language – specifically, phrases like “contraceptive mentality”, “intrinsically disordered”, and “living in sin”. The first two of these at least are embedded in the Vatican documents: “contraceptive mentality” in the writing of Pope John Paul II, and “intrinsically disordered” in that of Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Protection of the Faith. It is difficult to see how to get rid of such language without rewriting or replacing the relevant texts, or how such rewriting with more appropriate language would not also institute a change of emphasis in the underlying doctrine.

Moreover, although the synod was quite specifically not called to consider any change to doctrine, at least some of those attending have been openly saying that such change is essential. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is one, and (I think) Cardinal Baldisseri, overseeing the entire synod process, is another.

The opponents of change may insist as much as they like that it is “impossible” to change Church doctrine, but they are simply wrong. In his widely publicized lengthy interview last year with …… Pope Francis himself acknowledged that what he described as “evolution” in church teaching (i.e. gradual change) is inevitable.

There is great irony in the use of this argument of “impossibility” with respect to communion after divorce and remarriage, because if it really were true that change in the matter is impossible – the synod would not now be having the debate in the first place. The whole thrust of the argument for change by Cardinal Kasper, who raised the idea in the first place, is that current rigidity does not reflect the practice of the earliest church, which accepted the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage – but also displayed greater flexibility and nuance in practical responses to individual Christians in such situations.

Some might argue that this earlier practice was a difference in pastoral practice, not doctrine – but part of the resistance to any change at all, is precisely based on the argument that in this matter, both the question of remarriage after divorce itself, and that of the refusal of communion, are matters of doctrine. Those resisting change cannot have it both ways: either the refusal of communion is a simple matter of pastoral practice (or of church discipline), or we must acknowledge that the doctrine has changed in the past, and can change again – just as it has done, and will do, on so many other matters across two thousand years of Christian history.

German Bishop Declares Support for Gay Civil Unions, Says Sexual Doctrines Must Change.

The bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, is the latest Catholic bishop to acknowledge that while the Church cannot approve of gay marriage, it should accept the value of same – sex civil unions.

Bishop of Trier, Stephen Ackermann

As far as homosexual relationships were concerned, the church would have to appeal to people’s sense of responsibility, he continued. “The Christian concept of the human being emanates from the polarity of the sexes but we cannot simply say homosexuality is unnatural,” he explained. While the church must “hold fast” to the uniqueness of marriage between a man and a woman, it could not just ignore registered same-sex unions where the couples had promised to be faithful to and responsible for one another.

This is not the first time that Bishop Ackermaann has distinguished himself as supportive of LGBT equality. A few years ago, he hit the headlines when he made an entirely unannounced visit to an LGBT community centre, and spent his time listening to the views of LGBT people – highly unusual, and definitely very welcome, for a Catholic bishop.

These latest remarks were made in the broader context of an interview with the German paper, Allgemeine Zeitung, on the lessons to be drawn from the responses to the global consultation on marriage and family. His conclusions, that it is now obvious that doctrine is sadly out of touch with Catholic reality and needs to change, is completely consistent with the findings of the consultation and other, independent research – and should be self- evident to any independent observer.

Interviewed by the Allgemeine Zeitung Mainz, Ackermann, 50, said the responses showed “quite clearly” that for the majority of the faithful the church’s teaching on moral sexuality was “repressive” and “remote from life.” Declaring a second marriage after a divorce a perpetual mortal sin, and under no circumstances allowing remarried divorced people ever to receive the Sacraments, was not helpful, he said and added, “We bishops will have to make suggestions here. We must strengthen people’s sense of responsibility and then respect their decisions of conscience.”

It was also no longer tenable to declare that every kind of cohabitation before marriage was a grievous sin, and “the difference between natural and artificial Birth control is somehow artificial. No one understands it I fear,” Ackermann said.

Predictably, his thoughts have already drawn a backlash from some colleagues: not for their content, but for stepping out of line and publicly revealing the conclusions of a single diocese. Even so, he has also received some support:

Ackermann was sharply criticized by Bishops Heinz Josef Algermissen of Fulda and Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg.

For an individual bishop to react to the responses of the questionnaire on his own was “counterproductive,” Algermissen, 71, said. “I don’t hold with the normative strength of facts. Truth is not something that can be adjusted,” he insisted but went on to admit, “We bishops obviously have a problem. We have clearly not succeeded in putting across Catholic sexual ethics and its positive concept of the human being.” Decisions on such matters were, however, the world church’s concern and not the concern of an individual bishop or bishops’ conference, Algermissen emphasized.

But the Bishop of Magdeburg in former Eastern Germany, Gerhard Feige, 63, came out in defense of Ackermann and sharply criticized the bishop’s critics. He agreed with Ackermann’s views on the responses, Feige told KNA, the German Catholic news agency. “The time has finally come to face naked reality. We must struggle to find fair, responsible and life-serving solutions in the spirit of Jesus Christ. It is not helpful to keep on repeating prohibitions or reservations,” Feige underlined.

The Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family, scheduled for October 2014, was never intended to be an occasion to change existing sexual doctrines, but merely an opportunity to formulate more appropriate pastoral responses. Actions, however, often have unintended consequences, and it is becoming ever clearer that even if the synod is not intended to change teaching, the results of the consultation will result in many serious discussions at the synod about the need to do so.

On Catholic sexual doctrines, I strongly suspect that the revolution has begun.

For the record – an updated listing of Catholic bishops and cardinals who have expressed support for same – sex civil unions:

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