The Politics of Sex and Religion: A Case History in the Development of Doctrine

By Robert Blair Kaiser

This book by a former Jesuit who became TIME magazine’s religion reporter during the years of the Second Vatican Council, was first published in 1985, and, most recently, in 2012, has been republished in the e-book format.  I’m sorry that I missed it the first time around, but finally having gotten to it in its latest reincarnation, I have begun to read it a second time, sensing that the story that Blair tells may soon become even more relevant to the Church’s future, especially since the installation of a new pope, also a Jesuit, than it has been during the preceding 50 years since the Council first began.

However, the book itself is not so much about the Council itself, but about what was going on, pretty much simultaneously, in the discussions and the deliberations held by the special papal-appointed, and supposedly secret, commission charged with the reexamination of the church’s official teachings regarding the use of contraceptives. Having been in Rome most of this time, and having had the kind of theological training that few, if any reporters had, Kaiser had the chance to meet and talk with many of the theologians and others who served on the commission, even if they could not always be ― since the proceedings were, after all, supposed to be secret ― directly quoted “for the record”.

As Kaiser tells the tale, the idea for this committee or commission came originally from Pope John XXIII, who in the process of “opening the church’s windows to the world”, as the pope described it, knew that the need to manage what was becoming runaway population growth in many parts of the world posed a serious challenge to married Catholics who were expected to abide by the strictures against any form of birth control imposed by Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical letter Casti Connubii or “Chaste Marriage”.   This left many, perhaps even most, Catholic couples who wished to be responsible parents as well as regular recipients of the Church’s sacraments in an impossible situation.

To address this need, Pope John enlisted the help of Cardinal Suenens in Belgium, particularly aware that the cardinal was very much in touch with the thinkers and the thinking about the issue that was going on in and around the Catholic University of Louvain.  Accordingly, Suenens suggested six persons in particular: two sociologists, two physicians, a demographer, and a Domincan priest who had served as a Vatican observer at the United Nations.  But, before they could meet, Pope John XXIII died shortly after the first session of the Council.  However, once his successor, Pope Paul VI, had been installed, this same six-member commission met in Louvain while the new pope presided in Rome over the second session of the Council.

Apparently Paul VI appreciated the necessity of this commission continuing its work enough to begin to not only expand its membership, but even to move the meetings to Rome—although, even at this point, one might wonder if there was already, on the pope’s part, some apprehension.  Accordingly, among the seven new members in the group were three moral theologians.  But the more they attempted to reach some kind of a consensus as to the course the church should take, the more they were driven to ask more fundamental questions, not just about whether Pius XI had been intending to speak infallibly, but even about our understanding of the Bible and the evolution of our theological understandings, and particularly, the Church’s understanding of the purpose or “ends” of marriage.  Were they, as had been traditionally taught, “the procreation and education of children” and only secondarily the love and companionship shown by the couple to each other, or were these ends of equal importance, or perhaps even the love and companionship, in certain circumstances, perhaps the only possible purpose?

And then, there was one very practical question that began to haunt the whole discussion and was to do so for the rest of the entire life of the commission, even after it had been expanded toward the end of its meetings, nearly three years later, to include no less than seventy-two members, including several married couples, and even a few members of the hierarchy. That question was, simply put: if it is permissible (as Pope Pius XII indicated in an address he gave to a meeting to Italian midwives back in 1951) for couples to restrict their acts of “love-making” to those times in which they knew—or at least hoped—the wife would be infertile (the so-called “rhythm method”), then what would be so wrong for a couple, providing they had sufficient reason to do so, to use some pharmaceutical means to make sure the wife would-be, in fact, infertile?  In other words, what was so wrong was what had already been, called “the pill”?  Didn’t it all come down to, practically speaking, the intention of the couple?  If their intention was purely selfish, is not even the use of the rhythm method wrong?  And if their intention was good and justifiable, would not even using the pill be allowable, sometimes even commendable?

To try to make a long story short, one that as time passed, became even more filled with intrigue and ecclesiastical interventions, by the time that the final report reached Pope Paul VI, with its recommendation that the Church must allow some limited use of contraceptives by couples who conscientiously judged it to be for the well-being all of their marriage and their family, certain members of the Vatican hierarchy, along with some reactionary theologians, such as the American Jesuit John C. Ford, had convinced the pope that any change in the Church’s teaching in this matter would disastrously undermine the Church’s credibility ― even though, according to Kaiser, Ford had finally admitted to the commission that reasoning strictly on the basis of “natural law” would not necessarily ban all use of contraceptives.  And so, despite the careful wording in that part of the Vatican II document on “The Church in the Modern World” (Proclaimed on Dec. 7, 1965) that dealt with marriage and its responsibilities, and which would have allowed, indeed encouraged, responsible family planning, nevertheless, the Council, by means of a footnote (#118 added to the document) announced that, because the Pope had appointed a special commission to resolve these matters, went on to declare that “… this holy Synod does not intend to propose immediately concrete solutions.”  Thus the door was left open for Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which ended up pretty much repeating, if not exactly word for word, nevertheless the substance of Pope Pius XI’s 1930 ban against all forms of contraception.

        The expression of dismay that rocked the Catholic world after the encyclical was released was almost universal.  One prominent British theologian, Charles Davis, not only even publicly resigned from the priesthood, but from the Catholic Church as well.  A number of national bishops’ conferences around the world, while they may have given a certain amount of recognition to the importance of the encyclical, nevertheless were quite restrained, in fact were less than enthusiastic, in giving their full assent to it.  Some advised their flocks to give the pope’s views a respectful and thoughtful consideration before making up their minds, reminding them that, in the end, they must follow the dictates of their own conscience.

Not long after, in 1971, a book appeared with question-marked title Infallible?: an Inquiry, written by the increasingly well-known Swiss theologian, Hans Küng, who along with Josef Ratzinger, had been one most frequently mentioned young theologians who had been advisers to the more progressive bishops at the Second Vatican Council. In this book, Küng suggested that perhaps the concept of “infallibility” needed to be replaced by what he termed “indefectibility”— by which he meant a belief that, if the Church made a mistake, the Holy Spirit would guide to Church to sooner or later make a correction.  Yet the only thanks or reward that Küng was to receive for this gallant effort to save the Church’s credibility was to have his license to teach as the official Catholic Theologian at the University of Tübingen removed by the German bishops at the insistence of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — once known, in ages past, as “The Roman Inquisition”.  In fact, Ratzinger, after repenting of his earlier enthusiasm for reform, was assigned by Pope John Paul II to be the head of this doctrinal office, which eventually proved to be his own stepping stone to the papacy. Meantime, John Paul II not only enthusiastically endorsed Paul VI’s encyclical, but reportedly thought that Paul’s continuation of Pius XI’s ban on contraception should be seen not just as an “authoritative” decision, but as infallible — much the same as more recent moves to consider the ban on women from being ordained to the priesthood, a view seen to date by many, perhaps most, theologians as being highly questionable.

I have put a special emphasis on this latter point because Kaiser, mostly in his new introduction to his book, as well is in the latter pages of the original, lays great stress on the concept of any law or even doctrine of the church needing to be “received” or deemed acceptable by the faithful at large before it can be considered binding.  He directs the reader in particular to a detailed paper on this subject written by the eminent American canon lawyer James Coriden, which can be found at http://arcc-catholic-rights/doctrine_of_reception.htm and which gives a history of this concept, found to some extent in ancient Christian thought, but expressed even more openly by Gratian, the first systematic complier of Church Law back in the 12th Century.   

As a theologian however, my own interest is not so much regarding what the canon lawyers say, or whether or not their ideas were found to be acceptable, but rather in the theological implications of such a concept, particularly as it is reflected in the Vatican I teachings about papal infallibility.  I think this is especially important, because here we’re not talking simply about a Church law (such as Friday abstinence from meat, attendance at Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation, or even the discipline of clerical celibacy): rather, here we are talking about a decision that claimed to be based on “natural law” itself, and thus be incapable of being changed, even by a pope, regardless or not it pleases the people.  

If I recall correctly, one of the four conditions listed in the Vatican I decree, as being necessary for an infallibly true pronouncement, was the requirement that the teaching being proposed is that it is indeed already the belief of the Church as a whole, something that back then (in 1870) was seen as requiring the agreement of the majority of the world’s bishops, either explicitly, as in an ecumenical council, or at least indirectly, as for example, by the pope was announcing his intention to define something as an article of faith or morals and then waiting for a prudent to amount of time for feedback from the bishops.  But if this is the case, would not the Vatican II proclamation of the Church being “The People of God” also imply that consultation with the Church as a whole, especially that portion of the church that the definition would effect, and in this case, above all, the, for the most part married, laity?  But if so, it was this major portion of the Church, which, in fact, precisely what Pope Paul VI had ignored, or more exactly, outright contradicted, in his repetition of Pius XI’s condemnation of contraception!  And it is also, no doubt, precisely this same lack of consultation with those most affected, that the church’s ban on contraceptives is so widely ignored by the laity, not just those who have quit any regular “practice” of the faith, but even those who in conformity to Church law still occasionally go to “confession”— even if they no longer bring up that particular subject, or even figure it is not the clergy’s business.

Although Kaiser gives the impression (at the end of his Introduction) that this “power relationship”, that is, of clergy over laity, began mostly with the institution of “confession” (the sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation) in the 13th century, this is not quite accurate. In fact, the practice (at first called called exemologia) can be traced as far back as the third century ― indeed, in much more rigorous forms, usually requiring public penance and eventual forgiveness imparted by not just by any priest but rather, by the local bishop.  What happened in the 13th century was that the Fourth Lateran Council made the annual reception of this sacrament, at least in the case of serious sin ― and practically all “sins of the flesh”, even if committed only in thought, were thought to be serious  ― a serious obligation, thus becoming part of what came to be called one’s “Easter Duty”.  No doubt this whole situation became a quagmire of conflict between the life of the laity, most of whose lives were imagined to be at liberty to engage freely in the physical realm of sexuality, contrasted to the ethereal life of the “spirit”, supposedly exemplified in a celibate and generally conservative clergy.

However, I think that we misunderstand this whole problem when we, as so many do, cast it in terms of a “liberal” interpretation of Catholicism or Christianity by the faithful as contrasted to a mostly “conservative” clergy or hierarchy or, as we have recently seen in attempts to describe the new pope, as being doctrinally conservative yet socially, particularly when it comes to the church’s teachings regarding the economic order, as being a progressive or liberal.  The fact is that a similar description has been given of almost all popes beginning with Leo XIII in the 1890s.   

Instead, I see it as a contrast, and also often a conflict, between idealism and reality.  Many Christian ideals may seem to be “conservative”, especially when it comes to sexuality and family life.  A lot depends on the atmosphere or zeitgeist of the historical period.  And no doubt, human nature being what it is, Christian ideals, in this particular aspect of life, will generally appear to favor or even demand self restraint or even what seems like outright repression.  On the other hand, those same ideals, when one considers the subservient place of women down through most of history, may have appeared to some pre-Christian societies and even today, to mainstream Islamic society, as radically and subversively “liberal”.

Pope Francis, in his homily or address delivered on the occasion of his “inauguration” or official installation as Bishop of Rome on March 17, 2013, spoke not only of Christian ideals but a certain need to temper them with a certain amount of “realism”.  This same need to balance the two is, I think, what drove Pope John XXIII, during his short reign, not only to convene the Second Vatican Council, but also to take the initial steps to form that special commission to search for a way to reconcile the Church’s ideals about marriage and sexuality with the realities that both human nature and contemporary conditions impose upon them.  I think I see that same tension playing out in the consciousness of the new pope, for example in his well-publicized confrontation, while he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with Argentina’s president over the issues of free distribution of contraceptives and the legalization of same-sex marriage.  As Archbishop, he felt constrained to repeat the Church’s official, that is “ideal”, positions on these matters, yet at the same time, as a realist, he defended the need of legal rights and protection of “civil unions” (there is no word for “marriage” in Spanish other than matrimonio)  for homosexuals. Yet at the same time, he must be aware of the statistics that indicate that abortions are likely to more widespread where there is not a ready availability of affordable contraceptives.  And he must know, as much as, if not even more than most, how much that Pope Paul’s rejection of his commission’s own findings and recommendations to reassert the dubious reasoning of Pius XI’s theologians has cost the Church and its credibility.

Not that anyone is asking the Church, and particularly the pope, to give up on Christian idealism. Once Christianity gives up on its own ideals, then it ceases to be true to its own inspiration. But at the same time, Christianity celebrates a Redeemer  who, “though he was in the form of God … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:6-7) and did so to “reconcile to himself all things … through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).  Pope Francis has made a promising start, at least symbolically, at demonstrating that he wants a Church that will follow in this Redeemer’s footsteps. Now it remains to be seen whether he, as pope, can face that cross, which in this case will be most of all facing up to correcting the mistakes that were made by Pius XI and Paul VI, to deliver on this promise.


R W Kropf  3/26/2013