Bishops’ attack on contraceptive coverage rings hollow

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

The offensive by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and like-minded American bishops against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive coverage has a hollow ring to it.

It appears as though Dolan and his fellow travelers in the right-wing cause (not all American bishops are aboard with him) were determined to make all-out war on the Obama administration, to help the Republicans in the November elections. And they tried to enlist Catholics in that super-partisan exercise with their “Fortnight for Freedom” program, which fizzled. The protest against the funding of contraceptives, and the doubtful claim that the coverage will include abortifacients, was apparently all the excuse they needed to launch their offensive.

Their position is that providing contraceptive coverage is an attack on religious freedom because it will force religious institutions to act against their faith. That claim is highly doubtful, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the multi-year study by Pope Paul’s birth control commission during the council. That commission was composed of the church’s best theologians, aided by experts in relevant fields as well as prominent and influential bishops and cardinals. The vast majority of its members came to the conclusion that the church’s stand against “artificial contraception” was wrong and should be changed.

However, despite the fact that Pope Paul himself chose most of the experts (Pope John XXIII had chosen a handful of them before he died) and twice enlarged the commission, adding 13 cardinals and bishops, both progressive and conservative, during its final months (a majority of whom reached the same conclusions as the original group), Pope Paul decided not to make the recommended changes. He reaffirmed the prohibition contained in the 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubi, issued in 1930 by Pope Pius XI. He was persuaded to do so by Cardinal Ottaviani, American Jesuit Father John Ford, and Ford’s assistant, philosopher Germain Grisez.

Ottaviani and Ford were members of the commission. They argued against change on grounds that making a change would be admission that the church had been wrong, and would undermine papal authority. In short, it was a political argument designed to support the power of the papacy. Ford had a vested interest in the status quo. His many manuals defending that position would be obsolete if the official stance of the church were to change.

It was evident to the top theologians of the day (all appointed to the commission by Pope Paul) and the majority of prominent prelates who were added to the group that there was no question of “intrinsic evil” in the use of contraceptives by married couples in order to carry out their duty to be loving spouses and responsible parents. They concluded that the use of contraceptives would be no more intrinsically evil than the periodic abstinence (“rhythm”) method that had been endorsed by Pope Pius XII.

That specter of “intrinsic evil” involved in the use of contraceptives was revived  in the years after the council by self-styled “orthodox” members of the church whose touchstone for orthodoxy rests on negative positions regarding reproductive issues such as same-sex marriage, homosexuality and stem-cell research. Those same claimants to orthodoxy tend to give short shrift to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and welcoming the stranger — criteria that Jesus cited in Matthew 25 for entry into his father’s kingdom.

Ironically, the same disdain for social justice issues was expressed by the Vatican in its recent decision to investigate American Catholic religious women — the sisters’ groups gave too much emphasis to social justice and not enough to abortion and same-sex marriage.

No issue of “religious freedom” remained after the president offered the compromise position in response to objections to his original position. It is doubtful that even his first position was an offense against religious freedom. Nobody who is against contraception is forced to use contraceptives. Those for whom it is not an offense against their moral principles, including the vast majority of Catholics (82 percent, according to a Gallup poll just released), can continue to have access to contraceptives as part of their health care coverage, while those who think it is wrong can abstain from the use of contraceptives. Nevertheless, the president backed off to accommodate the protesters, eliminating religious institutions from direct payment for contraception in their health care coverage.

Religious women who run hospitals were quick to approve the president’s compromise. Not so Cardinal Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now 62, the cardinal, whose ecclesiastical career was on a fast track as a “safe” candidate even before he was ordained a bishop, is viewed as a stalwart of the “conservative” branch of the Catholic Church, which is still a minority in the church, albeit in possession of the hierarchical levers of power.

In subsequent developments, some 43 Catholic dioceses and/or institutions filed suit against the government, and we had the television spectacle for all the world to see of a corpulent Catholic cardinal threatening to have the Catholic Church stop feeding the hungry if he does not get his way. A further irony is that he represents a church that counts affordable health care as a basic right.

The fact that 82 percent of Catholics have no moral objection to contraception is no recent phenomenon. It has been a reality in the Catholic Church ever since the publication of Casti Connubi in 1930 in reaction to the Anglican Church’s taking a neutral stand on the use of contraceptives.

Aware that the issue of responsible family planning was a serious problem, Pope John XXIII appointed an eight-man commission to advise him on it soon after he was elected pope. After Pope John died, Pope Paul added members to the commission at least twice. Eventually, just before its final two-month meeting in 1966, the membership reached 72.

While the commission’s work was technically separate from that of the council, there was nevertheless substantial overlap, in that many of the world-wide bishops (some 2,200 or more) believed that something must be done to relieve the tensions in the marriages of Catholics who actually tried to implement their church’s position on birth control.  Moreover, the fathers of the council redefined marriage with more emphasis on the community of love between spouses rather than the old position that the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation and education of children. And they said it was up to the spouses to decide how many children they could responsibly rear.

Traditionalist Catholics blame the Second Vatican Council for views that differ from theirs about contraception and other reproductive matters, but it was clear before and during the council, that vast numbers of Catholics did not practice what the hierarchy preached on that question. In the Catholic countries of Europe most marriages produced one or two children at most, if any. In the United States, by contrast, many Catholic couples during the 1950s and 1960s were generating families of four to six or more children. More American Catholics than European Catholics — but certainly not all — were actually trying to follow their church’s policy, regardless of the hardships.

The fact of widespread disregard of the hierarchy’s position was alluded to by many in the council itself. As an example, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Maximos IV Saigh, 87 years old at the time, said one of the greatest scandals in the church was the disparity between official church doctrine and “the contrary practice of the immense majority” of Christian couples. Speaking to a full session of the council discussing the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Maximos added: “The faithful find themselves forced to live in conflict with the law of the church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish, unable to find a viable solution between two contradictory imperatives: conscience and normal married life.” (Cited in “The Politics of Sex and Religion,” by Robert Blair Kaiser, 1985)

In 1966, after three years of work, the birth control commission submitted its report to the pope recommending that the church allow its members to use their own judgment on the means of family planning. Most of the bishops, theologians, priests and lay people engaged in the council, as well as church members throughout the world, fully expected that the teaching would be changed. But Pope Paul VI allowed himself to be persuaded otherwise. In 1968, after a silence of two years, he issued Humanae Vitae.

During the commission’s sessions, theologians had no doubt that the original 1930 church declaration on the subject, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubi, was not a definitive and infallible article of faith, and could be changed. The same is true today of Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming that position in Humanae Vitae. While John Ford was correct in worrying about papal authority, his prediction was turned on its head when it was actually the failure to change the teaching that caused a worldwide collapse of papal authority. The Catholic people decided the issue for themselves.

In his seminal work on “The Development of Doctrine,” Cardinal John Henry Newman said that an essential element in defining an article of faith is that it be accepted by the church as a whole. (The theologically correct term is “received.”) Humanae Vitae was never “received” by the people of the church. It is not, and never was, an article of faith. As the theologians of the commission held during the deliberations of that body, contraception was prohibited because Casti Connubi said so, and not because it was against nature.

A fair conclusion, therefore, is that it is not an offense against Catholic conscience — and therefore against freedom of religion — to provide for contraception as a part of health care coverage. The hierarchy’s position cannot achieve the status of a definitive doctrine unless the church, defined in the Second Vatican Council as the people of God, accepts it as such. The likelihood of that is minimal, to put it mildly. The position of the hierarchy is no more than a matter of policy.

As for the morality of the responsible use of contraceptives, the people have decided. Despite all the attempts to repeal the council through the years, the Catholic majority will not give that decision back to those who now espouse what was then, and is now, a minority view — not on birth control nor on the many other questions on which the council made forward progress.

For a detailed account of the work of the birth control commission see “The Politics of Sex and Religion” by Robert Blair Kaiser, Leaven Press, Kansas City, 1985. For a free online version see “The Politics of Sex and Religion: How the people of God, not the pope, changed Church teaching on responsible parenthood” as told by Time magazine’s correspondent at Vatican II.