Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Humanae Vitae and the communio sanctorum

One of the frequent arguments encountered contra Humanae Vitae is that of the sensus fidei, or the understanding that "[t]he entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief" (Lumen Gentium par. 12). The argument usually contends that because nobody believes or adheres to what the church teaches with regard to the use of artificial contraceptives anymore that what the church teaches in this regard is not true and so is not binding.

There are several responses to this line of reasoning, namely that most people do not really understand what it is they are rejecting because, as stated in the previous post, the pastoral care most of them receive, especially when preparing for marriage, either ignores the matter entirely, leaving couples completely on their own with no moral guidance, or they are actively encouraged to live contrary to the truth, instead of being compassionately challenged to be faithful. I always wonder why it is deemed more pastoral to tell people what they want to hear than to gently challenge them, especially by way of witness, to do what is right.

Stated more theologically, that is, ecclesiologically, this so-called sensus is at odds with received tradition. If we see, as did St. Vincent of Lérins some fifteen hundred years ago, that what constitutes orthodox tradition is antiquity, consensus, and universality, then we also recognize that the church, as the communio sanctorum, is not circumscribed by time and space. So, just as neither the pope nor a council can either introduce any completely new innovations into the Christian tradition, or overturn tradition, the sensus fidei cannot do that either. This is precisely what the committee, appointed by John XXIII who issued their report after the council, was urging Pope Paul VI to do. He made this clear in Humanae Vitae:

5. The consciousness of the same responsibility induced Us to confirm and expand the commission set up by Our predecessor Pope John XXIII, of happy memory, in March, 1963. This commission included married couples as well as many experts in the various fields pertinent to these questions. Its task was to examine views and opinions concerning married life, and especially on the correct regulation of births; and it was also to provide the teaching authority of the Church with such evidence as would enable it to give an apt reply in this matter, which not only the faithful but also the rest of the world were waiting for.

When the evidence of the experts had been received, as well as the opinions and advice of a considerable number of Our brethren in the episcopate—some of whom sent their views spontaneously, while others were requested by Us to do so—We were in a position to weigh with more precision all the aspects of this complex subject. Hence We are deeply grateful to all those concerned.

6. However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.

Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions (pars. 5-6- underlining emphasis mine)
This marks the last post of 2008 on HV. It has figured prominently this year because, as set out in my first post, this year was the fortieth anniversary of this much misunderstood and resisted teaching. The resistance to this teaching within the church has deeply compromised the church's authority and contributed to the massive societal confusion about sex, instead of enabling more Christians to live as salt and light, as beacons in the darkness.


  1. Scott, one objection I have heard to HV is that it seems to presuppose that all couples are able to avail themselves of periodic abstinence in order to space the births of their children. For some couples (for medical reasons), this periodic abstinence requires complete abstinence, except at times when the couple wishes to conceive. This suggests that these couples would need to be abstinent for a year or longer? Or say, if a couple conceives six children in the first seven years of marriage, then the rest of the marriage would be virginal? These suggestions are in contrast to the Church's teaching on fasting and abstinence from meat during Lent (for example), in which individuals are not asked to make extraordinary sacrifices (I think), and in which the Church takes a nuanced stance and makes allowances for medical considerations.

  2. Suzanne:

    There certainly are difficult cases, like the one you mention. It is our wont to jump right to them, as with abortion when we jump right to cases of rape and incest. A couple in the predicament you describe would be well-advised to seek good pastoral counsel. However, I don't think "most" couples fall into this category.

    If using artificial contraception is intrinsically evil, it is my reading of HV that it is (I could very well be wrong-I am open to correction), this complicates matter you introduce tremendously. The Church does make certain allowances for medical reasons in most every situation. There is a post wrote for our RCIA blog earlier this year entitled A case study in faith and morals that deals with a similar issue.

  3. In pastoral ministry, as in all things, there is tension between being cognizant of not imposing burdens on people that are too much for them to bear (i.e., you have to assess where the person is, not where you think they ought to be) and not compromising when it comes to instructing people. It seems that what people get, depending on the disposition of minister, is one or the other of these.

    As you wrote about awhile ago, this where Giussani's method becomes so valuable because it is not about telling people what they should do, but about having enough confidence in them and in God, who is Truth, to arrive at the correct answer and have it seem like a new discovery, not something that is imposed.

  4. Thanks a lot for your responses. I read the post that you pointed out and followed the link. Very interesting/creative solution that the bishops offer!

    I remember when I was pregnant with my first daughter and began to research about breastfeeding. Discovering how much better breastfeeding is for the baby, forced me to rethink or to think at all about what my expectations of motherhood were. I had been planning to breastfeed, but not for as long, nor as exclusively, as the medical information indicated was best. But it became a moral issue for me -- if I am capable of giving my child something that is of direct benefit to her health and life, then to withhold it would be a sin. I don't know, off the top of my head, whether the bishops have any teaching about this (perhaps you know of one)? Likewise with the question of getting up to care for a fussy baby in the middle of the night. There is nothing like reproduction to teach us the meaning of laying down one's life for another.

    But I wonder whether focusing simply on contraception (if not to the exclusion of the other moral questions, at least with far more emphasis) is what makes this teaching so difficult for Joe and Mary Catholic to understand and/or accept? I understand that in the case of contraception we are speaking of the bare minimum -- life versus never-a-chance-at-life -- rather than about "quality of life" (as in the case of breastfeeding). But, particularly because there seems to be a silence concerning the quality of life, the contraception teaching could seem to have, perhaps, an ambiguous motive?

    It is also clear that the existence of infant formula is a mercy for those who are unable to breastfeed for medical reasons. A ban on infant formula would be cruel and unusual. Perhaps some Catholics feel that a ban on artificial contraception is likewise cruel and unusual?

    I am not saying that such a ban actually IS cruel and unusual. I'm just saying that it may be perceived as such.

    Thanks for your patience with my questions, Scott -- I am glad that I am not in a position to counsel couples about HV -- but it pricks my conscience that I am glad about it. Perhaps your answers will help to open me up to the possibility.

  5. It would be impossible to deny that in this day and age it is a difficult teaching. The moral questions are important, but so are the practical ones, like is it possible to live this way, meaning an authentic Christian existence. It is not possible if you are not willing lay down your life, to struggle, to question, heck, even at times to fail.

    Besides, observing rules is not what leads to holiness. We can obey all the rules we want, we can be bitter and resentful, we can complain and grouse. We can be self-righteous about it. None of these attiudes, even when strictly living by the rules, leads to holiness. Again, it is the attitude of self-righteousness with which Jesus takes issue with the Pharisees. One thing HV is quite clear about is that NFP is just a natural form of contraception.

    What I personally have issues with, is when people do not even bother to clear about what the church is proposing before dismissing it, whether it is about co-habitation and sexual relations before marriage, or what the church teaches about sex. On the NFP side, people need to do less cheerleading and start engaging the issues people give for not adhering to what the church teaches. Further, the church needs to take seriously what it teaches by requiring couples who marry in the church, at least those of child-bearing age, to take a full course of NFP, instead of a three hour NFP in a nutshell. What if a couple becomes convicted during marriage preparation that they want to love what the church teaches? Suppose their marriage is a month away and that they don't necessarily want to conceive on their honeymoon? There are a lot of issues to be engaged, which is why when Abp Naumann, back in 2006, started to talk about denying communion to couples who do not live this teaching, I was upset. I was upset because until he tells all his pastors, parochial vicars, deacons, and others who prepare people for marriage and who work with married to couples, not only to teach, but to pastorally support people, any discussion of denial of communion is just plain mean.

  6. Thank you. There is a lot to think about. In my life and in my work as a catechist, I have found that conversion usually works very slowly, and threats are antithetical to it.

    Did you read the latest from Nick Cafardi?


    I thought it might interest you.

  7. It sounds like a lot of what I wrote. I am glad he dimed out some bishops on this.