I have observed the misery of my people . . . ;
I have heard their cry. . . .
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them (Exod 3:7f).
2. How Paul VI Subverted Vatican II
on Indulgences, Priestly Celibacy, and Contraceptives
During the course of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), free and open discussions gradually took hold among the assembled bishops once the curial grip on the Council was challenged. Within this aggiornamento  that was endorsed by John XXIII, the bishops discovered how creative collaboration with each other and with the Holy Spirit served fruitfully to create sixteen documents overwhelmingly approved by the assembled bishops. Given the diversity of viewpoints and the diversity of cultures among the two thousand participants, this consensus building was an extraordinary mark of the charismatic gifts of the movers and shakers gathered at the Council.
As Paul VI took over the direction of the Council after the untimely death of John XXIII, he at first endorsed the processes of collegiality that had operated during the initial two years. With the passage of time, however, Paul VI began to use his papal office on multiple levels by way of limiting the competency of the bishops and by way of pushing forward points of view that he and the curia favored. After the Council, this trend accelerated and can best be seen by analyzing the content and reception of three encyclicals, Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1/1/67), Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (6/24/67), and Humanae Vitae (7/25/68).
The purpose of this essay is to explore the content and the reception of these three encyclical letters. In so doing, we shall come to understand how the authoritarian intransigence of Paul VI respecting indulgences, priestly celibacy, and birth control functioned to subvert the freedom of thought and the collegial decision making that was the hallmark of Vatican II.
OUTLINE (jump to)
- Statement of the Problem
- Martin Luther and Indulgences Revisited
- What can be learned from this period of history?
- The Issue of Priestly Celibacy
- The pain, anguish, and understandable resistance to imposed celibacy
- An open discussion on obligatory priestly celibacy erupted at the 1971 Synod of Bishops
- The Pope and the Pill
- The absoluteness of Paul VI’s moral judgment was confusing and disruptive
- Then he was visited [at the rectory] by a young woman. . . .
Paul VI’s coercive policies regarding birth control have distorted all levels of the administration and outreach of the worldwide Catholic Church. The appointment of bishops, for example, has been limited to those pastors who demonstrate an inflexible adherence to the absolute immorality of contraceptive usage. Ramifications of this policy stretch as far as the United Nations, where the Holy See uses every opportunity to obstruct any proposals that rely upon contraceptives. Most recently, these very policies led the U.S. Catholic bishops to publicly challenge U.S. President Barack Obama’s health care plan and to mount forty-one district court challenges to the mandate that all health insurance plans must in the future offer cost-free contraceptives to their subscribers. As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, testified to Congress:
This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.
With the declaration of papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council in 1870, many in the Catholic Church thought that there would be no reason to convene an ecumenical council ever again since, when it came to deciding what God wanted Catholics to believe and to do, the pope alone was preserved from all errors. The truth is much more complex. In the early church, no one ever imagined that St. Peter was somehow exalted above all the other apostles and that he and his successors, the bishops of Rome, were the divinely ordained managers and decision makers for the universal church. Pope John XXIII himself had no delusions on this point. He knew that there were deep flaws within the Roman Catholic Church, but he also knew that he was no match for the deeply entrenched Cardinal Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, who was hell-bent against change.
Protestants, in contrast, believed that no one in the church was beyond the pale of self-deception and that even the pope was capable of committing errors of judgment and of promoting false notions of what Christians must do to be saved. And when Protestants want to think of how far from the way of Jesus the pope could lead the Church, they had only to recall the papal decrees that enabled the Dominican friars in Germany to collect huge sums of money directed toward the completion of the rebuilding of the church of St. Peter’s in Rome. In exchange for their efforts, the pope allowed the local bishop and Friar Johann Tetzel to receive a handsome collectors’ fee. And, to sweeten the deal for the German benefactors, donors were issued a “plenary indulgence” with a papal seal that guaranteed that, should the donor die that day, his or her soul would bypass Purgatory and immediately be welcomed by St. Peter into the courtyards of heaven.
Fr. Martin Luther objected to this sale of indulgences. He did not want to believe that the rich who could afford to pay for such indulgences were somehow able to bypass doing the fasting and prolonged prayers that served to wipe away the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt had already been forgiven in confession. The Dominican friars, being fair collectors, responded by adjusting the price for a plenary indulgence in accordance with one’s personal income. Nor did Martin Luther want to believe that well-disposed Catholics could purchase a plenary indulgence and then to apply it, not to themselves, but to some beloved father or aunt who neglected fasting and other penances during their lifetime and were destined to spend a prolonged period suffering in the fires of Purgatory. Friar Johann Tetzel, of course, insisted that the pope had the right, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, to apply the treasury of merits accumulated by Jesus and the saints to anyone he deemed worthy. And who would be more worthy than those who contributed to the building of the greatest church on earth, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome?
Rome, in the end, tried Luther in absentia and proclaimed his teachings as filled with heresies that endangered the eternal welfare of anyone giving heed to his voice and following his example. Support for the building of St. Peter’s in Rome languished and entirely dried up in some parts of Germany while, in other parts, the sale of indulgences reached new highs. In these areas, the authority of the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth invariably became even more absolute. In simple terms, ‘The Son of God gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He gave no keys whatsoever to that heretic Martin Luther.’
- The papacy can sometimes force its own parochial interests on the faithful and ruthlessly harass those who would speak their pastoral concerns to papal power.
- The Reformation churches received the benefit of many of the Vatican II reforms four hundred years before Roman Catholics were allowed to do so.
- Roman Catholic historians and theologians were constrained to vilify Luther and to justify the papal indulgences for over four hundred years. No biography of Luther was permitted to be read by Catholics that had any good things to say about Luther or any bad things to say about Pope Leo X.
Vatican II on Indulgences
Fifty years ago, the bishops gathered inside the Church built by the sale of indulgences began deliberation over “The Revision of the Sacred Indulgences,” a document prepared by Cardinal Fernando Cento, Grand Penitentiary, who was directed to create a special commission for this purpose by Paul VI on 24 July 1963. On 9 November 1965, Cardinal Cento spoke before the assembled bishops and summarized the draft document that had been secretly passed out to selected bishops. There was never any intention to allow the bishops to openly discuss or to revise this document.
What happened, however, as Cardinal Cento left the podium was entirely unexpected. Here is the report drawn from What Happened at Vatican II by John O’Malley SJ:
The first prelate to speak, in the name of the Melkite episcopate, was the intrepid Maximos IV Saigh, and he fired off the most radical criticism. “There is no indication that in the primitive and universal tradition of the church indulgences were known and practiced as they were in the Western Middle Ages…” The interventions the next day from Alfrink speaking for the Dutch episcopate, König for the Austrian [bishops conference], and Döpfner for the German [bishops conference] did not help matters. The last two, especially, made a strong impression. Döpfner did not go so far as to call for the abolition of indulgences, but he severely criticized the theology that underlay the document, the misleading way it handled the history of indulgences, and the changes in practice, all too minimal, that it advocated. He was the last to speak that day. In the written reports the episcopal conferences of Belgium, England and Wales, Scandinavia, Haiti, Brazil, Chile, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Dahomey, Japan, and Laos expressed dissatisfaction with the document… and the last three called for the abolition of indulgences.
Fast forwarding thirteen months to the first day of January, 1967, Paul VI took the document on indulgences that was roundly criticized and rejected during Vatican II and, with only modest revision, published it under his own name as Indulgentiarum Doctrina (“The Doctrine of Indulgences”). In so doing, Pope Paul VI opened the new year with an Apostolic Constitution designed to teach the bishops and theologians scattered throughout the whole world what many of them had roundly rejected at Vatican II. Was the Pope deaf to the applause that Archbishops Alfrink, König, and Döpfner had received for their criticisms of this very same document thirteen months earlier? Had he not read the written reports of a dozen episcopal conferences expressing their deep dissatisfaction with the draft document? And was he not now shoving it back into their faces with the whole force of his papal office? Indeed he was!
One might think that the pope has no restriction on his use of power, but this is never the case. His teaching office must be used judiciously and responsibly at all times. His teaching must be rooted in the Catholic tradition of the past rightly understood and, at the same time, his teaching must prudently and pastorally address the current needs of the faithful. As far as possible, the pope must also take into account what other bishops have been saying and doing. On all of these points, Indulgentiarum Doctrina was seriously deficient. What “Paul [VI] devised was only a partial reform that satisfied neither the Neo-Tridentines (such as the schismatic Lefebvrists as indicated in n. 7) nor the so-called progressives [who were] more sympathetic to Luther’s position.” Archbishop Döpfner, in particular, called upon Paul VI to bring together an international theological commission that would have the theological and historical competence to revise the draft document that some select bishops had received during Vatican II. Needless to say, Paul VI had no interest in taking this route.
It should not escape the reader that the practice of indulgences promoted and augmented the power of the papal office within the Church since all other bishops were forced to follow what the bishop of Rome had decreed in this matter and had no authorization to define any new indulgences themselves. Since Vatican II was in the process of defining the norm of collegiality and of affirming that individual bishops receive their office due to Christ (and not due to papal delegation), conservatives were keen to maintain all traditional papal prerogatives when it came to indulgences while reform minded prelates were inclined to downplay indulgences as an outmoded expression of monarchial authority ill-suited for a church aspiring to practice collegiality.
Vatican II, needless to say, was an expression of the collegial church in action. While Paul VI was committed to maintaining the free and open deliberations functioning within Vatican II, it did not escape those at the Council that Paul VI progressively demanded advanced copies of the work of the drafting commissions such that he could actively campaign for certain positions, either personally or through his personal theologian, Carlo Columbo. At times, Paul VI worked behind the scenes.
At other times, he openly attended and made pointed interventions within the Council itself. At a few junctions, he even requested changes to documents after the period of discussion was closed since the text had already been approved by an overwhelming majority of the assembled bishops. Once this was recognized, an increasing number of bishops began to bring their own agendas directly to the pope in the hope that he would short circuit what, for many, seemed like the cumbersome and tiring process of arriving at a collegial consensus through open deliberations and voting on amendments. Rumors began to spread that the pope favored or disfavored this or that position and small factions began to vote in accordance with these rumors even when they could not be verified. Giuseppe Alberigo and his international editorial board recounted many of these events in their well-researched and well-received four-volume History of Vatican II and concluded by saying that “Paul VI’s determination to exert more direct control over the Council’s work and to intervene with his personal judgment and authority was by now clear even apart from these episodes.”
What this makes clear is that Paul VI himself along with his cadre of supporters for papal monarchism emboldened Paul VI to publish under his own name the schema on indulgences that was openly challenged both in speech and in writing by a significant group of cardinals and groups of regional bishops during the time of the Council. Vatican II had set forth its wish that a tri-annual meeting of representative bishops would meet following the Council to assist the Pope in further defining and clarifying the task of Vatican II. In point of fact, however, the curia gained control of these Synods of Bishops and, with the approval of Paul VI, the Synods were gradually reduced to consultative groups that were dominated by a cadre of bishops bent upon forwarding the current papal agenda with little regard for taking any initiatives beyond those mandated by Vatican II. Paul VI was thus willing to defeat the collegial norm set forth at the Council and to act on his own. This was manifestly clear when it came to the issues of indulgences and of priestly celibacy (as will soon become clear).
Paul VI, during the final meeting of Vatican II in 1965, made an extraordinary intervention to forbid any discussion of the rule of priestly celibacy since he had elected to study this issue himself. Accordingly, on 24 June 1967, Paul VI published an encyclical on priestly celibacy known as Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.
Explaining how he arrived at his decision, Paul VI wrote: “We have, over a considerable period of time earnestly implored the enlightenment and assistance of the Holy Spirit and have examined before God opinions and petitions which have come to Us from all over the world, notably from many pastors of God’s Church” (sec. 1). To his credit, Paul VI acknowledges having received and prayerfully considered opinions and petitions coming from pastors who presumably favored a change in the rule of celibacy. To his discredit, Paul VI failed to consult the worldwide bishops by letter. He similarly refused to open up this delicate pastoral issue at the tri-annual Synod of Bishops in Rome. As in the case of indulgences, Paul VI effectively bypassed the practice of collegiality affirmed at Vatican II and, in its place, he imposed a treatise of his own choosing and making.
Every informed pastor (the Pope included) knows that celibacy was not universally imposed upon the clergy until the Middle Ages, but only very few are aware of the bloody history whereby the papal attacks on clerical marriage were resisted for many generations by pastors and their wives. The origins of clerical celibacy emerged as an unexpected byproduct when eleventh century church reformers tried to deal with problems surrounding the inheritance of properties and of offices by the legitimate sons of clergymen. Reforming popes initially tackled this problem by reducing the number of “sons” fathered by priests. Priests and their wives were initially required to sleep in separate beds. When this approach failed, their wives were required to live in separate houses. Fines were imposed. Priests living with their wives were suspended. Bishops bent upon making pastoral visitations and forcibly separating priests from their lawfully wedded wives were often bombarded by angry parishoners throwing rotten fruit. Wives who became pregnant were to be publicly shunned and, in some instances, priests wanting to advance their careers were forced to abandon their wives and children. The First Lateran Council (1123) was so frustrated by the inability to impose Vatican compliance to earlier legislation that they went so far as to render the sacramental marriages of priests “null and void.” The Council decreed “that marriages already contracted by such persons [priests, deacons and monks] must be dissolved, and that the persons [husbands and wives] be condemned to do penance.” In a Church that was endeavoring to sustain the notion that no sacramental marriage could ever be dissolved by anything less than death of one of the spouses, the First Lateran Council’s open hostility toward the sacramental marriages of priests was a shocking (and many would say “ungodly”) departure from its own theology of the indissolubility of the marriage bond.
There followed three centuries where discovering secret mistresses and illegitimate children became the ongoing concern. Only when the laity were finally persuaded to boycott the altars of priests “living in sin” and bishops were demanding a solemn vow of celibacy prior to ordination did the campaign for clerical “chastity” finally take hold. All in all, the whole bloody mess surrounding the imposition of celibacy did not approach anywhere near a universal adherence until the seminary system was instituted following the Council of Trent. In the new seminaries, the sexuality of young boys could be closely monitored and their youthful characters could be informed (some would say traumatized) with a morbid fear of having any contact whatsoever with women outside of the confessional. This opened up the floodgates for developing new theologies calculated to foster clerical “virginity.” Gifted preachers promoted this message: “That a priest’s hands ought to be entirely virginal since only then can they worthily bring God into the world [at the words of consecration] just as did the Virgin Mary.” Out of such peitistic theologies during the 17th and 18th centuries, the charism of celibacy put forward in Paul VI’s Sacerdotalis Caelibatus developed.
Needless to say, Paul VI, in his encyclical, tells us nothing of the pain, anguish, and understandable resistance to imposed celibacy that marked the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. Rather, he offers us the entirely mistaken and altogether unhistorical impression that priestly celibacy began when Jesus freely chose celibacy as an essential character of his own service to his Father and when he declared that “there are eunuchs [like myself] who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12). Paul VI then leaves the impression that the link between celibacy and priesthood gradually grew within the church and that it gradually came to full flower as an eschatological sign of the life that everyone will one day enjoy for “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30). The celibacy of the priest, consequently, was heralded in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus as a foreshadowing of the celibacy that all the Saints would enjoy during “the final stages of salvation.”
Even if the manifest theological and historical flaws within Sacerdotalis Caelibatus could be forgiven in the name of the personal piety of Paul VI, one can hardly overlook the clear evidence of the Gospels to the effect that Jesus never mentioned celibacy when he chooses any of his disciples. Peter, who is clearly recognized as a married man, receives no admonition to separate himself from his wife. But, more importantly, we read in 1 Tim 3:2 that “a bishop must be above reproach, married only once [a one-woman man]” and, in Tit 1:7, we read that a presbyter should also be “someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers.” Instead of discovering a “flowering of Jesus’ gift of celibacy,” therefore, we find in the late apostolic tradition the requirement that bishops and presbyters must have a wife and children. Why so? For this reason: “For if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he be expected to take care of God’s church [which is an extended family]?” (1 Tim 3:5).
How can Paul VI expect us to respect him as a reliable teacher when he fails to notice these things right before his eyes in the sacred Scriptures? And what if he did notice these things but deliberately omitted to mention them because they entirely negate his pious arguments in favor of priestly celibacy? Then, in that case, we would have to conclude that Pius VI is a dishonest scholar not worthy of our attention. All in all, this brings us to the embarrassing sticking point of having to decide whether Paul VI is either incompetent or dishonest or a curious mixture of both.
In developed countries, the negative puritanical stigma attached to sexuality even in the case of marriage has been largely dissipated. Most men no longer use their wives “to relieve their sexual urges” and “to produce their children”; rather, their acts of sexual union are now commonly referred to and experienced as “love making.” As such, “love making” is a sacramental sign that communicates and celebrates the intimacy, transparency, and mutual self-surrender between two married persons. Thus, among my seminary students, many of them confided to me that they experienced an acute personal struggle between their calling to priesthood and their calling to intimacy.
“What kind of God,” one seminarian urgently asked me, “would call me to be a celibate priest while confounding me with an equally strong call to be a loving husband and father?”
With the renewal of the Church following Vatican II, hundreds of thousands of priests anticipated a relaxation of the rule of celibacy. The adamant position taken by Paul VI in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus killed their hope for any compassionate change. Many Spirit-filled priests, facing a crisis of conscience between their call to ministry and their call to marriage, decided to apply for laicization. All told, 200,000 priests worldwide left their ministry in order to marry. Those who stayed called for more compassion, more collegiality, and more discussion on this matter. In 1970, the distress and disappointment of priests regarding Sacerdotalis Caelibatus had become so publically known that nine German theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), signed a letter publicly calling for a fresh discussion of the rule of celibacy.
In 1971, an open discussion on obligatory priestly celibacy erupted at the Synod of Bishops that was devoted to the growing problems confronting priests. After days of deliberation, a vote was taken on a proposal for ordaining married men “if the needs of the faithful warranted it and the pope approved.” The proposal was defeated by a vote of 107 to 87. If the curial bishops had been removed from the voting, however, then the vote of the world-wide bishops present at the Synod would have carried the day.
At the close of the 1971 Synod, Paul VI reserved for himself the right to define the fruits of the episcopal deliberations. He said, “From your discussions, it emerges that the bishops from the entire Catholic world want to keep integrally this absolute gift [of celibacy] by which the priest consecrates himself to God.” This, of course, was a lie. If he were more honest, he would have said, “From your discussions, it emerges that more than half of the bishops from the entire Catholic world favor returning to the earlier practice of ordaining married men while the curial bishops here in the Vatican are almost unanimously opposed to this course of action.” Here again one can gauge how Paul VI manipulated the Synod and conspired with the curia to maintain the illusion that clerical celibacy had been universally approved by the bishops. After this close-call, Paul VI made it a point to never again allow any Synod of Bishops to deliberate on any matter that he had already decided decided upon.
When ministers within Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran denominations were welcomed into the Catholic communion during the period following the Council, it was particularly difficult for long-suffering priests to notice how easily Rome was able to relax the rule of celibacy for these former Protestant pastors who were escaping churches that endorsed the ordination of women. I myself have frequently heard bitterness expressed by older priests on this matter. In effect, Paul VI arrived at a very flawed decision in this matter that was biased heavily against loyal Catholic priests at the same time that it was biased in favor of “Protestant deserters.” This has caused and continues to cause enormous resentment for most priests and for those who are close to them. The bishop who said, “I doubt whether the Lord would be pleased with our loneliness,” may have been saying what so many others knew in their hearts but were afraid to reveal lest they be judged as “disloyal” to the Holy Father.
The birth control pill was first released in 1960. Initially no one could say for sure whether Catholic couples could use the pill by way of deciding when they wanted to conceive and when they wanted to prevent conception. Catholics had already become familiar with the menstrual cycle and they were aware that there was a period of five to eight days in the middle of each cycle when the body of the woman was naturally fertile. Outside of these times, the woman was infertile and sexual coupling never resulted in fertilizing an egg.
The birth control pill was “natural” in so far as it adjusted the hormonal levels in the woman’s body to produce conditions in her body that were naturally infertile. For eight years, Catholics unsure about the morality of the birth control pill consulted with their priests in the confessional. Many priests gave them permission to use the pill. Others discouraged them from doing so. Moral theologians were divided on the issue, thus there was an eight year period when the faithful and their priests had no definite or unanimous judgment regarding the pill. All Catholics were permitted to follow their own conscience.
This practice was abruptly halted on 25 July 1968 when Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. In this papal encyclical, Paul VI willfully bypassed and overturned the collegiality and subsidiarity that was so clearly operating in favor of the pill. Let us skim over the facts of this case:
- Pope John XXIII received many inquiries regarding the morality of the pill. Accordingly, in 1963, he established a commission of six European non-theologians to study the question of birth control in the face of an exponential growth of the human population.
- After John’s death later in 1963, Pope Paul VI added theologians to the commission and over three years gradually expanded it to 72 members from five continents (adding 15 social experts, 13 theologians, 12 physicians, 5 women without medical credentials, 5 priest-administrators, with an executive committee of 16 bishops, including seven cardinals).
- The Pontifical Birth Control Commission produced its report in 1966. Over 90% of the members agreed that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves the methods to be employed by way of exercising responsible parenthood in a world where complex economic, social, and personal factors had to be reconciled. According to the Commission’s report, use of the contraceptive pill could be regarded as an extension of the natural infertility that was divinely ordained as a providential part of the menstrual cycle.
The members of the Commission were forced to take an oath of silence, so, even during the time of Vatican II, only very few people knew who precisely was on the Commission and what the Commission was deciding. Invariable, however, bits of information were leaked to reporters. For two years after delivering their final report, the members themselves were relying upon Pope Paul VI to communicate their findings to the world. Most of them were shocked when Paul VI entirely rejected the Commission’s recommendations in Humanae Vitae by saying that the decision of the seventy-two member commission “had not been unanimous.” In its place, Paul VI mandated that the use of the pill could not be authorized under any circumstances because, following the analysis of Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930), every act of sexuality had to be open to its natural procreative function. Thus abstinence and what would later be called “natural family planning” (NFP) became the only morally permissible means whereby Catholic couples were permitted to regulate their reproductive capacity.
- By what right did Paul VI set aside the principles of consultation and collaboration when he entirely overturned the near-unanimous decision of the mixed Pontifical Birth Control Commission that had been studying the issue for over three years?
- By what right did Paul VI affirm Vatican II when it declared that “it is the married couples themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments” (Gaudium et Spes § 50) and then turn around and say the opposite: “the married are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life” (Humanae Vitae § 10).
- The deposit of revelation says nothing about “the pill”; hence, moral guidance in this realm had to rely upon general moral principles and the immediate and direct experience of Catholic couples. Paul VI had no experience with sexual love and no experience with the role that love-making plays in binding a couple together in good times and in hard times. Hence, Paul VI had no option but to depend upon the experience of others.
- Patricia Crowley, a lay member of the Birth Control Commission, had given him a selection of letters from members of the Catholic Family Movement around the world tied together by a blue ribbon. Many of these letters detailed the hardships and frustrations associated with irregular menstrual cycles and with the unplanned and unintended pregnancies that resulted from NFP. By what right did Paul VI ignore these letters and impose by the weight of his office a judgment that inflicted needless pain and frustration into the lives of so many faithful Catholic couples who would rely upon his judgment?
- If Paul VI had been transparent and collegial, he could have said that NFP was the better way, even the best way. By what right did he declare that it was the ONLY WAY?
Aware that the pope had challenged their confessional advice, many priests preferred to remain silent on the matter. Bishop James P. Shannon of St. Paul even went so far as to stop hearing confessions so that he would not be constrained to tell penitents something at odds with official papal teaching. But there was no escape:
Then he was visited [at the rectory] by a young woman… worried about her relationship with her husband. They had tried to practice the rhythm method of birth control, she said. But they had had two children in two years, they were poor, and they could not afford more.
The night before she went to see [Bishop] Shannon she had prepared a special dinner for her husband’s birthday, “wine, candles, the whole bit,” Shannon said. It was an act of love.
Her husband came home and saw what she had done, came up behind her in the kitchen and kissed her. But the fear of another pregnancy caught her. She fled to the bedroom, shut the door, and cried herself to sleep.
She went to Shannon because she wanted to use artificial birth control, to restore her relationship with her husband. Shannon remembers telling her, “Under the circumstances, you have a right to practice birth control.”
“Would the pope say the same thing?” she asked.
“Any pastor would,” he said, “and the pope is a pastor.
“She hugged me, and the tears ran down her cheeks,” Shannon said. “I’ve never seen her since.”
The woman left with a joyful heart, but, in this case, the bishop left with the keen realization that he could not, under pastoral circumstances such as this, subvert his own hard-earned moral judgment by artificially mouthing the authoritative teaching of Paul VI. Like Martin Luther, he gave the pope the benefit of the doubt that he, too, would have acted as “a pastor” had he been visited by this woman. But then, like Luther, he realized that there was no place to hide—either he had to defend the right of women everywhere to decide when their circumstances justified the use of the pill or he had to admonish women everywhere that “every act of marital sex had to be open to conception.” Two months later, in November of 1968, Bishop Shannon resigned on the grounds that “he had become a problem for his superiors.”
From the very start, the absolute rejection of modern methods of birth control was met with stiff opposition among Catholics—both on the practical grounds of their own experience and also on the theoretical grounds that it enforced outmoded norms of human sexuality. The Winnipeg Statement represents the strongest episcopal opposition. “The purge” unleashed in the U.S. against dissenting priests and theologians was unprecedented.
The noted American moral theologian, Richard McCormick, SJ, observes that the coercive atmosphere in the Church on the issue of birth control does irreversible harm to the credibility of the magisterium as a whole:
By “coercive ecclesial atmosphere” I refer to a gathering of symptoms familiar to all. Bishops are appointed by ideological conformity. Theologians and bishops are disciplined [for nonconformity]. Obedience is demanded to all teachings. Judicial processes fail the criteria of due process. Consultation is secret and highly selective, [and includes] only those qualifying who agree with a pretaken position…
It was contended that the Church could not modify its teaching on birth regulation because that teaching had been proposed unanimously as certain by the bishops around the world with the pope over a long period of time. To this point Cardinal Suenens replied: “We have heard arguments based on ‘what the bishops all taught for decades.’ Well, the bishops did defend the classical position. But it was one imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn’t study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations.”
Coercive insistence on official formulations tells the laity in no uncertain terms that their experience and reflection make little difference. This in spite of Vatican II ‘s contrary assertion: “Let it be recognized that all of the faithful—clerical and lay—possess a lawful freedom of enquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence”(27). If such humble and courageous expression counts for nothing, we experience yet another wound to the authority of the ordinary magisterium. The search for truth falls victim to ideology.
In the end, what must we say regarding the conduct of Pope Paul VI after Vatican II? We must acknowledge that his absolute positions respecting indulgences, priestly celibacy, and birth control were taken without solid biblical exegesis, without informed historical studies, without wide consultation among cross-cultural experts, and without deeply listening to those suffering due to the authoritarian intransigence surrounding the issues at hand. We must acknowledge that he failed to implement the principles of collegiality and subsidiarity hammered out during Vatican II in arriving at these decisions. His failure as supreme teacher and universal pastor was consequently irresponsible and inexcusable. He should have known better. He should have acted differently.
Unfortunately, however, we are still living at a time when bishops are appointed by the Vatican and every bishop, prior to his consecration, takes a secret oath of allegiance to the pope. The Catholic bishops throughout the world are thus predisposed to govern their public statements based on the three papal encyclicals studied in this essay. While there is no rule in canon law or any document originating from Vatican II that declares that, once a pope publishes an encyclical letter on a specific issue, this serves to permanently settle the issue and to close down open discussion, many Catholics and most bishops tacitly operate according to this understanding.
As for the repressive conduct of the Vatican and a large segment of the hierarchy in these matters, one would do well to remember the cautionary words of Harry S. Truman: “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country [society] where everyone lives in fear.”
Absolute Truth: The Catholic Church in the World Today
BBC video 30 min.
Irresponsible Claims for NFP
by Aaron Milavec
The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study on Marriage
by Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
THE REACTION TO HUMANAE VITAE
by Joseph Selling
The Impact of Humanae Vitae
by John Mahoney
Seeing Sin Where None Is
by Elizabeth Price
The Trouble with Celibacy
In Africa, Catholicism’s best growth market, many priests have little use for Rome’s chastity mandate.
by Lisa Miller