The Sins of Abusive Dishonesty within the Catholic Hierarchy–Five Case Studies
by Aaron Milavec
Case One: Dishonesty regarding Martin Luther
Case Two: Dishonesty Regarding Priestly Celibacy
Case Three: Dishonesty Regarding the Pill
Case Four: Dishonest Advertising in favor of NFP
Case Five: Dishonesty Regarding Gay Sexuality
The Catholic hierarchy has a long history of dishonesty hidden in the dark corners of official Catholic moral teachings. This is especially true in the domain of sexual ethics. Again and again, decisions have been made by the highest authorities in the Church on the basis of an ideologically driven agenda that makes use of shoddy biblical scholarship and false notions of church history.
Once made, these decisions are imposed from the top down. The Catholic hierarchy has no vested interest in feedback loops. No one is responsible for measuring the impact of any given legislation. Moreover, there is no systemic apparatus whereby the suffering imposed by compliance with a piece of legislation could be taken into account and used intelligently by way of reformulating the original decision so as to reduce “unnecessary suffering.” Generally, in the face of any opposition, the Catholic hierarchy responds by assuring themselves that the original decision was rock solid and that the suffering associated with implementing seemingly-bad decisions serves as an opportunity to embrace humility and “take up your cross and follow Jesus.”
Case One: Dishonesty regarding Martin Luther
With the declaration of papal infallibility during Vatican I in 1870, many in the Catholic Church thought that there would be no reason to ever again have an ecumenical council since, when it came to deciding what God wanted us to believe and to do, the pope alone was preserved, thanks to the Holy Spirit, from error.
The truth surrounding papal infallibility is much more complex. In the early church, no one ever imagined that 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 deliberately reeducated a group of seminarians by declaring, “I am not infallible.” He knew that there were deep flaws within the Roman Catholic system of governance, 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 upon keeping everything in place. So, Pope John XXIII convoked Vatican II. . . .
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 we must do to be saved. And when Protestants want to think of how far from the way of Jesus the pope could take us, they had only to recall the papal decrees that enabled the Friar Johann Tetzel 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 that the local bishop and Friar Tetzel would receive a handsome collector’s fee. And, to sweeten the deal for their German benefactors, donors were issued a “plenary indulgence” with a papal seal that guaranteed that, should the donor die that very day, his/her soul would bypass Purgatory and immediately be welcomed by St. Peter into the company of the Saints in heaven.
Fr Martin Luther objected to this sale of papal 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 has already been forgiven in confession. Friar Johann Tetzel, being a fair-minded collector, 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 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 Basilica 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 becomes even more absolute. In simple laymen’s terms: ‘The Son of God gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He gave no keys whatsoever to that heretic Martin Luther.’
What can one learn from this period of history?
- That the papacy has sometimes forced its own parochial interests on the faithful and ruthlessly harassed those who would dare to address their pastoral concerns to those holding papal power.
- That the Reformation churches received the benefit of many of the Vatican II reforms four hundred years before Roman Catholics were able to do so.[i]
- That 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.[ii]
Case Two: Dishonesty Regarding Priestly Celibacy
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.[iii] To his discredit, Paul VI failed to consult the bishops by letter. He similarly refused to open this delicate pastoral issue up at both the Vatican Council II and at the tri-annual Synod of Bishops in Rome. Paul VI effectively bypassed the principle of collegiality affirmed at Vatican II and, in its place, he imposed a treatise of his own choosing/making.
To his credit, he did not evoke papal infallibility by way of enforcing this decree. At times he even hinted that Humanae Vitae was only a position paper intended to evoke free and open discussion. At no time did he imply that “the assistance of the Holy Spirit” was given to him alone. Nonetheless, one finds dozens of online Catholic websites that claim that Humanae Vitae constitutes an infallible and irreversible teaching. [Hint: Do a google search using “Humanae Vitae was an infallible teaching” to discover for yourself how hotly contentious this issue is to this very day.]
History Regarding the Origins of Priestly Celibacy
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 parishioners 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 bishops gathered at the First Lateran Council (1123 CE) were so frustrated by their inability to impose compliance to earlier legislation that they went so far as to declare all sacramental marriages of priests “null and void.” The Council decreed “that marriages already contracted by such persons [priests] must be dissolved, and that the persons [both husbands and their 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 identifying illegitimate children became the ongoing concern of most bishops. Only when the laity was finally persuaded to boycott the altars of priests “living in sin” and only when the bishops demanded a permanent 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 novel 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 touch the body of Christ [at the words of consecration] just as did the Virgin Mary [after Jesus was born in the stable].” It was due to such pietistic theologies during the 17th and 18th centuries that Paul VI was able to invent his own notion of celibacy as recorded in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.
What Paul VI did not want to tell us about celibacy
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. In its place, Paul VI gives us an alternative pietistic story of the origins of priestly celibacy. Paul VI begins with his mistaken impression that Jesus himself freely chose celibacy as an essential character of his own service of his Father when he declared that “there are eunuchs [like myself] who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12).[iv] Paul VI then wants to give us the impression that the link between celibacy and priesthood that Jesus took as his own orientation gradually grew within the church, and, after many generations, priests voluntarily accepted celibacy as an imitation of what Jesus had done. Furthermore, Paul IV points out that Jesus saw his celibacy as an eschatological sign of the life that everyone would one day enjoy in heaven for “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt 22:30). The celibacy of the priest, consequently, was heralded in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus as the proleptic “presence on earth of the final stages of salvation.” [v]
The question that needs to be posed here is whether Paul VI was blissfully ignorant of the understandable resistance to imposed celibacy that marked the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. If he was, then we might want to excuse him for telling us a pious fable of how priestly celibacy emerged triumphant because priests wanted to imitate Jesus, their high priest. But isn’t there something that Paul VI fails to acknowledge? Here are some thoughts that Paul VI leaves out of his encyclical:
- According to the Gospels, Jesus never mentions 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.
- Paul, it would be remembered, prizes his own celibacy, but at no time does he state or imply that this brings him closer to Jesus or that this is part of his “priestly” calling. On a pragmatic level, Paul was able to move around freely because he had no family. Thus, he recommends celibacy for all Christians because this would give them greater freedom to love God without being distracted and held back by a spouse.
- The Letter to the Hebrews is the only place in the NT where Jesus is identified as a high priest. According to this text, however, Jesus practices a new kind of priest who offers a new kind of sacrifice: “Behold, I have come to do your will, O Lord.” At no time is celibacy mentioned.
- When it comes time to appoint bishops, “Paul” in 1 Tim 3:2 says 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 promoting celibacy, therefore, the late apostolic tradition clearly moves in the opposite direction by requiring that bishops and presbyters 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?” (1 Tim 3:5).
The embarrassing fact is that Sacerdotalis Caelibatus is entirely silent regarding the above evidence against priestly celibacy found in the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Does this mean that Paul VI failed to notice these things in the sacred Scriptures? Or, did he notice these things but deliberately omitted to mention them because they threatened to collapse his argument in favor of priestly celibacy? If Paul VI failed to notice these things, then his competence as a biblical scholar has to be questioned. If Paul VI noticed these things but deliberately wanted us not to notice them, then his honesty as a scholar and teacher has to be questioned.[vi]
In sum, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus is tainted with biblical inadequacies and gross deceptions.
The falsification of the origins of priestly celibacy
Likewise, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus gives us inaccurate perceptions of church history. Priests loved their wives and their marriages were held in honor until the 11th century when the bishops decided to systematically undercut both of these values. This is not a pretty picture. But it is an essential chapter in the origins of priestly celibacy.
Why did biblical scholars and church historians not object to Sacerdotalis Caelibatus during the past fifty years? Did they fail to notice the deficiencies? If so, they were plagued with the same incompetence as Paul VI. The more probable explanation is that they knew very well just how flawed Sacerdotalis Caelibatus was but were afraid to speak their minds because they were afraid to speak their truth to power. A few did speak out and did publish their findings. Edward Schillbeeckx, Clerical Celibacy Under Fire (1968) and Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000) & Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition (2013) are two brave and noteworthy exceptions.
How Sex Is Understood Differently Today
In developed countries, the negative stigma attached to sexuality even in the case of marriage has been largely dissipated. Sex is no longer registered as surrender to concupiscence or as an impediment to holiness but is widely seen as a sign and seal of love. Men no longer use their wives to relieve their sexual urges and to produce their children; rather, the act of sexual union is now commonly referred to as “love making.” As such, love making is a sacramental sign that communicates and celebrates the intimacy, transparency, and mutual self-surrender between two 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 asked, “would call me to be a celibate priest while confounding me with an equally strong calling to be a loving husband and father?” This is the question that Paul VI did not know how to handle. This is the question that most bishops today cannot begin to an answer.
Archbishop Pilarczyk, speaking at an ordination, said that it was unthinkable to imagine that God was not calling sufficient men to supply the church with all the ordained ministers its needs. “The problem is with those who receive this call. In today’s culture, young men are selfish; hence, they are unwilling, like the rich young man, to give away their riches so as to follow Jesus.”
There is some truth in what my Archbishop told me, but his small truth should not be used to cover up a greater truth, namely, that celibacy can no longer be seen as a necessary step for anyone who wants to love and to serve God with his whole heart. Just the opposite. Only someone who is in love with life, with women, and with children can be expected to know the love of “our Father who is in heaven.” Intimacy, self-examination, and self-improvement can be achieved today more easily and more naturally by the self-surrender of a man to a woman.[vii] The joys of sex are not meant to be stifled or postponed; rather, they are meant to be expressed and enjoyed and amplified in the blessed freedom and dignity that two committed lovers offer to each other.
I myself tried celibacy for fifteen years. I allowed myself to believe all the pietistic theology that named this as “a higher calling.” But, in the end, the hunger for intimacy won my heart. And, because of this, I said to my friends, “God called me to surrender my sexuality in religious life, and the same God later called me to follow my yearning for intimacy outside of religious life.”
Knowing this reveals to me a secret that is concealed from Archbishop Pilarczyk. Intimacy is “the higher calling” which more strongly attracts sensitive young men who, in the last generation, would have chosen celibacy. Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, unfortunately was totally unable to answer the central question of my seminarian: “What kind of God would call me to be a celibate priest while confounding me with an equally strong calling to be a loving husband and father?” The true answer, as I see it, is that it is not God who requires celibacy of the priest; rather, it is those bishops who, due to their lack of vision and the lack of empathy[viii], prefer to follow the dishonest scholarship of Paul VI rather than to bring the church back to its foundational practice during the first ten centuries.
Read the tirade at the end of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus where Paul VI coldly brands those priests who sent in their letters asking to be dispensed from celibacy as “traitors” to God and to the Church. He challenges these “unfaithful” priests to pray without ceasing that God might rekindle their love of chastity. It never occurs to Paul VI that their appeals might be the urgent voice of God calling to Paul VI to end their suffering by allowing at least some worthy priests to marry.
With the renewal of the Church following Vatican II, tens of thousands of priests had anticipated a relaxation of the rule of celibacy.[ix] The adamant position taken by Paul VI in his encyclical, however, killed any hope for compassionate change. Many Spirit-filled priests, facing a crisis of conscience between their call to ministry and their call to marriage,[x] decided to apply for laicization because there was no other option open to them. All told, 200,000 priests worldwide left their ministry over a period of ten years in order to marry. Had Paul VI relented, we would have easily moved into having married and unmarried clergy living and working side-by-side. But Paul VI killed this prospect. As a result, those who stayed called for more collegiality and more discussion on this matter. In 1970, nine German theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), signed a letter publically calling for a fresh discussion of the rule of celibacy.
In 1971, an open discussion on obligatory priestly celibacy spontaneously erupted during 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, then the vote of the bishops-pastors would have carried the day. Nonetheless, when Paul VI closed the Synod, he said to those assembled, “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 not quite the truth. He should 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 results of the Synod in order to maintain the illusion that clerical celibacy was universally approved by bishops worldwide. Here again dishonesty and authoritarianism prevailed.
When ministers within Anglican and Lutheran denominations were welcomed into the Catholic communion, it was particularly difficult for long-suffering priests to notice how easily Rome was able to relax the rule of celibacy for these Protestant pastors who were escaping churches that endorsed the ordination of women. I have frequently heard bitterness expressed by older priests on this matter. “The Pope spits on our long-suffering appeals to allow some of us to marry. But then these Protestants arrive, and immediately they are ordained as priests while keeping their wives.” Another priest noted, “Look how easy it would be for Rome to bend the rules and to introduce married priests into our parishes.” This caused and continues to cause an enormous amount of personal suffering[xi] for 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 heart but were afraid to reveal.
Case Three: Dishonesty Regarding the Pill
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 so as to produce conditions in her body that mimic the situation when the woman is naturally infertile.[xii] For eight years, Catholics unsure about the morality of the birth control pill consulted with their priests in the confessional.[xiii] 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. Every Catholic was permitted to follow her own conscience.
This practice was abruptly halted on 25 July 1968 when Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. This papal encyclical was another instance wherein Paul VI bypassed collegiality and subsidiarity. In this case, however, the dishonesty of Paul VI is even more grievous because when the collegial process set in motion by John XXIII failed to return the response that Paul VI expected, he scuttled their report and set out to publish an answer written by an outsider. 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 issue of birth control in the face of an exponential growth in the human population.
After John’s death later in 1963, Pope Paul VI added theologians to the commission and over three years expanded it to 72 members from five continents. This included 16 theologians, 13 physicians, and 5 women. Meanwhile Paul VI added an executive committee of 16 bishops, including seven cardinals.
The Pontifical Birth Control Commission produced its report in 1966. An impressive 90% of the voting members agreed that “artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil” and that Catholic “couples should be allowed to decide for themselves” what methods were to be employed by way of exercising responsible parenthood in a world where overpopulation presented a growing dangers. According to the Commission’s final 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.[xiv]
The members of the Commission were forced to take an oath of silence, so, even during the time of Vatican II, few people knew who was on the Commission and what sort of discussions/decisions the Commission was taking. For two years after delivering their final report, the members themselves were patiently waiting upon Pope Paul VI to communicate their findings to the world. Most of them were surprised and shocked when Paul VI completely rejected the Commission’s recommendations on the grounds that the decision of the seventy-two member commission “had not been unanimous.” Needless to say, no one can rightly expect that 72 persons discussing a hotly contended issue could ever arrive at a “unanimous decision.” Thus, Paul VI created a flimsy excuse that allowed him to scuttle the Commission’s report.
Some would argue that those in authority always retain the right to reject an advisory report when it goes against their personal judgments. To do so, however, is risky because a truly wise man has to be always ready to learn from his trusted advisors. For him to shun them all and then to absolutize his personal opinion without even mentioning the weight of evidence against him is both reckless and dishonest. Only in authoritarian institutions can those in authority get away scott-free with this manner of acting.
In Humanae Vitae, 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 so as to safeguard the future.
The absoluteness of the Pope’s moral judgments here was confusing. At first he affirmed 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 he makes an about face by declaring that “the married are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life” (Humanae Vitae § 10).[xv]
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. Since Paul VI had no experience with sexual love and no experience with NFP, it was incumbent upon him to learn about these things indirectly by sympathetically entering into the experience of married couples?
Three Thousand Letters from the CFM
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. The Crowleys had gathered replies from three thousand members of the Christian Family Movement living in eighteen countries. 43% of the couples using NFP said they found it helpful in spacing their children. On the other hand, 78% “claimed that it had also harmed their relationship due to tension, loss of spontaneity, fear of pregnancy, etc.” (90). As an example, a wife who conceived and gave birth to seven children during her fourteen years of marriage writes this chilling and brutally honest account of her experience with NFP:
The slightest upset, mental or physical, appears to change the cycle and thereby renders this method of family planning useless. Our marriage problem is not financial. . . . But my husband has a terrible weakness when it comes to self-control in sex and unless his demands are met in every way when he feels this way, he is a very dangerous man to me and my daughters. Apart from these times he is completely normal and tries in every way he knows, such as morning Mass, sacraments, prayers, etc., to accumulate grace [self-restraint]” (91).
Other letters detailed the hardships and frustrations associated with irregular menstrual cycles and with the unplanned and unintended pregnancies that resulted from NFP.[xvi] Was it appropriate for Paul VI to ignore these testimonies of human suffering and to impose, using the weight of his office, a universally binding judgment that turned a blind eye to the pain and frustration of so many faithful Catholic couples who tried to make NFP work for them?
If Paul VI had been transparent and collegial, he could have said that NFP was “the better way,” even “the best way.” But, as many theologians have pointed out, he had no grounds whatsoever whereby he could declare it to be the ONLY WAY?
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.[xvii] The Winnipeg Statement represents the strongest episcopal opposition. “The purge” unleashed against dissenting priests and theologians in the USA was without precedent.
The noted American moral theologian, Richard McCormick, SJ, observes that the “coercive ecclesial atmosphere” surrounding the issue of birth control not only heaped irreversible harm upon hundreds of thousands of Catholic couples, it had the effect of damaging the credibility of the bishops themselves as reliable guides:
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 predetermined 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” [Gaudium et Spes § 62]. 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.[xviii]
Marriage Preparation following Humanae Vitae
As a Catholic theologian, I became aware that the Catholic hierarchy was so mindlessly supportive of NFP as to neglect to inform users that, as in the case of all medical advice, there were potentially dangerous “side effects” for those using NFP. This practice of one-sided dishonesty is not only unfortunate, it is criminal negligence. The bishops should have listened to the faithful and have alerted them to known failures as part of their pact to maintain “honesty in advertising.”
Consider, for example, the medical advice given to patients by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists:
Q: How effective is NFP in preventing pregnancy?
A: Natural family planning is not[xix] as effective as most other methods of birth control. One in four women who use this method becomes pregnant. The method is not suited for the following women:
Women who should not get pregnant because of medical reasons
Women with irregular menstrual periods who may not be able to tell when they are fertile
Women with abnormal bleeding, vaginitis, or cervicitis (these make the cervical mucus method unreliable)
Women who use certain medications (for instance, antibiotics, thyroid medications, and antihistamines) that may change the nature of vaginal secretions, making mucus signs impossible to read
Women with certain problems unrelated to fertility (for instance, fever) that can cause changes in basal body temperature (source)
If our bishops had included these on a “warning label” with their NFP promotional pitches, then Catholic women who suffered through unwanted pregnancies would have felt relieved that it was not entirely their fault that they got pregnant while using NFP. Meanwhile, those using NFP for the first time would would have been encouraged in knowing that their bishops were straight shooters and that they were not blinded by ideological and theological factors. I have yet to find a single bishop who attaches an informed “warning label” when he approaches NFP. Paul VI surely did not do so.
In fact, when I go to examine what my own diocese has posted on its website, I find statements that are flatly contradicted by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Here are a few:
Any married couple can use NFP! A woman need not have “regular” cycles.[xx]
NFP methods support reproductive health. They are good for the body. The natural methods have none of the harmful side effects caused by contraception, especially chemical contraceptives (e.g., pill, injection, etc.).[xxi]
When wishing to avoid pregnancy, studies show that couples who follow their NFP method’s guidelines correctly, and all the time, achieve effectiveness rates of 97-99%.[xxii]
The most outrageous deception, however, is this one:
The methods of NFP are the only approach to true responsible parenthood because they respect God’s design for married love!
It is to the credit of Paul VI that he popularized the notion that “responsible parenthood” requires parents to decide how many children to bring into this crowded world and when they are to be conceived. Earlier generations of Catholics had the notion that family planning was unnecessary (maybe even impossible) and that partners had sex at random times with the notion that ‘God decides how many children to give us.’ Bishops even created the fantasy that doctors who warned women to avoid future conceptions were to be ignored due to the rubric: “Let God take charge of your life.”[xxiii] Also, large families were regarded as especially blessed by God.
[Update: One has to wait until 2015 before one hears a papal refutation of these earlier misconceptions.]
Case Four: Dishonest Advertising in favor of NFP
As things now stand, the glowing testimonials in favor of NFP are motivated by the “unspoken truth” that NFP is the ONLY OFFICIALLY APPROVED method for regulating pregnancies (other than abstaining from sex altogether). Hence, Catholics who believe that Paul VI could make no error in drafting Humanae Vitae are prompted to do fancy cartwheels to demonstrate that he was 100% right about NFP.
So I went online to check this out. Should you visit the cheerful site known as Catholic Online, you will discover a Catholic mother of six giving a faith-based testimony of how she decided to hold fast to NFP. Along the way, however, she makes some pretty fantastical claims:
When women learn to read their [menstrual] cycles, they often report a renewed sense of self-worth. . . . Women often can’t place their finger on it, but they sense this. Not surprisingly, couples who practice a method of NFP have only a 5% rate[xxiv] of divorce by comparison to the 50% rate in the population at large. Clearly, when couples treat one another with dignity and respect, honoring the wholeness of each person, their relationship is positively effected [sic].
I say “fantastical” because if the claim of a “5% rate” was actually true, then sex therapist and couples counselors would have used this info by way of shoring up sagging marriages everywhere–and not just among Catholics. Yet, in most things, if something seems too good to be true, it probably a scam.[xxv] And this is unfortunately the case here, despite the fact that I have heard and seen this unsubstantiated[xxvi] claim routinely repeated in dozens of NFP promotionals. Hence, this is something like being told to take huge doses of vitamin C to prevent the onset of the common cold. “Every belief works in the eyes of the believer” (Michael Polanyi). Thus we have here an instance in which NFP is being dishonestly promoted with undocumented and exaggerated claims.
Why Paul VI thought contraceptive use was immoral
Why exactly are contraceptives always immoral? The Church is not against interventions into nature. We approve of vaccinations and use eye glasses? Why then are medically safe contraceptives not permitted to Catholics for limiting and spacing pregnancies in the way that Paul VI mandated?
The reason is that every act of intercourse must be open to conception. Hence, it follows that married couples cannot do anything that would prevent conception.
NFP is permitted only because nothing is done to prevent conception. But this is ludicrous! Couples use NFP precisely with the intention of making love without conceiving a child. There is nothing “natural” about the process. Each morning the mucus is checked and the basal temperature is taken. By so doing, the couple can determine when ovulation takes place. Five days after this, the “safe period” begins and lasts for eight to fifteen days. These are the days chosen to make love. The whole business of NFP, therefore, it terribly contrived and quite artificial. For those who are using NFP to have good sex without risking hellfire, the effort seems to pay off.
Some advocates even explain that periods of complete abstinence followed by periods of unlimited sex “brings them into the mood of recalling their honeymoon period that following their abstinence leading up to marriage.” I can relate to that. What I can’t relate to is how the zealots for NFM completely overlook the natural fact that, for women, their mucus is slippery (they are wet) and their desire is high just at the time that ovulation is taking place. If this is a normal aspect of female fertility, then the God who created women’s fertility cycle was surely promoting both the heightened sexual desire and the heightened pleasure enabled by the slippery mucus. But, according to the designers of NFP, the sexual pleasure of women is seemingly not all that important[xxvii] and God’s design for increased arousal at the time of ovulation can be ignored. This is another grave reason why NFP is so completely “unnatural.”
How the Bishops Promote NFP
The Bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Research and Practice decided in 1989 to urge bishops to mandate that every engaged couple must take a full course in natural family planning prior to their wedding. Experience showed that fewer than 5% of Catholics made use of NFP. Experience also showed that almost no engaged couples took a course in natural family planning unless they were required to do so. Hence, almost everywhere now, the Pre-Cana Retreat required of Catholics who want to marry in the Church includes a healthy dose of NFP.
In my own experience of marriage preparation in the archdiocese of Cincinnati, I relished the fact that NFP was presented by two enthusiastic married couples who taught us a method that combined mucus testing and temperature taking. The emphasis was upon the “hidden miracle” of the fertility cycle and “how neat it was” to be aware of how the woman’s body changes along with (but not because of) the phases of the moon. NFP was also presented as the “green” and “chemical-free” form of birth control—aspects that very much agreed with our shared ecological life values.
Despite this positive and upbeat approach to NFP that I myself experienced, I was surprised that the official polls show only 1 to 3 percent of fertile Catholics depend upon NFP as their only method of birth control. This must be terribly depressing for bishops who are spending lots of money promoting NFP. It must also be depressing for those couples who spend so much time and attention to NFM during the marriage preparation sessions.
On the down side, I am also aware that younger Catholic couples don’t take kindly to bishops telling them what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their bedroom. Older Catholics don’t approve of the way that the bishops require all patients treated in Catholic hospitals to follow the moral rubrics of the Vatican. Thus Catholic hospitals do not allow physicians employed by them to prescribe birth control to their patients or to perform IVF, vasectomies, or tubal ligations. Is this a case where the Catholic bishops are deliberately curtailing physicians employed by them from giving sound medical advice consistent with modern medical journals and proven clinical practice? It surely is! Do most physicians manage to speak “confidentially” and “off the record” to their patients such that they patients can distinguish when the medical dictates of the RCC run counter to the health and well-being of their patients? I surely hope so. Yet, if and when they do so, they risk being reported to the authorities for doing so and ultimately losing their employment in all Catholic institutions.
This coercive situation injures the dignity of all those involved. The plain truth is that the Catholic bishops have failed to convince 95% of their own people to rely solely upon NFP and not to use contraceptives. So, as a last ditch stand, they appear to resort to treating adults like children. They force hospitals to refuse to offer contraceptives because “father knows best.” The bishops even tried to force Obama to drop contraceptives from the insurance coverage given to employees in Catholic institutions. Rape victims, meanwhile, who find refuge in a Catholic hospital, are denied the “morning after pill.” Why so? Because the Catholic bishops have never permitted extenuating circumstances to ever justify the use of contraceptives. In Catholic practice, a woman who has just been raped has no special exemption from the “no contraceptives” clause that blindly determines medical practice within Catholis hospitals. The dishonesty of these measures is that, while the “moral purity” of the bishops is being safeguarded, the rights of patients to choose and the rights of doctors to place the well-being of their patients first is being trampled upon.
The mentality of the US Catholic bishops is that every act of intercourse must be open to conception. This assumption is the weak link underpinning NFP and the ban against all contraceptives. Objections to this assumption are many. Here are the most prominent:
- Just because Catholics regard sex as the natural route for fulfilling the command to “be fruitful and to multiply” does not mean that every sex act must accomplish this. In actual practice, even Catholic couples with large families acknowledge that only a small percentage of their love-making results in pregnancies.
- God himself designed the menstrual cycle in such a way as to put in place a period of infertility interspersed with a period of fertility. This can be interpreted to mean that even God favors times of sexual bonding, sexual play, and sexual exploration between partners without any conception resulting.
- If “family planning” is mandated for modern-day Catholics, then all forms of safe birth control are not only permitted but absolutely required in order to prevent an irresponsible overpopulation of the earth that would ultimately lead to deforestation, over-fishing the seas, and new eruptions of starvation and war. NFP can be permitted only as long as its weaknesses are known and acknowledged. As Pope Francis declared in talking with reporters following his January 2015 papal visit to the Philippines, “God does not intend us to multiply like rabbits.” [https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/01/20/]
The Suffering of Future Generations due to Overpopulation
Given the exponential growth in the world population, the question naturally emerged in 1968 as to whether unchecked human growth is sustainable during the next hundred or two hundred years.
Many dismissed this on the grounds that there was ample space for housing developments nearly everywhere (even in Hong Kong); hence, the earth could easily sustain two to three times our present population. Pope Pius VI in Humanae Vitae agreed with this optimistic projection.
But now we know what we could not know in 1968. Three points and a conclusion:
#1 According to the United Nations, one in every five humans depends on fish as their primary source of protein. (United Nations, 2004) On the other hand, marine ecologists fear that the biggest single threat to marine ecosystems today is overfishing. Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits and industrial fishing has had devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. The cod fisheries off Newfoundland, Canada, collapsed in 1992, leading to the loss of some 40,000 jobs in the industry. The cod stocks in the North Sea and Baltic Sea are now heading the same way and are close to complete depletion. As population grows, the pressure for more and more effective fishing increases, and no government can, in conscience, limit the growth of industrial fishing so that sustainability can again be achieved. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .
#2 The story for oil shows exactly the same phenomena. Recently developing countries like India and China are legitimately moving toward increased industrialization in order to feed, clothe, and house their teeming populations. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2010 World Energy Outlook estimated that conventional crude oil production has peaked and depleting at 6.8% per year. Meanwhile, no government is currently rationing oil products; rather, every nation is trying to out-produce everyone else so that their people can enjoy the luxurious lifestyle that manufactured goods promise. But who is speaking for those who will be living when the industrialized landscape has to begin shutting down due to the worldwide scarcity of crude oil? For this crime, our children’s children will suffer. . . .
#3 Governments have admitted that acid rain is a serious international environmental problem and many countries have taken steps to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. But air pollution does not stop at national boundaries. As the industrialization of India and China moves into high gear, new coal-burning plants[xxviii] increase those toxic emissions that show us as smog in their cities. This is the immediate effect. Meanwhile, these invisible poison gases enter the atmosphere and, much later, forests and fish living thousands of miles away are put at risk due to the falling of acid rain. Some of the most dramatic effects on forests have been observed in Europe. In 1983, a survey in West Germany showed that 34% of the country’s total forest is damaged by air pollution. This included about one half of the famous Black Forest. Switzerland, despite its careful management of its forest reserves, has recorded losing 14% of her forest trees due to the pollution originating outside its borders. For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .
The world population when Humanae Vitae was first published was 3.5 billion. Today’s world population is 7.2 billion. This is more than double. Let’s face it. If current trends continue, another fifty years of reckless population growth will inevitably produce an immeasurable amount of human suffering. So now, in view of the destructive side-effects of population growth, what is stopping our bishops from sponsoring conferences aimed at reexamining the optimistic notes regarding population growth in Humanae Vitae? Not to examine the flaws in HV[xxix] now can only give blind support to the practices that disrupt the ecosystems of our dear home and planet. This blindness puts our children and our children’s children at risk.
Case Five: Dishonesty Regarding Gay Sexuality
Before same-sex unions could imagine and then to actually fight for the right to be married, three important conditions within heterosexual marriages had to change. Here they are:
#1 Roles assigned to men as money-makers and women as home-makers had to become flexible. It had to become possible for a husband to decide to stay home to keep the house and to raise the children while his wife, an engineer or a lawyer, goes to work each day and earns the money to keep their enterprise afloat with only one salary. If a husband and wife can live this way and even, to some degree, relish “exchanging roles,” then it is possible that two women or two men could do the same thing and call what they have “a loving and fruitful marriage” with the same fierce conviction.
#2 Men had to become less authoritarian and women had to become less submissive. Even Aristotle was able to acknowledge that “true friendship” can flourish only when “both men are social equals.” I can illustrate this best by examing the lives of my own parents and grandparents. In my grandparents generation, men alone could open bank accounts, men alone could buy a home or an automobile on credit, men alone could decide what companions and what forms of recreation were suitable for his wife, men alone could initiate sex in the bedroom, men alone could decide what sort of education was appropriate for each of his children[xxx], men alone had the legal right to claim their offspring as “belonging to them” in the case of a contentious divorce.
#3 The paradigm of sex had to shift from “making babies” to “making love.” It is rare, in my experience, to find a celibate priest who talks knowingly about what it means for a couple to be “making love.” On the other hand, “making babies” is much more understandable for celibates because the logic of an orgasm in a vaginal canal that has an ovum ripening is primary an intellectual affair. Since most priests are intelligent, they find it easy to understand “making babies.”
This is precisely where Cardinal Ratzinger has focused his attention and this is his backdrop for doing his moralizing. He is speaking eloquently to my grandparents generation. However, he cannot be trusted to address the moral values and concerns of the present generation. Moreover, being a priest and an archbishop further isolates him from knowing and appreciating the art of love-making.[xxxi]
Making love cannot be understood by attending lectures, by reading books, by watching romantic films. Making love begins with a mutual sexual attraction that matures within a series of give and takes, trials and errors, into a budding romance that builds upon mutual admiration woven together with sustained trust. Sex begins with light touches, hand-holding, sitting close, telling secrets, etc. Two people make loving following a path that they carve out for themselves that is filled with deep intuitions, playfulness, and surprises. No two people do it in the same way. No two people do it in the same way even after twenty years of marriage. Cardinal Ratzinger is a complete stranger to most of this.
Since “making babies” is easier to understand and easier to talk about, clerics such as Cardinal Ratzinger usually only talk about “making babies.” The art of “making love” attracts them, escapes them, baffles them, but they usually don’t talk about it. Either they are aware of how little experience they have and, thus, they stay away from talking about “making love” for fear that they would come across as superficial or downright stupid. Or, on the other hand, clerics might be aware of how much experience they have had and they prefer not to reveal such intimate moments of their lives, especially if they have had significant “love-making” with another man. Perhaps this is the reason why the official Vatican theology of sexuality along with its morality is framed almost entirely in the safe but outdated paradigm of “making babies.”
This is unfortunate. For what reason? Fr. Shaji George Kochuthara, CMI, associate professor of theology at Dharmaram Vidya in Bangalore, made a thorough study of how sex as “making babies” was accepted, for a very long time, as the supreme value of sex. Then, as Catholic experience grew in tandem with contemporary society, sex as “making love” attached itself to “making babies.” Thus, in the 60s, there were two supreme values of marital sex. In the 80s, however, sex as “making love” took on such importance as to supplant the earlier supreme value of sex. Fr. Kochuthara, in his groundbreaking study, The Concept of Sexual Pleasure in the Catholic Moral Tradition, summarizes his discovery in these words:
When we consider the theological developments from the second half of the 20th century, we can identify a notable change in the emphasis on procreation. The emphasis is no more on procreation, but on love. Mutual love and union of the couple is the most important purpose of marriage as well as that of the marital union. We may understand the difference only when we consider that tradition up to modern times, which practically assigned no place to the discussion on love as pertaining to conjugal life. Besides considering love as a necessary condition for conjugal intimacy, all other aspects of conjugal life, including the procreative dimension, are given their significance based on the criterion of love.[xxxii]
In plain-speaking and vulgar language, what Fr. Kochuthara is saying is that, in my grandparents’ generation, a man could fuck[xxxiii] his wife and be proud of himself. He was fulfilling God’s command to be “fruitful and to multiply.” His wife, meanwhile, had “done her duty” by patiently submitting to her husband’s sexual advances and by raising his children so that he could be proud of them. Nothing more was required.
The time is quickly arriving and is already here when “fucking” is not enough. Any husband who does not allow his wife to coach him in the art of love-making is not worthy to be called a lover. His erection and his sexual satisfaction is not the end all and be all. Unless a husband can escape being exclusively absorbed by his sexual arousal and actively turn his attention to pleasuring his wife, there can be no mutuality in sex and their love-making will inevitably be less humane than what it could be.
Cardinal Ratzinger appears never to have understood this. How could he? In the back of his mind, sex was still about “making babies.” This he could understand. This he could logically explain. “Making love” was nebulous and inconsequential and frightening.
- That is why he took the mandate of Pius XI, “Every act of sexuality had to be open to its natural procreative function,” and made it his mantra.
- This is why he automatically eliminated same-sex unions as worthy of any consideration: no two men or two women can “make babies.”
- This is why he routinely refers to marital intercourse as “the conjugal act” and never once uses the more precise and more modern term, “making love.”
Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger seemingly never had the occasion to admire and to care for anyone who had a homosexual orientation. Just to the contrary, he had some painful interactions with gay men in 1968[xxxiv], and the trauma of these interactions appears to have blocked him from any desire to meet or to understand gays or lesbians from that point forward. As a result, he had no interest in creating a Church dedicated to understanding, loving, and protecting its gay and lesbian members. Quite to the contrary, he felt impelled to create a Church wherein “baby-making” was the core of permissible sex and that, as a result, homosexual sex was “objectively disordered” and same-sex unions had no intrinsic value whatsoever when contrasted with the divinely approved marriage of a man and a women.
Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger was never the parent of a child, and, as a result he never had the opportunity to learn the art of love that plays itself out between a parent and a special child. Hence, while he was a brilliant theologian, he lacked the emotional intelligence and the empathy that his office, as Father of the Church, requires.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s Dark Side
I do not fault Cardinal Ratzinger for being true to himself by taking what he could understand, namely sex as “baby-making,” and making it the center of his moral theology of marriage. I cannot fault him for allowing the traumatic events of 1968 to insulate him from any further contacts with the LGBT community. I cannot fault him from being authoritarian. Nor can I fault him from growing old and, in so doing, to become less and less aware of the changing values of young married couples. I can even excuse him for become less and less aware of the horrendous spiritual pain and psychological suffering that his doctrine of homosexuality imposed on young people who grew up loving the Church. In all these things, Cardinal Ratzinger was being true to himself.
I want to fault Cardinal Ratzinger only for this: that he was so unaware of his “dark side” as to suppose that he was so well-informed and so knowledgeable as to be capable of resolving “by himself” all the complex psychological, physiological, and theological aspects of homosexuality. Only someone with an overextended estimate of his own capabilities could do something like that. And then to make matters even worse, he spent hours and days and months using the powers of his office to harass and to silence anyone within the Church who openly disagreed with him. This, too, is his dangerous “dark side.”
In brief, he was an “inquisitor” of the old school. He evoked fear in his victims. Those who did not accept his moral norms were stripped of their right to teach and their right to publish. And, for this, he gained much praise from those who also have authoritarian personalities and admire Cardinal Ratzinger because he slammed his fist down and refused to apologize for taking draconian steps to protect the indisputable truths of the Catholic Church. But none of his victims ever praised the fairness of his inquisitorial process. None of them were convinced by his brilliant arguments.
As for the repressive conduct of the Cardinal Ratzinger 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 [Church] where everyone lives in fear.
Needless self-hatred, loneliness, and false guilt
So, in the end, I have tried to make clear why Cardinal Ratzinger’s doctrine of homosexuality stands upon a theology of sexuality that is seriously flawed and antiquated. It should be commended to no one, and pastors who recommend it are setting up their LGBT parishioners for an “unnatural” celibate life that is filled with needless self-hatred, loneliness, and false guilt. In a word, Ratzinger’s doctrine which has become the bedrock of the Catholic bishops worldwide is a serious sin and a criminal action against the Beneficent Creator who gives to each person their particular calling and sexual orientation.
Finally, If homosexual orientations are not voluntarily chosen but are a gift of God “discovered” during the time of the sexual awakening that marks adolescence, then it is “blameless.” Cardinal Ratzinger entirely agrees with this. The problem is that he then goes on to take the rules governing sex among heterosexuals in my grandparents generation and applies this to homosexuals. This is clearly an absurd notion. If heterosexual men are gifted with a natural attraction to women, then it would be absurd to suggest that they had this impulse but were never able to act upon it. Likewise, for lesbians to have a natural attraction to women, it would likewise be absurd (a violation of natural law) to suggest that they had this God-given impulse but were never permitted (according to Ratzinger’s doctrine) to act upon it. Thus all the clever tricks that Cardinal Ratzinger uses to demoralize lesbians and gays runs against God’s own manifest intentionality in giving them a calling which has its own special rules. Cardinal Ratzinger never came to understood this. This is the glaring absurdity stuck in the middle of his entire absurd system.
What lessons can be learned from this dishonesty?
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 to chart a visionary program of collaborative pastoral renewal that received overwhelming approval by the assembled bishops.
Once the bishops went home, however, the wisdom of free deliberations and collective decision making was quickly ignored by Paul VI. Before they went home, however, the bishops made plans for a tri-annual Synod of Bishops that would meet in order to further define and extend the pastoral renewal of Vatican II. Very quickly the curia took charge of the agenda of these Synods, and the popes who chaired them reduced them to becoming consultative rather than the deliberative bodies. The Synod of 1971 marked a turning point. Since then, the Synods meeting in Rome have been toothless tigers that have had no consequences for defining the key pastoral challenges facing the Church. Much less did these Roman Synods have any opportunity to examine and to reform practices that were dishonestly arrived at and that had caused Catholic an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering.
Pope Francis indicated his intention to return to the vision of Vatican II. He planned an ordinary Synod on the Family for 4-25 Oct 2015. Meanwhile he mandated that an extraordinary Synod on the Family planned for 5-19 Oct 2014 would do the planning and the preparatory work for the ordinary Synod that would come a year later.
My sources indicate that, in early 2014, Pope Francis met with the organizers of this Synod and made plain his requirement: “I want discussion.” The chair responded, “The bishops are not accustomed to having discussions during these synods.” Pope Francis rebuffed this challenge saying, “I want lots of discussions.” Thus, the organizers have effectively been mandated to return to the free and open discussions that marked Vatican II. Pope Francis emphasized this point in opening this Synod.
Why the Pope Doesn’t Quickly Clean Up the Mess
Pope Francis could push the Church ahead by virtue of a series of “executive commands” but this would be a defeat of the collaborative and decision making mandated by Vatican II. We have suffered under three popes who have squelched collaboration and have mandated changes that, in my view, defeated and reversed both the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. If Pope Francis would conduct himself as did these popes, then the people of God would be subjected to more authoritarian policies that would inevitably continue to divide the Church into factions. Moreso, if Pope Francis would adapt an authoritarian style of papal leadership, this would further entrench the practice of papal authoritarianism and effectively incite bishops to oppose him in the name of a future conservative pope who would be elected to the Roman episcopal office. It would also give the College of Cardinals the impulse to choose a successor for Pope Francis who would reverse everything done by him. In effect, therefore, even a “bully” with a progressive agenda in the papal office is still a “bully” whose style of leadership defeats the Gospel and negates the functioning of Synods as envisioned by Vatican II.
Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that he favors “synodolism,” the term he prefers to use interchangeably with “collegiality.” During the first ceremony of the blessing and imposition of the pallium on 34 metropolitan archbishops on 29 June 2013, Pope Francis spoke about “the path of collegiality” as the road that can lead the Church to “grow in harmony with the service of primacy.” He has publicly chosen an international group of eight cardinals to work with him in reforming the Curia. He has convoked an Extraordinary Synod on the Family, and, at the same time, he has promoted an international survey intended to allow the bishops to hear the joys and sorrows, the trials and tribulations that surround family issues. The conducting of this worldwide survey was erratic and the tabulation of the results left significant loopholes; nonetheless, Francis opened the door to hearing the “sensus fidelium” and signaling to the bishops at the Synod that real people with real problems were counting on them for mercy and justice and love.
In brief, I would judge that to the degree that Pope Francis brings open discussion and collegiality back to the forthcoming extraordinary Synod on the Family will we be able to trust him to begin healing the Roman Catholic Church of its destructive factionalism, its crippling authoritarianism, and its pastoral dysfunctionality.
Collegiality is not just an invention of Vatican II. Collegiality was the hallmark of Peter’s authority in the early church. Collegiality was the defining character of the Patristic churches as well. Papal absolutism was only invented in the middle ages when authoritarian monarchs populated the European landscape. In that era, the Vatican States had to have its own absolute monarch so as to be able to hold its head high in the assembly of monarchs.
But this era has passed away. The European states gradually discovered the wisdom of limiting the divine right of kings, and, eventually, they dethroning monarchs entirely. Thus, the papacy represents the last of the absolute monarchs in Europe. And the Vatican wants us, like gullible children, to believe that Matt 16:18 represents the will of the divine savior to establish Peter as an absolute monarch in governing the church. . . .
On this last point, Pope Francis flatly disagrees with a papacy that functions like an absolute monarchy. In fact, Pope Francis has been promoting the reading and the implementation of archbishop emeritus of San Francisco John R. Quinn’s book, Reform of the Papacy. This is the best good news about Pope Francis! How far and how successful Pope Francis will be in this reform remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: Pope Francis needs to get allies for this project at all levels of church organization. Here is where you, the reader, and I, the author of this essay, come to play our parts. Either we can continue to blindly believe that incompetent popes made bad decisions that were upheld as unquestionable and unchangeable or we can join with Pope Francis and expose the dishonesty that surrounds bad decisions that have been imposed from the top down.
When a Priest Falls in Love
[i] The papacy prior to John XXIII has been quick to silence innovative pastors and to hinder any reforms that did not advance the papal agenda. Without a reforming pope like John XXIII, we Catholics would still be reciting our rosaries and reading our private missals during a Mass that had a mystery and holiness that was largely unintelligible to us and removed from our direct participation. Thus, the directives of Vatican II offer a remarkable summary of the pastoral changes that Martin Luther fostered among the Catholics who favored the reforms of the sixteenth century: “The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that… devout and active participation by the faithful may be more easily achieved. For this purpose the rites are to be simplified… The treasures of the Bible are to be opened up more lavishly so that a richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word… The homily is to be highly esteemed as part of the liturgy itself… It should not be omitted except for a serious reason” [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy § 50-52].
The counter-Reformation, on the other hand, made sure that no one moved ahead or stayed behind the authoritarian Vicar of Christ on earth. Without Rome’s approval, nothing went forward. The reforms of Martin Luther were therefore to be despised and hindered.
[ii] James Atkinson, “Catholic Devaluation of Luther, 1517-1939: The Period of Hostility and Destructive Criticism,” Martin Luther: Prophet to the Catholic Church, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983, 3-47.
[iii] Paul VI received a substantial number of letters from pastors who favoured a change in the rule of celibacy. See n. 15.
[iv] Fr. Christian Cochini, SJ, examines the question of when the tradition of priestly celibacy began in the Latin Church, and he is able to trace it back to its apostolic origins. Hence, his book is aptly titled Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990). Some Catholics believe that Fr. Cochini provides the meticulous research into the origins of priestly celibacy that were lacking at the time that Pius VI wrote Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. George T. Dennis, SJ, on the other hand, examines the data offered by Cochini and concludes that his book provides no evidence that celibacy had apostolic origins: “There is simply no clear evidence of a general tradition or practice, much less of an obligation, of priestly celibacy-continence before the beginning of the fourth century.” Peter Fink, SJ, agrees, saying that underlying premises used in the book “would not stand up so comfortably to historical scrutiny.” See also Roger Balducelli, “The Apostolic Origins of Clerical Continence: A Critical Appraisal of a New Book,” Theological Studies 43 (1982) 693-705. While Cochini’s book may have been enthusiastically received in some circles in his native India, the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India presents a narrative that roundly rejects his thesis (http://www.cbci.in/Celibacy-In-The-Catholic-Church.aspx).
[v] What functions will and will not prevail in the world to come remains open to study. The theme of the heavenly banquet where eating and drinking at the abundant love feast would require an earth that has harvests and skilled ranks of harvesters, bakers, wine brewers, cooks, etc. It would also require that the resurrected bodies are functioning bodies capable of practicing and perfecting the agricultural and culinary arts. When sexuality is considered as procreation and marriage is considered as bonding a woman to the use of one man who is not free to divorce her, then one can see how, in the first century, Jesus might have been inclined to imagine that the institution of marriage would be set aside in the world to come. This says nothing, however, about the loss of the human sexual appetite and the hunger for intimacy. In an earlier age when sex was considered as a hindrance to true holiness, Christians were naturally inclined to imagine Jesus was a virgin. It was in harmony with this earlier age that Paul VI wrote his encyclical. The new wine, however, will have to be transported in new wine skins and not in the old skins of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.
[vi] For more details, see Edward Schillbeeckx, Clerical Celibacy Under Fire, Kansas City: Sheed & Ward, 1968, and Garry Wills, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, New York: Doubleday, 2000, 104-150.
[vii] In some segments of American culture, patriarchy still rules and a man who surrenders himself to his wife is considered weak and unmanly. In Africa, on the other hand, patriarchy is still very prevelent and “virility” is invariably associated with “the number of children” that a man fathers. I find this attitude to be true to some African-American men as well. Such men wear a small earring for each child that they fathered. In Africa, clerical celibacy is often forced to take a second place when it comes time for priests to gain the respect of their congregations.
[viii] The empathy that I am thinking of here is the recognition that so many seminarians already have a dual vocation.
[ix] The National Association of Pastoral Renewal conducted a survey of active priests in the U.S.A. in 1967. 62% of the respondents favored optional celibacy. 92% favored allowing married priests and their wives to receive communion. At the 1971 convention of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, the delegates voted nine-to-one in favor of changing the law requiring celibacy. Terence Sweeney, SJ, polled the 312 American Catholic bishops on this question and 24% of the respondents favored optional celibacy. The 1985 Gallup Poll of Catholic laity found that 63% favored married priests. This and other data can be found in Joseph H. Fichter, SJ, Wives of Catholic Clergy, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1992, 172-180.
[x] I myself, as a seminary professor for twenty-five years, have witnessed many seminarians who honestly and painfully spoke of their crisis of conscience forced upon them by a hierarchy that refused to distinguish between the gift of celibacy and the calling to ordained ministry. Even for those going ahead toward ordination admitted that they were often ‘confused that God should seemingly confound them by giving them such a powerful hunger for intimacy and for family.’
[xi] More recent studies demonstrate that the rule of celibacy has continued to be a heavy burden for many priests. Research conducted by Professor Jozef Baniak at Poznand University in Poland found that 54 percent of Polish priests support an end to mandatory celibacy (The Tablet 2/14/09). Nearly one-third of these Polish priests described themselves as being in intimate relationships with women while 12 percent admitted that they were living with a woman. In 2011, hundreds of German, Austrian and Swiss theologians (249 as of February 15, 2011) signed a letter calling for the ordination of married priests (http://www.memorandum-freiheit.de/?page_ id=518). Other appeals can be found here: http://www.ca.renewedpriesthood.org/ page.cfm?Web_ID=1609. One can find priests struggling with intimacy telling their personal storied at “Priests at the Crossroads” (http://www.leavingthepriesthood. com/
[xii] Hormonal contraceptives (the pill, the patch, and the vaginal ring) all contain a small amount of estrogen and progestin hormones. These hormones work to inhibit the body’s natural cyclical hormones to prevent pregnancy. Pregnancy is prevented by a combination of factors. The hormonal contraceptive usually stops the body from ovulating. Hormonal contraceptives also change the cervical mucus to make it difficult for the sperm to find an egg. Hormonal contraceptives can also prevent pregnancy by making the lining of the womb inhospitable for implantation. For more details, see http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/birth-control-pills.
[xiii] When asked about birth control, a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati explained to me that he would ask the penitent how many children have been given to them by the Lord. “If they said two or more, then I explained to them that they had fulfilled their obligation to be fruitful and that the Lord now granted them complete freedom to decide if and when they would conceive any future children. This being the case, the use of birth control was permitted.”
[xiv] For the most detailed description of the inside story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, see Robert McClory, Turning Point, New York: Crossroad, 1995. Other helpful accounts are given by a Vatican II reported, Robert Blair Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and Religion: A Case History in the Development of Doctrine, Kansas City: Leaven Press, 1985, and by a Benedictine monk, Philip S. Kaufman, Why You Can Disagree [with the Pope on Birth Control] and Remain a Faithful Catholic, New York: Crossroad, 1992.
[xv] Shaji George Kochuthara, CMI, in his excellent study, The Concept of Sexual Pleasure in the Catholic Moral Tradition, Rome: Editrice Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, 2007, 310 n. 214.
[xvi] McClory, Turning Point, 88-94, 102-106.
[xviii] Richard McCormick, SJ, “Theologians and the Magisterium,” Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward (now a subsidiary of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Landham, Maryland) 1994, 95. See also John M. Swomley, “The Pope and the Pill” (http://www.population-security.org/swom-98-02.htm).
[xix] In Catholic literature, bold claims are often made. An example: “The effectiveness of the major methods [of NFP] when followed correctly approach 95-99%” (Women Speak on NFP, https://www.carrotsformichaelmas.com/2013/04/29/women-speak-on-nfp-when-natural-family-planning-doesnt-go-according-to-your-plan/). As is often the case, no reference is given to substantiate this claim. Mike Manhart, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Couple to Couple League, which offers one of two primary methods of NFP offered in the archdiocese, goes so far as to claim “NFP is 99.5 percent effective when used correctly” (http://catholicvoiceomaha.com/couples-say-natural-methods-family-planning-are-healthy-and-promote-communication-and-respect).
[xxi] http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/what-is-nfp/benefits.cfm Notice that “the harmful side effects caused by contraception” are intimated here without naming them and without any reference to independent research. Neither are the “harmful side effects of NFP” mentioned.
[xxii] http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/what-is-nfp/effectiveness.cfm Notice that no reference is given to substantiate this claim. The website does say, however, that “Others, who are unclear about their family planning intention (i.e., spacing or limiting pregnancy) or are less motivated, will not consistently follow the method’s guidelines and have a lower effectiveness rate of 80-90%.” But 80% is still very high compared with the 25% effectiveness rate determined by medical experts.
[xxiii] Here is a case that illustrates the pietistic bravado of clerics:
John Paul II recounted [during the funeral homily on 07 Feb 1998] the story of Pironio’s mother, as the cardinal had once related it to the pope: “In the history of my family,” the pontiff said quoting the late cardinal, “there is something miraculous. When she gave birth to her first son, my mother was barely 18 years old and fell seriously ill. After her recovery the doctors told her that she would not be able to have any more children without risking her own life. So she went to consult the Auxiliary Bishop of La Plata, who told her: ‘Doctors can be mistaken: put yourself in God’s hands and do your duty as a wife.’ My mother then gave birth to 21 more. I am the last, and she lived until she was 82.”
Notice the thrust here. The Bishop of La Plata advises this woman to ignore her doctors and risk death in order to “do your duty as a wife.” This is a patriarchal burden placed on women who give themselves over completely to be used and abused by their husbands. The confusing message was “put yourself [recklessly] in God’s hands.” It never occurs to the bishop that her serious illness and her doctor’s warnings might also be “messages” sent to her from God. [See Pope Francis and his response in such circumstances.]
[xxiv] This figure of 5% is repeated endlessly. No sources are given. It appears that Catholic read what others have written and repeat their unwarranted claims because they judge that this represents solid research. See, for example, http://catholicvoiceomaha.com/couples-say-natural-methods-family-planning-are-healthy-and-promote-communication-and-respect
[xxv] In the article making this claim, 2 out of 3 were skeptical. Polloybook, for example, writes:
We practiced NFP (first CCL, then Creighton) for over a decade and did not find it [useful for] marriage building at all. I am always happy for those couples who do, but in our experience, they are the exception and not the rule.
- Johnson, representing the 1/3 who defended Paul VI writes this: “The Holy Roman Catholic Church had spoken. I prefer to listen to the wisdom of Christ’s Holy Church.” James Hope writes in response:
You can’t have a church without the people. But in any case, the point I was making was that if well-meaning and conscientious Catholics, having prayerfully considered the issue, come to a decision not to use NFP, despite knowing the church’s position, maybe they are speaking very clearly on the issue.
Then this followed:
Telling the truth about NFP doesn’t make it appealing to the average church[-]going Catholic, let alone to the general public. So lies were attempted instead. Unfortunately for the promoters of NFP, lies aren’t working too well either.
[xxvi] To examine the flaws in the single reported case study linking NFP with low divorce rates, go to https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4650/does-natural-family-planning-decrease-divorce-rates
[xxvii] I have read an immense amount of literature regarding the various types of NFP. In addition, my wife and I participated in a Pre-Cana Retreat that gave over 25% of it time to NFP. Not once did I hear anything about the research that shows that wives find sex in marriage significantly less appealing than do their husbands men. It is a known fact that most wives reach an orgasm far less often. In such a climate, it does not amaze me that NFP experts would knowing omit the fact that organically and psychologically women are predisposed toward elevated sexual pleasure during the ovulation period.
[xxviii] Such plants, to be sure, could use the new high-tech measures that nearly eliminate sulfer dioxide and other airborn pollutants from their smoke stacks. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is not a “toxic” byproduct of combustion but the normal effect of all burning. What we now know is that as the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase, less heat escapes to outer space and the net result is global warming. As the atmospheric carbon dioxide goes above 350 parts per million, scientists have recorded the melting of the Artic ice sheets, rising sea levels, and an increase in weather patterns that produce flooding, wildfires, and heat waves. But who is speaking up for the planet earth and the limitations on the carbon dioxide levels that it can safely absorb? For this crime, we and our children’s children will suffer. . . .
[xxix] Here is one change that could be made soon. When Pope Francis mandated that feedback should be solicited from Catholics in preparation for the Synod on the Family, this question was included: “Question 7 f. How can a more open attitude towards having children be fostered? How can an increase in births be promoted?” This enforces the “bigger is better” mentality that has infected Catholic family planning for the last hundred years. In the future, when Humanae Vitae is reexamined and revised, I would expect a new question would be asked: “Question 7 f. How can an open attitude towards small families and childless couples be fostered? How can a decrease in births be promoted?” [Pope Francis has since changed his mind regarding the “bigger is better” mentality.]
[xxx] A beloved friend who is twenty years younger than me confided to me that her father decided that his two sons had to have a college education. Why so? “They needed to prepare themselves to become bread-winners for their families.” For his two girls, however, a college education was, to his way of thinking, “a waste to time and a waste of money because their purpose was to make babies and not to bring home a paycheck.” This patriarchal mindset still exists in many places today. See, for example, Emily Reimer-Barry, “Reasons Not to Send Your Daughter to College?” Catholic Moral Theology, 13 Sept 2013 (https://catholicmoraltheology.com/reasons-not-to-send-your-daughter-to-college-why-fix-the-family-is-broken/).
[xxxi] There is an art to making a good Slovenian wine. My grandfather understood this art. There is an art to making potica (a nut loaf particular to Slovenians). My grandmother understood this art. Someone who takes a vow never to drink wine or to enjoy a slice of potica can never be “an insider” who understands and appreciates the art of making Slovenian wines and poticas. The same holds true for the art of love-making. On outsider can never know what “an insider” knows. And what “an insider” knows cannot be entirely said in words. As Michael Polanyi frequently says, “We know more than we can tell.”
[xxxii] Fr. Kochuthara, The Concept of Sexual Pleasure in the Catholic Moral Tradition (Roma: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2007)
[xxxiii] I deliberately use a vulgar term here because I want to capture the vulgar sex that the men caught up in the patriarchal mindset imposed upon their wives.
[xxxiv] In the case of Cardinal Ratzinger, I depend upon the conversation during a plane ride to have revealed an important limitation. Cardinal Ratzinger acknowledges that he was harassed in 1968 by gay students who broke up a faculty meeting as part of their campus-wide protest. Ratzinger was 41 at the time. Beyond this, he admitted that he was not aware of having any significant contact with homosexuals. Such an admission is telling.