Thursday, April 5, 2012

Church Hierarchy, Humanae Vitae, and Contraception

A letter to the editor appeared in our local paper recently, with the header “Catholics’ opinions vary on contraception”. Here are the essential points of the author, with my emphases:

To the editor:

…[t]he real question is: “What does the Catholic church believe about birth control?” The answer depends on the definition of the Catholic church. The Second Vatican Council, meeting in the early and mid-1960s, shifted from a hierarchical view to the view that the church is a community of believers.

What does that community believe? According to a 2011 study by the reproductive health institute Guttmacher, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women — including married women — have used a form of contraception other than natural family planned (“the rhythm method”). A poll conducted Feb. 1-5, 2012, by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that 58 percent of American Catholics favored contraception as a required, no-cost benefit of health insurance. [The author goes on to cite more stats showing that a majority of “Catholics” approve or at least support the use of artificial contraception.]

…During the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII convened a commission to study contraception; he died before the commission completed its work. When the commission, which included lay members of the Catholic Church, favored broadening the church’s acceptance of contraception, Pope Paul VI reconstituted the commission so that only bishops voted. Still, the commission’s final report favored changing the church’s teaching on contraception. In the end, Pope Paul VI chose to issue an encyclical condemning contraception

Sigh. I was dismayed to see this in our local paper for several reasons.

First, the author is a respected and well-known member of the parish, and is also a prominent medical professional in the local community. Her opinion – though it is full of errors – will carry some weight with parishioners.

Second, this parish, like many others, is already mired in the idea that contraception is okay, especially if you never talk about it, if you’ve “prayed about it”, and if you have found a priest who will tell you to “follow your conscience” (but who fails to tell you how to correctly form your conscience).

Third, the author is wrong, and has now made a public statement that displays her error. 

This is of concern to all the faithful, because it indicates that one among us is in need of correction in order to remain in full communion with the Church. In addition, the statements in the letter undermine the teachings of the Church in the eyes of the local community.
Let’s take a look at the basic premise of the author of this letter – that the authority of the Church now rests with the “community of believers” rather than the bishops in union with the Pope.

There are many who agree with the erroneous notion that the authoritative hierarchy of the Church was turned upside down by Vatican II; but the documents of the Council themselves do not support this view. Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) provides ample evidence that the hierarchy of the Church, with regard to the authority of bishops and priests over the laity, remains in place. That document states (my emphases added throughout):

Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered one to another; each in its own proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.  The ministerial priest, by the sacred power that he has, forms and rules the priestly people… (Chapter II, 10).
Additionally, Chapter III of this document is entitled “The Church is Hierarchical” – certainly strong evidence that Vatican II did not shift away from a hierarchical view – and gives the Biblical background for this structure. In article 18, we are reminded that “[Jesus] willed that [the Apostles’] successors, the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his church until the end of the world.”

Of course, there are statements to the effect that bishops and priests must keep the best interests of the people in mind, that they are servant leaders. However, this does not mean that our leaders must be doormats, nor does it make the Church a democracy where the laity decides Church teaching by a majority vote. A true servant leader does not take a vote and do things the way the majority wants. Rather, he keeps his eye on what is best for the people he leads, not considering himself.
Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium concerns itself with the laity, noting that the faithful must help each other to achieve greater holiness; they must help ensure that human-made “things” are put in place for the utility of all people; they must strive for social justice; they must “impregnate culture and human works with a moral value,” remembering that “in every temporal affair they are to be guided by a Christian conscience.” (article 36)
In addition to these lofty and noble-sounding responsibilities, Catholic Christians have another, much more difficult duty to fulfill:

…the laity should promptly accept in Christian obedience what is decided by the pastors who, as teachers and rulers of the Church, represent Christ. In this they will follow Christ’s example who, by his obedience unto death, opened the blessed way of the liberty of the sons of God to all men. Nor should they fail to commend to God in their prayers those who have been placed over them, who indeed keep watch as having to render an account of our souls, that they may do this with joy and not with grief… (article 37)
The general authority of bishops over their dioceses is also upheld by Lumen GentiumChapter III states that:

 …with priests and deacons as helpers, the bishops received the charge of the community, presiding in God’s stead over the flock of which they are the shepherds in that they are teachers of doctrine, ministers of sacred worship and holders of office in government… [Bishops,] in a resplendent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act as his representatives. (article 21)

…[T]he order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church. (article 22)

The bishops, we are told in this Vatican II document, are successors of the apostles, and as such receive the mission of teaching all peoples. They are “teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people assigned to them, the faith which is destined to inform their thinking and direct their conduct.”  As for the part of the faithful in all this:

Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff are to be revered by all as witnesses of divine and Catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, are obliged to submit to their bishops’ decision, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and to adhere to it with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind. (Lumen Gentium, Ch. III, 25)

Catholics’ opinions on contraception certainly do vary, but the Catholic Church’s teaching has been constant on this issue since its beginning. Pope Paul VI upheld the centuries-old teaching of the sinfulness of contraception, despite popular opinion; he could legitimately do this precisely because he was the Pope. The Catholic Church recognizes the ultimate authority of the Pope because the Church is NOT a democracy. 

The Church is quite clear in Her teaching that contraception is a grave sin. This is taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. As faithful Catholics, we are required to adhere to that teaching. On other issues, such as immigration, health care, and war, the Church does not have a clear position (despite what the USCCB sometimes seems to think!), and Catholics are free to disagree and express their own informed opinions in those areas.

By expressing a personal opinion that does not conform to Church teaching, the writer of the letter has likely convinced many Catholics here that they have been right all along about their decision to use artificial contraception. This is unfortunate, because no matter what favorable opinion is expressed by however influential a person, contraception remains a grave sin against God.

Dissent within the Catholic Church has caused confusion about the morality of contraception, as well as a failure by our shepherds to adequately teach on the subject. Thanks be to God, Cardinal Timothy Dolan has recently admitted that this is true, and that remedial work must be done. In a LifeSiteNews article, he is quoted as saying:

I’m not afraid to admit that we have an internal catechetical challenge—a towering one—in convincing our own people of the moral beauty and coherence of what we teach. That’s a biggie…

We have gotten gun-shy . . . in speaking with any amount of cogency on chastity and sexual morality...

That’s a good start. Let’s pray we see progress in this area now that the can of worms has been opened!

Here's a 2008 sermon by Bishop-Elect Fr. Liam Cary on Humanae Vitae:

1 comment:

  1. Makes me wonder why the author felt the need to stick her oar in the water. Great sermon. I think the Holy Father and the Holy Spirit are looking after Baker.



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