Saturday, September 26, 2015

Progressive Catholicism, The Spirit of Vatican II, and Humanae Vitae

A Blast From The Past

   Some years ago, as part of a staff spiritual development project, I was asked to read and comment upon a number of excerpts from a book called A People Adrift: The Crisis Of The Roman Catholic Church In America by a fellow named Peter Steinfels.  I didn’t know much about the author at the time except that he and his wife had some connection with the leftish quasi-Catholic publication Commonweal.  I soon ascertained that he was very 



much of the “Spirit of Vatican II” school of Catholicism, in which the teaching and tradition of the Church often appears to serve as little more than window dressing for whatever enthusiasms are fashionable among the cultural elite.  It seems that it’s hard to maintain this stance if one is too particular about that doctrine and tradition, as I pointed out in one of my responses to the assigned reading:


Steinfels typically uses vague generalities when proposing his heterodox positions, as when he fails to cite any of the documents of Vatican II in his discussion of the council and the reform of the liturgy. Other times he simply ignores factual evidence that doesn’t fit his theses, as when he omits the scriptural background and the teaching of the Fathers in his discussion of contraception, and in his discussions of the current state of the Church he never mentions the ecclesial movements or some of the vibrant new publications spearheaded by lay Catholics.


I couldn’t possibly respond to every omission, distortion, and non-argument in his book, but still my comments grew longer and more elaborate with every chapter assigned, until finally, after reading his chapter on Humanae Vitae and contraception, I submitted a thirteen-page critique of Steinfels' argument and a defense of the Church’s centuries-old ban on contraception, with attached documentation of at least equal length.  It was an exhausting (and tiresome) exercise.
    The Catholic Left, however, never seems to tire of discussing Humanae Vitae and contraception.  Mr. Steinfels continues to opine on the topic in public, most recently just a couple weeks ago in the Washington Post [here], where he takes advantage of the publicity surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States and next month’s Synod on the Family in Rome to renew his campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception.  

The More Things Change . . .

    As for Steinfels’ arguments, well, not much has changed over the past ten years.  To begin with, he tries to minimize the Catholic teaching on contraception with the usual red herrings and non-sequiturs:

The church’s sexual norms were woven out of the Old Testament, apostolic injunctions and classical doctrines such as Stoicism, which held passion suspect and condemned sexual acts not directed toward procreation as “against nature.”
But unlike, say, adultery or fornication or defining the conditions of a valid marriage, contraception was a relatively marginal issue until the 20th century, when reliable methods replaced a brew of folk remedies. Before that, birth control was associated with prostitution or illicit sex and decried by virtually all Christian denominations . When Anglican churches broke that pattern in 1930, followed by many Protestant denominations, Pope Pius XI reacted with a stern encyclical reasserting the condemnation. Opposition to birth control soon became a kind of identifying mark of Catholicism.
So, the implication is that a centuries-old doctrine can be done away with because 1) it’s based on the Bible, the teaching of the Early Church, and Classical moral philosophy, 2) we can accomplish the proscribed activity much more effectively now than we could in the past, 3) said activity was formerly associated with prostitutes, but now, apparently, behaving like a prostitute is no longer a big deal, and 4) the Anglicans and other Protestant bodies changed the teaching, and they’re doing just fine, aren’t they? . . .  At least the ones who are left. This last point is especially funny, given the massive decline of those ecclesial bodies after their acceptance of contraception, when the the main point of Steinfels’ essay is that banning contraception is driving decline in the Catholic Church.  In fact, along with points 1 through 3, this actually sounds more like an argument for maintaining the prohibition on contraception, doesn’t it?
Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics
    There is also the usual unspoken assumption among the “progressive” set that Catholics can somehow vote to repeal unwelcome moral teachings.  He trots out the the notorious “600 theologians” who, in the best traditions of theological discourse, published a full-page ad in the New York Times the day after Humanae Vitae was promulgated in order to proclaim their opposition (one wonders when they found the time to study its arguments, or whether, in fact, they read it at all).  We are asked to accept uncritically the thoroughly unbiblical, uncatholic, and ahistorical notion that, on matters of faith and morals, academics in university theology departments can overrule the Successors of the Apostles.
    We also hear from the voice of the supposedly faithful laity:
Approximately 80 percent of U.S. Catholics, including the thoroughly devout, disagree with that stance [i.e. the prohibition of contraception] (support for changing the ruling is nearly as high around the world). And the vast majority ignore the teaching altogether — one study suggests that 68 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have used birth control, sterilization or IUDs.    
Blessed Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae
This last quote is a good example of just how slippery these statistics can be: what precisely does “thoroughly devout" mean? Who gets to decide who falls into this category? How can one be “thoroughly" devout if one rejects the teaching of the Church to which one is supposedly devoted? Notice also the careful parsing of “68 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have used birth control.” First of all, I’m surprised the percentage isn’t higher, because we live in a culture where contraception is the norm, where doctors routinely prescribe birth control pills to teenaged girls without a second thought.  That makes it easy to distort the real situation: by including all women who have used birth control, Steinfels is putting in the anti-Humanae Vitae camp the growing number of women who, on the contrary, have embraced the encyclical's teaching after trying the current conventional wisdom and finding it sadly wanting.  Quite a few of the public promoters of Humanae Vitae's teachings today, in fact, are lay people who have gone this route.  More importantly, it doesn't matter how unpopular it might be, Doctrine isn't made, or unmade, by popular opinion: it's Doctrine because the Magisterial Church to which Christ gave the power of binding and loosing (Matthew 18:18) has determined that it's the truth.
The Truth
    That, finally, is the fundamental problem with the Steinfelsian approach, not only in regard to Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical, but to everything.  There is no sense of coming to terms with The Truth: everything is put in terms of a battle of opinions, as if this were a wrangling over a political platform, where whoever can concoct the more persuasive argument "wins". For instance, Steinfels writes:
At last October's Synod on the Family . . . the discussion of contraception was perfunctory.  The bishops simply called on the church [sic -lower case in original] to do a better job of propagating "the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae." In other words, the rejection of the birth- control ban is simply a messaging problem.
Well, no, it doesn't necessarily follow that the bishops consider it a "messaging problem", which is political jargon for not “selling” your position in a way that appeals to voters. I suspect the bishops were more concerned about the fact that the Church, in the person of its bishops and priests, virtually never mentions the topic at all (for more on that point, see here).  For Steinfels, however, and for "progressive" (another political term) Catholics in general, politics seems to be the prism through which they view everything, including their faith.  Instead of the traditional definition of theology, "Faith seeking Understanding", we have merely "policy preferences seeking justification". That’s not the sort of thing that inspires ordinary people to become saints.
   And yet, saints is what we are called to be.  St. John Paul the Great used to exhort us to embrace the “Adventure of Orthodoxy”, and “Set Out Into the Deep”; Mr. Steinfels is willing to settle for “give the people what they want”.  Which one sounds like he’s talking about the Church of Jesus Christ?