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Vatican II: Common Ground Print E-mail
By Todd Hartch   
Thursday, 16 June 2011

It’s one of the best known episodes among modern Catholic controversies: On 25 July 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which confirmed the Church’s historic teaching that any “means which directly prevent conception” was “absolutely excluded” as a lawful method of family planning and that contraception would harm society in various ways.

Inaugurating a practice that has since become all too common, eighty-seven theologians quickly responded by taking out an ad in the New York Times, in which they argued that the encyclical’s reasoning was faulty. They concluded that artificial contraception was permissible and sometimes even necessary, “to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.” 

Susequent history has demonstrated how mistaken those theologians were and how right Paul VI was. The magisterium has continued to affirm the prohibition on contraception, even as the high incidence of abortion, sexual license, out of wedlock births, and general disintegration of sexual mores suggests that Paul was right also about the social effects of contraception. As important as the encyclical is for issues of sexuality, it is perhaps even more important as a guide to understanding contemporary Catholicism, and specifically to the crisis of authority in the Church.

In the encyclical, Paul spelled out why he could issue a normative statement about human sexuality:

No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law.

Christ, he added, specifically commissioned Peter and the Apostles to interpret the natural moral law. Their successors, the pope and the college of bishops, have the same authority, which is a necessary and logical provision on God’s part, since Catholics’ salvation depends on knowing what is right and wrong. 


        His Holiness Paul VI

The eighty-seven theologians took a different view. The encyclical, they said, betrayed “a narrow and positivistic notion of papal authority” and “an inadequate concept of natural law.”  They based this grave charge on the simple fact that some “competent philosophers” disagreed with the pope. In other words, they not only rejected Paul’s specific teaching on contraception but also proposed the startling idea that the pope was somehow bound by the opinions of theologians. 

If there was a sufficient scholarly weight of opinion about a particular issue, they seemed to be suggesting, then the pope should either stay quiet or bend to that opinion. Clearly, such a view undermined the very nature of the papacy.  It would make the pope a sort of arbiter concerned with measuring the strength of various positions rather than the divinely instituted holder of the keys of the kingdom, concerned about truth alone.

As toxic as the legacy of the eighty-seven theologians has been in sexual matters, their undermining of the papacy and the magisterium has been, if anything, even more devastating.  The notion that “Catholics may dissent from authoritative, nonfallible [sic] teachings of the magisterium” and that theologians have “a special responsibility of evaluating and interpreting pronouncements of the magisterium” have been as influential as their specific advice about contraception. 

After all, many Catholics who contracept know that they are breaking an official Church teaching (many also do not, another confusion spread by dissent).  The  deeper problem is that they all now believe that there is some sort of “right of dissent” that justifies such disobedience.  We thus live in an unbelievable situation in which papal encyclicals, the conciliar documents, and the plain words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church are not enough to convince many Catholics about Church teaching on any number of issues. That teaching, they believe, may simply be ignored.

The result has been four decades of confusion. But broken families, abortion, and pornography are readily identifiable results of contraception, and cannot help but lead eventually to reexamination of the practice; dissent and the corresponding uncertainty among the faithful about what the Church teaches and, incredibly, about whether it is necessary to obey what the Church teaches, are actually more difficult problems to solve. 

Those who stress the “right of dissent” are unlikely to attend closely to theological arguments about the nature of obedience.  One solution is a return to the documents of Vatican II.  Recent popes have stressed the importance and centrality of these documents for our era – at  the same, the NYT Eighty-Seven theologians cited these documents in their own defense.  Vatican II, then, still represents a common ground for a wide range of contemporary Catholics. 

What does Vatican II say about authority?  It affirms that the pope has “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” and that he is “always free to exercise this power.”  Dissenters usually reply that they are still justified in resisting any doctrine that has not been specifically defined as infallible. 

The council has a ready answer: “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” 

No members of the faithful – least of all those who stake their claims on the Council – could possibly deny the clear words of Vatican II, could they?   

 
 Todd Hartch teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University.  He specializes in World Christianity, missions, and the religious history of Mexico.
 
 
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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Manred, June 16, 2011
You have laid out a very cogent argument for Traditional Catholicism as we are quite obedient to the Magisterium. We are noted for our large families. No progress in resolving the Church's (our) problems will be made until one fact is admitted: the Second Vatican Council and all that followed was the beginning of a new religion. Benedict calls it the hermeneutic of DISCONTINUITY. With Summorum Pontificum and Universae Ecclesiae he is striving to regain the henrmeneutic of CONTINUITY.
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written by Michael PS, June 16, 2011
The fallacy is the attempt to identify "the faithful" by their doctrine.

As Mgr Knox observed, "The fideles, be they many or few, be their doctrine apparently traditional or apparently innovatory, be their champions honest or unscrupulous, are simply those who are in visible communion with the see of Rome... there can be little doubt that, in the West, our labelling of this party as orthodox and that as heterodox in early Church history comes down to us from authors who were applying this test of orthodoxy and no other."
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written by Louise, June 16, 2011
and from Mfgr Knox's friend, H. Belloc:

". . . but when upon a point of ritual or of dedication or special worship a man talks to you of the Spirit and Intention, and complains of the dryness of the Word, look at him askance. He is not far removed from Heresy."

p. 153, The Path to Rome.

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written by Yezhov, June 16, 2011
It would be of interest to know how many of the 87 dissenting theologians were homosexuals.
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written by Howard Kainz, June 16, 2011
We tend to think that these theologians are practicing Catholics, in communion with the Church. But this is not necessarily the case. Someone may specialize in theology simply because of his/her academic interests. Motivation could include archeological or anthropological goals, the dispelling of myths, replacing "patriarchy" with feminist interpretations, etc.
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written by jsmitty, June 16, 2011
I think the problem with this very familiar narrative is that it gives far too much weight to the problem of theological dissent. As one in academia myself, I hate to break it to you that the opinion of theologians is just not that important a driver of the actual behavior of Catholics. Neither are papal encyclicals which few Catholics are much aware of let alone actually read. Catholics started contracepting well before the incident with the 87 theologians and the NY Times article. They began more or less when the rest of the country did. The theologians themselves were being driven by the behaviors of actual Catholics rather than the other way around.

Yes the pill has had some deleterious effects. But its relationship to abortion, divorce and pornography is much more complicated than this piece implies. The availability of the pill did coincide with an increase in the abortion and divorce rates in the 70's and 80's. But since the early 90's both rates have been falling (at least in the US) while the pill remains as available as ever. (Not sure how birth control and pornography are related?!?!) So the narrative you are embracing just seems a bit dated.

And sadly, I don't think better catechesis or getting more Catholics to read Humanae Vitae or purging dissenters from the academy will do much to put the birth control genie back into the bottle. The real problem is that there are very powerful economic and social forces at work in developed countries which cause a widespread desire to limit fertility. I hate to sound defeatist but Church teaching can only do so much in the present age to combat this.
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written by Manfred, June 16, 2011
One of the notorious theologians was Fr. Charles Curran who was allowed by the American bishops to teach at Catholic University (the only U.S. Catholic University under hierarchical control) for NINETEEN years after his dissent on all manner of Church teachings, until he was removed by the Vatican. He has been at Southern Methodist U. since then.
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written by Bill Beckman, June 16, 2011
For an interesting comparison to Prof. Hartch's view, please see today's (June 16) post on Chiesa by Enrico Rafaelli.
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written by Howard Kainz, June 16, 2011
@Bill Beckman: on the Chiesa website the spelling is "Radaelli.
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written by Patrick, June 16, 2011
Such statements from these theologians indicate that they are effectively Protestants. I think comment of Manred above that they represent a "new religion" goes a bit too far. They simply represent Protestantism.

Protestants are Christians too and I suppose that they have their place in our Lord's plan of salvation. They have, historically, drawn Rome's attention to places where the Catholic Church had become complacent (e.g. selling indulgences) and have contributed greatly to the artistic and philosophical heritage of Christianity (e.g. Bach and Kant).

Protestants, however, are NOT Roman Catholics and shouldn't present themselves as such. It's not surprising that (as Manfred noted in a subsequent comment) Charles Curran ended up at a Protestant university. Roman Catholics acknowledge the authority of the bishops. If you don't make such an acknowledgement, then you are a Protestant.
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written by Manfred, June 16, 2011
@Patrick: Thank you for citing my comments twice (apologies-I have a problem with my "f" key). It is a new religion as the term Novus (New) Ordo (Order) makes quite clear. That is why so many priests/pastors have refused to use the Third ICEL translation in November, 2011. The English words are almost an exact translation of the Latin in the 1962 Missal. The Pope recently stated that the rubrics of the 1962 Mass stand, i.e., no female altar servers, lectors or eucharistic ministers. We are going back to the Truth of Continuity. Protestants are heretics. They were proven to be by the Council of Trent and they are now. They contribute nothing to Truth and they have caused nothing but discord. There are no ordained women in the Church. They are rife in Protestantism. What finally stirred the Anglicans was the ordaining of women bishops. Even the "dullest" Anglican knew something was intrinsically wrong. Benedict is showing again that mankind is composed of the wheat and the chaff and woe to those numbered among the chaff.
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written by John Coalson, June 17, 2011
@jsmitty: "Not sure how birth control and pornography are related?!"

Each destroys both the unitive and procreative purposes of sexual intercourse while at the same time alienating man from God. In that sense they are essentially identical.

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