The Lambeth Conference of 1930 subverted itself, everyone agrees, but how? That’s the question.
Some background: the Church of England, spread throughout the world by the British Empire, felt the need, beginning in the 1850s, to hold worldwide conferences of bishops for the sake of unity. These meetings were convened about every ten years at the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace.
The Lambeth Conference of 1930 was infamous, even in its day, for its Resolution 15 on artificial contraception:
Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.
The resolution, which passed 193 to 67 with 47 abstentions, is said to be the first instance where any responsible authority – not simply in Christendom but in any culture – had publicly supported, in any way at all, the use of artificial contraception. Pope Pius XI was so distressed by this defection from, we may say, the common view of humanity in the natural law, that he wrote his encyclical Casti Connubii in reply.
The resolution was infamous even in its day because it flatly contradicted the Lambeth Conference of 1920:
We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers – physical, moral and religious – thereby incurred. . .we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control. (1920, Resolution 68)
Indeed, how could unity across space possibly be fostered by a body that did not maintain unity over time?
The main holding of Resolution 15 in a very short time subverted the “strong condemnation” at the end of the paragraph. But the other “strong” teachings of the Conference were likewise subverted:
Resolution 16: The Conference further records its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.
Resolution 17: [The Conference]. . .condemns the propaganda which treats contraception-control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion.
Resolution 18: Sexual intercourse between persons who are not legally married is a grievous sin.
That resolution went on to say that, to thwart the “increasing use of contraceptives among the unmarried and the extension of irregular unions owing to the diminution of any fear of consequences, the Conference presses for legislation forbidding the exposure for sale and unrestricted advertisement of contraceptives.”
Now, note that this was the “bad” Lambeth Conference. And yet one can hardly find a Catholic bishop today who will make similar strong condemnations, and take such a position about the law – against our Griswold and Eisenstadt. Neither do the new advocates of the “common good” dare to express this view: it’s much bolder to tax and regulate economic activity, right?
T.S. Eliot gave his theory of how the Conference would subvert itself in an essay, “Thoughts after Lambeth.” Resolution 15 was “almost suicidal,” he opined, but why? Not because it subjects practical reasoning to the internal unraveling that must follow upon holding that something intrinsically wrong was permissible. Indeed, Eliot shows himself confused about the distinction between proximate end (the means of avoiding conception) and remote end (the grounds for wanting to avoid conception). That is, he never grasps the teaching of the Roman Church, which he opposes.
Rather, he argued that the bishops had intended to permit use of artificial contraception for only a small number of cases – where the couple feels a genuine perplexity of conscience. And yet the bishops give no grounds for identifying cases like that: “To allow that ‘each couple’ should take counsel only if perplexed in mind is almost to surrender the whole citadel of the Church. It is ten to one, considering the extreme disingenuity of humanity, which ought to be patent to all after so many thousand years, that only a very small minority will be ‘perplexed’,” Eliot wrote. And then ten-to-one as well that, if they seek advice from a clergyman, they’ll be told anything other than “do what you like.”
The Washington Post had its own diagnosis. It editorialized, not on the Lambeth Conference precisely, but on a committee of the Federal Council of Churches in America, which copied Lambeth and passed a similar resolution in 1931.
In sentences that seem lifted from Humanae vitae, the WaPo editors wrote that, “the committee’s report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution, by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be ‘careful and restrained’ is preposterous.” (Mar 22, 1931)
One reads this and is shocked to realize that it spontaneously identifies artificial contraception with the shady culture of prostitutes and the like.
The problem is bad education, the WaPo editors suggest: these churchmen “struggle. . .with adhering to Christian doctrine while at the same time indulging in amateurish excursions into the fields of economics, legislation, medicine, and sociology,” peddling “a mixture of religious obscurantism and modernistic materialism.”
Ninety years later, it looks as though only John Paul II’s papacy did anything to slow the suicide.
*Image: White Marseille fig tree, which fronts Lambeth Palace, and came with the last Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Reginald Pole, in 1556. It bears abundant fruit every autumn. [Photo: archbishopofcanterbury.org]