Theologians Discuss Nature of Church Teaching on Contraception

With what binding force does the Church forbid artificial contraception?

This question was discussed at the U.S. bishops’ council press panel and drew two cautious but somewhat different answers from two moral theologians.

Father Francis Connell, C.SS.R., former dean of the theology school at the Catholic University of America, said the ban on contraception was considered certain and unchangeable teaching “at least up to very recently.” A guest panelist, Father Enda McDanagh of Ireland’s Maynooth College, said he was not certain that a clear statement on the binding force intended by the Church could be made.

Until recently, Father Connell said, “the theological note [the binding force of a Church teaching, that is, a statement whether it is infallibly defined, a certain conclusion from reason, or a common opinion] was considered to be certainty derived as a conclusion from divine and natural laws.” He said U.S. moral theologians Father John Ford, S.J., of the Catholic University of America, and the late Father Gerald Kelly, S.J., in a recent book which they jointly wrote, consider the Church’s position as “unchangeable but not of divine Catholic Faith,” in other words not infallibly defined.

“Perhaps the Pope’s statement, [last year] that the teaching holds ‘for the time being’ while a special papal commission continues its work on the subject might lessen this certainty. But this has been the theological note up to then at least,” Father Connell said.

Father McDanagh said that the “universal consensus” has largely been the basis for “certain” teaching and “it is very difficult to say whether the statement expresses the universal consensus today. That consensus has been developing very slowly regarding sexuality. Theologians must recognize today the changes which are effecting this consensus….”

“The best guidance we have so far is against contraception as an authentic expression of married love. Beyond that, though, I am convinced you cannot fix the theological note on the Church’s present stand.”

He said he thought that until an official pronouncement is made, Catholics should follow “the best judgment the Church has got on the subject” as the Pope has asked. This, he said, does not imply either that there will be a change or that there won’t be.

Turning to the issue of conscientious objectors in a modern war, which several Fathers had discussed the same morning on the council floor, Father McDanagh said he thought the Church should consider approaching conscientious objection as a “special vocation in the world today to which certain individuals are called, even though we all agree defensive war might be justified.”

“We need people who will give this vital witness to peace maintained at any price. I hope the text of the council document will be strengthened in this regard,” he said.

Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the social action department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, said the council’s present text of chapter five of the document on the Church in the modern world “states that the Church should have respect for those who have serious distaste for all use of war. Our courts in the United States don’t require a religious reason for conscientious objection. Any appeal to a motive beyond oneself — even for atheists — seems to be acceptable.”

“On the question of the population explosion,” Msgr. Higgins said he did not think the council was “in a position to make a judgment on the resources of the earth and their exhaustibility.” “In any matter of factual information depending on scientific investigation I think the council should remain very tentative,” he said.

Speaking on the text distributed during the morning session on Christian education, Father Frederick R. McManus, director of the U.S. bishops’ liturgical office, said it was three times as long as the previous text which was voted on in a general way during the last session. As a result, he said there may be a question of whether there should be new discussion before the final voting on the document.

Msgr. Mark J. Hurley, vice chancellor of the San Francisco archdiocese, said in many ways it is an entirely new document. On the relationship between parents, the community, the state, society and the Church, he said there has been much controversy which was resolved only 12 hours before the document went to press. In line with the speech made by Auxiliary Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, last year, he said the distinction has been made between society in general and a state in particular.

He said, however, that the commission ran into trouble formulating this distinction because “some Europeans do not understand the same thing by the words as Americans and others do.”

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