The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 April 2005

Nudging the Vatican

By and large, John Paul II's hard line against various "modernizations" of the church is just fine with The Glittering Eye:

[W]hile the Church may change various different practices and accidental features of Church teaching, essential doctrinal issues won't change. The Church simply isn't in the business of conforming to the prevailing beliefs (whatever those might be) of the contemporary world. On the contrary the job of the Church is to urge people out of conformity with the contemporary world and into greater conformity to the will of God.

Although there's one area, says the Eye, which needs further study:

I've always been skeptical of the position on birth control that Paul VI promulgated in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. I hurry to mention that I understand the Church's position and I accept it. Eppur si muove.

I do believe that this teaching puts the Church in something of a pickle. There is an incontestable relationship between fertility and poverty. By and large the very poorest countries also have the highest fertility rates. I won't bother to cite statistics — you can look it up for yourself. But here's the pickle. Either the Church is advocating poverty and misery (which is inconceivable), or the Church needs to moderate its stance on birth control (which I believe can be done without doctrinal trauma), or the Church needs to advocate other policies (like the education of women) which are closely correlated with reduced fertility.

While I agree with the Eye here, I think there's a greater risk of "doctrinal trauma"; I reread Humanae Vitae last night, and it's what you might call inflexible and adamantine. From section 23:

We are fully aware of the difficulties confronting the public authorities in this matter, especially in the developing countries. In fact, We had in mind the justifiable anxieties which weigh upon them when We published Our encyclical letter Populorum Progressio. But now We join Our voice to that of Our predecessor John XXIII of venerable memory, and We make Our own his words: "No statement of the problem and no solution to it is acceptable which does violence to man's essential dignity; those who propose such solutions base them on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and his life. The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values."

But from Populorum Progressio, a year earlier:

There is no denying that the accelerated rate of population growth brings many added difficulties to the problems of development where the size of the population grows more rapidly than the quantity of available resources to such a degree that things seem to have reached an impasse. In such circumstances people are inclined to apply drastic remedies to reduce the birth rate.

There is no doubt that public authorities can intervene in this matter, within the bounds of their competence. They can instruct citizens on this subject and adopt appropriate measures, so long as these are in conformity with the dictates of the moral law and the rightful freedom of married couples is preserved completely intact. When the inalienable right of marriage and of procreation is taken away, so is human dignity.

Finally, it is for parents to take a thorough look at the matter and decide upon the number of their children. This is an obligation they take upon themselves, before their children already born, and before the community to which they belong — following the dictates of their own consciences informed by God's law authentically interpreted, and bolstered by their trust in Him.

There's a fair amount of wiggle room in that last sentence, perhaps.

And it should be remembered that the fact that the Church hasn't changed doesn't invariably mean that it won't. I don't expect any changes in the female-ordination policy, for instance, or in the opposition to abortion, but the contraception restriction, as the Vatican surely knows, is more honored in the breach. Still, there will be no changes without a fight: while Paul VI didn't say so in so many words, there is still a belief that Humanae Vitae qualifies as ex cathedra and thus infallible.

Posted at 6:31 AM to Immaterial Witness


I don't seem to have as many problems with the teachings of the Church as many American Catholics seem to. Sometimes I think that too many American Catholics are just poorly informed.

I do think that practices (more-or-less unrelated to actual teachings) of the Church ought to change. For example, I think that clerics should have significantly less role in running the business and day-to-day management of parishes. And I think that women should have much, much more power in those same areas. That's not doctrinal, just practices. I suspect if we'd had more tough old ladies around we wouldn't be dealing with all the sexual hanky-panky that's been revealed in the last several years.

BTW I know dozens (or maybe hundreds) of priests and I don't honestly believe I know one who hasn't violated his vow of celibacy in one way or another. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at 11:40 AM on 5 April 2005

When Populorum Progressio invites parents to "decide upon the number of their children," it is not giving any wiggle room at all. The "authentically interpreted" clause is the clincher there. You must follow your conscience, yes, but first you must inform your conscience, and here's how. Get it?

Oh, and you forgot to mention the Pius XI encyclical Casti Connubii, from 1930, which gives the ban on contraception an even more distinguished pedigree. Fallible? Only technically; I'd say it's less likely to be overturned than Marbury v. Madison.

But not to worry, parents! You can decide upon the number of your children the Catholic way, with The Fertility Wizard! (Cue music.)

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 10:04 PM on 5 April 2005

that there is a correlation between poverty and fertility does not imply causation.

personally, i think it more likely that female education, or the lack thereof, is the cause of both.

Posted by: rammer at 11:01 PM on 5 April 2005

There's a fine, 100% method of birth control that anyone can afford and that the church does not prohibit: it's called not having sex. And -- guys? You won't explode, and women won't shrivel and dry up, if you don't pump away like V8 engines every single night.

That being said, I'd like to point out that there is no particular evidence that increased fertility causes poverty, which is what anti-baby-having people are always seeming to imply. It can just as easily be seen as a response to poverty (for example, poorer countries have less reliable medical care so more children die, so more children are needed); not to mention it's kind of patronizing to tell poor women that the only reason they are always having babies is because they are poor sheep hypnotized by evil church mens when in fact they probably simply want to have lots of children because (I know this can be hard to fathom) they actually like their children.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 9:10 AM on 6 April 2005

Surely not having sex works; however, it's never been tried. :)

(Okay. I've tried it. It sucks, and not in a good way either. But I haven't actually exploded.)

I'm plugging Sean's Wizard, though, because I think it's worthwhile and spiffy. (And Sean? I'm not recommending that Catholics actually ought to rationalize their choices based upon that "wiggle room," but I'm thinking that in the event that there is a change in policy, this particular passage will be offered as part of the rationale.)

Posted by: CGHill at 9:51 AM on 6 April 2005