“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”—Lenny Bruce
POPE Benedict XVI made headlines when he said it’s okay to use condoms as a means to prevent HIV. Although a no-brainer to non-Catholics and Catholics who retain their common sense, Benedict’s statement matters to those who observe unquestioning obedience to anything the Pope says on matters of morals.
Consequently, Benedict’s bishops, among them Deogracias Yñiguez of the Philippines, made sure the faithful understood that the statement of His Holiness applied only to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, in particular HIV. He said, “If a condom is used as a contraceptive, certainly it will be condemned by the Church. But to use it to avoid a disease in specific circumstances, the Church can take another mindset.”
So the Church remains steadfast and absolute against artificial contraception? Not always.
During the civil wars in the Congo, the Vatican allowed nuns to take birth-control pills as a means to prevent unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape. The Vatican, I suppose, placed its position on artificial contraception on hold to avert what some may have viewed as a greater evil: nuns breastfeeding unwanted babies.
But there was a time when governments and the Church actually saw eye to eye in the matter of contraceptives. Up to the early 1960s, 18 states in America had laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives except when sold purportedly “for the prevention of disease only” or as means of “intimate feminine hygiene.” The same held true in Italy, where birth control was illegal but contraceptives could be sold under the guise of disease prevention.
Imagine what it must have been like for married couples in those dark ages. Couples who wanted to space their children were faced with only two choices: abstinence or contraceptives, and breaking the law every time they had sexual intercourse. Pardon the pun but the past tense of the “F” word describes that choice.
Governments eventually saw the light and legalized artificial contraception. But the Church did not. And so today it faces a crisis.
Prof. Lesley Woodcock Tentler of the Catholic University of America recalled that prior to 1930, the Church rarely delivered sermons on contraception and many confessors were also silent on the subject, so much so that it allowed “the observant Catholic, if he chose, to remain in something approaching a state of ‘good faith ignorance’ with regard to contraception.”
That idyllic situation changed with Pius XI’s Casti Connubii. His encyclical “vigorously affirmed the absolute nature of the Catholic ban on contraception and summoned confessors to do battle against ‘good faith ignorance’ among the laity.” Thus, with the stroke of a pen, Pius XI turned otherwise good Catholics into sinners.
Casti Connubii should have been the last word on contraception but Catholic couples could not live with it and confessors who were not completely sold on it began advising penitents to follow their conscience.
There was pressure on the Vatican to review its position on contraception. But it stood firm. Thirty years would pass before it would give in.
In 1963 Paul VI formed the Papal Birth Control Commission. It produced Humanae Vitae, an encyclical that only exacerbated the conflict between the Church and married couples.
American Catholicism, for example, declined precipitously after Humanae Vitae. Apologists of the Church blame modernity but the truth is the Church drove away its faithful because of its stubborn and unreasonable stand on contraception.
America’s experience will be repeated here if the native clergy insists on blocking the RH bill. They will be placing the Church’s moral authority on the line because their arguments are not persuasive and their mentality has not changed.
They have yet to accept the reality that the days of blind obedience are gone and threats of excommunication and eternal damnation over a debatable teaching do not frighten anyyone anymore. More important, they have to anticipate that the Vatican will, sooner rather than later, refine its position on artificial contraception.
More and more Catholics are beginning to believe that “the locus of moral authority is properly the conscience of the individual believer.” The Vatican, however, will never allow itself to be completely marginalized on matters relating to moral decisions, especially not when they involve sexual conduct. Thus it will do what it must to take God out of individual consciences and put Him back where He belongs: inside the Vatican.