Bridging the Gap

John O’Connell
In large parts of the Catholic world the teaching of the Church on the immorality of artificial contraception has become something of a dead letter. A recent survey showed that 76% of Irish Catholics disagree with this teaching.
Obviously one does not determine moral issues by counting heads. Yet the chasm between the belief and practice of ordinary Catholics and Church authority is so great that it is a cause for serious concern.
Is there any way in which that gap can be bridged?
In an article in the 1967 C.M.A.C. Bulletin (Vol 7, no 4) by Kevin McNamara, then professor of dogmatic theology in Maynooth College (later he became Archbishop of Dublin), he asks two questions: has the Church taught infallibly the doctrine that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil? After thorough investigation he concludes that, great as is the authority behind the ban against contraception, one cannot say with any assurance that the ban has been the object of infallible teaching. (One could add that nothing has happened between then and now to change that belief)
In the article he asks a second question: is it the intrinsic malice of contraception that is taught, or is it rather certain more fundamental principles, for example: that procreation is good; that the marriage bed is holy and inviolable; that innocent life is sacred; that in marriage too chastity demands self-control and respect for certain norms.
Was the purpose of the ban against contraception simply to safeguard these values? If so, it might be revised in changed circumstances.
According to the article, today it could be argued that such a change exists. The problem today, it says, is over-population not under- population. Today too the status of women is completely changed. They are no longer regarded as inferior to men. They freely choose their partners in marriage so that the danger of exploitation is greatly reduced. Education of children too has become universal and expensive, to the point where it requires a limit on further children.
As well as the above, he also makes the point that when medical science was undeveloped and the excess of death over births was a reality, the ban against contraception could be seen as wise and necessary.
Kevin McNamara wrote this article in 1967. The encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued the following year 1968. In 1963 Pope Paul VI established a commission to investigate this whole question. We now know that the majority report was in favour of change in the teaching of the church. Does that mean, according to the majority report, that up to this the Church had been doctrinally in error? No, according to McNamara, because what the Church was really teaching was not so much that artificial contraception was evil, but rather the other more fundamental truths.
All these issues are dealt with more fully in the original article. In reality McNamara was expecting a change in the official teaching and was preparing his readers for that change, The encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI put an end, at least for the time being, to that expectation.
Forty seven years later, maybe McNamara’s article points to a way in which the impasse between Catholic practice and Church authority could be overcome. And indeed the impasse between the bishops who are in favour of change and those against change

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  1. Peter Shore says:

    “A recent survey showed that 76% of Irish Catholics disagree with this teaching.”
    A recent survey commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests showed that 65% of Irish Catholics don’t go to Mass once a week. The chasm between the belief and practice of ordinary Catholics and Church authority is obviously not limited to contraception, nor is it likely to be bridged by pandering to ‘progressive’ demands.

  2. Kevin walters says:

    The greatest gift we have received is the gift of life, given by God through the action of our parents, refusing to fully partake in His creation by deliberately denying another the opportunity of life, is sinful and this sin is known innately by all of mankind.
    The Church’s teachings on contraception are as true and infallible today as they have historically been
    What is wrong with walking in humility be for God and accepting that you cannot live to the teaching of Humanae Vitae ?
    I do not know how many married couples have accepted Humanae Vitae in Ireland but I do know that it won’t be long before the majority of families in Ireland, as in the rest of the Western world, will soon fit comfortable into a telephone box.
    The materialistic value society at large imposes on families is intense, self-centredness for many is now the norm. Over the last thirty years the church has remained almost silent in regards to the teachings of Humanae Vitae. For couples today the thought of having six or twelve children as often happened in the past (Within my lifetime) has led to the teaching of Humanae Vitae to be rejected by the majority but I believe that this rejection is not based on its core teaching, as I think many accept the teaching as an ideal to be achieved, that is for the sexual act to always be open to the possibility of new life. The majority of the laity know within their own hearts that they are not capable of doing this, they feel what is been ask is too great (Difficult, unrealistic) as they are not spiritually mature enough to do this. I am sure if what I am saying now had been offered to the laity previously (Late fifties) many would have remained within the church by been prepared to walk in humility in the hope of growing spiritually and achieve this ideal and today we would have a more vibrant honest church. Now in this almost total rejection of Humanae Vitae, the ideal of the Church’s teaching, of been open to new life, which is the essence of marriage, has for many been totally lost, their hearts have become hardened, they have set their face against God in a calculated commitment against the possibility of new life, they defile the marriage bed. These are “wounded families” also, but sadly they do not know it, by rejecting Humanae Vitae within the heart and in collusion with many of the clergy, they partake of the bread of LIFE acting out an external gesture of religiosity in conveying an image of worldly respectability, they offend God.
    “‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”
    To try to build up the church on this dishonest model of family is to to build on sand, families will continue to wither on the vine aided and abetted by the leadership of the church who in their own brokenness lack the integrity to put God’s house on earth in order.
    The true divine mercy message (Image) offers a means through an act of humility to be true to oneself before God and grow spiritually and in this new self-realization (Awareness of one’s own limitations) be more receptive to this most precious gift God has given them, the Joy of partaking with God, in creating new life and then participating in its development.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. The reason most often cited in suppport of the ban of contraception is that contraceptives would lead people having multiple partners. That however is no more convincing as a case for it’s being intrinsicly wrong that saying cars are immoral because they lead to death on the roads.

  4. Cornelius Martin says:

    John O’Connell uses the phrase “that in marriage too chastity demands self-control and respect for certain norms.”
    The Pope has decided to canonize St. Thérèse’s parents – Zelie and Louis Martin this Sunday, during the Synod on marriage. The Church has always uses the lives of saints to teach the great truths of our faith.
    The following four claims are made elsewhere:
    1. In this case of the Martins, the example is not only the fidelity of this holy couple, nor their obviously great conjugal love, nor the permanence of their union. All of these things can also be found outside Christianity, because marriage is a natural institution. What the Martins exemplify, is the integral and necessary role of chastity within marriage. True Christian marriages are chaste, and chaste marriages are always holy.
    2. Attention is drawn to Pope Pius XI’s 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti connubii, “of chaste wedlock,” which numerous times praises the wisdom of God contained in this “chaste and sacred fellowship of nuptial union.” Works by Pope Pius XII, Paul VI, St. John Paul II show they agreed with Piu XI on the intimate connection between the contraceptive lifestyle and the destruction of chastity within marriage.
    3. The fact that one marriage, the holy union of Zelie and Louis Martin, could already have produced three saints – and so many vocations to virginal chastity – is not unrelated to the practice of the heroic virtue of chastity by the parents. That this has often been the story of holy marriages in the history of the Church.
    4. If marriage is in trouble today in the Catholic Church, and if vocations to religious life and priesthood are also in trouble, certainly, the crisis of marital chastity is at the root of this problem.
    Two questions arise.
    Firstly, what is chastity within marriage and does its nature change with changes in wider culture?
    Secondly, has the Pope chosen this particular time to canonize Zelie and Louis Martin to support the attitude of his predecessors towards chastity?

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Bridging the gap, eh? Well is it possible that this article points to a larger bridge that needs repair. The bridge between the youth who fear that the adults have completely flipped their lids and those of us who are smack dab in the middle of a mimetic horror story is ever growing. 47 years later, the world is a more dangerous place to live than ever before and we are still debating whether contraception is evil. Contraception that is economically yet silently enforced on couples today (i.e. those who severely limit their family size based on the cost of living) is evil. That was less of an issue 47 years ago but is surely more rampant today. Limiting the number of people born into this modern society, based on the current best practices of the cultural elite, can’t be a bad thing, can it? Wouldn’t that have an impact on migrant worker scenarios and offshore subcontractor requirements? This is what really has the kids up in arms a little : insanity among the cultural elite. They are ready to cut the head off the snake, so to speak.

  6. Michael C. says:

    Interesting all the reactions this topic is raising, I would suggest among ‘professional’ church people. For the vast vast majority of catholic young people this is just a non issue.
    Amazing how we argue about what no longer matters.
    Contraception is just another fact of life.The issue is long since settled for those of an age when it matter and who have the financial ability to avail of it.
    The only issue about it is its non availability in poorer parts of the world.

  7. When Pope John Paul 11 came to Ireland in 1979 I was a young woman in my childbearing years. Even then I was aware that many of my Catholic friends were using contraceptavies. I soldiered on trying my best to be faithful to the teachings of the church. Theory is one thing but practice is another. It’s sounds beautiful,every act should be open to the possibly of life. Natural family planning combined with a lot of abstinence can still result in a very large family over a period of thirty years. I know I have been there. The final result was 5 full term babies, 2 more born prematurely, 3 miscarriages at 7,8, and 16 weeks, 1 stillbirth,1 neo natal death. These pregnancies occurred over a period of twenty two years, so I actually had children in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties .Factor in here the consequences to my health both physical and mental as many of the pregnancies were medical emergencies where my life was at risk not to mention the long periods of grief at he loss of five . If I could go back would I do this again ,NO I would not. Don’t get me wrong I adore my family they are great., I thank God for the seven that survived. When my husband died suddenly in 2008 and my 35 year old daughter was killed in a traffic accident in 2012 I don’t think I would have been able to cope without the wonderful support of my adult children. To conclude ,life is not black and white,there is no one size fits all, what is right for one family may not be right for another. There was nothing special about my story, I know many women with similar stories ,with very large families.We survived but that era is over .

  8. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    Thanks, John, for stimulating this discussion.
    I have not seen Kevin McNamara’s article, but I am inclined to agree that it is not so much a matter of any “intrinsic malice” in artificial contraception, but a question of more fundamental principles we need to examine. Even the question of what “artificial” refers to is important. We need a larger canvas. Here are some relevant bits on this topic that occur to me.
    1. According to the Kevin McNamara’s 1967 article, the problem is over-population, not under-population. This today is not the case everywhere.
    With low birth-rates, the population of Europe is forecast to decline by 100 million this century; the OECD reported this year that Europe will need 60 million immigrants by 2060, or the economy will stagnate. Japan’s birth rate in 2013 was 1.46, well below the 2.07 required for a stable population. Stable population will only be possible by 2070.
    Decisions by individuals can lead to significant social problems. Some countries are looking for ways to encourage an increase in the birth rate. UN statistics are that total fertility rate in the world has fallen from 4.95 in 1950-1955 to 2.36 in 2010-2015. Forecast is for a further 30% fall by 2050.
    2. Kevin McNamara says also that the status of women is “completely changed.” There are significant advances, but it is not completely changed; much remains to be done.
    3. He refers to “the excess of deaths over births.” Apart from exceptional times, like the Black Death, or the two world wars, has that ever been the case?
    4. Medication is normally used to treat disorders or disease. Pregnancy and birth are neither. Contraception is used rather to avoid what would be the natural result of human activity in sexual intercourse.
    Antibiotics are a great boon for treating many conditions. We are now more aware of negative results of over-use or abuse of antibiotics, treating them almost as a “magic bullet.” Is there a similar danger with hormonal contraceptives?
    5. There are chemicals and pharmaceuticals in the environment which can be classified as “Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals”. (Do a web search.) Some effects are side-effects. Commonly used hormonal contraceptive medicines are deliberately designed to alter hormones, as are medications used in assisted human reproduction and in gender-reassignment procedures.
    The resulting run-off into the environment from these can lead to a variety of problems, such as tumours, fertility and birth defects, and developmental disorders, in both humans and in other living creatures.
    It took us a long time to learn of the effects of smoking, greenhouse gases, etc. We need urgently to examine the effects of these disruptor chemicals, not just for our present generation, but for generations to come.
    We have become more aware in recent decades of gender identity issues, even in young children. Is this simply a result of greater awareness, or do Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals play a part?
    6. What effect does the wide availability of contraceptives have on the quality of human relationships? Does it lead to casualisation of sexual activity, with an expectation of sex on the second date, or even the first? How does an expectation of “safe” sexual intercourse without consequences affect the formation of stable, life-long procreative relationships? What part is played by the parallel availability of assisted human reproduction without need for a relationship between the biological parents?
    Michael C wrote: “Amazing how we argue about what no longer matters.” I believe that the above questions matter.
    None of the above is an argument for or against the use of artificial contraception, but an argument for better examination and understanding of the facts. I am not qualified to assess the facts or to provide answers to the above questions. In an ideal world, perhaps the love between the woman and man would be expressed either by engaging in mutually agreed sexual intercourse, or in other expressions of love without intercourse. Out of respect for human health and the bodies of those involved, medication would not be used except where there is a clear medical disorder or disease.
    Knowing we are not in an ideal world, what is the wisest way to enable and encourage responsible parenthood for the present generation and for generations to come?

  9. sean eile says:

    Anne (7) I have read your message. Many thanks and I hope you are well. How can 70 year celibates grasp the story of your life – and so many similar ones!?

  10. Sean eile(9) Thank you Sean,I am great ,nothing can happen to me now that could be worse than what has happened already. My older sister once told me that the reason it is so important that children have a happy childhood is that none of us know what life is going to throw up,but if we have a happy childhood to look back on it sustains us through life. I had wonderful parents myself and so had my late husband. And I am happy to see that my children are so far carrying on the example shown to them.Ann

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