Category: Politics

My Church Right or Wrong?

In paraphrasing the patriotic slogan, “My country right or wrong” and substituting for country, I think it portrays what many of us learned in from our , and followed for years. It’s another way of saying, “you gotta go along with the , even if you don’t agree with it, if you want to be a loyal citizen.” It also reminds me of G.K. Chesterton response to the quote, “…it’s like saying my mother drunk  or sober.” I think what Chesterton meant was, that however much we love our country or , it’s necessary to temper that love and loyalty with a good dose of reality. I believe many of us have struggled with that dose of reality. Some conscience say, you need to take a stand, but for others, after years of submitting to authority say I have hope that the authorities will shape up and get it right; in the meantime, I’ll wait and see. Others answer, not in my time, I’m out of here!

It’s not surprising to read that many cradle catholics have already made their decision and left the of their youth, and that the largest number of christians in the United States is former catholics. I suspect that the majority left because they had no hope that those same members of the hierarchy would stop treating them as the “lowerarchy”, and expecting them to docilely ignore their conscience and let the feelings of guilt that is embedded in every cell of their catholic DNA take over.[1] By the way, I have a friend from my catholic grammar school days, who up to his forties, swore his mother had the east coast franchise on guilt.

“Whiter goest thou…?”
After having discussed what I consider the abuse by the United States Conference of Bishops, () of the power of the political pulpit to kick off their campaign on contraception in my first commentary; and the in the second commentary the insanity of infallibility peddled by Pio Nino, that is the basis for the authority to condemn contraception. and many other teachings of the Roman Church; I want to turn to some of the options that we have for or revolution. First, I will briefly outline the different positions that several theologians have taken on the future of the Church and on the Hamlet-like dilemma of whether “to stay or not to stay”?   Finally, I will share my point of view on these issues, and hope to hear your response.

Gregory Baum

I’ll start with Gregory Baum, who of the two other theologians I’ll consider, is the most hopeful that the has and can make significant changes. I suspect that’s apparent from the very title of his book, Amazing Church: A Theologian Remembers a Half-Century of Change. Fr. Baum has a rich back ground as a theologian. He served as an expert for the Vatican II from 1962 to 1965; taught theology both at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and McGill University in Montreal.His academic writing has been mostly on ecumenism and social teaching. In case you don’t have easy access to his book, there is a very thorough review of it in the end notes. [2]

Baum admits in the preface of his book that “My enthusiasm for the evolution of the Church’s official teaching is at odds with the mood presently expressed by many s, who lament the ecclesiastical bureaucracy’s indifference to a number of urgent pastoral problems.” [3] He’s got that right! But when he describes other theologians’ positions as “moods”, it sounds like he expects that the mood will pass and they’ll come back to his way of thinking.

Throughout most of his book he brings up documents from Vatican II, partly to show how pastoral the documents are compared to those of other ecumenical counsels, but at the same time exhibit how the made changes in Vatican II. He also focuses on issues that I think are bureaucratic, and not of much interest to the faithful in the third millennium. For examples, Baum spends several pages on a Nota published by the Congregation of and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, that lifts the censure of 40 propositions of a philosopher by the name of Antonio Rosmini, who lived between (1797-1855) and whose work had been condemned posthumously.[4] I suppose it does demonstrate that the can change its mind, nice for Antonio, but I just wish the Ratzinger and his curial colleagues had been spending more time on the pedophilia problems with priests that was breaking out in the USA about the same time they were engaged in head games with revising a decision from the 19th century.

Although Baum proudly reminds us of the documents that excited most of us at the time, and did promise change, unless I missed something, he doesn’t spend any time exposing how s John Paul II and Benedict XVI launched campaigns to scuttle many of the s that Vatican II accomplished.

Hans Kung

Despite decades of disagreements with the Vatican on numerous doctrines , Hans Kung still considers himself  to be a , and  even though his license to teach in universities was revoked, he was never burned at the stake as a heretic, or even excommunicated. He still can celebrates Mass, and administer the sacraments. He confirmed his commitment to the in a recent book, What I Believe when he said, “I am and remain a loyal member of my .” [5] And makes it perfectly clear that his years of strict education in Rome taught him not to allow himself to be intimidated even by the authorities.

At age 83 Kung still maintains his integrity in spite of the Vatican looking over his shoulder and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, targeting him from the far right.  Here are a couple of examples of the slings and arrows from conservative websites:  The first one is Protect the .Fr Hans Kung Exhorts Catholics to Reject the Authority of Magisterium as a ‘Duty’   It’s not just the article that attacks the “Dissident priest…”, it’s the vitriolic tenor of the comments by readers. Here’s another website entitled, Culture, Hans Kung Issues New Book Attacking the Church  Notice how this article introduces Kung, “The dissident theologian Hans Küng…” They love the word dissident to disparage Kung. I’d suggest they read Robert McClory’s book, ful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church. McClory has a different take on dissenters. “These dissenters challenged fossilized traditions and seemingly irable doctrines, opened locked widows, and pushed the Church (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the future.” [6]

Perhaps there is still hope! Kung seems to thinks so. He expresses this hope as a vision of the future that most likely wouldn’t fit well with the Vatican as we know it today. His vision is reminiscent of the tone of Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech, which he gave in 1963 when he presented his vision of civil rights for Black Americans. There is one section in Kung’s book What I Believe, which captures his vision. After saying he’s not giving up hope that an ecumenism between the Christian es is possible, but it will have to grow from below, not from reluctant authorities. He lists a number of components of that vision. Rather than trying to encapsulate what he has in chapter 10 of his book, I will just mention two items of his vision that I think are the most important as he looks into the future:

  • Man-made dogmas that divide the es will retreat behind the truth of God and the message of Jesus. Medieval pre-modern structures that deny people above all women their privileges, will dissolve.
  •  ‘Infallible’ papalism and pseudo –Christian idolatry of the will give way to a Petrine office which stands at the service of Christianity and functions in the framework of synodical and conciliar structures. [7]

He closes the chapter with a biblical quote that I also used in my memoir to underscore our need to move from the blind obedience of a child, to a responsible faith of an adult.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. –I Corinthians 13:11, New Living Translation, 2007.

So, keep showing up, Father Kung!

Just so you’ll know my possible bias, I need to confess I’ve been a fan of since I read the first edition of Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality in 1980. Currently a group we call the Seekers, that I’ve met with twice a month for the last 13 years, is reading The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother and the Birth of a Global Renaissance. AndI just finished reading The ’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and how it Can Be Saved. Oh, I almost forgot, I found his book, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, very inspiring.

Two interviews with by Jamie Manson where recently published in the National Reporter. Her interviews focus on Fox’s recent book the ’s War. If you haven’t read the book, the articles might be helpful to bring you up to speed on his latest thinking. In the first article, Former Dominican Sees Church’s Demise as a Blessing in Disguise  Ms. Manson briefly traces his background over the past 20 years, reminding us that he was expelled from the Dominican order after a twelve year battle with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the , and for the last eighteen years has been an Episcopal priest. Her focus is on the key themes from his book.

One of the first questions she asked in the first interview was whether he considered himself to be , but not Roman . He hesitated a bit and didn’t answer directly but said, “You don’t undo 54 years of being —it’s much too rich for that. I have a whole list of gifts that I was given by the Roman Church, but obviously I’m moving towards something that is beyond the boxes of denominations.”  I can resonate with that. I think most of us who have struggled with that question, or even have already left the , recognize the positive experiences we had along with the disappointments that turned us off. Fox responded to a follow up question about what tradition he most wanted to rescue. As might be expected; the mystical and prophetic souls like Hildegard, Eckhart, Francis of Assisi, and added great ers of the 20th century such as;  Dorothy Day, Thomas Berry, Thomas Merton, Teilhard De Chardin as part of the richness that Fox needed to be take along on his continued journey.

Fox also stresses that every and every Christian needs to grieve what was lost when the hope that Vatican II generated was undermined by the last 40 years of efforts by s John Paul II and Benedict XVI to backtrack on the promises made by the Council. He believes that the going through the  process, especially getting in touch with the anger and denial that many of us have, will produce a new creativity to “birth the anew”.  The good news is that he sees this as a “great moment” for the Holy Spirit to move in and reinvent things. “And that’s where we should be putting our energy.”

Manson continues her interview in Matthew Fox Talks Obedience and Courage, Young Adults and the Church , by asking about Joseph Ratzinger’s youth in Nazi Germany. The fact that young Ratzinger grew up, and was indoctrinated under a fascist regime, seems to have had an impact on him. Most likely, it was much greater than our growing up in a pre-Vatican II , had on many of us. As a teenager he joined the Hitler Youth Corp and later was conscripted into the army, where the most important “virtue” was blind obedience. Remember the Nuremberg War Trials after WWII and the defense that many of the indicted claimed, that they were just following orders (blind obedience)? Or if you have the time and the stomach for it, read the cross-examination of Goering to see how powerful an ideology like fascism and its requirement of blind obedience, can provide a license for atrocities like the world has never known. I’m not suggesting that Ratzinger is a fascist in his adult , but I’d be surprised if his indoctrination as a youth made no impression on him at all, at the very least he seems to have a touch of the fascist’s obsession to control and to make obedience a priority.

Fox makes an interesting comparison between Ratzinger and Father Bernard Haring, who was also drafted into the Nazi army, but as an adult. He later in became a prominent moral theologian. Haring rejected what he had been taught as a Nazi soldier that obedience is a primary virtue. As Fox described Haring’s position, “… the number one lesson he drew from living through the war was that of resistance and the need for civil disobedience.” [8] He also expressed remorse that so many in Hitler’s Germany justified their participation in unimaginable atrocities by saying that they were obeying orders. According to Fox, Haring constructed his entire moral theology on the theme of responsibility, contrary to the blind obedience of so many German s. Fox believes, “As Ratzinger rose the ecclesial ladder, he more and more built his theology on obedience.”[9]  AMEN!                                

In both of Manson’s interviews with Fox’s and in his book, it’s apparent that he is concerned and involved with the issues that youth have towards the institutional es. He’s also is concerned and involved in reaching out to those who have one foot in and one foot out, as well as those who have already made a choice to look elsewhere to meet their spiritual need and worship in more meaningful communities. If you haven’t already done so, check his Cosmic Mass Website . It has the lists of groups of cosmic christian communities, a section for questions,                  plus wealth of information about what he and others are doing to make worship more meaningful.

His book contains much more information, including list of myths and 25 concrete steps to take Christianity into the future. Before he gets to the 25 steps he points out how important it is to pay attentions to our own grief. He mentions a number of “betrayals” that many of us have experienced as faithful members of the . It’s similar in some ways to what couples go through in a divorce. I recently read a response in a website entitled The respondent to one of their blogs made a statement that seemed to capture what many on the fringe of leaving the Church go through. This is not the voice of someone who is making a decision dismissively, but one who has agonized over a that has let her down:

“My conscience is screaming at me: What are you doing? How can you continue to blindly follow something so wrong?” My faith is too strong to allow it. I know better, but this is like a terrible divorce after many years of marriage when you learn that your spouse has been unfaithful. The sadness, anger, fear, and grief are unbearable.”

I don’t think you need to have been through a divorce to identify with the respondent. Having counseled dozens of couples dealing with the pain of divorce, and given workshops on divorce recovery, I think the responder is right on in making the comparison of leaving the to a divorce. We need to recover from the multiple betrayals by the that Fox mentions. It’s almost like going through a Kobler-Ross, process of grieving period as we need to do for any loss: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. If you’re not familiar with the Kobler-Ross’ grieving process, you might want to check out her link above.

The 25 steps I mentioned above are mainly about structural changes needed in the Church, for example getting rid of the monarchial government that currently governs the Church from the Vatican, and replacing it with a democratic structure.  One of the most important changes would be to have bishops chosen by local communities, and not have to pass the litmus test that the pope requires; in a new structure,   priests would be female or male, gay or straight, celibate or married. One of the questions he asks that applies to most of the changes he’s suggesting is, “Would Jesus be more at home with …” a more democratic structure of his , one that was less bureaucratic; is more inclusive, is more “the people of God” that Vatican II envisioned; follows a creation spirituality versus the sin and redemption theology that made sense to St. Augustine, who taught that original sin was passed on through the male’s semen. These are the things that believes need to be changed, and what he lives through his writings, his ministry as a priest, and efforts to preserve and preach the value of the mystics in a world that joins the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ.

Keep the but Challenge the Beliefs

Theologian and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, Harvey Cox, in his book, The Future of , recalls a conversation he had with a friend, who described himself as “a practicing Christian but not always a believing one.” Initially Cox was surprised with his friend’s statement, but the more he thought about it, he came to the conclusion that to call oneself a practicing Christian but not a believing one acknowledges the certainties and uncertainties that mark the of any religious person. When I read his book, I realized I had come to the same conclusion about the differences between faith and beliefs a number of years ago, but I just wasn’t able to articulate it as well as he did.

My faith is in the Jesus of what Cox calls the Age of , the first three centuries after Jesus died, when the early was more interested in following Jesus’ teachings than making obligatory what to belief about Jesus. The Jesus that I believe in and in whom my faith is grounded in is: the Jesus who gave us the Beatitudes and his example of how to live; the Jesus who focused on compassion for the disenfranchised. As Dr. Cox observed, when he realized how faith and beliefs were not the same,

“To focus the Christian on beliefs rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by theologians who taught ‘faith’ consists of dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds, this came as a welcomed liberation.” [10]

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I strongly recommend a website that deals with the issues of faith and beliefs in greater detail than I could in a commentary. The website is Following Jesus. After you open the site, you’ll see and hear a power point presentation, that I believe expresses what it means to follow Jesus over two thousand years after his birth.  The presentation doesn’t offer a creed, but it’s a declaration of faith in Jesus. It’s what he said and did himself, while he was on earth.

Once the power point is finished, the website will immediately go to the home page, There are eight title at the top of the page, from left to right: INVITATION; SEEKERS; LEADER; VISIONS; CHANGING; JOURNEY; COMPANIONS; AND RESOURCES. Under each title there are between five and ten sub-titles. As you touch each of the titles with your mouse, you’ll see the sub-titles. There is enough information on this site for two semesters of classes that meet three times a week for two hours each day.

For example, the title on the far right of the page is RESOURCES, if you click on that title, you’ll see that one of the sub-titles is “links for action”. One of the areas I would have liked to have spent more time on in this commentary, is positive social changes and different strategies of social action as it applies to the . But hopefully this website will provide some generic suggestions.

To make sure this website gets the credit it deserves, here is information that they supply under “conract. It fits well with the distinctions we’ve been making between faith and beliefs.

The Following Jesus website is a project of the Mustard Seed School of Theology, which may be the smallest school of biblical studies and theology in the world. (We don’t award degrees, so please don’t ask!)

The goal of this project is to discover ways to be a faithful follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. It explores what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity”—faith as a way of , not as a system of beliefs and doctrines or institutional rites and rituals. The Mustard Seed School hopes to share the radical social and political ideas of Jesus as an antidote to the religious orthodoxy of the adopted under the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

PS. Here’s a bonus that I came across while writing this commentary Forget the Church, Follow Jesus. Article by Andrew Sullivan, Newsweek, April 2, 2012
PSS.  If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try getting in bed with a mosquito.
Author anonymous


  1. Nor was I surprised to read on a’s website that report titled Parish Ministry in Australia: The Crisis Deepens, writtenby Peter J. Wilkinson. Click HERE to read.
  2. Gregory Baum. (2005). Amazing Church: A Theologian Remembers a Half-Century of Change. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. A review of Baum’s book by Jack Shea, in Corpus-National Capital Region on-line.
  3. Gregory Baum. (2005). Amazing Church: A Theologian Remembers a Half-Century of Change. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. P.13.
  4. Ibid. pp. 31-34.
  5. Hans Kung, (2010). What I believe. NY: Continuum National Publishing Group. p.50.
  6. Robert McClory. (2000). ful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. p.161.
  7. Op. cit. Kung, pp. 192-193.
  8. . (2011). The ’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secrete Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How it Can Be Saved. New York: Sterling Ethos.
  9. Ibid., p. 5.
  10. Harvey Cox. (2009). The Future of . New York: HarperOne.  p. 17.

Humanae Vitae, The Turning Point for the Catholic Church

FILE -- In this file photo taken on March 29, 1964, Pope Paul VI salutes a crowd estimated at 200,000 as he is carried on portable throne through St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. Pope Francis has approved a miracle credited to the intercession of Paul VI and set the date for the late pontiff's beatification for Oct. 19, the Vatican said Saturday. Francis had authorized the beatification, the last formal step before possible sainthood, a day earlier, the Vatican said. Paul VI, who reigned as pontiff from 1963-1978, made landmark progress in improving Catholics' relationship with other Christians. His papacy is also remembered by his decision, after years of study, to ban contraception for Catholics, in a 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae" ("of human life"). (AP Photo/Jim Pringle)

There is general agreement that the so called “ Encyclical”, Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 was a major turning point in the Church.[1] Forty-four years later it remains controversial, and has recently become as much, a political focal point as it is a religious one. In my last blog I focused on the power of the political pulpit, and how I believe the United States Conference of Bishops (USCCB) is conducting a crusade against contraception that is as vitriolic, misleading, and inappropriate as most of the ads on TV we endure night after night by partisan politicians pushing their agenda. In the language of my old Judson Street neighborhood in Albany, NY, it sounds like “dirty pool” to me.

This blog will focus on the how the decisions to reconsider the teaching of the on contraception that were made by the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth-rate, were trumped by officials, who were concerned that if they changed the ’s teaching on contraception, it would create a domino effect that would put other doctrines, including infallibility in jeopardy of needing to be changed.

First, I will put contraception in the context of: infallibility, tradition and the , primacy of conscience, intrinsic evil, and the sensus fidelium (the voice of the faithful). Each one of these topics has had an impact on the Church’s current teaching on contraception. Since without the doctrine of infallibility, most likely we wouldn’t be having this discussion, I will  discuss how Pius IX (also known as Pio Nono) managed to ram infallibility through the first Council in 1870, and then briefly connect the other issues mentioned above to contraception. I will then discuss why and how Paul VI in 1968, chose to ignore the Commission’s advice to change the ’s teaching on contraception.


I suspect that the story behind the scenes of I, and what has been written since about the Machiavellian tactics that Pius IX used to push through his agenda for infallibility, as well as his psychological state of mind, are less known than the doctrine itself. So, this section will focus on how Pio Nino manipulated the bishops, rather than the specifics of the doctrine of infallibility. I believe that if it was not for Pio Nono’s doctrine of infallibility, Paul VI would have accepted the Commission’s final decision on contraception and it would not be an issue today.

According to John Swomley, the doctrine of papal infallibility has been under attack by theologians since its proclamation by Pius IX. [2] This was not the first time a pope had declared the popes to be infallible. As far back as the thirteenth century, Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280)  did so for questionable reasons, and Pope John XXII in 1334 CE called infallibility “…a work of the devil…” and issued a papal bull condemning it as heresy. [3] Infallibility might have remained a heresy had it not been for Pius IX and his Council.

How did he manage to get infallibility declared a dogma of the Church? One of several theologians who have consistently criticized infallibility is . From the time he published Infallible? An Inquiry in 1972, to a more recent article, entitled Infallibility Issue Cries out for III, [4] hehasbeen a strong voice for reforming papal infallibility.  He contends that there were four principle reasons that Pius IX was able to maneuver the doctrine of infallibility through I, “Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double dealing; he was mentally disturbed; and he misused his office.” [5] 

Kung goes into great detail supporting these allegations in his book, and his conclusions are backed up by other theologians. For example, German theologian, Walter Kasper, who was elevated to cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001, speaking on infallibility stated, “For faith is essentially an act of free assent; as an act that is wholly and entirely human, it does not exclude but includes intellectual responsibility . No one can or may delegate this responsibility in blind obedience to the official and her teaching office.” [6]

In 1979 August Bernhard Hasler, a priest, historian, and former staff member of the ’s Secretariat for Christian Unity, published his controversial book, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the of Persuasion. His research concluded:

“It is becoming increasingly obvious, in fact, that the dogma of papal infallibility has no basis in either the Bible or the history of the Church during the first millennium. If, however, the First Council was not free, then neither was it ecumenical. And in that case it decrees have no claim to validity. So the way is clear to revise the Council and, at the same time, to escape from a situation which both history and theology find more and more indefensible. Is this asking too much of the Church? Can it ever admit that a Council erred, that and 1870 I made the wrong decision?” [7]   

Hasler goes on to list and explain seven charges that question Pius IX’s motives, deceitful tactics, and mental health. He claims Pius IX was insane, dishonest, stacked the council, bullied the bishops, put financial pressure on them, to mention a few. [8] The fact that Hasler was an insider gave him an advantage in having access to archived documents, and I believe adds credibility to his charges.

Just one more point to consider on infallibility. In 1971, Father Karl Rahner edited a book entitled, The Problem of Infallibility.  One of the authors invited to give an opinion on ’s book on infallibility was Father Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI. The title of Ratzinger’s article was Contradictions in the Book ‘Infallibility’, by Han Kung. Although Ratzinger’s article was critical, he did make a statement that to me seemed to suggest that the issue of infallibility was not closed. He agrees with Kung that Papal Infallibility should be reformulated. Ratizinger states:

“A predominately critical article should not, however, ignore the positive side of Kung’s book. This can be clearly deduced from all that we have said before, when we affirmed that he opened for discussion, in an explicit and unequivocal way, problems that must be reformulated. He denounced obscurities in the historic and systematic structure of theology, which in fact have persisted and until now have usually been avoided and not confronted head-on.” [9]

If you still are not sure if Pius IX acted of sound mind and intent, I suggest reading his Syllabus of Errors, which is part of an encyclical Quanta Cura. So many of the 80 “errors” that he identifies, to say the least are an embarrassment today. [10] What was anathema to Pius IX, has been reversed and in some instances tolerated.  

Tradition and the Magisterium

Robert McClory reminds us that the Church has two sources of divine revelation, and that they have followed very different paths. Over the last one hundred years, scripture has been “…analyzed, reinterpreted, even deconstructed through various forms of scholarly criticisms …however tradition has experienced little change, remaining almost static over the same time period.” [11] Nevertheless, we go back and back to the ancient texts of popes “of happy memory” or even farther to the “fathers of the ”, all of whom, lived when they thought our earth was the center of the universe. In the memorable words of Yogi Berra, “the past ain’t what it used to be.”

In a recent book The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity. edited by Michael Lacy and Francis Oakley, an article by Gerard Mannion argues that the notion of must go through a severe updating:

“I would suggest that any effective exercise of must free itself from and pretense of omniscience for, in reality, the character of its exercise in recent times would on occasion appear to hold more in common with the ‘view from nowhere genre.’ In other words, far from being grounded in fundamental and universally agreed upon traditions, pronouncements have … appeared to claim an authority that transcends context, culture and history alike. And yet ecclesial authority is inescapably rooted and shaped by each of these factors.” [12]

After all, at one time the held that: slavery was justified; children who died without baptism were excluded from heaven and parked in Limbo; and finally in 1992, after about 380 years after he was charged with being a heretic, Pope John Paul II apologized to Galileo for his being put under house arrest, because the insisted that their interpretation of the bible that the earth was the center of the universe, and that trumped the budding science of cosmology. One of the biblical references that his inquisitors used against Galileo was, Ecclesiastes 1:5 that states “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.”

I realize that there is a difference between dogma and disciplines, like not eating meet on Friday, but I believe a lot of the fine tuned distinctions, and the obligation of blind obedience has kept the faithful in the dark ages, and caused more harm than good.[13]

Primacy of Conscience

The Catechism of the Church has a wealth of information about everything we could ever want to know about the ’s teaching on conscience, and the part it plays in achieving a responsible faith. Rather than my going through each of the 26 items in Article 6, on Moral Conscience I’m going to provide the webpage for that section. This is not the Baltimore Catechism that many of us could recite verbatim in grammar school, when we thought we had the answers to the most complex questions that puzzled philosophers for centuries, like “our purpose” in . Remember the answer we parroted back to the good nuns, “God made me to know him, to love him and serve him in this and be happy with him forever in the next .”

Here is one example of a statement on conscience from the Catechism of the Church, item #1782, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.”  It seems pretty straight forward.

Unfortunately, because of the loss of confidence in the experienced by many members of the catholic in recent years, it’s even more important for us to understand the concept of primacy of conscience. Especially because it’s often alleged by clerics that reliance on our consciences leads to relativism and exaggerated autonomy in morals. In an article in the Australian Journal of Theology, Brian Lewis points out that according to the principle of primacy of conscience, “One must follow the sure judgment of conscience even when through no fault of its own, it is mistaken.” [14]

To add a familiar and stronger voice that supports the primary of conscience, here is a statement made by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in which he eloquently expresses the ’s understanding of primacy of conscience. At the time he wrote this in 1968, he served as chair of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Turbinger.

“Above the Pope as an expression of the binding claim of authority stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of authority.” [15] AMEN!

Intrinsic Evil

Before I give my opinion of whether contraception is an intrinsic evil, I want you to know that contraception is not a personal issue for me. Personally, at age 82, contraception is far from my mind. But theologically, I am concerned for the thousands of catholic or former catholic couples, who have struggled with their consciences, and don’t agree with the celibate clerical culture that makes the rules, and feel alienated from the they loved.

This became apparent to me when Paul VI was trying to make up his mind for three years in the mid-sixties about what he would say to these couples, and I was a priest in Schenectady New York hearing confessions, and working with couples in the Christian Family Movement (CFM) As a confessor, I tried to follow the advice that St. Alphonsus Ligori, the founder of the Redemptorist religious order, gave to confessors. He counseled them, when dealing with married couples who had sex, even when procreation was not the goal, not to pry too intently into marital sexual relations. As a mentor in CFM meetings I felt my role was to be supportive as couples strove to form their consciences. Those experiences were part of what helped me see contraception not as an intrinsic evil, but from a perspective beyond my degrees in theology, and my role as priest, but what I hope was from the compassion of Jesus. These were not evil couples, they were loving couples, loving parents, loving catholics.

You guessed right, I don’t share the same opinion of the bishops that contraception is intrinsically evil, and I’m not sure that Pope Benedict XVI shares their opinion either. I’m not looking for his approval, but just wanted to mention what may perhaps be a crack in the wall. It’s a statement he made a couple of years ago in an interview in America: The National Weekly, a Jesuit magazine. The interviewer, Peter Seewald, asked Benedict a number of questions about AIDS and condoms. Part of his first reply was,

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and one cannot do whatever one wants.”

Seewald asked  “Are you saying, then, that the Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

“She (meaning the ) of course does not regard it as a real moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more humane way, of living sexuality.” [16]

Interesting response! Notice he talks about male prostitutes rather than loving couples. It reminded me of my moral theology professor in the seminary. He tried to explain that condoms weren’t intrinsically evil, by using an example from his time as a chaplain in World War II. As he prepared for a landing on one of the Pacific islands, he wrapped his watch in a condom to keep it dry. We all got the point, that intrinsically evil acts are acts that are wrong by reason of the object, not just by reason of their motive or circumstances.

(the Sense of the People)

Now we can flash forward from 1870 to 1968 when Paul VI finally proclaimed his encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth-rate, had completed its work in 1965. During those three years of anticipation, thousands of couples, all over the world were optimistically awaiting a verdict. They were particularly hopeful for a positive decision when thirty-four lay members were added to the Commission in 1965, five of whom were women. This brought the total membership up to fifty-eight. I remember clearly the excitement the couples in our Christian Family Movement groups expressed when they heard the news that Patty and Pat Crowley, the founders of CFM would be representing them, along with the other lay members of the Commission. We had been discussing the sensus fidelium in the CFM groups in Schenectady, along with II’s focus on the role of the People of God, their hopes were high, as were mine.

There have been various interpretations of sensus fidelium over the years. Ranging from the degrading declaration that Pius X made in his encyclical Vehementer Nos in 1906, “The only duty of the laity is to allow themselves to be led, and like a docile flock, to follow their pastors.” Contrast Pius’ prose with the more magnanimous message by Saint John Henry Newman in his article On Consulting the in Matters of Doctrine:

“Consulting the people is not to be regarded as just a friendly gesture on the part on the part of the pope or bishops. Consultation is something the laity has a right to expect. Their view may serve at times as a needed witness of the truth of a revealed doctrine.” [17]

It’s not my intent to go through the deplorable details of the deceitful process of the after the Commission decided to advise the pope to change teaching on contraception. Rather I suggest you might want to read the extract from Garry Wills’ book, Papal Sin-Structure of Deceit pages 89-98. Even though you might have read it before.[18] I read Wills’ book when it was first published, but when I reread this section again recently, I was shocked as much, if not more than I was in 2000.

As I stated in the beginning “… if it was not for Pio Nono’s doctrine of infallibility, Paul VI would have accepted the Commission’s final decision on contraception and it would not be an issue today.”  Perhaps the would even have the integrity to re-evaluate other doctrines that make no sense in the thirdmillennium. 

Unfortunately Paul VI didn’t follow Cardinal Newman’s interpretation of sensus fidelium; didn’t fathom the struggles that the lay members gave of their attempts at using the approved rhythm method of birth control, and the agonizing results abstinence had on their marriage; didn’t factor in the empirical evidence from an expert consultant John Noonan from Notre Dame; didn’t respect the Commission’s agreement that only one report would be forwarded to the Pope, that there would not be any minority report; didn’t respect the fact that in the final vote of the sixteen bishops nine voted yes for changing the ’s position on contraception, three no, and three abstained and one was absent.

What he did do, was agree with Cardinal Alfredo Octavianni before the last meeting that only the bishops could vote, which changed the rest of the participants from members to “advisors”, most of whom, had been meeting with the Commission for four years, and were now without a vote.

The pope met with Cardinal Octavianni, Fr. John Ford, SJ and an assistant Germain Grisez, a professor of moral theology, a half hour after he receive the report. Their purpose was to come up with a “minority report”. As Wills points out, the pope took advantage of the minority report in writing  Humanae Vitae, not because there were any rational arguments against change, but the real reason was the fear of the domino effect that I mentioned earlier. According to Grisez in his recent biography, the fact that Pius XI had unqualifiedly condemned all forms of artificial birth control, in his 1930 encyclical Castii Canubii, to change would“… have likely destroyed for all time the claim of popes to be infallible…obviously a very important issue for popes seeking to preserve their spiritual power.”[19]

In my next commentary, I will focus on what I believe our options are to make changes in the as we know it today. by either working for reform or complete revolution, or somewhere in between.

End Note

  1. Two references. Robert Blair Kaiser’s book, The of Sex and Religion: A Case History of the Development of Doctrine, 1962-1984. Leaven Press, NCR. And Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church. Crossroad Press. Especiall, Appendix 1, pp. 171-187.
  2. Infallibility in Ethical Perspective. Article by John M. Swomley, February 1998 (Issue 14 Page 26)  Christian Ethics Today, on-line.
  3. Papal Infallibility: Is the Pope Infallibile? Examining the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility.  Article by Austin Cline.
  4. Infallibility Issue Cries out for III, Article by , Call to Action USA. .
  5. Cline, op. cit.
  6. The Church’s Road from I to II, Walter Kasper, cited in Kung, Infallibility? An Inquiry. p.120
  7. August Bernard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the of Persuasion. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981, p. 310.
  8. Cline, op.cit, pp. 3-5 of article.
  9. Ratzinger Agrees with Kung on Reforming Papal Infallibility. This is a document retrieve from the internet on March 5, 2012 from Tradition in Action, Inc.
  10. Quanta Cura: Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius IX, (Syllabus of Errors added 1964).
  11. Tradition’s Role as Source of Truth Being Revisited. Blob by Robert Mc Clory, January 17, 2012. National Reporter on-line blogs.
  12. How Religion’s Demand for Obedience Keeps Us in the Dark Ages. Article by Adam Lee, March 19, 2012.
  13. Catechism of the Church: Part Three, Life in Christ; Section One, Man’s Vocation in the Spirit; Chapter One, Dignity of the Human Person; Article 6, Human Consciences #s 1776-1794.
  14. Primacy of Conscience. Article by Brian Lewis, Australian Journal of Theology, 6, 2006.
  15. Young Ratzinger on the Primacy of Conscience. a Forum, June 5, 2010.
  16. Pope Benedict Speaks. Article by Peter Seewald, November 29, 2010, America Magazine.
  17. On Consulting the in Matters of Doctrine. Article by John Henry Newman, July 1859, The Rambler. Copied from The Ministry for Women on line
  18. Humanae Vitae. Extract from Gary Wills (2000) Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit. Doubleday, NY, pp.89-98.
    Religion: Birth Control: Pronouncement Withdrawn. June 21, 1968, Time Magazine.,33009,900219,00.html
  19. New Birth Control Commission Papers Reveal ’s Hand. Article by Gerals Slevin, National Reporter, March 23, 2011. Bishops’ Accountability.



The Power of Pulpit Politics and Contraception

Now it came to pass in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, Cardinal-delegate (now just plain cardinal) Timothy Dolan, President of the United States Conference of Bishops (), that: ever bishops in the United States should send a letter to be read at every Mass, in all parishes throughout their dioceses. The letter should denounce the original wording of the Department of Health and Human Services’ () position on contraception, which required all health-insurance policies provided by employers to include free coverage for contraceptives and other “preventive” services”. Another decree went out to denounce the proposed compromises by the Obama administration, even though many of those who supported the bishops in the beginning thought the compromises were reasonable adjustments. Nevertheless, the bishops rejected the compromise and sent another letter to their constituents to denounce the accommodations HSS had made. 

This is the first of three blogs which will explore different aspects of the issue of artificial birth control. In this blog I plan to focus on USBCC’s strategy in dealing with the issue that was set in motion by the ’ original decision and compromise mentioned above.

In future blogs, I will address: how the 1968 encyclical of Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (of Human Life) became part of the beliefs of “teaching Church”, but not of the “believing Church”; and focus on the question, is artificial birth control intrinsically evil?; examine the issue of possibility of the church losing its status of tax exemption by the IRS; and what the faithful can do to become a part of future changes in a doctrine that most of them don’t believe in, or follow.

Before I go any further, let me state that over the last forty-six years, since 1966, when the association of bishops in the USA became the United States Conference of Bishops, I have read dozens of their statements on a variety of issues. To mention a few: social justice, poverty, the death penalty, global warming, war and peace, inequality, and have found many of these statements to be spiritually nourishing, reasonable and helpful to me in applying Jesus’ message of compassion for the disenfranchise, and giving me guidelines to engage in planning and actions. Even when I was on the side that challenged their position, I never remember them using the same questionable techniques that partisan politicians use to distort and demolish their opponents. Their strategies and messages make me wonder if they’re using Carl Rove’s playbook. To prove their points about contraception, more than one bishop has been vicious and misleading! They’ve accused the Obama administration of attacking the Church, of declaring war on religion, and they were outright defiant of Obama’s compromise. David Zubic, the bishop of Pittsburg, in a lengthy letter to his flock in The , the diocesan weekly paper, on February 17, 2012 stated that, “The Obama administration has just told the s of the United States, ‘To hell with you!’ There is no other way to put it.” To me he’s saying, “Don’t vote for Obama”!  I also find it hard to believe that a person with Zubic’s education and position as a Shepherd of the Church, can’t find a more civil way to express his opinion.

In my own small part in the universe, I’ve seen how this attack approach has been translated down to the parish level, and delivered to the faithful. The priest at the Sunday service that my wife and I attend, obediently read the provocative letter from the bishop of Phoenix, and went immediately back to the altar without giving a homily on the scriptures for that day’s liturgy. I’m assuming that he thought the vitriolic words of the Bishop’s letter, would be our spiritual sustenance for the week.

At that same service, the parish bulletin had a letter from the pastor that used a speech by a German pastor in the 1940ies condemning the inactivity of German intellectuals, as they watched silently as the Nazis eliminated one group after another. The pastor then compared the behaviors of the Nazi administration under Hitler to the Obama administration, accusing the president of being guilty of an “assault on religious freedom”. This approach is just the opposite to the bishops’ pronouncement in  Forming Consciences for ful Citizenship – Part I – The U.S. Bishops’ Reflection on Teaching and Political Life. In article 14 of that document they declared, “Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype.” It seems to me that the bishops’ attacks on the president are exactly the same as they say politicians are guilty of. At the very least, it’s a “do what I say, but not as I do” posture, that reeks of hypocrisy.

The more I read and thought about it, the more it became apparent to me that the tactics the adopted was not something they came up with over night, when they responded to the rules. They obviously had been planning it for some time; just waiting for what they thought would be the “right moment” to launch their campaign. It appeared to be a “knee jerk reaction”. Not so! It had been festering for a number of years. I first noticed it during the Bush vs. Kerry campaigns for president.

According to Peter Steinfels in an article in the New Times, October 27, 2007, the had issued statements on s’ political responsibilities every year since 1976, but during the 2004 campaigns the tone of the bishops’ statements changed. Sen. John Kerry, a , was the democratic candidate for president. Although Kerry personally express his belief that abortion was wrong, he came under attack from a number of bishops, for his view that he could not impose on society the Church’s moral standards over issues such as whether abortion should be legal.[1] For Kerry, it would have been the same as a Muslin running for president of the United States intending to impose Islamic Law, Sharia, on American citizens. It would be tantamount to creating a Theocracy.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Colorado was one of a handful of bishops who went so far as to say that because Kerry supported legal abortion he should not be permitted to receive communion. Not only would they deny him communion, other bishops said “… voters would be committing sin by voting for a politician whose public actions conflicted with the church teaching on the sanctity of , s, or embryonic stem-cell research.”[2]

Given the two candidates for president, George W. Bush, who was on record that abortion should not be legal, and the other Kerry, who had publicly stated his position that abortion should be legal, who could a vote for, without committing a sin? At least in the eyes of the Church! This is tantamount to telling s that they should vote for Bush, even though the bishops vociferously denied that. They wanted us to believe that, “we bishops do not intend to tell s for whom or against whom to vote.” This statement seem disingenuous to me. Without saying publicly “Vote for Bush”, they were asking many of the faithful to not follow their own consciences. As John Allen Jr, [3] suggested recently, there is a myth of the Purple Ecclesiology (the bishops wear purple). My interpretation of the myth is that the bishops are demanding that the faithful should obediently play the game we used play when we were kids, “follow the leader”.

Even the emphasis of the bishops’ statement from “ful Citizenship” to “Forming Consciences for ful Citizenship”[4], changed from the 2004 election to the 2008. The 2008 doctrine according to Steinfels was more commanding. To me it seemed to rely on the authoritative posture of pre-Vatican II, in that it was less pastoral and came across that, the bishops have the authority to trump our conscience (more about that in the next blog). It had a flavor of “let us sit down together and discuss the primacy of conscience, but when push comes to shove, you need to agree with our judgment of what is evil.” The old position of “” or the expectation that the role of faithful is to “pray, pay and obey”.

It soon became more apparent that my suspicions that the bishops had a hidden agenda that they had kept under their high hats, (miters) was accurate. My first clue was when after Cardinal-deligate Dolan was informed by the Obama administration of their offer to compromise, Dolan’s answer was a cordial, “It’s a step in the right direction”. But the very next day the rejected it and took a more rigid position. It was like they could smell bigger game. Their rationale was, this is  not going to be a victory just for the Church, it had the potential for being an opportunity to pave the road for others “fellow travelers” and eventually get to the real issues, bringing the evangelical conservatives on board with abortion, s, etc.

His eminence to be, was no longer “Mr. Nice Guy”, the jovial, backslapping, corpulent, cleric, “hail hearty fellow well met” He was more like the legendary pool shark, Minnesota Fats, who was known for his ability to charm opponents to the point where they underestimated his cleverness and skills. The cast of characters grew larger. The rejection of the accommodations made by the president enlarged the playing field. There are now new allies on both sides. On one side, the Republicans, who claim their goal is not to block women’s access to birth control but to challenge the government’s right to mandate religious employers, e.g. hospitals, don’t have to cover contraceptive if it violates their faith. The Democrats on the other hand frame the debate as a women’s health issue and gender equality, not a religious debate, “…because the American public is not divided about the use of contraception. A Pew poll released Tuesday [February 15. 2012] showed just 8% of Americans believe contraception to be morally wrong.[5]

At this point it seems as if the has won support from the evangelistic conservatives and the republicans in congress, but since they refused the administrations’ compromises have lost a lot of its original supporters including many progressive s organizations, and rank and file s, who never accepted the position on contraception.

Here is one more example to illustrate how the hierarchy is ratcheting up their game plan to make it more politically palliative, and aggressive. In an article by Tim Stelloh and Andy Newman in the New York Times on March 3,2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan told s that in “…an era when the church was fighting the government on several fronts, they needed to make their voices heard more clearly in the political sphere.”[6] I have no problem with that, except I wish he could have used a less warlike word than “fighting”. What I thought was inappropriate was the story the article quoted him using to illustrate that prelates might not be the church’s most persuasive advocates. The story was about bishops hiring an “attractive”, articulate, intelligent, laywoman to speak against abortion and said it was “the best thing we ever did,” adding a self-effacing quip, “In the public square…the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.” The article goes on to say, “Though he called his flock to action, Cardinal Dolan reaffirmed the primacy of the church’s leadership.” He was clear that the “good ole boys” are still in charge.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I just don’t think it is princely for a newly minted “Prince of the Church” to use stories typical of the clerical of celibates, that I remember from my years as a priest in the late fifties and early sixties. Although he doesn’t just focus on the laywoman’s “attractiveness”, I think his little joke verges on sexism and is indicative of women’s second class citizenship in the Church.

I realize that this blog is getting rather long, so I’m going to briefly mention just a few organizations that have either jumped ship or were hesitant to take their battle stations. I will use the format of an annotated bibliography that will provide enough information so you can chose if you want to open the link for more detailed information. I hope to hear from you!

Annotated Bibliography

  • The Bishops Have Gone too Far Says Jesuit American Magazine. Article from the website of Battle for the Core of the World. February 27, 2012.  This article is a critique of an editorial in the Jesuit magazine America, on March 5, 2012, for the position the took on the compromise presented by the Obama administration. There is a link to the editorial in the first paragraph of the article, which gives you the opportunity to look at both sides. Although the article applauds America for standing with the bishops in the beginning, it is critical of them for taking “cheap shots” at the bishops, and claims the editorial was poorly argued.
  • Bishops Were Prepared for Battle Over Birth Control Coverage. Article by Laurie Good stein, February 9, 2012. New York Times. After describing the timing of the process over a period of seven months, Ms. Goodstein goes on to give her interpretation of why she believes the bishops had given more thought to the process and were planned to draw a line in the sand. She provides reasonable evidence to support her position. She points out how Archbishop Dolan’s, immediate response, when asked about ’s original proposal was, “It’s a step in the right direction” seemed disingenuous, since the had been collaborating for some time with conservative evangelicals “…who do not share the Church’s doctrinal prohibition on contraception but were delighted to see the bishops adopt the Right’s longstanding grievance, that government had declared war on religion.” She also questions whether the will be able to get support because of the large number of the faithful either practice artificial birth control or don’t believe contraception is evil. I got the impression that she is implying that the bishops seem to want to legislate beliefs, when they can’t even get their own flock to accept it.
  • Why the Bishops Will Never Be Satisfied. Article by by Jamie L. Manson on Feb. 13, 2012, National Reporter. Jamie L. Manson has a regular column in the National Reporter’s on-line venue. Her columns have earned her a first prize Press Association Award for Best/Regular Commentary in 2010. She has a Masters of Divinity degree from Yale, where she studied theology and ethics. She is often very provocative, as she is in this column and several others on contraception issue, especially on ’s positions on sexuality and ethics. In this article her underlying position is, ‘…if Obama had given the bishops and inch, eventually they would have taken six miles.” She is one of my favorite columnists, to say this is an excellent analysis of the ethics of the issue, perhaps shows my prejudice.
  • Senate Rejects Change in Contraception Rule. Article by Daniel Burke and NCR staff, March 1, 2012, National Reporter on-line.  This was an amendment to a bi-partisan highway bill aimed not only to reverse Obama’s birth control rule but to let employers pick and choose which health-care services to cover based on their religious or moral beliefs. I placed it here because if it had passed, it would have been a victory for the and conservative evangelists.
  • Catholic Nuns File Brief Supporting Affordable Health Act. An article by Ian Millhiser,Feb 23, 2012 ,  This is a report that supports the position “…that conservative efforts to paint Obama as the enemy of religion are a red herring.” Nearly two dozen leading nuns, many of whom are leaders of prominent religious orders, filed a brief in the Supreme Court supporting the ’ legislation, which by the way, ironically is called the Affordable Care Act. It is the legislation intended to ensure the just treatment of woman and couples who can’t afford adequate preventive medical treatment when it comes to contraceptives. I suspect that the bishops were not too please to hear that the nuns had not agreed with them.

End Notes

  1. Catholic Bishops’ Taxing Task: Election Year Statement, Peter Steinfels, in an article in the New Times, October 27, 2007.
  2. Elections Could Signal Changes for Church in Society. Article by Patricia Zapor, November 2, 2004, News Center.)
  3. Three Myths about the Church to Give Up for Lent. On-line Article by John Allen Jr. March 2, 2012. National Reporter.
  4. The USCCB’s statement on Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
  5. Political Risks Abound over Contraceptives Rule. Article by Susan Davis, February 17, 2012. USA Today.
  6. Dolan Urges Catholics to Become More Active in Politics. Article by Tim Stlloh and Andy Newman. March 3, 2012.  New York Times.