Thursday, August 23, 2012

Are We Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels?

Paul VI--author of Humanae Vitae
 Behind the “Fortnight For Freedom” and controversy over Catholics and Obamacare as well as the complaint that the good Sisters of the LCWR are too concerned about social justice and not sufficiently vocal about “Catholic Issues” such as speaking out against Abortion and in favor of the Church’s stance on birth control, is the magisterial demand for agreeing with the teaching of the Catholic Church on the inherent sinfulness of artificial methods of family planning. 
How, in heaven’s name, did contraception become the litmus test of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?  I am not denying the importance of the Church’s teaching.  I have read Humanae Vitae—several times, including when it was first issued—and I think Paul VI had some very crucial insights and issued some dire warnings that time has borne out.  While accepting the magisterium on this matter as the present “state of the question” for us Catholics, I do think the teaching needs to be critiqued to see if the scientific premises on which several presuppositions of the teaching rest are valid.  The reproductive sciences have made huge discoveries just in the past quarter century but much of the Church’s theology of sex is still influenced by fourth century Augustinian biological notions borrowed from Galen (Aelius Claudius Galenus c. 120-200 AD).    This need to maintain an ongoing critique of theological teachings in the light of ongoing developments in the physical and social sciences affects other questions as well—same sex relationships, masturbation, in vitro fertilization, and perhaps medical use of stem-cells and even abortion.  I am not saying that these teachings should be fundamentally changed, but every “truth” needs to be constantly re-examined as the human erudition from which the knowledge of that “truth” is derived is itself expanded. 
But again, let me ask, how did contraception become the litmus test of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?  It is one teaching among many—how did it come to the top of the Catholic identity checklist?  (Well, actually it is probably 2 or 3—after abortion and maybe something else: I don’t know, same-sex marriage, women priests, Catholic Campaign for Human Development, voting against Obama—something like that.)  How did something as divisive as contraception rise to the top of the list?  And a somewhat broader question: why, in fact, do we define morality in terms of bedroom behavior?  The Church’s magisterium considers morality from a variety of vantages and over a variety of fields—social justice, human rights, economic justice, business ethics, truthfulness and integrity, duties of citizenship.  Why is it that in practice we boil it down to what some people (for the most part, “other people”) on the most occasional of opportunities do in the privacy of their homes and in the exclusiveness of their most intimate relationship?  Why have we as a Church turned ourselves into voyeurs who, like maladjusted teenagers, give a priority to speculating on what other people are doing in bed?  Why aren’t we more worried about children locked into cycles of poverty in our inner cities? Or refugees in the Sudan?  Or the rights of the Palestinians?  Or corporate greed?  Come to think of it, why is a man who loots his employees retirement fund not only able to go to communion without embarrassment but is honored with a papal knighthood when a mother of four who takes the pill made to feel unworthy of the Body that was broken for her and the Blood that was shed for her?  Of course, in the smackdown of the nuns, word came from pretty far up the ladder (not the very  top, however) that we should be more concerned about stopping gays from being given economic equality with married couples than we are with children who are hungry or mentally ill people living on the streets.  Something is wrong here, but then I think we have all known that. 

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