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
John O’Connell; ACP website; 14 October 2015