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Echoes of old showdown haunt new encyclical.

OXFORD, England -- Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, with all the prestige that comes from hosting the pope for World Youth Day, has cast himself in the role of chief U.S. defender of Humanae Vitae.

Recently be challenged Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick's account of the 1980 Synod on Christian Marriage. Stafford denied that the bishops were "coerced into following the church's teaching on sexuality," and described McCormick's America article as "self-serving and dishonest" (NCR, Aug 13).

As a knockdown clinching argument, he declared he bad been present at the synod while McCormick was not. Well, I was present too as a reporter and a witness, and have kept my notes. McCormick, in my reading, did not make the alleged remark. Nor did he merit the calumnious epithets. But in one sense Stafford is right: Though there was much pressure and some manipulation at the 1980 synod, no bishop needed to be "coerced into following the church's teaching."

For they all accepted that Humanae Vitae was part of the "ordinary magisterium" of the church. Archbishop John J. Quinn, Oct. 1, issued a "precision" in response to "confusing reports" about his speech to the synod of three days before. Analysis Quinn said very clearly that "neither I nor the (United States Catholic Conference) are for a change in the church's teaching on this subject."

The purpose of his speech had been to make constructive proposals on "the personal and demographic problems of the contemporary world, which have to be acknowledged before they can be solved." Thus he sought to "suggest means by which the teaching of the church might be made more comprehensible and more generally acceptable." That was hardly subversive.

However, there was a true difference of opinion at the 1980 synod of great importance. It remains to this day, and has a bearing on the upcoming encychcal, Veritatis Splendor. On the one hand were those who thought the nonreception of Humanae Vitae posed a pastoral problem that could not be solved simply by silence, dissent or mere repetition of familiar teaching. I will call this the pastoral approach.

On the other hand were those, including Stafford, who said there was no pastoral problem, only a problem of obedience. This may be termed the dogmatic approach which "prescinds" from actual experience and invites the faithful to take it or leave it. Or it appeals to experience only to confirm what it already knows. That was why Dr. John Billings and his wife, Lyn, natural family planning experts, headed the list of 15 married couples as resource persons for the synod.

Despite this stage management, the pastoral approach was clearly in the ascendant in 1980.

The widespread disregard of Humanae Vitae was a fact fact damaged the church's credibility generally, said Quinn, quoting a Princeton survey that showed that 94 percent of Catholic women used methods of birth control proscribed by the encyclical. It also reported that only 29 percent of U.S. priests considered artificial methods of birth control immoral and only 26 percent would refuse the women absolution. This was not presented as some kind of Gallup Poll to decide on moral norms, but as part of the data.

Those who took the pastoral approach also noted that opposition to Humanae Vitae came not from the indifferent, who were not listening anyway, but from those deeply committed to living a Christian life. That included lay leaders and many theologians. Archbishop (as he then was) Joseph Bernardin added another nuance. Calling for a "more positive" approach to sexuality generally, he pointed out that a moral teaching "is seldom accepted on the basis of authority alone. It is accepted only if it is perceived as reasonable, persuasive and related to actual experience."

It cannot be taken for granted, added with characteristic understatement, that people "accept and understand a natural law ethic or that citing natural law principles will be persuasive."

That did not mean, he hastened to add, that the tradition of natural law was to be abandoned, but that it needed to be developed and expanded.

Those who took the pastoral approach claimed to have Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae, on their side. They quoted his remark within six weeks of the encyclical: "It is not a complete treatment on this sphere of marriage, the family and moral probity. This is an immense field to which the magisterium of the church could and perhaps should return with a fuller, more organic and more synthetic exposition." In other words, Humanae Vitae had not said the last word on the subject.

Since such vast problems could not be solved in the five weeks of the synod's existence, Quinn called for the initiation of a formal dialogue between the Holy See and theologians. It should first of all have a listening phase, embracing "both those theologians who support the church's teaching and those who do not." The dialogue would be based on the principle of Pope Leo XIII, "the church has nothing to fear from the truth."

England's Cardinal Basil Hume said married people were the best theological source or fons theologica, "first, because they are the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony and, second, because they alone have experienced the effects of this sacrament." While there were some, Hume conceded, who have no difficulty with Humanae Vitae and through it have indeed discovered "new riches in their marriages," there were others for whom "natural methods of birth control do not seem to be the only solution."

On this group Hume remarked: "It cannot just be said that these persons have failed to overcome their frailty and weakness. Indeed, they are often good, conscientious and faithful sons and daughters of the church. They just cannot accept that the use of artificial means of contraception in some circumstances is intrinsice inhonestum, as this latter has generally been understood."

It had generally been understood as as "intrinsically or of its very nature evil," and therefore unredeemable either by intentions or consequences.

Summing up after the first two weeks' debate, Joseph Ratzinger -- still at this date archbishop of Munich -- acknowledged the existence of two contrasting approaches: one based on the experience of the married (the inductive method) and the other based on a priori doctrine (the deductive method).

Ratzinger, however, did not chose between these two methods as the synod broke up into discussion groups, so the groups were not particularly inhibited. English-language group B, presided over by Hume, gave a classic statement of the pastoral position: "It is not possible to deny that there are numerous Catholics in very many countries who, in all incerity, have not been able to accept the arguments and conclusions of Humanae Vitae. Many theologians and pastors have encountered serious difficulties in this connection."

Group B goes on: "There are those, especially, who have come to the conclusion that in practice the use of artificial contraception no longer needs to be looked upon as sinful Bishops ... asked for a more detailed declaration on the correct interpretation of some words of the encyclical, especially the term intrinsice inhonestum."

Some trace of this respect for the sincerity of the experience of Christian married couples found its way into the final propositions which constituted the synod's "advice" to the pope. Proposition 24 began: "The Synod of Bishops cannot ignore the difficult and painful situation of many Christian couples who, despite their sincere goodwill and because of their weakness or objective difficulty, feel (sentiunt) unable to obey the moral norms of the church. In the pastoral treatment of the married, pastors should hold fast to the law of gradualness."

A last minute change here affected the meaning. The draft of Proposition 24 said that married couples "are (sunt) unable to fulfill the moral norms of the church." The change to sentiunt means they merely feel they are unable, thus throwing the problem back into the subjective sphere, as though the difficulties were somehow "not real."

This was in response to an objection from the Latin-language group, explained Ratzinger, who pointed to the condemned proposition of Jansenius: "Some of God's commandments are impossible for the just person to fulfill."

That is a good example of the question-begging dogmatic approach prevailing over the pastoral approach. And that was the fate of every other pastoral proposal made by the 1980 synod. From now on, the whole argument would become dogmatically weighted on one side. The traditional principle of "listen to the other side" was ruled out.

Quinn's request for a "mixed commission" to treat the topic was travestied in the creation, May 1, 1981, of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who had denounced, at the 1980 synod, "the terrorism of demographers," is its current president.

Hume's desire for another look at the meaning of intrinsice inhonestum was dismissed out of band in various documents until delivered the deathblow in Veritatis Splendor (No. 55 on In sich bon Akte).

"The law of gradualness," by which was meant that pastors had to start with people where they actually were, was qualified by Pope John Paul at the end of the synod "The law of gradualness," he explained, "does not mean there are gradations in the law."

So the 1980 synod, the first of this pontificate, began with high pastoral hopes but soon found itself enmeshed in dogmatic subtleties that declared there were no open questions anymore and no problems that a little discipline could not solve. No one should have been too surprised. Already in 1972, as archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wanted a synod on marriage or -- it came to the same thing at that date -- on theologians and the magisterium.

As soon as he became pope, be held a Synod on Marriage which, however, in his view did not deal sufficiently firmly with the problem of dissent. Indeed, it may be said to have defined the problem entirely differently.

So, with little collegial support, and building on the 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, John Paul will now give us, probably in October, the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Its purpose is to get the bishops to carry out those disciplinary measures they did not even contemplate at the 1980 synod.

Yet Quinn's remark of 1980 remains valid: Problems cannot be solved unless they have been recognized. Untackled problems do not go away: They return to haunt and to taunt. One can build doginatic castles in the air, but for the most part they will remain uninhabited ruins.
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Title Annotation:'Veritatis Splendor' papal document
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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