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Whose morality will triumph?

Catholics and Contraception, an American History Leslie Woodcock Tentler (Cornell University Press, 2004, 335PP) 0-8014-4003-3, $29.95

THE IMAGE WITH WHICH POPE John Paul II left us, of an ailing man blessing a large and devout crowd from his window overlooking St. Peter's Square, conjures up so many symbols reaffirmed in Leslie Woodcock Tender's Catholics and Contraception, an American History. The formal church on high, isolated from the masses, looking down on her children and arbitrarily granting them the mercy and grace they so deeply crave; my own moral indignation with the vexing self-deception of the church on the true status of the pope's health; a structure that clings onto a tradition of papal divinity such that it denies the natural progression of human existence and the hypocrisy surrounding the church's embrace of the modernity that extends life through medical breakthroughs while denouncing those who expose the limitations of this extension.

I won't deny that my interpretation of this book was heavily influenced by the fact that I read the entire volume while on a business trip to South Africa, Senegal and Mali. In looking at the history this book describes I am struck at how that history is sorrowfully repeating itself not only for African Catholics, with the church's refutation of the realities the devout encounter in the all-encompassing context of HIV/AIDS, but for all Africans, as global institutions adopt equally dismissive solutions to the epidemic.

In Catholics and Contraception, Woodcock Tentler asserts that the history of the church in 20th century America is driven by the history of birth control. She argues that birth control was the central (and regrettably distracting) issue not only with the Catholic laity, but also among the clergy. The hierarchy's keen (and historically repetitive) observance of a "too little, too late" response to the pastoral dilemma on the contraception issue not only created the well-documented divide between the laity and clergy, but perhaps even more devastatingly, also created a divide between the hierarchy and its parish priests. As the laity became more willing to speak of their agonizing choices, first in the confessional, and then publicly, a great many clergy became convinced that the sincere attempt to adhere to the ban on contraception, and that attempt's typical failure, was unduly destructive to the spiritual life of parishioners, particularly through their abstention from receiving the sacraments out of guilt and shame.

Woodcock Tender undertakes an exhaustive inspection of diocesan archives, including pastoral journals, Catholic periodicals aimed at mostly a clerical audience, academic papers and private correspondence among the clergy and hierarchy that convincingly describe a growing doctrinal crisis on the issue of contraception. These papers explicitly expose the cynical root of the crisis from many church leaders' perspective. Far from seeking to promote an historical and principled teaching on birth control, it seems that the hierarchy is more interested in stemming the decline of authority and reverence of the church in the view of many lay Catholics. The church hierarchy's self-centered fear of irrelevance resulted in an ineffectual (and mercilessly reactionary) response that further eroded the very respect the church sought to sustain.

An unfortunate result of these edicts was the obfuscation of the spirited intellectual debate among the clergy that immediately preceded such responses. Woodcock Tender suggests that if these debates had been more publicly accessible and understood, the laity and clergy might well have formed a united resolve to navigate these complex issues of morality and ethics, and their sometimes-perceived incongruities--together.

The author supports this rather hopeful notion by demonstrating a heartfelt and unwavering desire among the laity to be in communion with the church--as made evident through lay-edited Catholic magazines, parishioner letters to their priests and amongst themselves, and an increasing amount of social data on Catholics and sexuality.

The book systematically and unemotionally charts the calamitous cycle of the birth control issue for the Catholic church: the hierarchy's non-response, the clergy's lack of training on the teaching, the laity's incorrect interpretation of silence on this issue, the hierarchy's alarm at the resulting decline in conformity, vigorous doctrinal debate that comes frustratingly close to reform (rooted in tender concern for the laity), the hierarchy's overreaction (rooted in a fear of diminished authority), clergy reluctance and indecisiveness on the hierarchy's overreaction, and the consequential bewilderment among the laity and furthering of their estrangement from the hierarchy. The author demonstrates this cycle in the context of the first real emergence of birth control as an issue for Catholics in the late 1800s, the appearance of a scientifically-validated rhythm method, a new positivism on the sacredness of marriage and its conjugal act, the introduction of the Pill, and the development of redefined gender roles.

The author concludes that the hierarchy's inadequate response to the realities of the pastoral faction and the laity they counseled reached the point of no return between the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and Pope Paul IV's issuance of Humanae Vitae in i968. During these tumultuous years (both within the church and American society in general), clergy and laity alike waited in anticipation of some kind of reform in the teaching on contraception--urged on by the extensive reforms of Vatican II, and the establishment of the Papal Commission on Birth Control, which ultimately recommended reform in the birth control teaching. Pope Paul VI further elevated expectations with his extended period of silence in response to the commission's recommendation, suggesting that the papacy itself doubted the fundamentality of the teaching.

While they waited on the pope's response, many impatient Catholics, clergy and lay alike, determined that if the issue of contraception was worthy of such extensive reflection by the authorities, it obviously validated considerable elasticity in interpretation and practice. Thus many definitively resolved the issue according to their own conscience, so that by the time the encyclical Humanae Vitae was released, they concluded that to deny the force of their own conscience was a sin more grave than to defy the church's reaffirmed teaching. And in this, a new era was born.

IN THE EPILOGUE, WOODCOCK Tentler attempts to connect the alienation of the clergy and laity with the hierarchy to the challenges facing the church today. Her conclusion is that while the laity found peace and contentment in their decisions of conscience, parish priests became increasingly distraught. They face a lack of purpose now that their flock is more content in shepherding itself. Their forced celibacy now seems almost selfish in the wake of a new positivism in the other-centered lives of married couples. And, perhaps the most demoralizing, the crisis of conscience experienced by clergy when Pope John Paul II decreed that all bishop candidates affirm their belief in the authenticity of Humanae Vitae. The author concludes that this final blow drove vast numbers of otherwise devout and committed priests from their vocation, resulting in a perilous shortage of priests and the resulting desperate acceptance of less-than-stable candidates into the vocation, who would perhaps later become the perpetrators of the sexual abuse of those for whom they promised to care.

This brings me back to my hotel room in Mali. Working in sub-Saharan Africa, one is constantly confronted with the realities of HIV/AIDS. Recent data suggests a grossly disproportionate infection rate among young African women. It seems cruelly ironic that we dedicated December 1, 2004, World AIDS Day to prevention among young women. Just as with the birth control debate of the last century, the discussion of HIV/AIDS in this century seems also to assert that women have the ability, and furthermore the responsibility, to control their sexual and reproductive engines through pious abstinence, and in the lack of such resolve, we in the so-called global north self-righteously throw our hands up in the air, and say "you can't help those who won't help themselves." Just as ignorance led the Catholic clergy to ineffectual responses, so we sit in ignorance of the realities of increased sexual violence against women, girls, and even infant girls--either at the hand of men charged with caring for them (fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, priests, teachers) or through the application of rape as a war tactic. We also dismiss the reality that many African women are culturally and religiously bound to submit sexually to their husbands, regardless of the risk of infection to either party, a developing fetus, or a breast-fed infant.

It is incredibly sad to see the crisis of sexuality in the Catholic church expanded, rather than contained, to global institutions outside the church. While the Catholic church enjoys the luxury of having intellectual debates on marital debt and the morality of condom use in the context of HIV/AIDS, so we, the rest of the disaffected, blithely develop catchy phrases like Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms (clearly implying the morally preferred sequence). While we are all ignoring the seeming impossibility of empowered women to employ these methods of prevention, how much more distance will be created between the so-called moral and immoral? And what does this supposed triumph of morality claim to achieve?

DAWNE DEPPE is an international development consultant, specializing in the evaluation of basic education initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Author:Deppe, Dawne
Publication:Conscience
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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