"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Freedom and Responsibility

by Neil MacDonald


DURING THE SUMMER of 1968 Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae, his long-awaited encyclical on the role of reproduction in family life. Many had anticipated a less strict stand on contraception since the commission he assembled to study the matter had been meeting for three years and included more and more lay persons as time went on. In the end Paul VI followed the ancient traditions of the Church, relying on natural law and tightly reasoned moral theology for his conclusions. It seems likely that the present Pope, John Paul II, wrote much of the text for Humanae Vitae, and in gratitude for his support and wisdom was raised the following year to the college of cardinals.

During their assembly in Winnipeg that September the Canadian bishops issued a response to the encyclical that has since been called the Winnipeg Statement (WS). The Canadian bishops had returned from the final session of Vatican Council II only three years before and wrote their document very much in the spirit of that assembly. Other groups and theologians in the Church treated the Winnipeg Statement with almost as much excitement as the encyclical itself. To the present day it remains a source of controversy and (to some) a disappointment bordering on heresy.

Why all the excitement?

It seemed to many that the Statement contradicted the encyclical, particularly in section 26:

"In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons [spouses] have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience."

A month later, Pope Paul privately told his Secretary of State that he had taken cognisance of the Winnipeg Statement "with satisfaction".

Many 'conservative' Catholics remained unappeased by what they suspected was unofficial timidity. What then were the issues that have caused so much anguish in the Church, which the Winnipeg Statement faced courageously, and not with a cowardice that so many accused it of portraying?

The Canadian bishops did not excuse Christians from forming their consciences "according to truly Christian values and principles. This implies a spirit of openness to the teaching of the Church which is an essential aspect of the Christian's baptismal vocation. It likewise implies sound personal motivation free from selfishness and undue external pressure which are incompatible with the spirit of Christ." (WS10) This passage contained the kernel of tension facing Catholics reading not only Humanae Vitae but in receiving all Church teaching.

In his recent book The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, Michael Davies picked up the conservative standard in the battle against liberal 'dissent' from Church doctrine.[1] He noted that some conservatives have labeled the Vatican II document The Declaration On Religious Freedom heretical as it, "they say, contradicts prior papal teachings and negates the obligation that anyone belonging to a false religion has to embrace the one true faith found only in the Catholic Church."[2] To Davies, the Declaration seemed to teach that an individual Catholic did not have to obey the Church's teaching. That the Declaration was accused of heresy created a great and apparently irresolvable difficulty for Davies since he knew that all documents of a ecumenical council signed by the pope are infallible.

Humanae Vitae proved the perfect test case for the Church's teaching on freedom. The Canadian bishops recognized that strictly imposing Humanae Vitae on Catholics who were not mature enough to receive it fully would only create a flock of rebels. They refused to put a gag order on the laity and local clergy of the Canadian Church or demand strict conformity to the encyclical. As Andrew Tardiff put it later, while the bishops endorsed the truth that contraception "is a moral evil, and therefore no one has a right to practice it", they could not "storm into the bedrooms of Protestants and dissident Catholics to stop them from contracepting? No, that's wrong, too."[3] As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, "The question of morality, to which Christ provides the answer, cannot prescind from the issue of freedom. Indeed, it considers that issue central, for there can be no morality without freedom: 'It is only in freedom that man can turn to what is good'." (his emphasis)[4]

Trials of the past

Very early in the history of God's people, the Lord introduced what some would describe as a code of dominating morality. He brought the Israelites out of Egypt with great signs and wonders and led them on dry ground right through the sea, with walls of water to right and left of them.[5] The Lord showed them many more prodigies as they wandered the desert. Were the Israelites grateful for the many signs that went with them? Not a bit! God was altogether too close for comfort. What choice did they have about anything? They typically reacted to God's word by senselessly rebelling against it. "One problem they encountered immediately was the lack of personal freedom. For the Israelites to live in proximity to a holy God, nothing — not sex, menstruation, the content of clothing fabric, or dietary habits — could fall outside the purview of his laws. Being a 'chosen people' had a cost."[6] God could hardly endure living with his sinful people; they could hardly endure living with God among them.

Pope John Paul II described how things actually grew worse when God sent his Son among us. "In a certain sense God has gone too far! Man was no longer able to tolerate such closeness, and thus the protests began."[7] Since Jesus' death and resurrection Christians have had to deal with the truth that I myself with my mind obey the law of God, but in my disordered nature I obey the law of sin.[8] Sin has already undermined human dignity. What dignity remaining to man by way of his freedom must be protected even as Christian sinners (all of us) fall short of living a perfect life.

Freedom in the Holy Spirit

The Declaration On Religious Freedom offered the solution to the dilemma of sinful man living with absolute truth. "God calls men to serve Him in spirit and in truth. Hence they are bound in conscience but they stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created; man is to be guided by his own judgment and he is to enjoy freedom." (11,1)

The document discussed freedom of conscience:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully, in order that he may come to God, for whom he was created. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience... (3,3)

For, of its very nature, the exercise of religion consists before all else in those internal, voluntary, and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly from God. (3,4)

The Declaration reminded the Church that Jesus considered freedom a priority. "He Himself, noting that cockle had been sown amid the wheat, gave orders that both should be allowed to grow until the harvest time, which will come at the end of the world." (11,3)[9] The apostles continued preaching the Gospel in the freedom of Christ. "They showed respect for weaker souls even though these persons were in error... With a firm faith they held that the Gospel is indeed the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Therefore they rejected all 'carnal weapons'.[10] They followed the example of the gentleness and respectfulness of Christ." (11,7)

Pope John Paul II, reflecting the compassion of Our Lord and the apostles, issued a 25-page Guidebook for Confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life. According to the guidebook, frequent relapses into the sin of contraception was not enough reason to deny absolution. The pope directed confessors instead to help and encourage penitents toward repentance and holiness.

The bishops of Canada, just three years after signing the Declaration On Religious Freedom, found it necessary to support the need for personal freedom when dealing with the Church's rejection of artificial contraception. Even their critics acknowledged that the bishops "did not say it was just a matter of private conscience."[11] The Canadian Conference of Bishops insisted that married couples could only form their consciences in an atmosphere free of coercion. They did not say that conscience was an autonomous power of the individual to decide right and wrong for themselves, a principle that they felt a need to examine at greater length in their Statement on the Formation Of Conscience.[12]

The great majority of Church members (at least in the 'first world') could obey Humanae Vitae only after they had 'grown up' sufficiently to accept the vision, compassion, and self-control required by its message. Thirty years later, many Catholics are still not ready. We must not abandon them but continue to seek them out and patiently teach them through our word and example. But we cannot take away their God-given freedom to choose not to obey, nor should we exclude them for making that choice. God will deal with his Church in his own time and in his own way. Freedom of conscience allows people to genuinely permit the Lord to disciple them in living the Church's teachings rather than only giving a grudging and half-hearted consent that will not endure the trials that always come.

[1] From a book review by Andrew Tardiff, New Osford Review, Oct/98, pp.36-38

[2] Tardiff, p.36

[3]Tardiff, p.37

[4] John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 34,1

[5] Exodus 14:22

[6] Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God

[7] John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 1994, p.41

[8] Romans 7:25

[9] Declaration On Religious Freedom, Documents Of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, S.J. editor, Guild Press, 1966

[10] Cf. 2 Corinthians 10:4;
Thessalonians 5:8-9

[11] Catholic Insight, "Discussion about Hunanae vitae of 1968", Oct/98, p.19

[12] Cf. paragraph no. 11. The bishops' statement agrees with John Paul II's definition of conscience: that it is "an act of a person's intelligence, the function of which is to apply the universal knowledge of the good in an specific situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now." Veritatis Splendor, 32.2