The Problem Is, I Think They're Right

In 1930, the Lambeth Conference--the international gathering of bishops and other leaders of the Church of England and its daughter churches (such as the US Episcopal Church)--issued Resolution 15, which states as follows:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

While today it is easy to see this statement as a platitude, even slightly reactionary, Resolution 15 marked the first time a Christian religious body endorsed "other methods" of birth control beyond simply not having sex.  In its time, it was a bombshell.  Almost immediately, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical, Casti Connubii, explicitly rejecting Resolution 15 and reaffirming the traditional view that "any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."  (p. 56).

Casti Connubii was not the end of the story.  At Vatican II, a number of bishops wanted to take up the issue again, presumably with a view to making a change.  The issue was deflected into a Papal Birth Control Commission that, to the shock of the Vatican bureaucracy, approved a document calling for a change in Church teaching to approve artificial birth control.  The dissenters, however, appealed to Pope Paul VI to reject the commission's findings, which he did in the famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.  One of the arguments reportedly used to convince Pope Paul was along the lines of "if you change the teaching, it will mean that the Anglicans were right at Lambeth and Pius XI was wrong, which suggests that the Anglicans are the real Church and we are not."

I've thought a lot about that rumored reason for Pope Paul VI to issue Humanae Vitae (and, to be clear, it is only a rumor).  My reflexive response is to say that it is the worst reason for anyone to do anything, ever.  If you believe that birth control is morally wrong, that's one thing.  But to preserve a teaching that puts a burden on people simply so you won't lose face is unconscionable.  Who cares whether some people think that the Church's credibility is undermined?  Do the right thing, and let the chips fall where they may.

The problem, though, Pope Paul's rumored interlocutor does have a point.
When Popes and church bodies make statements on things, especially things related to issues of faith and morals, they claim more authority than simply the opinion of whoever happens to be in that office.  On some level, these statements purport to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Now, depending on the body issuing the statement and the circumstances under which it is made, there will be a greater or lesser assertion of this cloak of the Holy Spirit.  But, in any event, these statements are seen as more weighty than the opinions of theologians, and more reliable than a individual bishop's prediction of who is going to win the Stanley Cup.  And, if you happen to think that the statement from a particular body is wrong, then necessarily you have to at least address of the question of how that body could be wrong.  Why was the connection with the Holy Spirit cut?

If you believe, as I do, that the use of artificial birth control is not morally wrong in all (or, really, most) circumstances, then you have to conclude that the Lambeth Conference was right and Popes Pius XI and Paul VI were wrong.  Does it necessarily follow that one must conclude that the Anglicans are the "real church" and Catholicism is not?  No, I don't think so.  But this conclusion has to have consequences for your view of the Catholic Church and its relationship to other Christian churches.  I don't think you can say that the Catholic Church is absolutely Right and the other absolutely Wrong if it can mess up a major thing like this.

I have been thinking about this more of late, because the birth control issue is not the only thing that I think the Anglicans get right and the Catholics get wrong.  As I mentioned in my last post, I am coming more and more to the idea that women's ordination is not only an equality issue, but very possibly a Scriptural issue.  It's one thing to say, as I used to, "well, I know that the Bible and Church tradition say women can't be priests, but that seems kind of unfair based on what we now think about gender issues."  It's easy to be ambivalent on the issue when things are framed that way.  It is a whole other thing to say "the ban on women's ordination can't be justified in the Bible, and seems to be a product of misogyny, rather than theology, in the tradition," which is where I am starting to lean.  If so, then the US Episcopal Church (and recently, the Church of England) is right about women's ordination and the Catholic Church is wrong.  Just like with birth control.

Ditto with gay rights.  Here, the record from the Anglicans is more mixed, in light of the kerfluffle over the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent comments suggesting that Gene Robinson is causing Christians to be massacred in Africa.  The US Episcopal Church, however, has been a leader among Christian churches on gay rights issues, including marriage.  Once again, I think they are right, and Catholicism is wrong.  Three for three.

The question I wrestle with is basically this:  I am hopeful that Pope Francis will be able to bring about a change on certain issues--divorce and remarriage (which, again, I think the Episcopalians have a sound position), birth control, women's ordination, gay rights, even local church governance.  In essence, I would like Pope Francis to lead the Catholic Church. . . to where the Episcopalians already are.  Isn't that silly?  Wouldn't it make more sense to simply go to the folks that are already in the right place, as opposed to waiting and hoping to get to the right place?  If I have the convictions that I do, why wait around in the hope that the wheel will be reinvented?

I truly don't know what I think about this.  I write about this stuff as a way of working through it for myself.  I still hold to Napoleon's Battle Plan, and I am not eager to make a change to the Episcopalians.  The problem is, I think they are right.


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea