By JOHN F. KIPPLEY
(Editor’s Note: John F. Kippley is the author of Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality and other books and articles. With his wife Sheila, he is a coauthor of Natural Family Planning: The Complete Approach. The commentary below is reprinted with permission from his blog at johnkippley.com. All rights reserved.)
+ + +
In an interview commemorating the first anniversary of his election as the Bishop of Rome on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis made some wide-ranging comments. Of special interest are his comments on Humanae Vitae.
“It all depends on how the text of Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, toward the end, recommended that confessors show great kindness and attention to specific situations.
“His genius proved prophetic: He had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but to go into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”
It is not impossible that for some the mention of “people’s situations” will raise the ghost of situation ethics.
In that vein, I am reminded of a long sentence in which Karl Rahner wrote as follows:
“If we Christians, when faced with a moral decision, really realized that the world is under the cross on which God Himself hung nailed and pierced, that obedience to God’s law can also entail man’s death…[and several more conditional clauses], then there would be fewer confessors and spiritual advisers who, for fear of telling their penitent how strict is God’s law, fail in their duty and tell him instead to follow his conscience, as if he had not asked, and done right to ask, which among all the many voices clamoring within him was the true voice of God, as if it were not for God’s Church to try and distinguish it in accordance with His law, as if the true conscience could speak even when it had not been informed by God and the faith which come from hearing” (Nature and Grace, 1964 edition. The complete quotation is in Sex and the Marriage Covenant, Ignatius: 2005, p. 205).
Speaking about exceptions to the moral law, Pope John Paul had much to say about the doctrine of marital non-contraception affirmed in Humanae Vitae, and many of his comments are in Sex and the Marriage Covenant, chapter 7, “Forming a Correct Conscience.” A summary is found on page 148 as follows:
“To hold out for exceptions as if God’s grace were not sufficient is a form of atheism” (September 17, 1983);
“Denying the doctrine of marital non-contraception is ‘equivalent to denying the Catholic concept of revelation’” (April 10, 1986);
“It is a teaching whose truth is beyond discussion” (June 5, 1987);
“It is a ‘teaching which belongs to the permanent patrimony of the Church’s moral doctrine’ and ‘a truth which cannot be questioned’” (March 14, 1988);
“It is a teaching which is intrinsic to our human nature and that calling it into question ‘is equivalent to refusing God Himself the obedience of our intelligence’” (November 12, 1988), and finally,
“What is being questioned by rejecting that teaching . . . is the very idea of the holiness of God” (November 12, 1988).
I can understand the emphasis on mercy when a confessor is dealing with persons and couples whose sexual behaviors have become compulsive and who thus may lack the psychological freedom necessary either for serious sin or for acts of love. Such acts are the subject of moral pathology. However, I have yet to see dissenters making the case against Humanae Vitae in terms of almost uncontrollable compulsion.
There is no contradiction between the writing of Pope John Paul II and the comments of Pope Francis, just a difference in emphasis. Perhaps the promotion of mercy will bring about increased concern for the meaning of the marriage act that Pope John Paul II strove so hard and for so long to enkindle.