Monday, February 09, 2004

Contraception and the Average Catholic

Because of my total agreement with the Church's teachings against birth control, I always start wondering when I see Catholics who are very active in their parishes who only have one or two kids. Did they decide to disobey Church teachings and practice artificial contraception? Or was there some other reason I don't know about that they couldn't have kids?  Maybe they practiced Natural Family Planning? I know many couples who practiced NFP successfully and had exactly the number of children they wanted to have. There really is no way to know, and I try not to wonder, because ultimately it is none of my business.

But I do know other Catholics, even members of my family, who limit their family size using condoms or other birth control methods.

Not my mother and father though. My mother and father tried the old rhythm method. I was born before they started using rhythm. When my middle sister, Martha, was born 11 months and a half after me, my mother was told by her doctor not to have another child. When they tried to abstain according to the old rhythm method, my mother quoted my dad as saying blithely, "Oh just this once won't hurt." After I don't know how many times of my father using that line, my mother got pregnant with a third child. My father was killed in the line of duty as a fireman in December a month before the baby was due in January of 1948, 16 months after Martha.

My mother described her state at that last month after Daddy died, with two little girls (2 and 1 year old), having recently lost her husband, and not knowing whether she was going to die when the third child was born the next month. But doctors not being gods or prophets, sometimes not even very good guessers, my mother didn't die. She named her third daughter, Joe-anne Bernadette after my father Joseph Bernard.

She told the story sweetly to us over the years. She said that Joe-anne and daddy passed each other, him on his way up to heaven, Joe-anne on her way down. When we got older she told us that people used to tell her she shouldn't have had so many kids. Even in those days in the late 40s, people were limiting how many children they had so they could afford more things, like new cars or other goods that come with a higher standard of living. She used to quote the famous Roman matron who referred to her children as her jewels. I think she was heroic that way.

Along the same line, I was surprised to read once (maybe in the book The Irish in America) that in spite of the high percentage of Irish who are practicing Catholics, the first generation of Irish immigrants dropped from their parents' average of 8 or 10 children to a immigrant's average of 4 children, and by the next generation the average Catholic family size dropped to 2. This was even before contraceptives besides lambskin condoms were widely available. End of digression, at least for the time being.

Strictly speaking, the Church teaches that even with NFP, a couple should undertake to limit family size only for grave reasons.

What I Learned from a Jesuit Moral Theologian

I think I now understand better,  from my firsthand experience with a moral theologian from a Catholic University, at least part of the reason why the teaching against artificial contraception is disobeyed: Many if not all priests are trained to believe that contraception is a matter of individual conscience, instead of as Pope Pius VI wrote, a grave moral evil.

Fr. James Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D., is the "moral" theologian (I can't help myself, I always put "moral" in quotes when I describe him) who is teaching our current session at the San Jose Institute for Leadership in Ministry, and he writes and preaches that a person's conscience has a higher weight than the teachings of the Magisterium and the Pope. He teaches lay leaders and seminarians and college students here and in other countries, including the Philippines and Korea.
Fr. James Bretzke, S.J., S.T.D. Professor of Moral Theology
The teachers at the ILM all seem to share the same attitude, that we don't have to listen to those old repressed celibate men in Rome who have no right to tell Catholics what they are allowed to do in the privacy of their bedrooms. This claim makes me laugh at its lack of logic, and I remember a blog post by a recent convert who heard a priest repeat that same brainless idea. She said that made her wonder if the priest would think that committing a murder or keeping a slave or sexually abusing a child would be all right, as long as she did it in her bedroom. Good question!

Fr. Bretzke strongly implies that it is immoral to not use contraception in a case when the parents do not feel ready to have more children--for any reason. In contrast to what Bretzke is teaching us, I believe that my mother and my father did exactly the right thing. Death is not the worse thing for a Christian. Committing evil acts that lead a person to hell are the worse thing.

Since all churches until 1930 or so taught that contraception is a grave moral evil, the popes who have since then affirmed the traditional teaching aren't making anything up. Bretzke tries to convince his students that to follow the Church's moral teachings above their own consciences is idolatry, because of the twist he puts on the primacy of conscience.

When I tried to debate him (when will I ever learn) he told me I should only follow what the Pope teaches as if it comes from God if I could be sure that all things that Popes have taught through the centuries were free from error. I trust His Holiness Pope John Paul II (because of his holiness and his erudition combined) more than Father James Bretzke or my own conscience for that matter. Bretzke uses as examples of areas where conscience is greater than Church teachings: contraception, ordination of women, and other issues.

Fr. Bretzke told us that when he teaches seminarians about confession, he tells them: There are only three people in the confessional, you, God, and the penitent. Not the Pope. Not Cardinal Ratzinger. He instructs them that the individual should be taught to follow his or her conscience.

He makes an exception to the primacy of conscience for acts that he disapproves of, such as slavery. [This I believe is the flaw in his argument to which he is blind, because he is deciding on his own that contraception isn't evil, and that slavery is. ]

I truly believe that the Holy Spirit prevented the Church from capitulating on the contraception issue, even though many priests, bishops, and cardinals lobbied to have the teaching changed. The weight of public opinion and all the experts were against Pope Paul VI.

Father Bretzke writes that his approach is a personalist one, better than the old "manualist" or "physicalist" approaches.

I reminded Fr. Bretzke that Pope John Paul II had worked out a personalist defense of the Church's teachings about conjugal love when he was a pastor, and that the Pope continued to develop this philosophy. The Pope taught his personalist "theology of the body" at his weekly audiences for years, which have been collected into a book called (I think) Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. And Christopher West, a layman who graduated from the Pope's Institute for Marriage and the Family teaches in laypeople's terms what the Pope has taught.

I told Fr. Bretzke my theory that the Holy Spirit had to be credited with Karol Wotyla's imput to Paul VI's decision making. Fr. Bretzke said that the current pope did not attend many of the sessions (because of the communists in Poland at the time prevented him from traveling) but I quoted Woodward and Bernstein's book on the Pope, which claimed that the input from Wotyla strongly affected the outcome of Paul VI's deliberations.

One of the lobbies that Pope Paul VI had to counter was the march on Rome by a bunch of pro-contraception clerics from American who were armed with the good news of a so-called "natural" method of birth prevention, the Pill. According to a New Yorker article a few years ago that I've saved somewhere, the pill's inventor John Rock was a Catholic, and many Catholics who were pro-contraception hung their hopes on being able to convince the Pope that the Catholic Church should accept this "natural" method of controlling fertility. After Humanae Vitae was published, Rock left the Church, I'm guessing because it didn't conform to his superior knowledge, and things didn't go his way.

The experts didn't know how the pill worked, but that didn't stop them from promoting it. It is currently known that the pill does not always suppress ovulation. Eggs that get released will get fertilized in some unknown number of cases. The pill then prevents the fertilized egg from implanting on the wall of the uterus. To those of us who believe that life begins at conception, the pill is abortion-producing (an abortifacient).

If the Holy Spirit had not led the Church in the person of Pope Paul VI and by means of the encyclical Humanae Vitae to hold the line against the Pill, we would now be in the position of supporting a means of birth regulation that is also abortion-producing. The health consequences, including cancer, were not known at the time either. Thank you Holy Spirit for keeping the so-called weak pope on the right track!

In his book, A Morally Complex World: Engaging Contemporary Moral Theology, that was our class textbook, Bretzke quotes just enough from the writings of Pope John Paul II to perhaps give the idea that the pope would agree wholely with his arguments. Bretzke also focuses strongly on some wording in a document from the Church's second Vatican council and on some things St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about conscience, while building his invalid non-doctrinal case that the individual MUST follow his or her conscience even when it is contradicted by the teachings of the Church.

He leaves out the requirement that a person must follow his conscience when his conscience is properly informed by Church teachings!  If a person forms his conscience by reading Kinsey's works that suggested that no harm comes to children who are sexually abused, should that person be told to follow his conscience?

Can't believe that the Pope would agree with that! Fr. Bretzke specifically uses examples of common things Catholics use their consciences to disobey the Magisterium about, and gives examples where he believes the silly benighted people who believe what the Church teaches are guilty of idolatry!
Following is from email interchanged between me and another ILM student on this topic:

From: Roseanne Sullivan []
Sent: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 12:20 PM

I am very upset with the moral theology text. In one overview chapter he manages to undermine three of the Church's teachings: that life begins at conception, that women cannot be ordained deacons or priests, and that artificial contraception is wrong. He uses these issues in examples in such a way as to belittle the teachings.

Our instructors claim to be practicing Catholics but they also support anti-Catholic positions.

Bah, humbug!
Update March 15, 2016

Fr. Bretzke is now a Full Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College School of Theology & Ministry.

Below are some other things I've written about Fr. Bretzke's teachings.

No Recipe for Morality Says Bay Area Jesuit

Redefining Morality and the True Teachings of Vatican II  (My Amazon review of Fr. Bretzke's book, March 25, 2005)
In this book Fr. Bretzke teaches complex methods for evaluating the morality of actions - while Catholics who follow traditional teachings would call the same actions "sins" without Bretzke's methods. Putting individual conscience above Church teachings identifies Fr. Bretzke with a breed of theologians who believe the Vatican II Council licensed them to redefine what the Church teaches and to claim that traditional Catholic morality is wrong. People who think the way Fr. Bretzke does never bother to explain why they stay in a Church they believe was so misguided for so long, or how they were granted the grace to understand more than the great saints that came before them.

Fr. Bretzke impugns the maturity of people who base their values on what the Magisterium teaches, using statements like the following: "To sit back and wait for a clear-cut response from any outside moral authority, even if it be the Pope, would result in a sort of moral infantilism."

Fr. Bretzke does not credit the writings of others who defend the Church's traditional teachings, prominently Pope John Paul II.

The following quote from the Pope's encyclical on moral theology seems to apply to theologians like him.
" Certain currents of modern thought ... exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. . . [T]he traditional doctrine ... is rejected; certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; and the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to `exhort consciences' and to `propose values,' in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices."
You can read on Amazon the reply to my review from The Old Book Worm. Here is my reply to his reply.
Dear Mr. Old Book Worm, Your criticisms of me are way off base.

In 2004, I took a course from Fr. Bretzke at the San Jose Institute of Leadership in Ministry in which this book was the textbook. And I can assure you that I read it, more than once.  Have you read it?

I don't respect your ad hominem attacks against me at all.  It is a red herring for you to bring up the issues about sexual abuse.  Bretzke's approach to morality gives all the freedom to decide about the rightness or wrongness of things to the individual's conscience. This is not Catholic doctrine, never has been.

I'm sure that many child abusers were relying on their own consciences. Fr. Bretzke would not approve of what they did (and neither would I), but he cannot tell you why, according to his lights.  I'll tell you though, Fr. Bretzke supports people using their own consciences to decide whether a Church teaching is right or wrong--except, and this is a big exception that shows the flaw in what he teaches--he does not support the rights of individual conscience when a person's conscience tells him to do something Fr. Bretzke feels in his conscience is wrong. So now Fr. Bretzke has set himself up as higher than the Magisterium of the Church.

Obviously the way Fr. Bretzke uses the whole primacy of conscience argument is just a rationalization for encouraging people to do things that are contrary to official Church teaching, such as use contraception or engage in homosexual acts. (I read his course notes from when he was teaching at University of San Francisco where he tried to debunk Scriptural passages about the evils of homosexual acts and worked to undermine Church teachings on that matter too.)

Just because you believe that a vast majority of "moral" theologians disagree with the Church's prohibition against artificial contraception, that doesn't mean they are not seriously in error. I've been on both sides of this issue, and I returned to that Catholic Church because I saw how much harm comes to those who disobey Her teachings.

You might do worse than close your own far too open mind.