Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Before Humanæ Vitæ

"The Church forbids contraceptive methods," rightly reminds Sandro Magister, but who duly notes that she "has always been more indulgent in the confessional, not only today but also in the past," and reports on "what priests did in the first half of the twentieth century, in one of the most Christianized areas of Italy" — "Ego te absolvo." The Catholic Route to Birth Control.

Mr. Magister reports that "one constant guideline emerges from the solutions given by the diocese of Padua to cases of morality regarding contraception: that of employing the 'theory of good faith' taught by Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori." He explains:
    According to this theory, in the presence of a penitent who is suspected of committing contraceptive actions but appears unaware of the gravity of the sin and in practice incapable of correcting his behavior, it is best to respect his silence and take his good faith into account, absolving him without posing any further questions.

    The Liguorian theory was dominant for many decades, not only in the seminaries and in the care of souls, but also in the guidelines given by the Holy See in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It even appeared in the code of canon law of 1917, in force until 1983, which said at canon 888: "The priest who hears confessions should be very careful not to pose curious and useless questions, especially concerning the sixth commandment, to anyone with whom he deals, and particularly not to ask younger persons about things of which they are unaware."

    Not only in the confessional, but also in the pulpit priests were urged to be cautious, prudent, reserved on these matters. In rare instances it was suggested that men and women be spoken with separately.
This might be a better approach than the debasing of the Faith into a fertility cult. And call me a prude, but the suggestion "that men and women be spoken with separately" on "rare instances" might be a better approach than the pop-Catholic cottage industry surrounding the Theology of the Body.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious about your take on the Theology of the Body. Could you go into it a bit more

10:36 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Two friends, both single men interestingly, have tried to prosyletize me into it with CDs, but I just don't have that much time or interest.

I'm married with two kids but now half-heartedly practice NFP out of necessity given familial health issues. I don't really see the need to think any more deeply about "the marital act" than I already do.

I know next to nothing about the "Theology of the Body," but it sounds very 1970s to me. I don't think it's heretical, but I don't think it's necessary either.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Pints in NYC said...

I don't think it is really a 70s thing. It apparently has caught on with enthusiasm amongst many young conservative Catholics I know. Apparently JPII really pushed for it.

As I said before in a comment about CS Lewis and birth control, I'm often reminded of the following HL Mencken quote when I come across this issue:

"It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry"

Of course, the wisdom and truth of the church should not be rejected because of such witty jokes. NFP seems to be the best way to go for mature Christian spouses.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Apparently JPII really pushed for it.
Or so the Theology of the Body cheerleaders would have you believe.

In fact, what is often mischaracterized as JPII's "push" on the Theology of the Body is more accurately described as a rich theology of the human person rightly understood as a body-soul union. People like Christopher West have made a pretty penny by blowing the body part out of proportion. He's come in for strong and justified criticism for it from such theological heavy hitters as Alice von Hildebrand and David Schindler.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

"Fertility cult"? Hey, you stole my line:

Anyway, this is an interesting article nonetheless. A bunch of celibate men in robes have no reason to be playing social and demographic engineering with the people entrusted to them. Just another example of how old school Catholicism understood human nature far better than the new-fangled stuff (TOB etc.)

2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the Italian culture, it is customary to establish lofty principles, to which everyone must volubly pay lip service, but then, when the rubber hits the road, find very pragmatic solutions, that often work.

"So, you'd like to become a priest, but think you can't because the Santo Padre says no candidates who have what he calls an inherently pathological sexual orientation may immatriculate at the seminary? Well, I knew your grandfather, your father and mother, your uncles and nieces, and I have no doubt that if the Holy Father were here today he'd understand... Now when can you come join us?

So my child, you take the pill.... Il Santo Padre says it is a grave sin, but I'm sure that if he'd no your situation, he'd understand..."

All this went awry when a Pole ran the show, and the more ignorant Catholics from cultures that do not deliberately cultivate ambiguity took him at face value.

The joke's on them.

6:42 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Stephen, thanks for the info on the theology of the human person. The "body" part always sounded weird to me.

Arturo, if I stole, I did so unconciously, but with you in mind.

Anon, Italians sound a lot like Koreans in that regard.

6:47 AM  
Anonymous Arturo Vasquez said...

The Spanish version of that is the colonial axiom:

"obedezco, pero no cumplo"

I obey, I just don't follow through.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very amusing and critical of the Right People (Neo-Caths! I'm sure Arturo will bring up Scott Hahn! soon enough..), but can we just address the hard questions?

Then *why not* just say it's moral to contracept?

It's a serious question. Why play the game if it is really just okay?

2:59 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

For the record, I think Humanae Vitae was prophetic. Contraception, like self abuse, can never be right, but it's hard for many people to avoid those sins.

9:50 PM  
Anonymous walt said...

From an interveiw I read a few years ago, Theology of the Body was just an interim working title the Pope gave those lectures. As Stephen mentioned it was a portion of his philosophical project to reorient humanist thought in an authentic anthropology centered in Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul II's first encyclical Remdemptor Hominis opening statement reads "The Redeemer of Man, is the centre of the universe and of history." That was the axiom he was proceeding from in all of his encyclicals.

4:43 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

False charity leads the weak to hell.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then *why not* just say it's moral to contracept?

It's a serious question. Why play the game if it is really just okay?

Can you say guilt trip? How long would the church have stayed in business without guilt?

Actually, I think the notion of Humanae Vitae is right; what I find distasteful is how for some it is a fetish that outranks more important things, such as charity.

7:39 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Well said that "for some it is a fetish that outranks more important things, such as charity."

I remember reading of a newlywed couple in a Latin Mass parish who after two years had not had a baby. The busybodies at the parish insisted they make an announcement as to why, as they were causing scandal.

Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori's "theory of good faith" we read about would have the fellow parishioners shut up and assume the couple were having trouble conceiving, or had had miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies. Instead, our "confessional" (in all the wrong ways) cultural insists on full public disclosure.

The husband would have been within his rights to have punched his inquisitors in the nose.

8:24 PM  
Anonymous A Christian Fool said...

WC, I still am confused. You comment for the record that you think HV was prophetic. But your post was about the good ole days before HV. As a convert, is it just that I’m unable to appreciate the wisdom of that old school, “don’t ask, don’t tell” ambiguity?

Sadly, I am one of those ignorant Catholics whose culture does not deliberately cultivate ambiguity -- like C.S. Lewis, I am a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans. And so I fear I have taken most (if not all, God help me!) of this material at face value.

Can this approach be applied to other areas of Catholic morality?

I fear the joke is on me (curses to that show-running Pole!). Celibate men in robes, indeed. Talk about the long con.

10:18 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

A Christian Fool,

There's two very distinct issues intermingled here.

The first is the principle that ignorance spares a person of committing a sin they would commit if that person did know of that sin.

This is an act of charity because at the least it spares the person a deeper place in hell.

The other issue is winking at sin which is known to be sin. Either by those who knowingly commit the sins while making sport of evil as if it was a trifle. Or the loathsome practice of false charity and sloth by those who should be correcting the sinners.

10:36 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

HV just put into print what had always been taught.

I'm as confused as you about what I'm trying to say here, but I think Anon hit on it above: "I think the notion of Humanae Vitae is right; what I find distasteful is how for some it is a fetish that outranks more important things, such as charity."

I've been living among cultures that "cultivate ambiguity" as you say for almost 20 years now and a lot of it has rubbed off, for better and for worse.

10:39 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

I, on the other hand, think Anon has been surreptitiously slipped some LSD.

The idea that there is a fetish, let alone a fetish sacrificing charity, is rather strange. And I'm no stranger to the heights of silliness that traditionalists can come up with.

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Saul said...

A couple of points...

First, modernity has put a dagger into the cultivation of ambiguity you talk about. And rightly so. This ambiguity should have been simply a way of patience, to give the Holy Spirit the time to work on us so that we straighten our ways without being hit on the head. But instead, it became an entrenched weakness in our spiritual lives that modernity has so glaringly exposed.

Second, needless to say, this ambiguity manifests itself in all areas of life, not just 'personal matters'. Italian mafia. Greek taxes. How about the family of the Ethiopian nobleman faithfully attending church while their servants don't (and never have). Just tiny examples.

Third, Church teachings on sexuality are surely much much easier to practice than its teachings on anything else. Say... universal charity for example! The idea that it is relatively 'difficult' is so tempting yet so false. Is it perhaps we think that we're doing okay in our spiritual life otherwise? Huh? Huh?

Finally, I always find myself in dangerous spiritual territory when I begin to cultivate irritation about others' spiritual approaches. It's something I do often, and it keeps me from examining my own heart. Is HV for some HV a 'fetish that outranks...'? Who am I to judge? I hope I can pray for them and they for me.

12:06 AM  
Anonymous A Christian Fool said...

Thanks all.
I hadn't considered the whole LSD angle, but that might explain a lot (i.e., when anon's asking about my ability to say guilt trip, we may be thinking a bout different kinds of trips; how long would the church be/have been in business without guilt?) - with the right chemicals, I could think about that stuff for a really long time. Of course the ability to extol St. Alphonsus Liguori's theory of good faith while lambasting people for fetishizing the contents of an encyclical in the same breath... Well, let's just say I've got to add irony to my list of Catholic things I've yet to master.

1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nicer way of making the same point would have been to say that the church, as mother and teacher, has always defined an ideal after which its flock should strive, knowing full well that an ideal is always striven for, and rarely, if ever, completely attained.

And yet, people need ideals.

This is analogous to people who choose confessors who, if not hard of hearing, are a bit easy on penances.

I should also add, in defense of the Italian way, that I have never heard of the sort of scandals that wrack other parts of the church. Rules there are generously bent, but not -it seems - crassly broken.

4:17 AM  
Blogger love the girls said...

Hell is where lax Italians go.

Purgatory is where those who miss the mark while striving for the mark go.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Saul said...

"...knowing full well that an ideal is always striven for, and rarely, if ever, completely attained."

I would say that the Church does not know, cannot know, and knows that it does not and cannot know that the ideal is rarely attained. It is not the Church's place to make such worldly probabilistic predictions.

I may say it's likely that Amy will not make it through the day without gossiping. From a purely worldly and non-spiritual perspective, it may be a 'safe bet', so to speak. But it is spiritual defeatism. A sin, I think. I should not do it, and neither should the Church.

The consequences from spiritual defeatism can, as you can imagine, be quite devastating.

10:08 PM  
Blogger love the girls said...

In other words, the best confessors would be young, inexperienced, imprudent fools, because they would not be able to inadvertently give advise grounded on experience, i.e. "probabilistic predictions".

12:26 AM  

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