When I was teaching church history at Holy Family College in the early 1980s, I finally read through the documents promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, and discovered that in 1964 the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned all the medieval theology that denigrated sexuality. The Pastoral Constitution of the Church that the Council created is the first written constitution that the Roman Catholic Church has ever had. In it, in the passage on marriage and sexuality, the Council threw out all the medieval insanity about sex and set forth a genuinely realistic and humane theology of sexuality. It proclaimed that sex within marriage has not one purpose but two. The first is the traditional and obvious one: to propagate children, on which the survival of the human race depends. But the second is that sexual intercourse itself is a sacrament, that is, a vehicle for the divine grace that enables a couple to maintain a happy marriage and therefore to have the motivation and commitment to do all the hard work of raising happy, healthy children. Yes, Virginia, Catholics finally capitulated to the obvious biological fact that God designed sex to be pleasurable in order to guarantee the survival of mammalian species, including us.
A non-Catholic might at this point ask, “Why was it important to make an official announcement about something so obvious?” But had it been obvious? Let me explain its significance by means of an incident my father related to me.
In 1964, five years retired from his career in military intelligence, my father went to his parish priest and said, “Father, I need to have permission to use artificial birth control. We’ve always used the rhythm method, but my wife’s cycle has become so unpredictable that won’t work anymore, and her ob-gyn says that another pregnancy could easily kill her.”
(At age 47 my mother still hadn’t hit menopause.)
The priest said what my father had nevertheless hoped he would not say: “The Church teaches that any birth control aside from the rhythm method is a serious sin. I cannot give you permission to commit a sin. I can forgive a sin, but I cannot permit one.”
“Father, I cannot risk my wife’s life.”
“I’m sorry, but in this situation the only moral choice is to abstain from sex completely.”
“Father, I have no gift for celibacy. I know I cannot do that. And I know my marriage and my life will fall apart if I cannot make love to my wife.”
“Mr. Kelly, I’m sorry. I do understand. I wish there were some alternative I could offer you. But you know as well as I that there is none, and I’d be lying if I said there were. Given what I’m hearing from Rome, maybe there will be one, maybe soon, but for now that is what our church teaches.”
So my father, after four decades of being a devout Catholic, found himself in a dilemma: he had to choose between the sin of using birth control and the sin of risking my mother’s life. He was also committing the sin of disbelieving the Church’s teaching on birth control. As a career Army officer, he had had to obey all legal orders or else resign his commission. As a Catholic, he believed that he had to accept all the Church’s teaching—and he could not. So he took the only remaining option: he walked away from the Church.
My father’s dilemma was typical for all too many Catholic men. Many marriages were destroyed by the misery of couples who could neither afford more children nor bring themselves to disobey Church teachings. The church had taught that having sex simply to enjoy it was a sin—and that teaching, which has no scriptural basis, was, I believe, a symptom of Aphrodiphobia. The new Constitution asserted that the enjoyment of sex is needed for the health of a marriage and it thus provided a theological basis for allowing use of birth control. But did that happen? No. Instead, the Catholic Church has endured a calamity, at least in the United States.
To understand why, we need to backtrack, to the First Vatican Council, in 1870. At that time there had been a huge controversy, including many bigoted attacks against the Catholic Church, over its declaration that belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin was infallible doctrine. The council was concerned not with the doctrine—there was no controversy over it within the Catholic Church itself—but with defining and delimiting the concept of infallibility.
Many people then and now have considered belief in the Immaculate Conception to be tantamount to lunacy, almost always because they have not bothered to understand what the concept means; or to grasp that there were two immaculate conceptions in Catholic theology, that of Mary and that of Jesus; or sometimes even to understand the difference between the concepts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Virgin Birth. The former is in fact an inescapable corollary of free will theology, which has been central to both Jewish and Christian theology for about two millennia—but I’m not going to discuss all that here.
In 1870, the Catholic bishops knew it was reasonable for people to question how any human being could be infallible. Hence the First Vatican Council promulgated a very precise definition of infallibility. It said that if the Pope, in unanimous agreement with the laity, the clergy, and the scholars, issued a proclamation defining a long-standing belief as a doctrine essential to Christian faith, then by God’s grace that proclamation would be infallible, in the sense that it could not be so wrong that it would destroy the entire Christian community (although it might still destroy the Roman Catholic Church as an organization). Notice that the Pontiff can pronounce a doctrine to be infallible only if the vast majority of the Catholic people already believe it.
The Council also declared that believing absolutely everything the Pope says under any circumstances to be infallible is itself a heresy—they called it the Ultramontane heresy—which stands to reason. Since the Vatican is legally an independent nation-state (all that’s left of the Papal holdings in the Middle Ages), with observer status in the United Nations, sometimes the Pontiff speaks as head of state rather than as head of the church—and in that situation is no more infallible than Henry Kissinger or Barack Obama.
There are many church teachings that are administrative rules, not revealed doctrine—for example, the rules that women cannot be ordained, that priests must be celibate, that bishops must be appointed instead of elected (as they were for centuries), that the Pope must be elected by aged Cardinals rather than by an ecumenical council—and these have no theological claim to infallibility either.
The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution for the Church is one of the most authoritative statements of Catholic faith ever issued, because it was promulgated by an ecumenical council, the highest authority in Catholic faith, with the consensus of every significant Catholic cleric and scholar in the world, including the Pope. It therefore met all of Vatican I’s criteria for infallibility. Hence the Catholic people in general expected that at least some form of birth control would soon be allowed.
Instead, in 1968 Paul VI issued an encyclical on his own authority continuing the ban on birth control, and then claimed that his opinion was infallible! He thus, like many ordinary Catholics, committed the Ultramontane heresy. The result has been a catastrophe. At that point many American Catholics who thought like my father walked away from the Church also. Other Catholics, who believed that they did have the right to choose which teachings they should believe, decided (without ever using the term) that the Pope had become a heretic, have ever since ignored almost everything any Pope has said, have used birth control, among other issues, and continue to participate in the Eucharist every Sunday.
In fact, every Pope since Paul VI, in refusing to carry out the mandates of Vatican II, has been a heretic. I propose to call theirs the Sistine Heresy, in honor of Paul—since calling it the Pauline Heresy would be ambiguous. It has been church doctrine since about the thirteenth century that a Pope who ignores the decrees of an ecumenical council is in a state of heresy. More importantly, the Pope is a heretic simply because the people treat him like one. Instead of making a compassionate decision that would strengthen families, Paul made a decision that would continue to destroy families—and Catholic families simply refused to allow him to get away with that. The Constitution also proclaimed that the Church belongs to the people, not the clergy—and I think the people were thus exercising their ownership rights.
I have heard (probably from one of Andrew Greeley’s commentaries) that every year since 1968 the National Council of Catholic Bishops, which is the governing authority for the Catholic Church in America, has received a letter from Rome insisting that all the Church’s rules, including that on birth control, must be enforced. Every year the Council writes back, saying, “It is our considered professional opinion that if we were to attempt to enforce all the rules in question, the entire membership of the Roman Catholic Church in America would walk away. We do not believe this is the result you wish to achieve. Please advise.” This stalemate shows no signs of being resolved, and the policies of Benedict XVI appear to be rapidly worsening the crisis.