An abused story

abuseI was in high school 20 years ago. It was an age of great pop music, mullets, and impending U.S. victory in the Cold War. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was.

Which is why I find it odd that The New York Times buried this fact in its story about a Catholic priest who has been removed from ministry because of allegations that he fondled two teenage boys.

Reporter Paul Vitello’s story was curious. It had strong virtues but also strong defects.

On the one hand, Vitello showed that in some cases at least, the Catholic Church’s new policy about removing alleged abusers is severe:

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the first accuser came to the archdiocese in June. After an internal investigation, he said, the church sent the case to the district attorney’s office, but did not remove Monsignor Harris because it is church policy “not to alert the target” of a potential criminal investigation.

During the district attorney’s investigation, the second accusation against Monsignor Harris emerged, and the diocese ordered him to step aside, Mr. Zwilling said. The five-year statute of limitations has lapsed in both cases, and charges are not likely to be brought, said Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

The archdiocese still must decide whether Monsignor Harris will be returned to his duties, “returned to the lay state,” or permitted to retire to “a life of prayer and penance,” an inactive status, Mr. Zwilling said. Monsignor Harris is one of 15 archdiocesan priests who have been removed since 2002 on sexual abuse allegations, with just one returning to his post, he said.

Also, Vitello showed that the priest, Monsignor Wallace A. Harris, was no recluse or loner; on the contrary, he was popular and influential:

Monsignor Harris, 61, is widely known in Harlem for his church’s charity works, and known in the community of 648 priests who serve in the Archdiocese of New York as an expert organizer and charismatic leader. He is the chairman of the archdiocesan priests’ council, a position to which he was elected by the priests. He was appointed by Cardinal Edward M. Egan as vicar of central Harlem, one of five vicariates in the five boroughs.

Later, Vitello added

The monsignor was assigned to coordinate Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in April — and it is part of local legend that the task involved making sure that 100,000 ponchos were ready in case of rain. “How many people could do that?” Ms. Tuckett said. “He is a very smart man; he makes things work like clockwork.”

On the other hand, the story’s lede was buried. The story opened not with the allegations against Monsignor Harris, but rather about the fact that one former pastor was addicted to cocaine and booze while another one was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old girl. What this angle has to do with the main story line I don’t know.

Also, the fact that the alleged abuse 20 years ago was buried. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither the archdiocese nor the Manhattan district attorney’s office would provide more details. But people familiar with the district attorney’s investigation said the complaints involved the fondling of two boys, about 13 or 14 years old, when they were students at the Cathedral School in Manhattan, where Monsignor Harris was assigned before becoming pastor at St. Charles Borromeo.

Readers only learn that the alleged fondling occurred two decades ago comes via a quote from an upset parishioner. By contrast, Oren Yaniv of The New York Daily News highlighted that the alleged abused occurred 20 years ago:

A popular Harlem priest accused of sexually abusing two minors 20 years ago will not be charged because the statute of limitations has expired, prosecutors said yesterday.

The allegations against Msgr. Wallace Harris of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on 141st St. date from the late 1980s.

The Catholic Church’s new policy is strict in many ways. Yet I think that the Times‘ story needed to explore the question of why abused teenage boys would come forward 20 years later. Is this unusual? Is it possible or likely that the boys’ memory is faulty? (In the early- and mid-1990s, the question of recovered and repressed memory was a big one.)

As is, the story conveys the impression that the church, St. Charles Borromeo, is somehow to blame. As one parishioner says,

“Must be something about that building,” said Roger Firby, 50, a retired corrections officer who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the church. “Always got some trouble.”

Yeah, I guess. But that is a strange way to explain the abuse and the allegations.

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Unitarians keeping the faith

unitarianThe news of senseless shootings last Sunday at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has unfortunately quickly drifted to the back pages of many newspapers across the country. The Knoxville News Sentinel continues to be the best place to go for hourly updates on the case. Overall their coverage has been solid, as would be expected from the local newspaper.

Here is a well-reported story on the congregation’s church service only a week after the shooting:

Last Sunday morning, a gunman shattered the safety and sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. This morning, the congregation reclaims that physical space and spiritual center.

“We are not going to let a Sunday go by without a service there,” said Ted Jones, president of the Kingston Pike congregation and a longtime church member. . . .

“It’s saying we are not going to let our space be violated or damaged, that it is still a good space and we are not going to let anything make it not a good space,” Jones reflected in an interview last week. “This space is safe and sacred and ours. And we are going to define how we think about it. …

“This space — it’s a disfigurement, it’s been wounded. It’s not dead, but it’s tarnished. And we need to untarnish it the best we can.”

To get another perspective on how members of the congregation reacted, see this paragraph from a back-page Washington Post update on the story:

At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, about 60 people from five UU congregations in Northern Virginia came together for a service Monday evening. Bill Welch, the congregation’s minister for programs, talked about how isolating it can be to be a liberal in today’s world of right-wing talk radio and conservative Christians “that talk about liberals as if we are bad people.”

The idea that liberalism as currently defined in the United States is under threat received a bit more coverage in the News Sentinel, but in terms of hard news reporting, this article adds little:

National, and even international, coverage of the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church turned late this week into a discussion into whether it’s safe in America to be a liberal.

“One of the biggest contemporary ironies is that being liberal in the United States of America, home of history’s greatest democracy, has become dangerous. That danger is particularly acute for religious liberals, as the recent tragedy in Knoxville demonstrated,” Bill Maxwell wrote in the St. Petersburg Times.

The article goes onto quote snippets of columns from around the nation (without links!) that voice similar opinions, followed by a lengthy list of YouTube video links. Is that all news readers are going to get in terms of coverage of this rather important issue of motive?

The motive behind the December church shooting in Colorado Springs was fairly confusing and strange. The same could be said for the August 2007 church shooting in Missouri. The big difference in this case is that there is evidence of the shooter’s motive from a four-page letter that has yet to be released in its entirety.

From a criminal procedure perspective there are two interesting developments to watch for in this case: will the defendant seek the insanity plea (which seems possible, if not likely), and will the prosecutor request the death penalty? Some of the victims in the case are already giving their thoughts to the local news media with the obvious religious and political background present. This story is solid except the lead of the article is confusing to me and could be the result of a simple typographical error.

Will other members of the church comment on these two important issues that have serious religious overtones?

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Hey Lobdell! We say, “Amen”

REM tableau 2 01Faithful GetReligion readers will remember the story of William Lobdell, the Los Angeles Times scribe whose first-person account of how covering the religion beat cost him his faith ran on the front page of that newspaper.

That was strong stuff and it will, I am sure, surprise few readers to know that Lobdell has now turned that spiritual journey into a book entitled “Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America,” which is due out in early 2009.

It is also interesting to read his new account of how he lost his faith in the Los Angeles Times and the modern newspaper, in general. But that’s another issue.

However, while visiting his new online home — he is doing alternative journalism in Orange County — I noticed his very blunt, very GetReligion-esque take on a recent Associated Press story. The headline: “Media bias against religion.”

Take it away, Mr. Lobdell:

In the media, I always thought open and honest debate about religion is healthy for everyone. What I hate is the natural media bias that seeps into news story. Below is a little feature on some parents who were rushing to catch a plane and left one of their five children behind (“Home Alone 6″?). The story gives the basics and then adds, “Israeli media said the parents were an ultra-Orthodox Jewish couple but did not give their names.”

Why is it newsworthy to tell the reader that the parents were ultra-Orthodox? Is there a practice within ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism that orders parents to leave their children behind? What if they were Catholic? Would that make it in the story?

Nope. There’s a perception by many that the orthodox branches of any religion are filled with wingnuts. This may or may not be true, but tackle the issue head-on instead of slipping it cynically into news stories.

All I can add is, “Amen.” Of course, you see slanted reports about liberal forms of religion in, well, conservative media. Lobdell is right. It’s nasty to see that sort of thing in a basic wire-service report. Amazing.

Photo: Well, obviously.

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“The most segregated hour …”

hands 01Every serious student of recent American history and religion knows Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about racial segregation and Christian churches. But few surely know the ways in which little has changed from King’s day. They would do well to read a CNN article on the subject.

Reporter John Blake’s story
was one of unusual power and honesty. Rare is the mainstream newspaper article that tells uncomfortable truths about both black and white Christians. This is one of those stories. Consider Blake’s lede:

The Rev. Paul Earl Sheppard had recently become the senior pastor of a suburban church in California when a group of parishioners came to him with a disturbing personal question.

They were worried because the racial makeup of their small church was changing. They warned Sheppard that the church’s newest members would try to seize control because members of their race were inherently aggressive. What was he was going to do if more of “them” tried to join their church?

“One man asked me if I was prepared for a hostile takeover,” says Sheppard, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Fellowship in Mountain View, California.

The nervous parishioners were African-American, and the church’s newcomers were white. Sheppard says the experience demonstrated why racially integrated churches are difficult to create and even harder to sustain. Some blacks as well as whites prefer segregated Sundays, religious scholars and members of interracial churches say.

Later in the story, Blake elaborated on the reasons for the racial segregation. He summarized the views of the pastor of one inter-racial church this way:

Woo doesn’t say his church has resolved all of its racial tensions. There are spats over music, length of service, even how to address Woo. Blacks prefer to address him more formally, while whites prefer to call him by his first name, (a sign of disrespect in black church culture), Woo says.

The second sentence in this passage hit home with me. My Catholic parish technically is almost all black. I go there for confession and for morning Mass; I revere the pastor, a priest of uncommon holiness and charity. Yet I don’t take my wife and daughter there because the Mass is too long. Our 14-month-old can barely tolerates a 60-minute Mass (at the heavily white parishes), let alone a 150-minute one.

These long services survive regardless of the pastor. The lesson is clear: the black congregants prefer long services. Yet it is also clear why few black Catholics attend the local white Catholic churches. Every third or fourth sermon is a variation on the Jesus-loves-you theme. Whether this message would resonate with local working- and middle-class blacks is doubtful.

Perhaps I digress. Regardless, Blake’s story also showed a firm grasp of the New Testament and Christian theology. Besides the impressive conclusion, Blake summarized the theology of inter-racial parishes this way:

interracial church advocates say the church was never meant to be segregated. They point to the New Testament description of the first Christian church as an ethnic stew — it deliberately broke social divisions by uniting groups that were traditionally hostile to one another, they say.

DeYoung, the “United by Faith” co-author, says the first-century Christian church grew so rapidly precisely because it was so inclusive. He says the church inspired wonder because its leaders were able to form a community that cut across the rigid class and ethnic divisions that characterized the ancient Roman world.

“People said that if Jews, Greeks, Africans, slaves, men and women – the huge divides of that time period — could come together successfully, there must be something to this religion,” DeYoung says.

The passage above was not perfect. A brief passage examining whether segregation is itso facto bad would have been great. Catholic parishes were, and to an extent still are, segregated by ethnicity. Is it un-Christian that Hispanic Catholics have their church, while Irish and Italian Catholics have theirs?

But those are quibbles. Blake’s story did more than Get Religion. It is one of the best newspaper stories I have read this year.

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Bush’s worship plans in China

bush on freedom
The media is starting to cover the ironies and excitement of President Bush’s visit to China for the 2008 Olympics. The New York Times has already appropriately played up the fact that Bush attempted to go to worship at a house church but was denied by the Chinese government.

Here’s the lead of the article which appeared Tuesday:

WASHINGTON — Aides organizing President Bush’s trip to China for the Olympics considered having him worship at a house church, one of the underground religious institutions that routinely face official harassment, but the Chinese authorities ruled it out.

Pastors, lawyers and other political activists whom Mr. Bush considered meeting in Beijing as a signal of support have instead been ordered by the Chinese authorities to leave the city during the president’s visit. Scores of others have been arrested.

The idea of giving a Reaganesque “tear down this wall” speech on human rights in China — as members of Congress and others are calling for Mr. Bush to do — has been abandoned as potentially insulting to the president’s hosts, one senior administration official said. Besides, most Chinese would probably not see or hear it, because of state control of the news media.

While this is symbolically ironic and important, it should not come as a surprise to anyone. The fact is that these house churches are operating outside the country’s laws whether we like it or not.

Now please don’t jump to the comment button and call me some sort of freedom hater. I am not. My point is that Americans, Christians, people of any faith, freedom lovers, and the entire Western world may not like the China’s laws, but it is in fact the law of China and Americans don’t get to decide Chinese laws. Also, the comparisons with Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech ought to be either explained better or dropped all together because the situations are hardly the same.

The real story here is that the Bush White House seemed to make a big deal out of Bush’s request to visit a house church. Does anyone really expect the Chinese authorities to allow that to happen in their country or to even attempt to reform their laws overnight?

Some of the NYT‘s coverage reflects the viewpoint that Americans can go over to other countries and convince them to make exceptions to their laws to make everyone happy:

While he evidently will not worship at an underground church, Mr. Bush does plan to attend services on Sunday at the Beijing Kuanjie Protestant Church, one of the most prominent of those officially registered by the government. (And then, that night, he will watch Kobe Bryant and the rest of USA Basketball play China.)

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was among a group of advocates who met with Mr. Hadley last week to discuss China, said the problem with the balance Mr. Bush was striving for was that it too readily accepted the Chinese authorities’ conditions.

Referring to the decision to visit an authorized church, he said: “It’s not an affirmation of religious freedom. It’s an affirmation of government-controlled religion.”

An aspect of the story that is missing is the reality of Chinese law. The law in China is fairly flexible. The massive size of the county and huge population makes the American concept of law and order seem an impossible objective. Would it have been possible for Bush to quietly visit a house church during his visit? If Bush minimized any notion that his presence in China would somehow release the bonds on the country’s religious freedoms, perhaps the government would have allowed him some flexibility. That said, Bush is president of the United States and he has made his goal as president is to spread freedom around the world. Any notion of avoiding publicity or quietly visiting anything in China is probably my own wishful thinking.

As the next couple of weeks play out, watch for the media’s portrayal of the underground religious groups in China, along with their government-approved counterparts and let us know your thoughts on how they are portrayed and covered. I would be particularly interested if the subject of religion came up during any of NBC’s coverage of the games.

The Christian church overall is growing quite rapidly in China. I recently heard a statistic that there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members. I hope the issue receives the in-depth coverage it deserves, but think worry that Kobe Bryant’s jump shot will receive most of the attention.

Photo of President Bush with Vice President Cheney addressing the media at the State Department, August 14, 2006 used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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“Emerging church” in Indy?

united methodist church in indyOne of my favorite religion reporters is Robert King from The Indianapolis Star. A certain amount of my enjoyment reading his pieces comes from the fact that he writes about my local Hoosier Heartland community, but I think I can say objectively that King generally gets religion in his work as a journalist, and I’ve heard others around the community reflect similar thinking. He also knows the Indianapolis community.

On the cover of Sunday’s Metro section, King wrote about a struggling downtown United Methodist congregation that meets in one of the cities many aging, beautiful and historic church buildings. The church is a combination of two “dying” downtown churches with a history in the community that spans more than 125 years, as King notes later in the article. (Also see accompanying photo gallery of one of the church’s events).

One church was founded in 1877, and started what is today one of the area’s largest hospitals. Indiana’s senior Senator and former Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar was once a member. Immigrants founded the other in 1880. Services at this church were held in German initially.

With that background in mind, the article left me pondering whether this story was more about a growing social center and movement or place of entertainment than it was about a struggling church, as its traditionally defined. In fact, that was the point of the article:

As 24-year-old member Hilary Updike, Jordan’s wife, says: “I think we are all kind of burnt out on the traditional church model.”

The consensus among members is that Lockerbie Central now sits squarely in the emergent church movement — characterized by its emphasis on the arts, social justice causes and a willingness to question long-held traditions and conventions.

At Lockerbie Central, it also reflects something of a backlash against the conservative, suburban megachurch that has come to dominate much of the religious and political landscape.

Reporting on the “emergent church” movement is never easy. Sometimes the point of the movement is to defy any traditional labels that reporters can slap on the congregation. Check out this section of King’s story:

united methodist church in Indy

Now, the room the German immigrants and generations of churchgoers used as a fellowship hall features a temporary display of “fringe” artists.

Prominent among them is a painting of President Bush who, though a famous United Methodist himself, is featured here with horns protruding from his head. The caption above him carries the apocalyptic message of many a street preacher: “The End is Near.”

And in lieu of a pastor, the church this week is giving itself, heart and soul, to an experiment in worship in which everyone participates in a communal service. Today’s highlight will be a “piece” poem cobbled together from the words audience members scribble on cards.

The closest thing to preaching — a five-minute “sermonette” — will challenge the view that Jesus would not have approved of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred 63 years ago this week.

King’s reporting reveals something unique about this congregation: while they average about 30 worshippers on Sunday, about 2,400 people come through the church every month on days not traditionally known as the Sabbath. The church has so much going on that King aptly describes the place as “perhaps the busiest church in danger of dying in Indianapolis.”

The one thing I kept looking for in the story was an explanation for the church’s views on the direction of the United Methodist denomination nationally or some sort of determination of the church’s theological baseline. Of course since the congregation lacks a pastor and by definition attempts to avoid religious and political labels, that basis is difficult to establish, but there are certain basic things that can be asked about.

For example, there is the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Both are generally accepted by Methodists. Are these every used in the church’s worship? Why not ask the tmatt trio questions? I am sure others can think of many ways of giving readers a sense for what this group of people believes.

I also wondered whether there are other churches in Indianapolis that would call themselves “emerging.” Actually, I know there are. Will they also be written about?

Photo by author of post taken in downtown Indianapolis.

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A Cardinal in full — well, almost

cardinalAs I wrote a few months ago, I appreciate any serious newspaper profile of the local Catholic bishop or cardinal. Not to bash my hometown press unnecessarily, but I don’t remember the Bay Area media in the 1980s or ’90s ever doing so. And this in a region where not too long ago, the San Francisco bishop could name the city’s police chief or captain of the fire department.

So I read with interest The Boston Globe‘s profile of Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Reporter Michael Paulson gave readers a many-sided portrait of O’Malley. Whether his portrait was full, let alone complete, is another question.

One virtue of the story was its presentation of reality from O’Malley’s point of view. Paulson sat down with the Cardinal for an interview, and this allowed him to portray O’Malley intimately and on his own terms, which are religious and spiritual. (Check out his blog.) His lede is a good example:

Some bishops would have attended an anniversary celebration. Others would have held a public Mass. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley skipped town, checked into a monastery, and prayed.

Five years after he was installed as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, O’Malley remains in many ways the most unusual of public figures … He arrived in Boston on July 30, 2003, confronting, for the third time in his career as a bishop, a diocese thrown into crisis by clergy sexual abuse. But if the situations confronting the Fall River and Palm Beach dioceses had been grim, the situation in Boston was ruinous. So bad, in fact, that when Pope John Paul II asked him to move to Boston, O’Malley unsuccessfully sent a plea to the pope to reconsider.

“I dropped the phone . . . it was quite a shock,” O’Malley said in an interview Tuesday. “I did ask him to reconsider, and it came back immediately with, no, this is what he wants you to do.”

Another virtue of the story was its summary of O’Malley’s accomplishments and problems as Boston’s top prelate. Any reporter in Boston might have done the same as Paulson, and if anything Paulson might have underplayed the Cardinal’s successes, as O’Malley in his interview mentioned accomplishments not listed in the story.

Yet at least Paulson wrote about O’Malley’s record and did so in a serious and fair way. His descriptions conveyed a key truth about Catholic prelates — their job is primarily administrative, as this passage below illustrates:

He sold the archdiocese’s leafy 64-acre campus in Brighton to Boston College, and used the proceeds to settle abuse cases. He closed one-fifth of the parishes, acknowledging that the archdiocese no longer had the worshipers, the priests, or the funds to justify 357 churches, and he closed multiple parochial schools that he said had become too small to survive. He replaced nearly every top manager in the archdiocese, reduced the size of the administrative staff by about one-quarter, spun off eight Catholic high schools, and tried unsuccessfully to sell the Catholic hospitals. He cut administrative spending from $51 million the year before he arrived to $35 million last year, and slashed the annual deficit from $24 million the year he arrived to $2 million last year.

He moved from the traditional archbishops’ mansion in Brighton — which he then sold — to a shabby rectory in the South End; he traded down the archbishop’s car to a Toyota Avalon, and he continues to wear the brown hooded robe and sandals that symbolize the vow of poverty he took as a Capuchin friar.

What the story did not, however, was include many different voices. While it features quotes from two the presidents of two local Catholic colleges, the mayor, a business leader and a national sex-abuse leader, it has none from independent conservative, liberal or traditional Catholics. This absence was evidence of the story’s Establishment mindset.

I would have liked to have seen a quote from, say, Philip Lawler, the former editor of the archdiocese’s newspaper and author of a well-regarded book on Boston’s Catholics, or Ray Flynn, the city’s longtime former mayor and former ambassador to the Vatican. What do they think of the Cardinal’s administrative, spiritual or political record?

Yet these criticisms are minor. At least this story not only acknowledges that a Catholic Establishment exists, but also seeks to understand its leader.

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Almost getting Humane Vitae

humanaevitaeI am remiss in not writing about coverage of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that upheld the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition against artificial birth control and contraception.

Here’s my excuse: When I was old enough to read stories about this topic, coverage of the church’s position relied heavily on ad-hominem attacks and priests rarely explained this unpopular church teaching. I knew I would have to go back and re-read Humanae Vitae as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 2006 document against artificial birth control and contraception. (Bear with me. This preamble will be important later in the post.)

I am glad to report that coverage has improved. Gone is the implied criticism that because the Pope and Vatican officials are all single males, they have no right to tell married couples what to do in the intimacy of their bedrooms. In fact, several stories are serious and thoughtful. Yet I think that none truly get religion.

For Religion News Service, reporter Daniel Burke wrote about Humane Vitae and its legacy. His lede struck a fair and accurate note:

Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church.

Either way, 40 years after Paul VI released “Humanae Vitae” on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church.

Throughout his story, Burke treated the encyclical seriously, as a document that Catholics struggle with. For example, he presented what I regard as the best argument against Humanae Vitae:

Lisa Cahill said young Catholics in her ethics classes at Boston College don’t understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through what the church calls “natural family planning” but not by other means.

“The arguments don’t really fit together coherently,” she said. “As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate,why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?”

In addition, Burke also gave readers the historical and theological context in which Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical. While Burke could have dismissed the pope’s perspective and rationale, he sought to explain it:

In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially allow artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.

What Burke did not do, however, was present the encyclical’s main argument against artificial birth control and conctraception. As Peter Steinfels notes, Humanae Vitae was not at its heart a warning against the evils of the sexual revolution in general and artificial birth control specifically. Its essence was theological, not sociological:

The central point of “Humanae Vitae” was that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate effort to prevent conception.

It was here that Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of his own papal commission. After extended study and debate, the commission, though heavily weighted with conservative churchmen, concluded that the inseparability of the bonding and procreating aspects of human sexuality had to be respected over the course of a marriage but not necessarily in every instance of sexual intimacy.

Steinfels got that first part right at least. And while like John Allen, Jr., he strives to explain the theological basis of the encylical and church teaching, going so far as to quote from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger a decade ago, his summary too is incomplete.

Humanae Vitae forbids Catholic couples from using artificial birth control for one main reason: those who use artificial birth control attempt to assert mastery over their own fate rather than being open to God’s will. It casts the issue as one of control — Man’s vs. God’s. As the encyclical states,

[T]o experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source

It is probably too much to expect Burke to described this theological justification accurately. With its elliptical sentences and length, Humanae Vitae is no easy read. (The Bishops’ 2006 statement is clearer and better written.) But I do think that Allen and Steinfels, two prominent Catholic thinkers, should have described this admittedly thorny church teaching and encyclical more accurately.

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