Professor Marshall – the central arguments

We have had some good discussion on aspects of Professor Marshall’s interview (see STOP PRESS for the text), but I don’t think we have attended yet to a central issue. The commission concluded that the married relationship was the right starting point and that it should by its nature be open to expression though generous procreation. However it did not follow, and it was admitted that natural law could not demonstrate, that every act of sexual intercourse had to be open to conception in its structure. Indeed the vast majority of sexual acts do not, and cannot, result in a conception.

It was argued that it was man’s calling to bring nature under control and that there was no essential difference in applying this through different means, best suited to a particular couple. Natural family planning was a systematic way of separating sexual expression from conception, and so was no less, and no more, “artificial” than other methods.

In looking at the merits and demerits of these arguments we should not be influenced by the almost unanimous acceptance of the experts on the commission (including the archbishops, mainly cardinals, called in for the last session). The commission may have been wrong just as Humanae Vitae may have been wrong. Our job on this blog (as I see it) is to concern ourselves with teasing out the truth through the expression of differing views, backed up with sound reasons. So let’s have your thoughts expressed, as always, through our love of the truth and the Church.

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13 Responses to Professor Marshall – the central arguments

  1. Trident says:

    That’s a challenge! I would claim that the commission was wrong. My reason is that if you examine the sexual act and the organs involved you have to conclude that the design is essentially fitted for fertilisation. By design I have in mind that our bodies and their functions are a creation of God (whether through evolution or not). So frustrating God’s intentions must be doing wrong.

    For comparison, imagine an archaeologist discovering a stone object and concluding that the maker designed it for grinding corn.
    If he then decides to use it as a door stop he is going against the intention of the maker. No moral problem here of course – we owe no duty to the maker, but when God is the maker…

  2. dyoung says:

    The basic principal of the natural law is that if things are to prosper they must be treated in accord with their nature. Natural family planning accepts fertility as intregal to a person whilst contraception treats fertility as a disease to be suppressed. If NFP were just the same there would be no objection to those with a contaceptive mentality using it but instead they shun it as it requires a change in lifestyle. Using NFP encourages Chastity, the art of self mastery. Contraception allows the desires to dictate the will.The difference between using NFP and contraception is the difference between refraining from speech and lying.

    Not only does contraception insult me by insinuating that I am malformed and need treatement but users say in their hearts that they do not trust God’s providence. At it’s heart it says I know what is best for me. You God don’t. I depise they way you have created me so I will alter myself.


  3. Lucius says:

    How would natural law “demonstrate” that every act of sexual intercourse had to be open to conception? The whole morphology of the act (semen deposited in search of an egg) is inherently related to procreation, the pleasure is attendant to that procreative rationale.

    To simply eliminate and wipe out that rationale as if it were not an essential component makes pleasure the rationale of the act and the semen/egg aspect meaningless. Hence,why then should that pleasure, now its own end, be limited to male/female or that act specifically? Other pleasure-producing sexual acts then become licit. There could be no perversions. There would be no basis to eliminate homosexual activity. Anything goes.

    To cooperate with the bodily processes either in achieving a pregnancy or avoiding a pregnancy for a serious reason respects the inherent nature of sexual relations as procreative and male/female. The whole structure of the sexual organs and reproductive systems are natural law’s demonstration of this reality.

    The harnassing-of-nature-point by the Commission is acknowledged by Humanae Vitae in that birth control can be licit for a serious reason. Science and rational inquiry allows the couple to see more clearly the bodily processes, the fertile/non-fertile periods.

    An imperfect analogy to contraception is blocking the back of one’s mouth toget the pleasure of the taste of food, and then spitting it out thus making pleasure the end of eating whereas this pleasure is attendant upon getting the body nourished. The Romans in their decadent orgies were headed toward this with their vomitoriums.

    The difference is that the body must always be nourished in order to live while having a family is one of the rationales for the male/female existence of humanity which may or may not occur in the context of the other rationale: love, mutual support, and friendship but which must be respected.

  4. Iona says:

    I do like looking at things in evolutionary terms. From the evolutionary point of view, it’s no use just procreating; to ensure the survival of the species, parents must ensure that at least some of their little ones survive into adulthood so that they in turn can procreate. Turtles lay a large batch of eggs in the right place at the right time, and disappear back to the sea; when the baby turtles hatch, they do so with the physical ability and instincts to scamper off to the sea themselves, and embark immediately on an independent life. Many mammals and birds, on the other hand, care for their more dependent young over a period of months, sometimes as long as a year or two.

    Human babies, however, are born in a state of extreme dependence, and remain dependent on adult care for 15 years or so (or maybe 30, as some jaundiced parents may confirm). Their chances of survival to adulthood are greatly enhanced by their having two parents, committed to and co-operating with each other for years on end. Sexual activity between the child’s father and mother may then serve the end of maintaining the bonds of love which will keep them together and promote their children’s well-being. Whether this is primary or secondary I don’t know, but it is a purpose of sexual activity, additional to procreation but just as “natural”.

  5. Daisy says:

    You’ll have to help me here. If the structure of the sexual act is the only basis for judgement then you have to take the structure as a whole. One of the essential organs is the womb, but, if the womb is not in a fit state to conceive (because it is at an infertile stage) then you can’t argue that the structural purpose of the act is procreative.
    I wonder what proportion of sexual acts in a marriage (in natural conditions) would result in a conception. If you go back, say, 150 years and assume that a couple have intercourse once a week on average for 20 years, and have 10 children, that’s 1000 acts of which only 1 in a 100 results in a child. I always was bad at arithmetic so check me. But that suggests to me that the act is aimed at expressing love 99 times out of 100.
    And how is the structure of the act, as Trident describes it, violated when the pill is used?

  6. tim says:

    Clearly the act should be aimed at expressing love 100% of the time. But this is not its primary focus, which is to produce children. I find it difficult to be convinced by arguments from natural law, one way or the other – but this is probably a personal defect rather than clear evidence that they are unreliable. I accept on other grounds the claim of the Church to adjudicate on the matter. One can no doubt take the view that it is not certain that the matter has been infallibly decided, and that one is therefore free to differ, but it makes me nervous to do this, particularly when it leads to a result so convenient to my interest.

  7. Blue says:

    Daisy, Daisy, give me the answer, do! Daisy’s remarks above have triggered a thought in me. If we had no natural family planning because no one had discovered how to identify the safe period, would that change the basic teaching of HV? No, because the teaching is presented in its own terms. So anyone defending the rule that every single act of intercourse must be open to conception, must accept that it would remain true even when the natural family averages 8 to10 children.
    This would have made sense 150 years ago when infant mortality was so high that only 2 to 3 children would themselves reproduce. But it would be a social disaster now, when infant mortality is so rare. I wonder whether, in the absence of NFP, Pope Paul would have come to the conclusion that he did.

  8. It might be useful to look at some of the points made so far. Let me try to role play what Professor Marshall might have responded. Our discussion of course covered many more points than I could fit into the original article. I take no sides.

    1) HV sets a high hurdle by requiring that every ‘use of marriage’ whatsoever must maintain its structural integrity. So, for example, it applies even when a couple cannot use the infertile period, or when they discover that its observance is in practice damaging their marriage or when one of them is infected.

    2) Structure is clearly important, and well described by contributors. But demonstrating that its preservation in every instance is required by natural law defeated even the expert moral theologians who did not want the teaching changed. Nor was it accepted by a substantial majority of the archbishops who were specially deputed to attend the final commission session. Lesser folk must simply accept that it is not proven, until some new and convincing argument is presented. The temporary reservation of fertility effected by the pill has no bearing on the structure of the act.

    3) Despite the great value of natural family planning it requires the systematic withholding of the gift of fertility and so suffers from the same reservation of total giving as other methods. All of these lessen the completeness of the act but are justified because the primary purpose of the act is the expression and support of marital love. St Augustine taught that the only excuse for sexual intercourse was its use for procreation. Pope Gregory the Great taught that the necessary accompanying sexual pleasure was always sinful, if only venially so. No wonder the original mooting that NFP might be encouraged was seen by many theologians as a betrayal of the long term teaching of the Church. And that was in the lifetime of many of us.

    4) The whole issue is related to the meaning of marriage, seen very clearly in Vatican II. It has no bearing on the morality of homosexual acts, or indeed on heterosexual acts outside marriage. The Church has no teaching on contraception (other than abortifacient forms) outside marriage, although many think that it has. The regrettable separation between sexual love and the commitment of marriage in secular society, which the commission explicitly opposed, was not checked by HV, and would not have been checked even if HV been accepted by the body of the Church.

  9. Lucius says:

    “…we should not be influenced by the almost unanimous acceptance of the experts on the commission (including the archbishops, mainly cardinals, called in for the last session). The commission may have been wrong just as Humanae Vitae may have been wrong. Our job on this blog (as I see it) is to concern ourselves with teasing out the truth….”

    Well I would have to say the truth is out: the teaching against contraception is and has been the constant teaching of the Church and I believe fulfilling the conditions for infallible teaching by the ordinary magisterium.

    That being said, arguments for doctrinal teaching can always be refined or improved. But the Commission and the encyclical are not equivalents no matter what the majority on the commission was even if it was unanimous. In the matter of doctrine numbers do not matter. Think about the Arian crisis when most of the Church was Arian or semi-Arian.

  10. I think we can agree with Lucius that the majority view on the papal commission is of a totally different order to papal teaching. If HV were infallible it would nevertheless be of more than academic interest to know how its decisions were arrived at. I say this because they are claimed to be an application of natural law. But natural law is comprehensible to human reason. Is the magisterium being coy in not spelling out this proof, or do they not have one?
    Lucius has every right to believe that HV is infallible. But this is a private belief. Canon 749 §3 reads: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” As it is clearly and generally held not to be infallible, his belief happens to be out of step with the Church’s thinking.
    It is interesting that he chooses the Arian controversy as an example. Newman used the very same example to demonstrate how the refusal of the body of the Church to accept Arianism against the general teaching of the bishops (with minority exceptions of course) was evidence that the belief of the faithful was a witness to the true belief of the Church – which is so much more than the magisterium.

  11. tim says:

    I’m surprised (and, I must confess, faintly sceptical) to hear that the Church has no teaching on contraception outside marriage. Does this mean that fornication is not made morally worse by the employment of contraceptives to defeat the natural purpose of the act: or is it simply literal, that the Church hasn’t pronounced on the matter? Where can I read more about this?

  12. To answer Tim’s question. The Church’s teaching on contraception is confined to its use within marriage. Search the encyclicals and the Catechism and you will find that this is so. You might also look at
    where two very senior theologians (who are in fact disagreeing about the use of condoms in HIV infected marriages) do agree on one point: “But he (his opponent) concludes that the Church cannot possibly teach that people engaged in immoral lifestyles should not use condoms. I fully concur with Rhonheimer’s position.”
    So that is part of your answer.

    The second part may come if you simply look at your own moral sense. Is a person who is fornicating making the situation worse or better by risking that the act could result in a conception?
    It answers itself, doesn’t it?

  13. This interview with Professor Marshall was originally on the Blog, but it has since disappeared. Therefore I copy the original ms from my files.

    The last 40 years has seen, in Western countries, a dramatic decline in active Catholic membership, marriages and vocations. And many would attribute in large measure this sorry state of affairs to the publication by Pope Paul VI of Humanae Vitae on 15 July 1968. Its ruling that the established teaching on the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception should remain in force rejected the firm recommendations of the Papal Commission which had been studying the issue since it had been appointed by John XXIII. It first met in October 1963.
    Professor John Marshall, a distinguished neurologist who had spent much of his professional life studying the science behind natural family planning and working with the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (now Marriage Care), was a founder member of the Commission. Now he was digging into his excellent memory. This could be the last time a founder member would be able to tell us about a proceeding of deep significance to the Church. I asked him if the task had been to examine whether the traditional teaching should be modified.
    “On the contrary. The UN was concerned with discussions on population problems, and our job was to establish the firmest and most coherent support for Catholic teaching based on good science and demographics. I don’t think anyone at that stage thought of any change in the teaching itself. But our little band of six realised the need for additional firepower. So when we reconvened we had seven additions.”
    Five of these additions were theologians, including Joseph Fuchs and Bernard Häring – theologians of international reputation. How important were the theologians?
    “Not just important – crucial, as it turned out. Pierre de Lochte’s contribution proved to be a turning point.”
    He continued, “The Commission, urged on by the growing scientific knowledge that only a small minority of acts of intercourse could lead to conception, had begun to consider whether the issue should change its focus from the old categories of the primary and secondary ends of marriage – and its sexual expression, to the community of love in the marriage. And the question of the structure of the marriage act did not of course apply to the pill. So we had to dig deeper, and it was de Lochte who clarified that we were now dealing with questions of fundamental theology.”
    I wondered whether that was when the Commission realised that the teaching would have to change.
    “Certainly not. There was strong opposition to any change from some, and even those who were prepared to contemplate it were initially very uncertain and alive to the momentous consequences of change. I would describe it as a gradual realisation by the majority. over periods of long discussion and thought. You must remember that by the time of the final general meeting in 1965, there were 58 members, and now included Catholic married couples.”
    I asked him to summarise the outcome of these considerations.
    “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?” But he did not need my reply; he is a succinct man with a brain like a scalpel blade. “The short answer is that we concluded that the foundation is married love which expresses itself ideally and most fully in the generous procreation of children, both in their conception and continued care. Taken within this perspective the need for every marriage act to maintain its structural openness to conception is not necessary and may, in many circumstances, run counter to the virtue of prudence.”
    I asked whether natural planning would not have offered a satisfactory method of achieving these objectives without interfering with the structure of sexual intercourse. He took the view that it was man’s vocation to invent or discover ways of bringing order to creation. The use of the safe period was just such a control of nature, as were barrier contraceptives or the temporary suspension of fertility through the pill. All such methods, reduced the fullness of the sexual gift in a sense but, used responsibly, served the higher end of marital love.
    Although he and others were well aware that natural family planning, as used at that time, could be a problem for many, the presentation by the late Patty Crowley (who co-founded with her husband the Catholic Family Movement in America) of a survey she had been asked to conduct brought, he said, a real taste of reality to those who had little pastoral experience. It brought home the fact that well motivated, active, Catholic couples had on the whole valued the method but that a large majority had also found it had harmed their relationship in various ways. It broadly concluded that the method was not suitable for all couples and probably unsuitable for almost any couple throughout the whole of their married lives. It would be difficult to repeat such a survey now in the light of improved methods, since practising Catholic married couples who use natural family planning exclusively are no longer representative of the general population.
    It was Patty who was later to reply to Fr Zalba’s question “What then with the millions we have sent to hell, if the rules are relaxed?” She responded “Fr. Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?
    “Perhaps”, Professor Marshall said, ”the real turning point came in April 1965 when the four theologians who were opposed to change admitted that they could not demonstrate the intrinsic evil of contraception through natural law. They based their case on the tradition of the Church, and the moral laxity which contraception would introduce. Interestingly, the Pope cited the natural law in support of his final judgment – but without giving any further reasoning. And none has been forthcoming.”
    The additional select group appointed for the final meeting to consider the Majority Report consisted of six cardinals, 13 archbishops, one bishop and the Pope’s theologian. The Report was approved following preliminary voting by the bishops on specific questions: was contraception intrinsically evil? By a substantial majority the answer was no. Was the recommendation on contraception in the Report in basic continuity with tradition and the teaching the Magisterium? By a substantial majority the answer was yes. Subsequently, representations contrary to the Majority Report were made privately to the Pope by the minority of four who believed that the doctrine could not, or should not, be changed.
    In view of the ultimate decision, I asked Professor Marshall whether he thought that the Pope was determined from the first to reject any recommendation for change.
    “No, I believe it was an agonising decision for him. He was consistently encouraging us to debate freely even when the developing trend of our thought was reported to him. He was a man who was open to persuasion, and it seems that in the end he was persuaded, probably by the so-called Holy Office, that the maintaining of the Church’s consistent authority was more important than the insights of the Commission.”
    “But might he not have been right in thinking that a change in such a firm teaching would have been scandalous to many people, and eroded the Church’s authority?” I asked.
    “Certainly there would have been many distressed people – particularly those who were not aware that such changes in non-infallible teachings have occurred in the past. As an example, the Council’s change in the Church’s teaching on freedom of conscience in matters of religion was even more radical but did not attract popular attention. And the inevitable fuss would have been as nothing compared with the long term effects of maintaining the teaching.”
    I wondered whether he was referring to the very substantial drop in Catholic practice, marriages and vocations since then.
    “Certainly that. Every survey has shown that around 90% of Catholic couples ignore the unqualified teaching of Humanae Vitae. And the most recent widespread survey of parochial clergy showed that fewer than half supported the total ban. We have the unusual but very destructive dilemma of the Magisterium teaching a doctrine under authority and that doctrine not being “received” by the Church as a community. Perversely, the perceived irrelevance of the Magisterium’s teaching on marriage may have contributed to the growth of the contraceptive mentality which is now so evident in countries we think of as Catholic.”
    I thought that the distinction between a doctrine being taught and a doctrine being received had deep theological significance for the nature of the Church. But that was for another occasion, so I asked Professor Marshall to sum up.
    “The Papal Commission could be described as an aberration. Asking experts from relevant disciplines to study a doctrinal question and make recommendations had never happened before – and it’s unlikely to happen again. Yet there are so many problems. For instance we are asked to tackle the shortage of vocations through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Excellent in itself, but it should be complemented by a full scale commission, making use of the Church’s full resources – clerical and lay. But I doubt if it will be.
    Frankly I am gloomy about the present prospects for the Church. The only bright light is the growth of Eucharistic communities led by good priests. That may be the future of the Church, as Karl Rahner suggested.”

    1535 Quentin de la Bédoyère
    Professor John Marshall CBE, KCSG, KSS. Retired as Professor in Neurology and Dean Institute of Neurology. (More in Who’s Who in Catholic Life, if needed.)

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