Is obedience a virtue?

The topic of obedience is very much in the air, so it may be valuable to consider some of the principles involved.

First, I would remind you of the Milgram experiments. You may recall that they established that a big majority of normal, decent people were prepared to administer extremely painful, and dangerous, electric shocks to innocent strangers at the behest of an ostensible authority figure. The outcome was so surprising that the experiments were replicated again and again, and with different groups, but – with insignificant variations – produced the same results. Further, recent, work has been done on this, and it confirms the earlier findings.

From an evolutionary aspect we should expect this. In order that groups can operate effectively it is important that the majority should instinctively defer to the leader. The alternative is anarchy, and the eventual destruction of the group.

But Catholics are immediately faced with an apparent clash. First, we are enjoined by Christ himself to be obedient to God. But since God’s will is coterminous with truth this is not a problem. The difficulty may arise when God’s will is mediated through the Magisterium. Here we have to distinguish between an infallible teaching (always remembering the demanding conditions which limit the scope of infallibility) and other teachings which, though varying in their emphasis, are not infallible. Or, if you dislike double negatives, are fallible.

Such rulings carry great authority from the mandate of Christ. Those who wish to disagree with such teachings (and their practical consequences in moral matters) accept the burden of proof. That is, they must have made every prayerful effort to understand and agree with the teaching.

And only in those very few instances where they are morally certain that the teaching conflicts with the law of love may they be disobedient. Indeed they must be disobedient because we are obliged to follow our properly formed consciences. Many will recognise this principle from Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

Nevertheless, there have been a number of occasions (although relatively few in the context of 2,000 years) when the Magisterium’s fallible, but authoritative, teachings have been erroneous, and needed correction. The heavens did not fall. In these cases it might have been a better witness if Catholics had expressed vocal and actual disobedience, although, for a variety of reasons, this did not occur. Apart from the heavy, and sometimes mortal, sanctions for disobedience, the senior clergy on the whole were educated, and the laity were not. That is no longer the case.

Bishop O’Donoghue (Report, July 3) has raised the issue by rightly citing the teaching on artificial contraception as the “litmus test” of obedience to the Church. The prohibition is in theory derived through reason from the natural law, but the derivation remains unproven. Therefore it is a fallible moral teaching, allowing of no exceptions, which cannot be based on reason but only on authority. And obedience or disobedience potentially has serious moral consequences. Thus it makes an excellent, and rather precise, “litmus test” of obedience.

I have distinguished in this column between the Magisterium and the Church, because it is the Magisterium which teaches and the community of the Church, clergy and laity, which believes. It is clear that the community of the Church as a whole does not believe in this teaching and, on the best evidence available, this includes 43 per cent of parochial priests (with a further 19 per cent “don’t knows”) in England and Wales. I cannot speak for the bishops (about whose lack of support Bishop O’Donoghue complains) but since they (and all the clergy) have sworn on oath to uphold even the fallible teaching of the Magisterium we do not know.

But there is a clue. At least five cardinals are recorded as arguing the possibility that condoms might be permitted as the lesser evil for lawfully married couples who are infected with HIV/Aids. They would claim that this is not to question the general ruling against artificial contraception. The claim is odd, for no intention whatsoever can justify an act which is intrinsically evil, and Humanae Vitae emphasises, with italics, that “any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to create human life”. But the Holy See, to whom this controversial and, literally, vital matter has been referred, has delayed an answer for four years. It would be interesting to know the reason.

I am not giving a personal opinion on the doctrinal question (nor indeed is this newspaper). I am merely taking the example which Bishop O’Donoghue raised, and the observable facts which surround it. My focus is on the general principles of obedience which it illustrates.

Since we know that we have an instinctive, apparently genetic, tendency to obedience – a tendency which has in many, secular, historical examples led to the greatest evil, we need to arm ourselves if we are to retain or promote our full humanity.

First, we must ask whether the authority concerned is properly constituted and not merely claimed. Second, we should be clear about the degree of authority being invoked.

Third, we should be sure that the obligation imposed is just and reasonable, both in itself and in its consequences.

And finally we must decide which side we take when there is a clash between truth (as perceived through a formed conscience) and obedience. If truth wins we shall have preserved our universal vocation to live in the image and likeness of God.

As for myself, I try to commit one act of harmless disobedience a day, just to keep my instincts at bay and my muscles in trim.

*    *    *

You may have some comments to make on my theme. Perhaps I am advocating anarchy, or encouraging people to pick and choose. Or you might like to add some additional examples.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Is obedience a virtue?

  1. Daisy says:

    I wonder how many people do actually ‘form’ their consciences. I get the impression that many just decide what they want to do, and then conveniently think of a good excuse. Think of the MPs and expenses, or bankers after huge bonuses. Aren’t Catholics just the same? By the way, I was taught that all you needed to do was to listen to the Church, and then you have formed your conscience. Is this right?

  2. Anthony Williams says:

    I have read “A Test of Obedience” with interest. You say in your second-last paragraph that:”..we must decide which side we take when there is a clash between truth (as perceived through a formed conscience) and obedience. If truth wins we shall have preserved our universal vocation to live in the image and likeness of God”.

    I don’t know if you are aware (most Catholics certainly are not) that the Church’s magisterial teaching on the illicit nature of contraceptive acts is based, precisely, on the image of God in the human person: the God in question being a Trinity of eternal, unlimited, self-giving, sacrificial, infinitely fruitful, RECEPTIVE (not contra-ceptive) love.

    On the question of obedience, the incarnate Son is precisely the model of what it means to “live in the image and likeness of God” – perfectly obedient to the Father in the face of every possible consideration of human reason and prudence. Anyone perceiving a clash between obedience and truth has to take this truth into account, if they want to take a decision on the basis of a “formed conscience”. Otherwise the result will be a mis-formed (because misinformed) conscience, and the outcome can only be a mis-formed image.

    If someone is thinking of commending “the community of the Church” – as you (not entirely accurately) call it – for its disobedience to the Church’s teaching authority on the matter of contraception, he or she might be well-advised to steer clear of the subject of the divine image in ourselves! That is exactly what it is all about – the kind of God in whose image we are created, and in whose Trinitarian divine life we are called to share eternally. We are Trinitarian images.

    Best wishes, Anthony Williams

  3. Just a couple of points.
    I entirely agree with Anthony Williams’s view on the Trinitarian nature of love, and its mirroring in married love. From it flows an expression which is the work of the marriage. Characteristically it is children and their upbringing, but there are lots of other ways in which the love is expressed in practice.
    Since the Church permits a contraceptive regime based on natural family planning it is clearly not condemning the intention of contraception, when there is good reason for this. The objection is to the “artificial” intervention. In the case of condoms this is based, as it was in Casti Connubii (1930) on the limited criterion of the meaning of the physical structure of the act. The Commission simply argued that this did not take into account the other (and much more frequent) purpose of the act – which was the bonding of the couple in love. This in no way ran counter to the Trinitarian model; indeed I suspect the Commission would have argued that it reinforces it.

    Daisy is, I suspect, right in suggesting that people often find spurious excuses for what they want to do. but it is interesting that the Church appears not to offer, either officially or pastorally, good teaching on the formation of conscience. One of the outcomes of HV, whether it is right or wrong, is that a multitude of Catholics felt themselves faced by a simple alternative: either do just what we say or become second class Catholics. The ultimate result has been high lapsation, few vocations, decreasing Catholic marriage, and abandonment of Confession as a regular sacrament. I would not excuse people for doing this, but I would suggest that the Magisterium has made a big contribution to this sorry situation.

  4. snafu says:

    This is a very interesting article on a topic I’ve wondered about a lot – thankyou. I apologise if I’m a little behind the curve.

    In summary….”Artificial Contraception is immoral” is technically a fallible claim as it’s a part of the Ordinary Magisterium. The Church (by which we mean community) clearly doesn’t believe it, but the clergy have sworn to uphold the teaching regardless.

    By what standards are the clergy upholding it? By having a single NFP poster in their church porch, sending engaged couples to a one-day marriage course that fails to mention contraception, and moving (as far as I can tell) heaven and earth to avoid mentioning it from pulpit to parishioner’s lounge.

    Is ‘upholding’ just not doing anything contradictory? It seems a weak claim to try and defend, and hardly in the spirit of evangelisation.

    Ok, so I’m generalising, and there are orthodox priests out there. But the picture above seems to describe every parish that isn’t run by a conservative blogger (and there aren’t that many of them).

    As a big digression, the US Bishop’s conference has just published an anti-contraception leaflet, which *is* promulgating the teaching, but it also contains a heinously misleading claim about the increased risks of breast cancer when taking the pill. It’s difficult to support teaching that isn’t much above the level of bare-faced lies. (Very sorry to word it that way).

    Lastly, can you give a reference for the 43% claim?

  5. (This contribution has been transferred here since it refers to this item.)

    Graziano on 23 Aug 2009 at 6:45 pm

    I refer to your Catholic Herald column “A test of Obedience”.

    On what basis can you state so confidently that the Church’s prohibition of contraception is a “fallible moral teaching”, because its derivation from Natural Law “remains unproven”? What do you mean by “unproven”?

    I see the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception as perfectly consistent with the teachings of the Gospel, and therefore rationally derived from the teachings of our Lord.

    You then seem to suggest that, just because a majority of the faithful does not agree with the Church’s teaching Magisterium on this issue, therefore her teaching is fallible. In this respect I suspect you are falling into the typical secular “non sequitur” that because a given teaching of the Church is unpopular, therefore it must be “wrong/fallible”. By the same token, one could conduct a poll showing that the great majority of people want to become materially very rich. This would not mean that this majority desire is consistent with the Christian faith or should be promoted by the Chirch as desirable.

  6. Just a couple of points on Snafu’s comments above.
    I notice that Snafu is sensitive to using the phrase “bare faced lie” in referring to the US Bishops statement on contraception. So am I. I think we should only use the word “lie” when there is good evidence that the speaker knew that what they were saying was untrue. In fact the Bishops’ statement says nothing on breast cancer and the pill. You can check at
    However it is well known that different formulations of the pill have different side effects – as chemicals, even aspirin, usually do. Some of these effects are minor, some potentially more serious.
    The reference to the 43 percent is from a professional survey of clergy (as far as I know the only one of its type) published under the title “The Naked Parish Priest”, Continuum, 2003. It covers priests’ opinion on a wide range of issues.

  7. Graziano makes some points which deserve an answer.
    The teaching of artificial contraception is not fallible because it is unproven, but because it was made clear at the time of HV’s proclamation that it was not intended as an infallible document. And no subsequent statement has modified this.
    He believes that the teaching can be “rationally derived” from the Gospels. We need precision here; I suspect that he means “reasonably derived”. Rational derivation requires a syllogism of which the premises are true, and the conclusion reached through the rules of logic. That, it is generally agreed, is not so in this case. And in the matter of an unqualified prohibition, which has moral consequences, it is essential that it should be.
    Many laity may have been tempted to reject the teaching because it suited them to do so. I laid down in my column the rather stringent rules required to justify such a rejection. However, as Paul Chavez summarised Newman on the subject, “the body of the faithful is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine, and because their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Catholic Church.” My view of the evidence, and I have been studying it for 50 years, leads me to believe that the faithful and devout laity (together with many faithful and devout clergy) share no such consensus in this matter. So one of the fundamental witnesses to the truth of the teaching is absent.

  8. robert543 says:

    I have a blog post about this very issue recently:

    Included in the post is a talk by Fr Philip Egan who spoke on the authority of Humanae Vitae and its prophetic nature.

    Contraception is not considered wrong by the Church because it is artificial. After all, there is nothing morally wrong with paracetamol or vitamin tablets. The purpose of medicine is to help the body work in its proper functions. Contraception does not help the body to function properly – in fact it does precisely the opposite. Some forms of contraception are also an abortifacient. This means that they cause early induced abortions at the beginning of a pregnancy. The God given purposes of sex is babies and bonding. Contraception divides the purposes in two.

    At a Catholic marriage, couples make a vow before God and the witnesses that they will welcome children lovingly from God, and they give themselves completely to their spouse. Contraception contradicts these vows because the language of the body is not living these vows in the flesh. Couples presume that they should not share everything in sex including fertility, leaving a sterile act that has a negative influence on the marriage. Couples that use contraception have a divorce rate of 40%, whereas NFP users have a divorce rate of 2%.

    To use an analogy, contraception is like bulimia whereas NFP is like dieting. Contraception binges on the act and then purges out the effects. NFP abstains at certain times to avoid the outcome and is far healthier. The end never justifies the means.

    Using NFP does not mean you have to have 25 children. Many, including gynaecologists, still think that NFP is only the rhythm method. This method was not successful at preventing pregnancy.

    Please help me in my ministry as a chastity educator! Maybe you know a school or organisation that is looking for a talk on an issue such as this. I am giving a talk on NFP at Farm Street in October- see the side of my blog and please come along!
    You can contact me at my blog:

  9. angelus says:

    You seem to be implying in your article that, for a teaching to be infallible, it has to be derived from the natural law. I would think there are infallible teachings which are derived from the supernatural divine law (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity, which cannot be deduced from what we know naturally about God).
    Is the teaching on contraception purely derived from natural law, or does it import insights that cannot be known naturally?

    Moreover, those who exercise the teaching office can pronounce infallibly on matters of natural law. In such cases, the justification of their pronouncement (its authority) cannot come from the natural law. Otherwise, their judgement would always be open to question on the basis of the natural law, and there would be no point in making an infallible pronouncement. No matter of uncertainty could ever be resolved. One cannot therefore argue from one’s own judgement, based on the natural law, against a doctrine infallibly taught.

    You also seem to imply that, for a teaching to be recognised as infallible, it has to be accepted by the majority of the faithful. This is not the case, as can be seen from Lumen Gentium 25. When the Pope teaches ex cathedra, what he teaches “is in no way in need of the approval of others”. (In any case, even in ordinary life it seems self-evident that the truth of any statement is not conditional on its acceptance by its hearers.)

    Now the teaching on contraception has perhaps not been defined ex cathedra but ex cathedra statements are not the only source of infallible teaching. When bishops exercise their teaching office in union with the Pope and with each other (even when dispersed throughout the world), they can teach infallibly. (Lumen Gentium 25) Conversely, when they exercise it out of union with him (e.g. by dissenting), they cannot be teaching infallibly.

    Do the Pope or bishops have to explicitly indicate that they are about to teach infallibly for the teaching to be infallible? I don’t think so. I seem to remember that the renowned moral theologian William E May argued that the teaching on contraception was infallible because it had been constantly and firmly taught through time. See:
    Catholic sexual ethics: a summary, explanation & defense By Ronald David Lawler, Joseph M. Boyle, William E. May, p112, at

    There is a good article also on various objections to the teaching at:

    Kind regards

  10. Graziano says:

    Dear Quentin,

    Thank you for your reply to the arguments I put forward in my earlier post about whether the Church’s teaching on contraception is fallible or not.

    My argument is that contraception is clearly inconsistent with the Gospel and with Our Lord’s teaching about the purpose of marriage and procreation. Indeed, until the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion in 1930, all Christian denominations held this to be the case. Whether the opposition to contraception can be rationally or reasonably derived from the Gospels is, in my humble opinion, a question of semantics or just mere sophistry.

    You then highlight the role of the “Body of the Faithful” as one of the fundamental organs in accepting a particular Church doctrine as infallible or otherwise. In this regard I wish to make two points.

    My first point is that, in the instance of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI did consult with the body of the faithful (by means of appointing a commission made up of various experts and laypeople to study the matter, and then by giving careful consideration to its findings before issuing the Encyclical).

    My second point is more fundamental, and it relates to the Catholic understanding of authority. Is the Body of the Faithful the ultimate arbiter of Catholic truth or has this role been entrusted by Christ to Peter and his successors? The answer for Catholics is surely the latter. By adopting the former you are clearly going down the Protestant route of “consensus democracy”, and we all know where that has led us to (circa 30,000 Protestant Christian denominations, and counting!). The only instance where I think the Body of the Faithful could overrule Papal teaching is if the Pope proclaimed as dogma something clearly inconsistent with Christian doctrine or irrational (such as “the Trinity does not exist”, or “you should hate and kill your enemies”).

    Yours in Christ


  11. angelus says:

    Further to Graziano’s statement that “The only instance where I think the Body of the Faithful could overrule Papal teaching is if the Pope proclaimed as dogma something clearly inconsistent with Christian doctrine or irrational (such as “the Trinity does not exist”, or “you should hate and kill your enemies”).

    There would be only 2 likely explanations for the Pope making such declarations: he would either be insane, in which case he would not fulfil reasonable conditions for recognition of an infallible statement or any other kind of teaching; or he would be acting out of malice by deliberately breaking from the Tradition of the Church, but again he would not fulfil the conditions for recognition of infallible teaching: for it seems reasonable to say that, to teach infallibly, a Pope must be intending to teach in accordance with that Tradition.

    Kind regards

  12. We have had a large number of comments on Is Obedience a virtue. And very welcome they are. I hope it will be useful at this stage if I pick out some points that seem to be of most importance, and indicate what someone who opposes the unqualified ban on artificial conception might respond. I will keep my remarks quite short, so please challenge any of them further if you want more detail. This is the Blog at its best: honest and thoughtful people trying to winkle out the truth.

    * We are not discussing the most or least perfect way of expressing sexuality in marriage but whether or not a complete ban on artificial contraception under all circumstances whatsoever can be justified.

    * Humanae Vitae (HV) was accompanied by a note at its proclamation that it was not an infallible document. Therefore it is fallible.

    * Although some have claimed that the doctrine is infallible by virtue of the general teaching of the Church throughout the ages, we have to bear in mind that the Church itself does not hold this to be so. If it had done so the Papal Commission to investigate the question would have been a pointless and hypocritical exercise. And were it so, those who, despite being in good conscience, reject the prohibition would automatically exclude themselves from communion; this is clearly not the Church’s view. (but see my correction of 2 September)

    * Ironically, the worthy champions of Natural Family Planning would have been condemned throughout most of the history of the Church for teaching a gravely sinful systematic method of avoiding conception, and encouraging sensual arousal – held in itself to always involve at least venial sin. The history of the Church and sexuality is not edifying.

    * Canon 749 states “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” Since the infallibility of HV is not manifestly demonstrated, rather the opposite, we should not hold it to be so, except as a private opinion.

    * The lack of infallibility of the doctrine is not connected with its lack of provability. The two characteristics are separate issues.

    * The sinfulness of artificial contraception cannot be deduced from contraceptive intention alone since the systematic employment of infertile times for contraceptive purposes is both allowed and commended. The basic values of unselfish expression of marriage through the conception and upbringing of children apply equally whatever method is used. (Excluding abortifacient methods, which are wrong for other reasons.)

    * Natural family planning is an excellent method with a high safety rate. But, for a variety of reasons, it is not suitable for all marriages at all times. Yet the prohibition specifically applies to all marriages at all times.

    * Because the consequences of obeying the prohibition can, for certain marriages, be damaging to the bond of marriage or to the health of either party the reason/s for the unqualified prohibition must be rigorously demonstrated. As HV is phrased, this would also apply to a lawfully married couple infected with HIV/AIDS.

    * The prohibition is derived from Natural Law. The Natural Law is known through reason, although in some instances (for example Jesus’ statement that marriage was intended to be monogamous from the beginning) we have information from elsewhere. But there is no statement about contraception in Revelation, nor should we expect one.

    * It is generally agreed, even by the theologians who support the prohibition, that it cannot be demonstrated through reason. “Perhaps 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.” Professor John Marshall, permanent Papal Commission member (interview with Catholic Herald, 2008).

    * It was agreed by the Papal Commission that a marriage act open to procreation was a fuller expression than a contraceptive one. But they voted by an overwhelming majority (52 – 4) that the lesser, contraceptive, expression was lawful as a means of expressing and fulfilling the marriage bond.

    * Notwithstanding the teaching of the Magisterium, it cannot be claimed that there is a consensus in the Church as a whole that the prohibition is based in truth. Thus an important witness is lacking. This does not disprove the prohibition because the Church is not a democracy. But it is a warning, with historical precedents, that a Magisterial teaching may need revision.

  13. Ion Zone says:

    Obedience is by nature neutral, you can be obedient in many ways and to many people, being obedient to Pol Pot, for example, would not be one of your more moral choices, but obedience to your teacher in school could be considered a virtue (less than average circumstances notwithstanding). Hence obedience to someone of virtue is a virtue.

    A second problem is that there are many less than virtuous people, some of whom twist words like obedience and freedom, which are not mutually exclusive concepts (another example would be rationality and critical thought with religion).

  14. angelus says:

    I would not agree that the use of natural family planning is an act of contraception, which is, I suggest, a deliberate attempt to prevent conception. In the case of NFP, the couple omit to have intercourse during the fertile period, non-fertility in the intervening period being entirely in accordance with the proper functioning of the body, which is good. To choose to omit something which one is not morally obliged to do, namely to have intercourse during the fertile period, is not evil. In the case of what you term ‘artificial contraception’ the couple deliberately frustrate the proper functioning of the body, i.e. they frustrate a good. The difference is that the couple who use NFP do not have the intention to frustrate a good in the pursuit of an end which may admittedly be good (e.g. to space their children). It is a question of means and ends. ‘May one do evil that good may come of it?’ See Romans 3:8

    The couple who use contraception may also be said to frustrate the full expression of their love, and hence its unitive dimension. I suggest that the body language of the marital act expresses the complete gift of self. It says: ‘I give myself to you entirely, with all my potential, including my (pro-) creative potential’ and, conversely, ‘I accept you entirely with all that you are and all your potential, including your (pro-)creative potential’. The contraceptive act says: ‘I give myself to you entirely….but not entirely’, a contradiction. I think Pope John Paul said something to the effect that it involved overlaying this act with a lie.
    I think you lay too much store by the word of Dr Marshall. I read the article in the Herald, and was struck by the contempt which he evinced for the minority members, a contempt which seems all too characteristic also of dissenting theologians. As a member of the majority group and with that kind of attitude, he is scarcely an unbiased interpreter of the event. But even if it is true that the minority group ‘admitted that they could not prove the teaching from the natural law’, this does not mean that someone else cannot do so. Having read some of the work of Janet Smith, I feel less inclined to agree that the teaching cannot be demonstrated.
    But even if it cannot, the only morally safe course is in fact to accept the teaching until disproven. The onus is on those who dissent. I am not aware that anyone has ‘disproven’ it. There are those who are not convinced by it, but that is a different matter.

    Of course, in the realm of natural reasoning outside pure mathematics or logic, it is difficult to give a proof which is so self-evident as to convince everybody. For every philosophical position advanced, there are a hundred people who disagree with it. There will always be disputes about the natural law but it is the role of the magisterium to settle them, where necessary, and it has the power and authority to do so, as a gift from God to the Church in matters which pertain to salvation.
    The role of the commission was advisory. Having heard the advice, it was Pope Paul’s role to make a decision, even if that meant taking the view of the minority – unless perhaps one thinks that the majority view must be accepted simply because it is that of the majority.

    Given the presence among the majority group of adherents of proportionalism – the view that any act can be justified if there is a ‘proportionate’ reason (and yes, this includes murder, adultery, abortion…you name it, it cannot be absolutely excluded) – I don’t think we can take those theologians as reliable guides.

    I am not convinced that scripture plays no role in this matter. I am reminded of the condemnation in the Old Testament of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground. Was this not an act designed to prevent conception, a contraceptive act?

    King regards,

  15. This is a comment by “LondonParishPriest” inserted by Quentin on his behalf.

    Any ethical consideration of the practice of contraception within a marriage needs to be grounded in more than raw obedience to ecclesiastical pronouncements . The freedom and dignity of the human person requires the conviction that the activity is unacceptable in itself , for anything else would rest , less on faith and reason, than on the exercise of power and the coercion of the will through institutional sanctions . Obedience in this context would have little moral value . The only constant we should be obedient to is truth .

    Alas there is no vehicle for the people of God to express their concern on this matter , except through mass abstention from complying with the ruling . But they do have moral force on their side ,since ‘ Humanae Vitae’ was effectively the decision of just one man , Pope Paul VI ,who barred the Vatican Council bishops from discussing it . A papal commission voted 68 to four to allow artificial contraception and ‘ even the four clerics of the minority declared publicly that they could not prove their point ,but a change would lead to schism in the Church’ noted a moral theologian .

    For most fertile Catholics , the constituency targeted by the encyclical , the issue has become a dead letter. They have not ‘received’ the teaching ,which should now be allowed to gather dust in the Vatican archives along with the decrees outlawing usury and coeducation.

  16. Horace says:

    My memory is that when Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae and there was great distress among Catholics who were hoping that “The Pill” might have been declared legitimate it was pointed out that the decision was “Sub specie aeternitatis” which I might roughly translate as “taking the long view”.
    Considering the “culture of death” which has developed since contraception has become routine and almost universal I think, perhaps, he may have been right!

  17. Just a couple of points on Angelus’s contribution above.

    Normal contraception is artificial of course. But following a strategy of deliberately eschewing conception through using the “safe period” is also artificial (indeed it takes a great deal more artifice) but in a different way. But my point was that this second way would also have been condemned by the common teaching of the Magisterium until Casti Connubii in 1930. Indeed a great deal of fuss was made by theologians about this concession at the time, as being quite contrary to tradition. So the Church can revise its teaching in such matters in the light of new facts and new realisations. And I’m glad of that.

    I don’t think the Onan point has much merit. It is generally agreed that the sin for which he was condemned was his refusal in inseminate his brother’s widow, and this was against the law as it was held at the time. I haven’t heard Onan quoted in decades. Quite like old times!

    I don’t think Angelus has really understood Proportionalism, of which there is an, admittedly brief, explanation on this Blog.

  18. angelus says:

    I think the natural/artificial argument is a red herring. The wrongness of contraception is nothing to do with its being artificial and the naturalness of NFP refers, I suggest, to its being in accordance with the natural law, that is what is in accordance with the good for man according to his nature as discerned by reason, whether or not it is artificial.

    I object to the term ‘artificial contraception’ because it suggests that there is such a thing as ‘natural contraception’ but, of course, I don’t believe there is.

    I still haven’t seen any positive arguments to prove that the magisterial teaching is wrong. I think this is what you have to provide, not the other way round, as I suggested above.

    The priest quoted refers to ‘raw obedience’, but I would say that obedience to church teaching is in fact reasonable, given what we believe about the authority conferred by Christ on the apostles and their successors, and about his continued guidance of the Church through the magisterium, not just in matters infallibly defined. We can be reasonably certain that it is the truth and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to act or not act on that basis.

    I’m not convinced that Pius XI’s teaching was inconsistent with tradition or that the Church has changed its teaching on usury. The latter is so complicated when you look into it that ‘case not proven’ would I suggest be a defensible claim.

    Could you explain in what respect I have misunderstood proportionalism?

    The trouble with your interpretation of the story about Onan is that death was not the penalty for failing to fulfil the levirate obligation, so why was Onan killed?


  19. RMBlaber says:

    With regard to the Milgram Experiment, and the SS guards of the _koncentrationslageren_, the Nuremberg Principle is that ‘I was only obeying orders’ is no defence.
    With regard to the Magisterium, and the distribution of teaching authority within the Catholic Church, it is _not_ true that ‘vox populi, vox Dei’, but the Vincentian Canon _does_ apply, to wit: _Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est_.
    However, over against the authority of St Vincent and his Canon, there is the principle, _Roma locuta est, causa finita est_. There has always been a tension in the Church between these two ideas – the Vincentian, which entails a role for the laity, the _laos_, the people of God, as well as the clergy and the hierarchy – and the Hildebrandine, or ultra-Montane, which is centralist, and sees all teaching authority and power concentrated in the hands of the Pope.
    In terms of Kantian ethics, the Vincentian idea allows room for at least a degree of autonomy, even if a Catholic’s conscience does not enjoy a Protestant’s freedom of private judgement. The Hildebrandine idea, on the other hand, is entirely heteronomous. There is no private judgement, no freedom of conscience, and the Catholic must submit his or her will totally to the authority of the Magisterium. There is, in effect, no distinction to be made between the ‘fallible’ and the ‘infallible’ Magisterium – all the Pope’s teaching is infallible.
    Quentin points out that HV hedges its bets somewhat. Artificial contraception is not _intrinsicare malum_, for example, but _intrinsicare inhonestum_; and, yes, it does appear to deny that it is infallible teaching.
    If Pope Paul VI chose not to be Hildebrandine with regard to the teaching of HV, which is, as has been pointed out, based on ‘natural law’ arguments (two of the premises being that the sexual act must be procreative and must take place within the context of sacramental marriage), then _eo ipso_, he chose to be Vincentian, so the question of reception by the faithful arises. It is certainly true that the truth of a proposition does not depend on our belief in it – even if no-one believes in it, it can still be true – and it is also true that _magna est veritas et praelavebit_. But the fact of such widespread disbelief in the teaching of HV, and ignoring of it by otherwise faithful Catholics, does at least tend to tell against it. It does not _disprove_ it, true. It certainly doesn’t prove it.
    Can a moral proposition be proved in any event? Hume would have denied that, as would the logical positivists and many modern philosophers – but we believe that they can be. It is no earthly good talking about ‘natural law’ unless that law can be _known_. Likewise, unless we can know God’s eternal law, of which the natural law is a part, then we simply cannot do what He wants.
    In the _Kritik zur Praktischen Vernunft_, Kant sought to identify what he called a Categorical Imperative, a universal maxim that would govern all behaviour; namely, that we should always act in such a way that the example of our behaviour should be treated as a universal law. The rule of life he identified – the ethos that he believed most fit the bill as his ‘Categorical Imperative’ – was the idea that you should always treat other human beings as ends-in-themselves, and never as means-to-an-end.
    Whether or not Kant succeeds in his attempt to establish a system of ethics from first principles, and prove it to be valid, is another matter, but he at least believed it to be possible, unlike, for example, Nietzsche and his post-modernist successors.
    What Kant was most insistent upon was autonomy, and the need for the individual to follow the dictates of his/her own conscience and reason, as opposed to merely obeying an external authority, however wise, virtuous, powerful or exalted.

  20. Angelus, you will forgive me, I hope, for not going further into the ancillary matters you raise in your last post. I think these may take us off the point, and we can always correspond about these directly. I want to focus on your substantial point which you summarise so succinctly. You refer to the criterion of natural law, “that is what is in accordance with the good for man according to his nature as discerned by reason, whether or not it is artificial.” As the Latins say, rem acu tetigisti.

    The Papal Commission was agreed that this was the essential criterion. But they argued that the nature of man had to be taken as a whole, and could not simply be limited to the biological structure of the marital act. They noted that the marital act was used far more often for the expression of the marriage bond rather than conception. One only has to compare the number of times the act is performed over, say, 20 years of marriage compared with the number of conceptions. So they concluded that to prevent conception, when this was required by the couple’s circumstances, so that the bond could be more freely expressed was in fact “good for man according to his nature as discerned by reason”. And of course this view was taken by the archbishops, bishops, theologians and lay experts who considered the matter. The four theologians who opposed the conclusion agreed that they were unable to demonstrate that the conclusion could be shown to be contrary to the natural law. They, and their influential supporters not on the Commission, relied on authority, tradition, and the scandal of the Magisterium changing its view, in their submission to Pope Paul that the doctrine should remain unchanged.

  21. angelus says:

    I would just like to respond more directly to what your priest-friend said by this quote:

    ‘Beloved priest sons, by vocation you are the counsellors and spiritual guides of individual persons and of families. We now turn to you with confidence. Your first task—especially in the case of those who teach moral theology—is to expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity. Be the first to give, in the exercise of your ministry, the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church. That obedience, as you know well, obliges not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth.[see Lumen Gentium 25]’
    This is taken from the Encyclical itself.

    My impression is that Paul VI was a sensitive and indeed scrupulous man who agonised over this decision. He did not just high-handedly dismiss the advice he had been given.

    Quentin, I would draw attention to the words: ‘That obedience, as you know well, obliges not only because of the reasons adduced, but rather because of the light of the Holy Spirit, which is given in a particular way to the pastors of the Church in order that they may illustrate the truth’. This isn’t just an argument based on philosophical exposition of the natural law, but on reason illuminated by faith under the providentially provided guidance of the magisterium.

    Just re-reading the encyclical, I was struck by something in paragraph 8, where he says: ‘By means of the reciprocal personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives.’ To me this suggests in embryo the later development of personalist arguments, according to which contraception contradicts the meaning of that personal gift of self. So I’m not sure we can say that traditional natural law argumentation is the only basis of his thinking. I think it is important to recognise that the reasons which the Pope gives explicitly or implies are not necessarily the only reasons that can be given. A lot more developmental work has been done since, particularly in the area of personalism. I think we have to take into account the teaching of Evangelium Vitae. Aren’t you pitting yourself against that as well?

    Sorry, I’ll come back to your other points later

  22. Superview says:

    Obviously, Quentin, you knew what you were doing when you wrote about obedience and used HV to illustrate the issues, and your various responses to the early bloggers – especially 27 August – shows how reasonable and thorough you are in addressing their arguments. I’ve only just returned having previously read up to 24 August, and today followed through on some of the links, trying to understand where people are coming from.

    As a young man, before I was married, I followed the Church’s teaching on contraception and debated the subject in numerous circumstances, work and social. I also pitched in heroically on the infallibility question. Many years later, and with a large (by present standards) family and grandchildren, I look back to those days with some dismay, but also with nostalgia for the security that came with acceptance of all that the Church said and did. I am older and, I hope, wiser now having experienced happy family life, within the Church, and shared the pain of others, good people, who have not been so fortunate. I have given myself licence to question things that seem to be inconsistent with what I feel to be goodness and truth. I have more curiosity about the Church’s teachings than I have ever had, and find myself less satisfied than I expected to be with many of the answers I uncover, especially when those answers are seen in their historical context, and within the political and institutional interests the Church has adopted. Even so, the last few years have been especially difficult, for example, with the moral authority of the Church torn to ribbons by the scandal of child abuse, with the evidence pointing to a policy of concealment and protection of the abusers reaching to the highest level within the Church. I know so many good and faithful Catholics, priests and lay, who feel the same.

    I am, therefore, troubled by the proposition that all that the Pope (or a Pope) says officially is to be taken as infallible unless proved otherwise, and that I am to set aside my own quest for truth and submit obediently and without exercising judgement. This seems to be the gist of several of the comments on the matter of infallibility, despite efforts to bring them back to the tight definition which I for one laboured with all those years ago. As for contraception, natural or otherwise, I do find it distressing that those ‘against’ artifical contraception seek to make their arguments by devaluing the quality or the purity of the married love of those who disagree with them. It is because it is such mistaken – not to say perverted – view of reality that the great majority of Catholic families are unmoved by their rhetoric – be they priests or bishops.

    Finally, the Morals in Proportion blog, which I found personally rewarding, has left me continuing to reflect on whether ‘the natural law’ should be the only foundation for Christian moral theology. For example, I still struggle to fully appreciate why it has such power that it can lead intelligent people to describe a process as a law, and to regard the interruption of that process (insemination) as an evil, dismissing all attendant value, circumstance and purpose witnessed to by their fellow Christians.

  23. angelus says:

    Just want to dispel the idea that I think a person’s response to teachings which he or she believes *not* to have been taught infallibly should be the same as that for teachings which he/she believes *have* been taught infallibly. Clearly this can’t be the case.

    Vatican II (Lumen Gentium) teaches that the obedience of faith is due to teachings which are infallible. Ok, fine. But this is not the only kind of obedience.
    There is at least one other kind, which is due to teachings that are not taught infallibly: namely that of religious assent (Lumen Gentium 25 says: ‘In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (See also Catechism para 892): which perhaps one might interpret as at least a disposition or willingness to submit the intellect to the judgement of the magisterium. If a person finds themselves in a position where they cannot assent to a teaching because they are convinced of the opposite, then I would suggest that they have a serious obligation to study the question prayerfully with an openness or readiness to accept the teaching, bearing in mind that the guidance which is given to the magisterium in a special way makes it likely to be correct. (The document by the CDF on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian is quite helpful here.)

    Hope that might be of some help

  24. In my comment of 27 August I was wrong to suggest that. if the Church had held itself to be infallible, it would have been hypocritical to call in the Papal Commission. Checking on my notes, I can quote Professor Marshall’s words: “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.” So the intention was a worthy one, which misfired because the Commission was unable to find the evidence needed.

    I agree with Angelus that loyalty should strongly incline us towards acceptance of the Magisterium. And we have to do our best to understand the teaching, and look to how we can accept it. Refusal should be very rare. However I don’t think great scholarship or academic intelligence is required: moral perception is open to all.

  25. Vincent says:

    Horace’s suggestion that the Pope might have been farsighted in relating contraception to the current “culture of death” needs a little further thinking.
    It’s certainly true that in the secular world abortion has increased as a catch-all for failed contraception but we should also consider what effect Humanae Vitae has had on the Church’s credibility as a witness to chaste sex. Or any topic related to sex. That crucial trust has been broken.
    And what is the effect on the secular mind when it hears the Church condemning abortion, and then condemning contraception? It may make sense to us, but it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.
    I liked Superview’s contribution. His experience pretty well mirrors my own.

  26. Iona says:

    On a facetious note, would Quentin like to tell us about a few of his recent harmless acts of disobediece?

  27. I fear it’s only small stuff, Iona. For example, riding my bike the wrong way in a one-way street. Quick puff on my pipe in an empty public loo. Going the wrong way down a buffet, or using the wrong side. Parking my scooter on a convenient pavement. The point here is the deliberate choice to be perverse rather than the effects of the action.

  28. Vincent says:

    I wonder if people have taken into account the fairly obvious fact that the rate of natural fertility for married couple not taking any precautions is around 7 live births. Since, until the 20th century – and then only in developed countries – the number which survived themselves to breed was around 2 – 3. That is enough to sustain the population and to allow for some measure of population growth.
    This would clearly be the result of evolution. Fewer births would mean that populations would ultimately die out. More births would lead to populations growing too quickly for sustenance.
    But the situation in developed countries is now quite different. Infant mortality is rare, and only 2.1 live births are required to maintain the population, since almost all of these will survive to breed.
    For instance the total ferility rate in the US in the 1880s was 7, and 3 survived to breed. In 2007 the tfr was 2.09.
    Where did get I these figures? Quentin’s book “Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church” of course (where they are referenced).
    My conclusion is that the natural fertility rate is not sustainable in modern conditions, and that we are entitled to use our human intelligence to devise ways of correcting it. Since lowering infant mortality was ‘artificial’ so may the correction of its inappropriate effects be.

  29. angelus says:

    Some of the contributions draw attention to the fact that this is not just a speculative issue but also a practical one: what is to be done or not done.

    On that level, though – in the real world – we have to take account of the real-world effects of the contraceptive pill, not just the rightness or wrongness of contraception in principle. My information is that the various types of contraceptive pill not only prevent conception but also render the womb non-receptive to any new life that is conceived, i.e. they sometimes act as abortifacients. Doesn’t that make them unacceptable in any case?

  30. Michael Mahoney says:

    The Stanley Milgram experiment is for me, not so much an illustration of the human propensity to blind obedience as an illustration of the power of an emotion that underpins many beliefs, the gut instinct and need to trust. When the subjects of the experiment had qualms about what they were doing, the experimenter sought to bolster their trust and to the extent that they believed so they continued.

    We should not be surprised at the force of this emotion or its imperviousness to reason. We only have to think of the Twin Towers, the mass suicide of Jim Jones’ followers, the Waco incident and the innumerable atrocities throughout history that had their genesis in belief in some deity, in some charismatic person, some seminal myth, explanatory creed or ideology.

    Bearing this in mind, does anyone really believe there will be any resolution of the ping pong battle over the Church’s position on artificial birth control, whatever the citations of authorities, appeals to tradition, dissections of arguments, exhortations to prayer and sprinklings of Latin tags? At heart, is this not all just the vain agitation of conflicting emotions?

  31. Vincent says:

    I would go with Michael Mahoney part of the way. But, hidden inside the gut instinct, is surely the important element of obedience to apparent authority. His point about trust is interesting because the widespread refusal to accept the HV decision seems to have led to a lack of trust. In other words, credibility in the Magisterium was lost in this one incident – and this has become generalised especially with regard to teachings on sexuality.
    Of course the ping pong will go on because the effects of HV are substantial not only at the level of the individual but in official Catholic charity work. It also affects Catholic education. On the most recent figures 9 out of 10 teachers will not accept what they are teaching, and the pupils will come from similarly dissenting families. What effect does this have on other parts of moral teaching?

  32. How would we answer this argument? Never far below the surface lies the traditional approach which relies on inferring the evil of contraception from the meaning of the biological structure of the act. That is: God created the marital act and, although we have, rather recently recognised its bonding purpose we must not defy its biological form, even when conception is not possible for other reasons.

    Since this approach is founded on biological characteristics it is appropriate to question it through biological characteristics. God created the human system of fertility through evolution. It started with microscopic organisms developing sexual reproduction, which is the essential basis of evolutionary development. Over many millions of years the different species have developed their own patterns with regard to the rate of fertility and the need and extent of parental care.
    Humans are distinguished by the female having on average 13 periods of fertility a year, and a need for bonding which must extend over several years to ensure the needed care and intellectual development of the young. It is not hard to see why evolution has ensured this. Historically, a large number of live births have been needed in order to ensure that the relatively few to survive to breed in turn are sufficient to maintain and provide a gradual increase in the population.

    However in the last, relatively minute, period of human history, the need for a large number of live births in developed countries has dropped dramatically since almost every child born will survive to breed. Meanwhile the need for long term bonding for the care of children has continued. The environment has changed and so the originally valuable high rate of fertility is now out of kilter.

    Contraception plays an important role in correcting this imbalance, just as other adaptations to changing environments have been achieved through increasing human knowledge. While avoiding conception by avoiding fertile periods has many arguments in its favour, one of them is not respect for an evolved pattern of fertility which was once useful (and still is in some parts of the world), but is now generally redundant.

  33. Superview says:

    Quentin has faithfully attempted to reason his way through the contraception question and show on biological grounds why the official Church position is mistaken – and presumably why obedience is not required, although Quentin always seems to stop short of the punch line. I wonder how effective this is likely to be with the Vatican? The reality is that most Catholic parents -and the rest of Western Christendom it would seem – do not need the Church to approve of their understanding of what it means to attempt to raise children in orderly and loving families. The lesson of history is that such is the institution’s attachment to orthodoxy and tradition – even when wrong – that it may be generations before a formula is found to save face. In the meantime there is the continuing impact on those Catholic parents in the developing countries who – like so many of us when we were younger – still believe that the injunction against contraception is to be obeyed, despite the consequences and hardships that will follow. For them, it may have to be the economic and social development that the West has experienced that will lead them to the same conclusions.

  34. Superview, you are right to draw attention to the fact that individual disagreement on this question does not prevent the long term consequences, for good or ill, of an official position maintained by the Church.
    In my original column I was critical of the Holy See for not giving an answer, over 4 years, to the question about the use of condoms by infected married couples. I suspect they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they rule against, they will strongly be attacked from all sides – including Catholic. If they rule for, they know that their fundamental position will crumble. (I am aware that some theologians have developed a theology of “intention” to deal with this but it really doesn’t serve. It is specifically excluded by HV.) This is a prevarication for which they will have to answer some day.
    What I regret most of all is that the whole HV affair has cast a shadow over all the Church’s teaching on marriage. And we have never needed it more than we do today.
    I will just give you one startling example. The usage rate of the morning-after pill is higher among Mass-going Catholics than the general population, and in the 18-36 age group it is four times higher. (Tablet 2008 survey)

  35. Iona says:

    Were these Mass-going Catholics married?

  36. The reported figures and analysis in the Tablet survey don’t answer your question, Iona, with certainty. But the study records that 49% of the 18 – 36 years olds were married. We do not learn how long before the survey they used the morning-after pill, but the percentage of this group who said they would use it was 50% higher than those who actually had (and the proportion who said that they would use it after rape was very much higher).
    We can only speculate why the Catholic rate of usage is higher than the general population. The survey notes that “the extent of the actual use of, and to some extent attitude to, particular methods of contraception depends on their availability during respondents’ sexually active lifetime.”
    A reasonable assumption to start with is that in general people only take this pill following non contraceptive intercourse when they believe they may have been fertile at the time. Why should the incidence of this be higher for Catholics than for others?
    It’s worth remembering that the Catholic teaching on contraception only applies within marriage. No magisterial ruling on its use outside marriage has been given.

  37. Iona says:

    I was wondering whether perhaps Catholics tend to go in for non-contraceptive intercourse to a greater extent than non-Catholics, and therefore are more likely to put themselves in a position where they “need” the Morning After pill more than non-Catholics do.
    As there’s been no magisterial ruling on the use of contraception outside marriage, I suppose we don’t know whether using contraception would compound the sin, minimise it or make no difference.
    I have just remembered a newspaper cartoon I saw about the time when the Pill had become generally available, so I suppose the early 1960s. A severe-looking nun was confronting a schoolgirl with a packet of pills in her hand, and the schoolgirl was saying “Honestly, Reverend Mother, it’s only LSD”.

  38. Iona, I suspect that the reason you give is probably correct, though one might want to note the possibility of married couples normally using natural contraception who have taken a chance after a boozy evening..
    If we don’t know about artificial contraception outside marriage we have the luxury (or the onus) of making up our own minds. Aquinas certainly did: “it is most grave and shameful to act against things as determined by nature. Therefore, since by the unnatural vices man transgresses that which has been determined by nature with regard to the use of venereal actions, it follows that in this matter this sin is gravest of all. After it comes incest..” He goes on to list adultery, and the least blameworthy is fornication. At first sight, indeed at second sight, this is nonsense. The whole question of charity – the basis of all moral law – has no place in the thinking here. (But you can look it all up on the internet (Summa Theologica II II 154 Art 12.)
    Imagine that I were about to seduce a young woman (chance would be a fine thing at my age) and I say to myself: “It’s morally better for me to risk making her pregnant than to put on a condom.” I don’t have to think very long to see the moral absurdity, let alone cruelty, of that. If you are left with any doubts, imagine that the young woman in question is your teenage daughter.
    Love the story about the Reverend Mother, humour so often brings us down to earth.
    By the way I see that your last comment was actually the 1000th published on the blog. Congratulations.

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