Natural Law doesn’t always come naturally

It is over two years since I wrote in general terms about the concept of the natural law (July 4 2008) but some recent correspondence in this paper suggests that there are certain aspects which could profitably be revisited. I have in mind, simply as examples, letters from Simon Reilly and Hugh Dwan (July 30).

Mr Reilly tells us that, being written in the heart of man, natural law is not subject to change and is self-evident. This, as a broad statement, is unexceptionable but, without refinement, it can lead to misunderstanding – and so wrong inferences. While it is certainly true of the major principles such as that the good should be done and evil avoided, that injustice is wrong, that moral principles are universally applicable – and so on, it is not so when judging the application of the more detailed tenets.

Since such tenets are derived from the circumstances of human nature, change is always possible. For example, the human reproductive system evolved to favour frequent pregnancies to cope with high early mortality. Such fertility would now be unsustainable, so natural family planning, which would formerly have been condemned, has become virtuous. Similarly, our relatively recent ability to donate a kidney to someone in need is seen as an act of love and not prohibited “mutilation”, as our earlier understanding would have judged it.

A second factor can be new knowledge. And, in the 19th century – when the microscope corrected our Aristotelean understanding of conception – the moral status of early abortion was changed correspondingly. Nowadays we realise at an increasing depth the interfusion between the psychological and biological elements in the human being. In the light of this knowledge we can see the potential inadequacy of absolute moral dicta based on biological phenomena. We might note, as a minor example of this approach, that one may, in justified cases, deceive but that telling an actual lie is held, “by its very nature”, to be always wrong because it violates the purpose of speech.

This is not to suggest that the inferences which may be drawn from the biological nature of human acts are irrelevant to natural law decisions, but rather that they should be part of the evidence to be weighed rather than the final arbiter.

That such tenets are not always self-evident can be illustrated by many examples. So I just choose some well-known ones.

It was not evident to the Church that everyone had a natural law right to freedom of religious conscience and practice. So Vatican II and the teaching of John XXIII corrected a misapprehension of centuries. And corrected it so effectively that Pope John Paul was able to say, with a straight face, that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty”. I imagine that the odd heretic raised a singed eyebrow at that.

Slavery, which Pope John Paul condemned as intrinsically evil, was condoned throughout most of the Church’s history. And, if I remind you of the long history of the castration of youths for the sake of the glory of God and the Sistine choir, it is only to exemplify how some natural law applications have been far from self-evident.

We are very aware of the outstanding contemporary example of widespread episcopal collusion favouring the interests of the abuser over the rights of the abused. In rightly condemning corrupt individual priests and nuns we may forget that the real scandal lies in the institutionalised blindness to the duty owed to the victims.

Which brings me to Mr Dwan’s reminder that Pope Paul claimed that “no member of the faithful could deny the Church’s competence in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law”. Leaving aside what Karl Rahner described as the “many doctrines which were once universally held but have proved to be problematic or erroneous”, we are still left with analysing what is meant by interpreting the natural moral law.

For the Magisterium to elucidate and witness to the natural law and its applications in particular circumstances is of course an invaluable service. But it differs in kind from its authoritative teaching based on revelation and tradition. Since natural law is patent to reason, such interpretations must equally be patent to reason and, like any legal body interpreting a law, the reasons for any conclusions should be given. Of course an inconclusive natural law argument may well be paralleled or supplemented by Revelation or by some other factor to which the Church has privileged access – but this is not, by definition, a discernment of natural law through reason.

A straightforward example is provided by monogamous marriage. While natural law strongly supports the concept, it is accepted that reason could allow polygamy in certain unusual circumstances. Moses was not condemned for permitting it among the Jews, yet Jesus makes it clear that it was not God’s intention for the human race – clarifying the divine will through revelation.

The principles here, if not my examples, are of course related to Aquinas, whose teachings on the natural law have been seminal both in Christian and secular thinking. I would encourage anyone who wishes to look into the question more deeply to start with him and then proceed to the Catechism, in which natural law has several references. It is particularly valuable on the relationship of natural law to the divine law and also on the ease with which sin and habit can cloud our grasp of what the natural law demands. Perhaps the missing element here is that it does not clarify that sin and habit can cloud the vision of institutions as well as individuals.

Lots of opportunity to argue about this one…

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About Quentin

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

43 Responses to Natural Law doesn’t always come naturally

  1. Ion Zone says:

    I’m reading such an awesome book that touches on this – CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

  2. Ion Zone — I strongly agree with you. I think that “Mere Christianity” is one of the best book ever written on the subject. My copy is thoroughly battered. Do give us a resumé of any points germane to our discussion. But if this turns out to be more than say 350 words, email it to me first. It might be possible to put it in as a post.

    If you haven’t read Lewis’s “Miracles”, it’s a worthwhile follow- up. Both books have had a strong influence on my thinking and my faith.

  3. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Ion Zone for telling about ‘Mere Christianity’. Someone sent it to my late husband as a present a few years ago, before he became a catholic-I will now read it.

    There is a lot of thinking involved in this post Quentin- so I will have to take my time.
    One point I will make and I dont suppose it is really relevant and that is ,the church teaches now, that N.F.P ought not to be used indiscrimately-if that is the right word-but that is to say there are certain regulations. Whilst it is acceptable in certain circumstances-it is open to abuse, and when used in those circumstances, children ought not to become a commodity.But with parenthood comes a responsibility. So there is a lot of thinking there. How many couples are instructed in the true meaning of the Sacrament of Marriage. When they are divorced I feel terribly pain for those who are then not able to recieve Our Lord if they then find happiness and want to re-marry in the future(Of course annulments can be obtained but not always.There is to my mind a lot of sorting out in that area.

    Maybe you can tell me if you can,but someone told me that in Leviticus, there is a passage about using the fertile time for childbearing when there was a shortfall,there must have been some knowledge on birth control. I cant find it.!
    Jesus didn’t come to change the Law ,but to fulfill it , I expect it is easier now with Supernatural Grace since the Ressurection to acquire a better understanding of it-‘if we ever will’! But we do have to go along with the Church-as Jesus said it looses and binds,but neverthless ,we can also think for ouselves too!

  4. Leviticus forbids sexual intercourse for 7 days after the beginning menstruation. The 8th day was assumed to be the first fertile day (subtract 20 from the shortest cycle). Whether this was based on intention to conceive I don’t know. St Augustine knew of an infertile period and roundly condemned its use.
    Ever since Pius XI opened the door to the safe period (to the distress of many theologians) there has been caution about having adequate reasons for using the safe period (see Pius XII, Allocution to midwives, October 29, 1951).

  5. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin, I have not read that before.I wonder if many midwives have also?

  6. St Joseph, I got my figures wrong way round. The 7th day – the last infertile day – is shortest cycle minus 19, Therefore first fertile day is shortest minus 18.
    All this is based on averages. so no more accurate than that – and, as you know, we have better methods nowadays.

  7. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin. We do have more indices now, but the Calendar calculations are still one of them.
    When cycles range from 23 or higher to 36 .Mucus comes into its own. Women can easily be taught to recognise this mucus and distinguish it from other normal and abnormal secretions.In fact most women when given an accurate description of ovulation mucus,immediately recall having noticed it before without realizing its significance.It has even been known for people who felt ‘unclean’ when this mucus was present to avoid intercourse out of fastidiousness-and ,failing through their fertile life to conceive,believing themselves to be sterile.

    I can vouch for that as I taught a women who thought she was infertile for 15 years and that was the reason Then went on to have children. I have many situations like that.
    Thanks to Dr John and Evelyn Billings in their investigations to start a better method of N.F.P than the Calendar and Temperature methods.

    How did St Augustine know about a infertile period?

  8. st.joseph says:

    Pre-Ovulation Quentin when I taught it ,was 2 indicators to detect fertile phase.

    1.(Shortest cycle-20) where a year’s cycle lengths are available.
    (Shortest cycle -21) where only 6 month’s cycle lengths are available.
    2. First sensation and/or apearance of mucus.

  9. Ion Zone says:

    “I strongly agree with you. I think that “Mere Christianity” is one of the best book ever written on the subject.”

    It is such a good book, we are extremely lucky to have had him.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, I am still a bit puzzeld over St Augustine. Was it St Augustine of Hippo or Canterbury.I have been looking up some notes in my papers I am writing this for the benefit of those who are ignorant of some facts- so I that they will be able to support the Holy Father when he visits.
    If St Augustine knew of an infertile period and didn’t know when, how could he have condemned its use. Or did he say only use the fertile period for intercourse- He could not have been sure of that then either.
    The historical developement of fertility regulation in Egypt,India and Israel, The KAHUN papyrus written around 1900 BC,contained formulas for acheiving or avoiding a pregnancy.
    The EMBERS paprus, written somewhat later(circa 1552 BC) gave advice on determining the sex of the unborn child,the diagnosis of pregnancy and on lactation.
    In India, the Hindu medical teaching between 1000 and 500 BC gave detailed practical advice on the optimal time for conception considered tobe within the 12 days following the menstrual flow.Advice was also given on sex selection; to have a son,the couple should choose to have sexual intercourse on even nights (4th 6th 8th 10th 12th) and for a daughter the odd nights (5th 7th 9th 11th) were recommended

    In the Jewish law of legal purification of women, outlined in Leviticus prescribed abstinence until day 12 of the cycle, when it was observed when a women could conceive immediately. It was not realised that however, that a very short cycle could result in continued sterility, whereas a long cycle might produce
    an unexpected pregnancy. For the majority of women however, the method worke for having children, while prolonged breastfeeding contributed to efficient birth spacing.

    The Greek and Roman physicians between 500 BC and 1000 AD
    added nothing to the discoveries of the Egyptians, Indians and Jews, in fact it took a retrograde step from that of the Ancients, their general belief was that menstruation was closely associated with ovulation and was the most fertile time in the cycle. Mistakenly, therefore all the cycle outside enstruation was considered to be infertileScientific theories between 1000 ad and 1870 ad this association between menstruation and ovulation and (frtilty) persisted well into the 19th century.
    (From History of the Biologic Control of Human Fertility.Mucharski 1982)

    Development of N.F.P Teaching Services in the Catholic Sector.

    In the ensuing years since 1930.
    The Roman Catholic Church however rejected contraception and maintained its traditional stand,that procreationshould not be interfered with artificiand that the natural, God -given patterns of infertility and fertility should be used to regulate fertility. Thus began the polarisation of Roman Catholics from other Chtistian Groups on the question of contraception.
    The provisions of contraception services moved into the orbit of the medical and government health services of all western countries. However there was no attempt by these authorities to develop and refine natural methods. This task was therefore taken up by private and voluntary agencies, who wer motivated in great part by ethical and moral concerns and who found financial support from the Catholic Hierarchy world wide. Between the 1930 and 1960’s there came into existence Catholic groups suchs as Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) Britain and Ireland, Cler (France, Mauritius) Serena in Canada and many others who offered the only teaching service in natural methods.

    I wont print any more, but I expect Quentin you know all this, but many dont.
    I am saying all this as I get upset when ,those who condem H.V.
    as if it were a ‘whim of Pope Paul V1.’ so that they my acquire a greater understanding of the progress of Natural awareness of Fertility.and the benefits of health care for women.
    Women are crying out for liberation- and when they have it they dont respect it.
    It also shows in my mind that the Holy Catholic Church is not against planning a family ,as most would like to say. As I have heard it spoken in the media. Maybe those who hear such accusations may now be abe to support the church on this.

  11. Superview says:

    Quentin’s article could not be but admired for the finely balanced approach it has taken to a topic that seems to bring the worst out of so many staunch Catholics. I was going to say traditional Catholics, but a true understanding of tradition allows for change and development, so staunch – ‘always loyal in supporting a person, organisation or set of beliefs or opinions’ is a better fit in this context. Like a tightrope walker with an enraptured audience, Quentin precariously sways to the right, recovers, and then teeters to the left, before exiting smoothly to the security of his platform and applause from all sides. That’s his journalist’s job, but it would be unfair not to recognise the skill with which he accomplished it. Unfortunately, so far the comments have somewhat, therefore, taken us from the sublime to the ridiculous. In doing so, however, the deep flaws in the legalistic approach to moral human life has been wonderfully illustrated. The comicality of examining a mucus discharge or using arithmetic in order to comply with a moral law, which the natural method of birth control is said to respect, surely requires no further comment.

    A central principle in describing a framework for moral behaviour is the statement that the end does not justify the means. We know that it is not so central that grounds could not be found by bishops, cardinals, popes and the Vatican to act in ways that contradicted it – most recently putting the reputation of the Church and the interests of abusers before the claim to justice of abused children and the prevention of further abuses. Many ordinary people have seen with crystal clarity how morally wrong this has been, yet it has eluded these guardians and interpreters of the magisterium.

    The word fairness is a powerful word in an everyday understanding of what is right and wrong. It is deeply rooted in the human psyche. It is so because it allows of human weakness and the primacy of charity in making judgements on the behaviour or worthiness of imperfect and fallible, but basically good, human beings. It has endless applications in the Church’s domain – from Canon Law’s unfair treatment of the deserted wife and children to the revulsion that the doctrine of Limbo attracted, and the monumental burden placed on Adam and Eve by a vengeful God (the fact that they seem never to have existed does nothing to excuse the willingness to embrace the injustice).

    Without black and white laws life does get messy and complicated, and people can and do get muddled about the right course of action, but it is closer to the world that Jesus lived in than that of our churchmen in their, very comfortable, ivory towers. Or should that be whited sepulchres?

  12. st.joseph says:

    When so many are criticizing the Catholic Church today -and the media has cause to do so with the scandals coming to light
    Neverthless we have a lot to be thankful for being a Catholic our whole Life to be precise and if I may say proud of . That is worth highlighting. This will become more evident as time goes by, when people realise that N.F.P is one of the Missions of the Church, and not to be taken too lightly,or scorned at – as in the past., and sadly by catholics Those who have ‘no choice’ but to use N.F.P will not find it a comicality,after all it is the way we are made by God and the ‘indices’ should not be unusual for catholics. Fortunately we do not depend on catholics for its popularity.The Green movement has had a powerful influence on peoples thinking and is certainly encouraging the growth of alternative therapies.
    For people who are trying to avoid additives and eat healthily, the invasive nature of most methods of contraception conflicts with their concerns. Whether one would place this into the category of ‘Morals’ that remains to be seen. I believe giving steroids to children as in the pill is immoral.
    The Natural Law does not always come naturally-sometimes we have to work at it.

  13. For st.joseph. St Augustine of Hippo repudiated the Manichaean scct, of which he had been previously a member, chiding them for deliberately avoiding the time after purification – when conception was most likely to occur. The Manichaeans believed that to conceive a child was to incarnate evil matter, and so to be avoided. I assume that this was a general observation of experience rather than a “calendar” system.

    For Superview. I think that we use unnatural in a general sense and in a technical sense. In the general sense we should describe a mother disliking her child as unnatural, or removing spontaneity from sexual expression as unnatural. But this is different from the Magisterium’s technical sense where, for instance, it describes the use of a barrier contraceptive as flouting the essential nature of the sexual act – and so intrinsically wrong. The point I was making is that such a judgment is made by looking at the biology of the act alone, and not giving weight to the psychological etc elements of human nature.

  14. Superview says:

    Thank you Quentin. I do understand your point and have no issue with it. It is probably the case that most that is described as natural law is recognised by the secular world as sensible and fair reasoning about what is right and wrong in human behaviour. The difference seems to be in the kind of importance that should be attached to the ‘essential nature’ of something.
    For example, in our life on this planet it is obviously important for us to understand the nature of all elements of life (what they consist of, what function they have, how they work etc) and human life especially, because through medical science we can attempt to repair, interrupt and/or modify what is happening naturally to achieve desirable ends. This activity changes our attitudes to nature (your example of organ transplants). It is not risk free, and we know and fear that tinkering with nature can produce unintended consequences, but isn’t it perfectly natural for man in the pursuit of good ends to engage in this activity? That is, to understand and then seek to use the knowledge purposefully?
    Giving women/couples the ability to control their fertility without abstinence seems now to be accepted as a good, with the difference of viewpoint being merely the method. For most people, including Catholics, a pragmatic approach is seen as the natural way forward, balancing the advantages and disadvantages according to their circumstances. The important decision was to gain control over fertility, but I doubt that is seen as a moral decision in the context of normal family life; that is, deciding not to have children at all is where the rub is.
    I think those against contraception say this is immoral (and frequently with a touch of vitriol thrown in) but their problem is – in terms of their persuasive powers – it is seen as nonsensical to attach morality to the use or non-use of a biological process, especially one which, though miraculous in its outcome, is so threatening to personal, social and economic circumstances, and therefore so aptly the object of control.

  15. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin.

    I was listening to an interview a week or so ago on the radio, to young people in a sexual transmitted disease clinic.
    It was very depressing to hear how they were speaking so casually about sex as if it was something that happens in the course of an evenings night out.
    One young man of 21 was saying he had been sexual active since 12, going for another 4 tablets,until the next time. This seems to be the general opinion when speaking to some of them. When asked about condoms his reply was that he just went out in the evening, got ‘stoned’ metsomeone and had sex.
    Speaking about sex ed, they said it wasnt as if they didn’t know, but that was how it was. Having a good time.
    The interviewer explained to them how serious it was these diseases and thelong term effects, but I expect they know already, there is enough postersup in surgeries now and free testing kits. So they are not ignorant to the facts of life.

    We have had this subject on the blog before, so whats new.
    Not all young people are behaving like this, and when you see the exam results they have to be commended.
    How much does this kind of behaviour cost the tax payer,let alone the health risks they may incur in the future.I commented a few weeks ago saying I was young once and how difficult it must be for young people-but however we were never irresponsible,we had a good time,but now adays drink seemsto be the problem more than sex. Goodness knows what I would have done if I had have been under the influence of alcohol. Where does the responsibility lie?
    They know that they can order the morning after pill on the internet now.and keep a stock in hand.Who is morally to blame.
    They can’thave God in there lives, although He is there, but they dont know it. How sad.

  16. claret says:

    In true Catholic tradition a subject such as ‘Natural Law’ is dominated by sex, ( if these posts are anything to go by!)

  17. Claret, you cynic! And I am sure that you have noticed that in the Gospels sexual questions by no means predominate. When Jesus encounters sexual sin what we are struck by his tenderness.
    However, in fairness to contributors – including those who have disagreed – I have seen nothing but tenderness on these pages too. I am very proud of that.

  18. st.joseph says:

    Claret ,.
    I am sorry that you feel that the subject is all about sex’
    Perhaps a more understanding on the subject ought to have been taught in the Semineries ,in the true context of a loving relationship within marriage.As secular priests do deal with families.
    We most probably would have more couples using the method of N.F.P. and less on artificial contraception!
    We wouldn’t have to resort to giving information on a blog.
    The clergy then would be equiped to instruct couples in proper Marriage Instruction. Your are not exempt from this area because of celibacy.
    Perhaps you would like to introduce another post on the Natural Law.

  19. Semper sperans says:

    I’m afraid this contribution is rather rushed for a number of reasons but I will say what I have to say as succinctly as possible and hope it isn’t too sketchy.
    The natural law is, we are taught, the Divine law. Rather than speaking of it as imprinted indelibly on the hearts of men I prefer Newman’s phraseology when speaking of the natural law: ” though it may suffer refraction in passing into the intellectual medium of each it is not therefore so affected as to lose its character of being the Divine law.” Refraction is not reflection; it implies a degree of distortion and I should say that the first sense in which the Church seeks to interpret the natural law is in correcting that distortion.
    The second sense, which follows from the first, is that the Church does claim the right to interpret the natural law in the sense of applying the general precepts authoritatively to particular instances.
    Quentin says that this must be done in accordance with reason. Well certainly it must not be done irrationally, that is one may not start from a premise and argue irrationally to a conclusion. The question resolves itself into this: what is the validity of the original premise from which one proceeds? Here the Church quite explicitly claims the right to say in terms of the natural law which premises are valid and which are not. So in the matter of contraception the Church clearly says that that the sexual act per se must be open to reproduction.
    Quentin seems to say that the authority supporting this differs in kind from the authoritative teaching which supports revealed doctrine. I think the Catechism begs to differ. Article 3, “The Church, Mother and Teacher” is quite explicit. 2036 says” The authority of the Magisterium also extends to the specific precepts of the natural law”. The Catechism is saying that the authority supporting the Church’s teaching on the natural law is the same as the authority that supports its interpretation of revelation. That being so, I am not sure what different in kind can mean.
    As for the fact that there were many doctrines taught from time to time which turned out to be erroneous, of course there were. I don’t doubt either that they were in Rahner’s words” Universally taught”. But can I remind us all of what Paul VI said he was defending in Humanae Vitae ( because this of course is what the discussion is all about). He claimed to be restating the ” moral doctrine of marriage constantly taught by the Church”. Constantly is not universally. It is universally believed that the earth is round. It has not been constantly believed to be so. Constantly extends across time and place, universally does not and that is not a matter merely of semantics. Pope Paul was right in saying that the Church had always taught what he was restating and taught it authoritatively. Could a change have been seen as a development of that doctrine? But what change? Coming back to Newman again, in his work on the development of Christian doctrine he says quite clearly that any change which is merely a reversal of the original doctrine must be corrupt.
    So was the original doctrine valid or wasn’t it? Read Lumen Gentium 12, and Lumen Gentium was written before Humanae Vitae. I do not have the time to spell things out more clearly but I would say this. I grew up and was married prior to 1960. At that time there was no voice that I knew of inside the Church arguing against the traditional teaching as lacking authority and I did not live a sheltered life. That is not to say there were not people, perhaps many, who did not live by it.
    Finally, and this blog is not in any sort of logical order, Quentin asks why biological evidence should not be seen as merely part of the evidence. Well I suppose in many cases it could be but sometimes we are dealing with matters where the biological facts are the very problem with which we are dealing. In the case of the use of embryos for research, for instance, it is the biological fact that they are an early form of human life that presents us going further. Similarly if the sex act, whatever else it might be, is always of its nature a reproductive act then that fact is surely more than merely part of the evidence.
    Finally it is misleading to say that the use of natural family planning was formerly condemned if it implies that the act of sexual intercourse itself was condemned when performed under those circumstances. It was not, and if anybody can find an instance where it was( and I doubt it) then I will reply by saying that it has certainly never been ” constantly” condemned. What was condemned was what was considered the inappropriate use of that method and it would still be condemned in those terms today. The use of artificial contraceptive methods has always been a totally different matter.
    I apologise for the rather breathless nature of this post. I have tried to cover a lot of ground and I have tried to be as clear as possible. I doubt whether I have succeeded but thank you all for your patience.

  20. Superview says:

    The contribution from Semper sperans (sorry, what does that mean?) is very interesting and a pleasure to read. I have been emptying our loft recently and found faded and dusty copies of the Tablet from the post-Vatican II late 1960’s and the editorials and articles are beautifully written and the style is the same. In pressing their arguments they often give pause for thought, even if they don’t always persuade.
    A few points. The Church ‘does claim the right to interpret the natural law’ …. and ‘claims the right to say which premises are valid’ – I think this means to the exclusion of any other point of view or authority, and this is because the natural law is actually the Divine law and the Church is the sole authority on Divine law. So it follows that it cannot get things wrong and no other opinion can be right if it contradicts the Church’s – by which is meant those who teach.
    Mmm. I confess that my initial response is entirely subjective and the picture of all these chaps in fancy dress, whose judgement through the centuries on matters of life and death has been so flawed, claiming that they have always got right the mind of God, and no-one else has, is hard to swallow. There are other points of view that appear more reasonable. I’ve read that the Eastern Orthodox Church exceptionally allows divorce and remarriage on the grounds that, in a nutshell, Christian compassion is required because human nature is imperfect in such matters. Given the consequences of marriage breakdown, and the unfairness that results for the innocent partner, this sounds intuitively more Divine to me.
    Most practising Catholics, it would seem from the evidence, do not see that taking control of a biological process – that of sexual reproduction – is in any way wrong, not least because the outcomes are all generally so beneficial. Further, the argument that it is legitimate in Divine law only when using a particular method will appear extremely odd, not least because the concept of Divine law will rarely before, if ever, have entered their reality, not to say their consciousness. On the other hand, their appreciation of what is natural, right and fair and pleasing to God will be (should be) exemplary if their Catholicism is to mean anything. So where is the deficit? As I write it does seem to me to be perverse that there are those who strain to find such a rarefied sin in the lives of ordinary families.

  21. Semper Sperans, this is a very interesting critique. I see that Superview has responded pertinently, as ever. And I hope others will as well. I will confine myself to just a point or two.
    The role of the Magisterium here is best seen I think through Cardinal Ratzinger’s eyes. He presents it as providing the service of prompting our consciences to recognise or recall what we know God is asking of us. If you put anamnesis into the Search Box it will take you to the column in which I discuss this in some detail.

    We have to remember that the prohibition on barrier contraception allows of no exceptions whatsoever. Thus the demonstration of the validity of the natural law precepts involved must be equally rigorous. But we know, from looking at the history of the papal commission, that they could not be so demonstrated. Whenever I have enquired how the Magisterium is able to proceed further down this route, the claim is made that the Church has a superior view on natural law. I merely ask, and continue to ask, whether they will share with us how they arrive at their absolute conclusion. In my column above I distinguish between the use of reason and other methods such as revelation.

    I am afraid that I cannot see a distinction of significance between “constant” teaching and “universal” teaching. When this refers to the Catholic Church it is ipso facto universal.

    You are right in saying that natural family planning was not condemned. It could scarcely have been since, although some seem to have had an inkling that certain times were more fertile than others, no one seemed to have explored a system until the 1920/30s. But given that there was a general (constant and universal!) teaching that the evil of concupiscence could only be excused by procreative intention (or by the obligation of “rendering the debt”), a systematic way of indulging in sexual intercourse, while avoiding conception, was implicitly condemned – and would without doubt have been prohibited had it existed or been publicised. We have paid a high price for St Augustine’s personal problems with sexuality.

    Fortunately, given Rahner’s remarks on error, the Magisterium is not in the habit of claiming infallibility for its moral teaching – and wisely they stuck to this for Humanae Vitae. We do well to remember that a non infallible teaching is fallible. That of course does not mean that it is not authoritative, but the authority is limited. Above all, it cannot command consciences.

  22. Michael Mahoney says:

    Isn’t it amazing that, from just the ordinary phenomena of the natural world, we creatures can know authoritatively, some would even say infallibly, so much that is in the mind of God, that unfathomable mystery that is no possible thing that can be conceived of by the human mind. Who could ever have imagined, for instance, that it was the Billing’s method, used prudentially of course, that would be favoured by He, She, It or Nothing – really good news, by the way, for the teeming millions in Africa, especially for those starving in the Sahel, Somalia and Sudan, and even those people wading through the floods in Pakistan and China or picking themselves out of the rubble in Haiti will be able to space their families as the Almighty planned.

  23. st.joseph says:

    Yes, and it does’nt cost a penny, nor do they die of thrombosis,heart disease,cervical cancer, ectopic pregnancy,early abortions,etc.And they can have sexualy intercourse without the use of condoms 3\4 of the month.Also they won’t have to worry about forgetting their contraceptive pill, which they may not even be able to be provided for. Aren’t we the lucky ones that He the Almighty has provided this for our needs, Perhaps the Governments of the World would take a leaf out of His book.

  24. Semper sperans says:

    I am afraid that once again personal circumstances are such that I am late with this response and it is rather rushed.
    Superview thinks my prose style reminds him of The Tablet in the 1960s. I don’t recall that there was a distinctive prose style in the Tablet in the 1960s but in any case I shall take the remark as a compliment. I am interested that Superview keeps the back numbers in the loft. I tend to accumulate back numbers of various periodicals and using them as additional loft insulation might save a few trips to the recycling centre. Would health and safety regard it as a fire hazard, though? Incidentally Semper Sperans is best translated as ” Ever hopeful”.
    It is interesting how our imaginations colour our grasp of idea. Superview sees the Magisterium as ” Chaps in fancy dress whose judgement on matters of life and death over the centuries has been so flawed, claiming to have got right the mind of God and nobody else has”. That might be the mental image of Professor Dawkins, too, ( well it might be if he believed there was a God to have a mind in the first place) but it isn’t mine. My mental image is a little different. Over the best part of two thousand years there have been thousands of Bishops and quite a few Popes. Some of them were wise, some of them were stupid, some of them were devout, some of them were worldly, some of them were saintly some of them were wicked but over all of them hovered The Holy Spirit. And the Spirit prodded here, restrained there, inspired some new thinking in one place, rediscovered some old thinking in another and all of this to allow the Magisterium as a coherent body to fulfil its task of preaching the faith. There have been many arguments along the way. We have had synods and councils, creeds formulated and doctrines defined but over it all The Holy Spirit has presided and still does.
    I can’t really accept Superview’s contention that contraception is OK because the consequences for couples who use it are beneficial. That is straight forward consequentialism ( the consequences of an act determine its morality, to oversimplify slightly). That and its close relative proportionalism are not in the mainstream of Catholic moral theology to say the least. Both were condemned by John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
    Quentin says he cannot see any difference between” constant” and ” universal”. Really? The concise OED gives as the first meaning for constant:” continuous”; for universal it gives: “of, belonging to or done by all persons or things in the world or in that class”. Those definitions are clearly not identical. In respect of Humanae Vitae Paul VI claimed to be putting forward the moral doctrine of marriage constantly taught by the Church’s Magisterium. He was claiming that the doctrine in question was constant, that is that it had been continuous throughout the life of the Church. And that continuity was one of the main considerations which led him to the decision he took. The present Pope picked up on that very point when he spoke at the conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the encyclical: ” What was true yesterday is true today”. Quentin then says that there was ” general ( constant and universal!) teaching that the evils of concupiscence could only be excised by procreative intention”. How could that teaching possibly be called constant, that is continuous, in the sense used by Pope Paul or commended by Pope Benedict? ” True yesterday and true today?” Certainly nobody ever taught it to me as authentic Catholic teaching and I’m sure they didn’t teach it to Quentin, either. But I’m sure we were both taught the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception as being constant, authentic and authoritative.
    And I raised the matter of the use of the infertile period because you did so yourself, Quentin. You wrote that “natural family planning which had formerly been condemned….” and it seemed to me proper to point out that that statement was misleading because it could mean that in natural family planning the sexual act itself had been condemned. Clearly it wasn’t and I pointed that out.
    I still do not understand why you wish to draw such a sharp distinction between the authority that the Church claims in matters pertaining to revelation and matters arising from the natural law; the authority behind the one is different in kind from the authority behind the other you say. You might well think they ought to be but I can find no evidence that the Church itself makes any such distinction. The Church clearly claims authority in both spheres and on the same basis. You might think it ought not to but it does and it does so quite explicitly. If there are any references in the Catechism or in the documents of Vatican II that point to the contrary I don’t know of them.
    I was grateful to you for drawing my attention to Cardinal Ratzinger’s lecture of 1991. I had come across it some time ago when I was tracking references to Newman on conscience but at that time my interest in the talk was limited. Your interpretation of it in your piece in 2008 seems to me perfectly fair but, in so far as it seems to be saying that the Magisterium invites but does not command, it is hardly the complete picture of his view of the Magisterium. After all that was almost 20 years ago. As it happens we have more recent evidence , new and better particulars as the lawyers say, and from the man himself. When the English Bishops made their ad limina visit to Rome Pope Benedict, the same Ratzinger who spoke in 1991, told them to ” recognise dissent for what it is and not to treat it as a mature contribution to a balanced and wide ranging debate”. That is clearly a very different view of the Magisterium and its role. It doesn’t sound much like an invitation to me.
    Finally Quentin says that a non infallible teaching cannot command consciences. Well, who’s arguing? I have never said or implied anything to the contrary but I would say that over the years I have met more people who could explain why they had a right to dissent from Humanae Vitae than I have met people who have actually read it and I should have thought that would have been the obvious starting point for informing one’s conscience. And before anyone is tempted to take the ” Here I stand, I can do no other” route and start running up repair bills for the parish by nailing things to church doors I would advise him or her to consider two things. First, Newman’s views on conscience have become what one might call the gold standard on the subject. In the very recent past, both in the CH and in the Tablet, writers have claimed Newman on conscience in support of their dissent from the teachings of Humanae Vitae. Fr. Ian Ker, the Newman scholar, in both papers has openly challenged them to provide a single text from all Newman’s voluminous writings where he envisaged any conscientious dissent at all from any authoritative Church teaching. So far there have been no takers and I doubt that Fr. Ker is holding his breath. The second thing to consider is the teaching laid down in 892 of the Catechism which deals with the response the faithful should give to non infallible and non definitive teachings. We are asked to adhere to such teaching with ” religious assent which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.” That is a very serious obligation.

    I am afraid this is going to have to be my final post. I have extremely important obligations elsewhere which mean that I simply don’t have the time any more. This is a good site, the discussion is conducted in a genuinely Christian spirit and I am happy to have been part of it if only for a very brief time. Pray for me and I will pray for all of you.

  25. First of all I am sure that all readers and contributors to this blog will be sad to hear that Semper Sperans’s circumstances makes it impossible for him to continue contributing. I think he can be confident of the prayers of us all. We will certainly miss the high quality of knowledge and thought he brought to us.

    I just want to raise one point: it is about the distinction he makes, in discussing Newman’s attitude to conscience, between the Church’s teaching and our ultimate obligation to follow our conscience in moral matters. When we have a teaching, such as that on barrier contraception, which “teaches as absolutely required that any use whatever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life” we have a quandary. The doctrine and the command are necessarily connected. It would appear that should someone’s conscience led him or her into disobeying this doctrine, he must nevertheless continue to believe that the doctrine, which specifically and in italics excludes any exceptions, remains true. This would seem to require mental gymnastics of a high order.

  26. Superview says:

    Well, Semper Sperans will be missed, but his parting contribution deserves an observation or two.
    As I read the obituaries in the latest edition of Far East, the magazine of the Columban Fathers, they illuminate the best of the Church’s qualities and the power of the Spirit at the personal level. I know that they can be repeated numberless times and cover all kinds of people in all kinds of places.
    The belief that the Holy Spirit hovers over the Church and safeguards it is very comforting, and evident in such people, but the question of what is meant by the Church is troublesome given its place in history as a powerful and materialistic organisation. What actually the Holy Spirit safeguards it from as an organisation seems to be rather elusive. Is it error, is it corruption, is it worldliness, is it immorality, is it moral expediency? It would seem not. Is it enough then to say ‘Never mind, the Magisterium looks good!’?
    Seeing good outcomes from an action and concluding that that justifies the action is ‘consequentialism’, and this ism is not in the mainstream of Catholic moral theology, says Semper Sperans. Well, the point I was trying to make was that the action concerned – preventing conception – is not seen as morally wrong by a majority of Catholics, and therefore their subsequent judgement is morally consistent, that is, governed by their informed consciences. So maybe the moral theologians should take note.
    On Quentin’s point about ‘constant’ and ‘universal’, I understood him to mean that as the Church claims universality anything that is has taught constantly has by definition been taught universally.

  27. st.joseph says:

    Superview,Just come back from Yorkshire, a little late in my reply, but however.

    I somehow think that you are a little confused when you say that ‘preventing conception is not seen as morally wrong by the majority of catholics’.There has been enough posts on the subject for you to understand it, or do you find that difficult?

  28. tim says:

    Semper sperans is a great loss. As well as praying for him, we can ‘always hope’ that he will return in due course.

    Superview, surely you must concede that orthodox Catholics believe the Church is protected from error – and not (unfortunately) from the other evils you mention. And the protection from error is hedged about with a number of conditions. Of course, orthodox Catholics may be wrong (as most of the world assumes), but these matters are not decided by counting heads. There is a duty to inform one’s conscience – though much used to be made of ‘invincible ignorance’.

    To lower the tone somewhat, I have a debating point to make against Quentin. He says that the the teaching of the Church is that the prohibition on barrier methods of contraception admits of no exceptions whatever. But in previous discussions I understood him to urge that the Church said nothing against the use of barrier methods of contraception in fornication (apart from deploring the fornication). If it is ‘unnatural’, I have difficulty in understanding why it doesn’t – in most circumstances – make fornication worse. The arguments in favour seem purely consequentialist. I admit there can be serious consequences, but perhaps such consequences should be rather seen as an additional reason for avoiding fornication. If I knew I were HIV positive, I find it difficult to believe it would be right to make love to my wife even using a barrier method. A condom would reduce the risk by a factor of 10 or 20 – it would not eliminate it.

  29. Tim, as we’re on debating points here is the actual wording from HV: “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches as absolutely required that any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life” (CTS para 11).

    Thus I use this prohibition when writing about marriage, but make clear – when necessary – that it is not directed at the unmarried. However, Aquinas would have been with you – and for similar reasons to the ones that you cite.

  30. st.joseph says:

    I often wonder about 59 ‘Casti Connubii’ (Christian Marriage) Where it says=

    Holy Church is also well aware that in many cases one of the partners is more sinned against than sinning,reluctantly allowing a perversion of right order for a truly grave reason. Such a partner is guiltless,so long as the law of charity even then is remembered,and every effort made to dissuade and prevent the other partner from sin. Nor are husband and wife to be accused of acting against nature if they make use of their right in a proper and natural manner,even though natural causes (due to circumstances of time and of certain defects)render it impossible for new life to orignate, Both matrimony and the use of the matrimonial right have secondary ends-such mutual help,the fostering of reciprocal love and the abatement of concupiscence-which husband and wife are quite entitled to have in view,so long as the intrinsic nature of the act, and therefore its due subordination to its primary end is safeguarded.

    Can someone enlighten me please.

  31. Remembering that it was written in 1930, the Pope was saying that if your partner insists on using contraception (e.g.,a condom) then you are permitted to go along with that, provided that you make your objection clear. (Must have made for a jolly evening!). The second relates to the fact that, at the time, the identification of the safe period by calendar alone, so rather approximate, had been established. The Pope says that’s OK. This was considered very radical at the time, and many theologians were extremely upset. Pius XII however explicitly confirmed this some years later.

  32. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin.
    The accuracy of the fertile time now-would that permit the use of a condom for reasons above?
    What would be a grave reason?
    Sorry, but it all sounds a bit contradictive.
    I can not for the life of me get my head around it.

  33. “truly grave reason” is hard to interpret, and often simply means what we mean by a “serious reason”. In this case I assume that it has become a real issue in the harmony of the marriage. I don’t think that the accuracy of the safe period is an issue here. We are thinking of a situation where, typically, the husband is insisting a) on his marital rights and b) on using a condom.
    To get deeper into it than that we would probably need Henry Davis SJ’s multi volumed moral theology. as I don’t imagine it has been discussed much recently.
    Perhaps others can help us.

  34. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin.
    I know I am thinking hypotheticaley(I think that is the right word) But I was thinking of the reasons and a few thoughts came up. One if a husband came home after being away, but home just when it was the fertile time.And was going away again the next day
    Or maybe if a women was a non-catholic and the husband was a catholic, and she particularely, wanted intercourse in the fertile time (as women are supposed to be more in need at that time ,and insisted he used a condom, and to save the marriage, agreed to it.
    One could say it was the lesser of two evils. But then one would say, why is it a lesser of two evils in marriage when it is not in teenagers!
    Tim said he would not put his wife at risk,he is to be commended for that. But if she insisted- or leave him, what would his thoughts be on that!
    What about all the husbands who put their wives at risk when taking the pill!
    Are they not guilty of something?
    Sorry I am just pondering.
    Maybe someone will think what the moral issue is here. Down to conscience I suppose.

  35. Superview says:

    The Second Sight blog is a very good place to develop one’s thinking, and it is often therapeutic to work at a notion loosely held until it is clear enough to put in writing, and then maybe attract critical but constructive comment from good people. However, the tendency for the blog to dwell on definitions and phrases in papal documents relating to sexuality in marriage and written by celibates is often beyond endurance.
    Tim asks if I accept that orthodox Catholics believe the Church is protected from error. Well yes I am ready to concede that – particularly as ‘orthodox’ – def. ‘(of beliefs, ideas or activities) considered traditional, normal and acceptable by most people’ – is in softer focus than the staunch Catholics I referred to at the top of this blog(11)for whom anything is acceptable. But can we perhaps talk about what error means? Was the Inquisition error? Has it been error to burn those with a different set of Christian beliefs? Is Pope Paul II in error when he asserts that the Church has always defended freedom of conscience? I do find it difficult, and with increasing desperation, when looking at the history of the Church to be satisfied with the assertion that it is protected from error in any meaningful way.

  36. st.joseph says:

    Superview, I really dont know what you mean by ‘staunch’ or as people say ‘devout catholics’.I wonder how many catholics have read all of the Encyclical or Letters that are written
    Have you read Love and Responsibility- Pope John Paul. It is not all about sex.Why do so many get so worked up when the church speaks about Human Sexuality . If one is celibate that is no reason why they dont understand it.
    I would like to know what upsets you when it is spoken about.
    It needs today, and may I say more so to-day, to understand the facts of life that is proclaimed by the church in Christian Marriage.
    Sex is rammed down our throats in the media,on televesion. on porn shops,house partys who encourage (and I will say no names) who encourage the use of vibrators, books on show for children to see in shops. If I may say so the seedy kind of sex that unfortunately appeals to a great deal of the public today.
    Why should the church not say or speak about chastity and purity and a sexual relationship which is acceptable in the eyes of The Lord
    We ought to be thankful that the Catholic Church kept to the true teachings of Christ-when others churches went along with the world in its beliefs on contraception which has led down the road to ‘free love’ as its called, abortifacents, health problems etc etc.
    I am sorry that this upsets you, so it should, but dont blame the church when it is trying to uphold some decency in the way we live our lives.
    Pope John Paul has repeatedly asked on his visits to other countries-that the natural methods would be explored by their doctors etc,
    Mother Teresa asked Dr Billings to make the natural methods of spacing births available which he did!
    Now we have a church that is taking this into the future, and hopefully the other christian churches will follow suit-I call that a part of the christian unity movement.
    It would be far better for you and others who disagree with the churches teaching on ‘sex’ as you call it, to criticise society, who make a mockery of something so beautiful that God has given us to enjoy-the way that He planned it to be.
    We ought to thank The Lord that we do have priests and nuns that remain celibate for the love of God and his church, given up their whole lives for Him,especially the love of a husband and wife and children.
    I think you are allowing the faults of those in the church,like lot of others, who criticise something they will never be able to understand,and be thankful that you have been given the Grace not have the temptation like they have had.

  37. tim says:

    Superview, you say (11) “The comicality of examining a mucus discharge or using arithmetic in order to comply with a moral law, which the natural method of birth control is said to respect, surely requires no further comment”. I simply don’t understand this (maybe I lack a sense of humour – surely not..?). What’s wrong with using arithmetic to determine if a moral duty is being met? Or assessing mucus? I might need to know whether someone was dead or not in order to decide how to treat his body – would a scientific test be in some way comical? I think you are seeking to reinforce an opinion held for other reasons by reference to what you perceive as incongruity – and it doesn’t work for me.

  38. Superview says:

    Tim, I don’t know whether your remarks in parenthesis are self-deprecating or not, but if you cannot see that the ‘comicality’ I refer to has in it the seeds (to coin a phrase) of a Monty Python sketch I suspect we may indeed have a different sense of humour, but then that is life. However, I am sure that we share a great deal more of what we could agree was moral behaviour than we would disagree about.

    What I hope you will come back to is the question posed at 35. Given the history, what can we make of the proposition that the Church is protected from moral error? Or is it some other kind of error? Can we identify what this means in relation to human morality and behaviour?
    In some respects it seems to be like peeling back the layers of an onion – with predictable results. It is obviously a sublime concept, but maybe also a dangerous one that has been employed by the Church as an human institution to justify much that is clearly not divine in origin or purpose.

  39. tim says:

    Superview, to take the side-issue first, I also am not sure whether my remarks in brackets were self-deprecating, but I incline to the view that they weren’t. They were to a degree ironical – and the practice of irony today is such that in a tricky situation you can say the first thing that comes into your head and decide at leisure afterwards whether and to what extent you meant it or the opposite. In that vein, I would say that no Englishman believes he lacks a sense of humour, any more than that he is a bad driver (etc..).

    To be more serious, the doctrine surely is that it is the teachings of the Church that are protected from error, not the teachers. I am not going to defend all the pronouncements of individuals, nor engage in discussion of the merits of particular church policies, for reasons touched on briefly before (my incompetence, primarily – no irony here). Few today doubt that authority can be misused, sometimes dangerously, and even abused. But this is the exception. ‘Staunch’ catholics will assume that those entitled to speak for the Church have got it right until the contrary is shown. We lack sympathy with those who seem to do the opposite.

  40. Superview says:

    Tim, I think by ‘have got it right until the contrary is shown’ you may mean until hard evidence proves otherwise? I confess that I do have a problem with this. For one, we know – and it is surely a defining aspect of the Church as an institution – that it is secretive, centralised and absolutely authoritarian, and these are attributes that in human society inevitably lead to corruption and abuse of power.
    The greatest scandal of my lifetime has been the way those ‘entitled to speak for the Church’ have covered up the sexual abuse of children worldwide.
    There are other scandals that have only emerged because of courageous victims talking and being listened to by journalists able to publicise their plight in a free society (that is, one where the Church did not hold sway over the public authorities).

    So I know I do now differ from the ‘staunch Catholic’ of my youth, insofar as I am now much more realistic and vigilant. I think this is based upon sound judgement and experience, as I also find little reassuring about the contradictions in the way their absolute power is exercised and the worldliness of their lifestyles. Because of the evidence, and the absence of any real signs that they are anything other than as culpable as the rest of us, what basis is there for regarding these men as different and to be trusted more?

    Well, there is the dogma that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. I have asked several times in the Second Sight blog for insights into how this is to be interpreted in any meaningful way given the chequered history of the Church (to put it mildly). It seems many are ready to acknowledge that this dogma has been rolled out to justify all sorts of terrible things done by ‘those entitled to speak for the Church’, yet they still cling to it even though it seems it is incapable of any demonstration.
    Last Sunday I heard a sermon that made a lot of sense about prayer. In summary: “Pray as if everything depends upon God, but act as if everything depends upon you – the result is a perfect partnership”. In this instance it could not better describe our stewardship obligations.

  41. Superview, your last paragraphs on the Holy Spirit interest me; and I agree that we need to face up to issues here. However I think that it’s best to raise it as a new topic so that it catches everyone’s attention. Let me put my thinking cap on.

  42. st.joseph says:

    Superview, are you confusing the teachings of the Church with the failings of those in it
    -including Popes Bishops Priests and Laity.
    When the Pope speaks ex-cathedra he is speaking on behalf of the church in the Doctrines it witholds.
    The other day a lady was telling me that her 20 year old son was killed by the I.R.A 20 years ago.
    She then said to me ‘I hate the Irish.to which I promptly replied ‘I am Irish.
    I remember many years ago when on holiday with my grandmother in Ireland .I there met a young german girl-we were about 14 years old. I took her to meet my grandmother. My grandmother would not let her into the house, and told me not to see her again as ‘she said the germans killed your grandfather'(He was killed on the 1st day of the Somme). I was appalled as my grandmother was a very holy lady- but I saw then the biitterness she held for something that happened years before.
    This may not be relevant to what you say about the Church. But if you want to read what the Church teaches read the Catechism, and base your opinions on the Holy Spirit on its contents.

  43. st.joseph says:

    I would like to add also ,that forgiveness is not beyond the duty of the victims of child abuse either!

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