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Monday, February 20, 2012

Contraception and Church Governance

Ok, now for part two of my four part exploration of the contraception controversy.  In part one I examined various non-sequiturs related to the controversy.  In this piece, I will examine the Church’s governance, particularly in how it relates to the aforementioned controversy.

The Church’s government is hierarchical.  At the top of the hierarchy (well, on Earth anyway) is the Pope.  The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and represents Christ on Earth.  Beneath the Pope are cardinals, then archbishops and bishops, then priests, then deacons, and finally the laity.  Members of religious orders fall outside of this particular hierarchy and do not directly affect the issues that are discussed here.  To boil everything down to its simplest form, the Pope is the direct head of the Church and the laity is the support.  Now, to a lot of people, this would seem to mean that the laity has been reduced to mindless drones, endlessly spewing forth ideas forced upon them by the hierarchy.  That is not true.  It is true that the Church is not a democracy and the laity does not decide on what is to be taught.  But that is not to be confused with the Church teaching that the laity has no voice at all.  In certain matters, it does.  But in matters regarding doctrine and dogma, the Pope and hierarchy have the final say on what is taught, period.

Before I go much further, I want to clearly set forth the Church’s teaching on contraception.  I am indebted to Sex and the Marriage Covenant by John Kippley for helping me to understand what the Church teaches.  The Church holds that sexual relations have two purposes.  The first is procreation; that is to make babies.  The second is as a renewal of the marriage vows.  If either (or both) of these purposes are blocked or hindered in any way, the sexual act has been desecrated.  This is why any premarital sex (or any sex outside of a marital relationship) is intrinsically disordered and sinful.  Contraception purposefully hinders the first purpose and is therefore sinful, period.  On a side note, this is also why the Church teaches that any form of artificial insemination or any surgical procedure that renders someone incapable of procreating is also wrong.

I know someone is going to bring up the idea of Natural Family Planning (NFP) and claim that it is “Catholic contraception” and that is entirely wrong.  In true NFP, every sexual act is open to the possibility that a pregnancy can result.  What NFP does is to track when the woman is fertile and abstain from sex during that time.  However, any sex which is had when the woman is not in her fertile period is still open to the possibility that she can get pregnant.  This mindset of trusting God is vastly different from the mindset of contraception which puts oneself in the place of God.

I saw one blog which claimed that since the bishops aren’t chosen by the people, they cannot represent them.  This idea shows a total lack of awareness of the realities of the governance of the Catholic Church as delineated above.  The Church is not a democracy where the leaders are chosen by the people.  Rather, as Jesus appointed Peter to be the head of the Church and the apostles to help him, the leadership is passed on to those who followed; namely the pope and the bishops.  Since the Church’s leadership has been bestowed directly by Jesus, it does not depend on any mandate from the laity to continue.  In a democracy the power of the government comes from the governed, that is why the governed have a right to speak up in what the laws are.  Since the Church was established by God Himself and gets its legitimacy directly from Him, there is no need for the laity to choose who leads them.  This is a crucial distinction that must be understood.


In the encyclical Humanae Vitae, written by Pope Paul VI in 1968, the Church reaffirmed her opposition to any artificial form of birth control.  This encyclical was preceded by Casti Conubii written by Pope Pius XI in 1930 in response to the Lambeth Conference, where for the first time in the history of Christianity, contraception was openly accepted as legitimate under certain circumstances.  After the Lambeth Conference of 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Conubii to reaffirm the Church’s traditional teachings in regards to sex.  Then in 1950, with the advent of the oral contraceptive, Pope John XXIII was asked to create a commission to look into the matter of contraception and he agreed.  I do not know the entire history of the Commission and will not pretend to.  What I do know is that any commission within the Church is not binding and that final teaching authority; as we have seen; lies with the pope.  In addition, the Commission included several non-theologians, all of whom sided with the majority report (see below).  In 1966, the Commission produced a report that advocated for a relaxation of the rules in regards to contraception and birth control.  A minority dissented and advocated for the rules to remain as they were.  This minority report was made exclusively of theologian priests and bishops or cardinals.  And so the matter was closed.  While people may not like the decision, all faithful Catholics are called to submit to it.

In the next piece, I will examine the idea of the separation of church and state and how it impacts this issue.