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Contraception and the Power Struggle in the Church

From The Inside

A Priest’s View of the Catholic Church

by Tony Flannery

Published by Mercier Press, 5. French Church Street,  Cork. 1999, pp 106-124

With permission of the author

Humanae Vitae, the Papal encyclical on birth control, had already been published a few years before I was ordained. But it was the big issue that dominated Church life, and more specifically confessional practice, during the first ten years or so of my priesthood. Because I was in the seminary and studying theology during those years of the late sixties and early seventies when the theological controversy was at its height, I had the opportunity to become well acquainted with the issues.

Pope John XXIII removed the topic of birth control from discussion at the Vatican Council and instead set up a commission to study it and to act as an advisory body to the Pope to help him make a decision. The commission met for a good number of years and inevitably there were leaks. A general idea of how the discussion was going among the members of the commission began to filter out. It was being strongly suggested that the Church was going to allow for artificial contraception within marriage. Many theologians, even here in Ireland, began to take this for granted and to welcome such change publicly. As a result a sense of expectancy had grown up and many married couples began to use one or other form of birth control. The most prevalent method used was the contraceptive pill, as it could be prescribed on medical grounds, whereas other types of contraceptives were prohibited by state law.

At the time it was interesting to observe how some Irish Catholics resolved their dilemmas of conscience. People could always say that they were using the pill to regulate the menstrual cycle, rather than as a means of preventing conception – something of an Irish solution to an Irish problem! The commission, when it reported, did indeed recommend change but it was not a unanimous recommend­ation. A small number of the members of the commission dissented from the majority report, and recommended instead that the traditional teaching should be upheld. The then Pope, Paul VI, decided to ignore the majority opinion, and instead go with the minority group. So the encyclical came out on 29 July 1968, restating the traditional position, and imposing an absolute ban on the use of any forms of artificial contraception. The Irish hierarchy wheeled out Dr Cremin of Maynooth to face the media and he appeared to take some considerable pleasure in announcing that there would be no change. It was a victory for his side.

Looking back now it was probably a mistake on the part of Paul VI to make a statement on the issue at all. To be fair to him, he had been put on the spot by John XXIII, who was the person who so publicly set up the commission. If nothing had been said the debate would have continued and would gradually have sorted itself out as the consensus of the Church began to work through into practice and the bitter divisions might have been avoided. Instead the making of a statement served to polarise and harden the situation; both sides stopped listening to each other and no form of practical pastoral solution was now possible. The encyclical caused massive shock waves around the Catholic Church and Pope Paul was amazed at the extent and intensity of the negative reaction it provoked. Popes up to that time had not been used to such rebellious reactions to their encyclicals. But the Vatican Council and the general spirit of the sixties had let loose a wave of democracy and free thinking that swept through the Church just as it did the rest of society. A great number of moral theologians were both amazed and outraged. They did not agree and they quickly made it known. The battle had begun and for the next ten years or more it became an issue around which an enormous power struggle developed. I know something, though not a great deal, about the extent of the politicking that went on in Vatican circles both before and after the Pope had made his decision. Theologians like Bernard Haring have written about it. They assert that there was a very deliberate campaign by some within the Vatican to isolate the Pope, and to prevent those of the majority opinion on the commission from having access to him at the crucial time when he was coming to his decision, and that they were very successful in this. Some of the accounts of what went on in the Vatican during this time do not make for very edifying reading.

As regards the document itself I had no difficulty with a lot of its contents. In many ways it is very rich and inspiring. I fully accepted the spirit of it and I saw it as a strong statement of the Christian ideal in this aspect of Christian marriage relationships. I never agreed with the rigid interpretation put on it by the Vatican and reiterated by the official Church here in Ireland. By rigid interpretation I mean those who stated that this teaching had to be imposed on all Catholics, no matter what their situation or circumstance, that held that the use of artificial means of birth control was always morally wrong (indeed some asserted that it was always ‘intrinsically evil’, whatever that theological phrase, which was bandied around a lot at the time, came to mean to the ordinary person). In saying that I had difficulty with this, I know I was not unusual. Many priests, and the majority of moral theologians, had the same difficulty. In theology I had learned that there was a very important principle for all confessors and spiritual and moral directors. It is what is known as the pastoral solution and it had been accepted as standard pastoral practice for many centuries. Put simply, it stated that a confessor always dealt with penitents on the basis of their individual circumstances and the degree of their ability to cope with them or change them, and tried to get them to do their best in these circumstances, making sure not to impose impossible burdens on them. It was, and continues to be, a most useful principle, which allows a degree of flexibility in interpreting Church law for the individual. The more vocal the opposition to the strict interpretation of Humanae Vitae became, the more vehement was the Vatican assertion of its position, and the more it insisted that this was an immutable law that could not be changed or reinterpreted.

Dissent from this encyclical, while widespread and vocal internationally, was very muted in the Irish Church. The most notable and admirable dissenter was Fr James Good of the diocese of Cork and Ross. He spoke out publicly, stating his disagreement with the encyclical. Immediately he came into conflict with the then Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr Cornelius Lucey, and he was banned from working in the diocese. He moved to Limerick, where he occupied a position in education for a number of years, before going to work on the missions in Africa, where he is to this day. At all times he acted with great dignity and courage and with an enormous sense of loyalty to the Church. He paid a great price in terms of his personal standing and his prospects’ within the Church, though from what I know of the man I do not think that would have concerned him at all. He was not a man with ambition for higher posts.

In a recent programme on Teilifis na Gaeilge he also expressed regret at the lack of support he got from the moral theologians at the time in Ireland. Some of the better known ones, who knew of the way the wind was blowing in the commission discussions and who expected a positive out­come, were publicly in favour of the use of contraceptives. When the encyclical came out they were shocked. One of them even went underground for a period of time. He returned, totally converted, and became one of the most vehement spokesmen for the official Church line. I remember listening to him speaking one day to a group of confessors and to my amazement he stated that the pastoral solution was no longer an option on this issue. The law must be enforced. There were to be no exceptions. The use of artificial contraceptives was always morally wrong and sinful.

When I began my work as a priest, and indeed for many years afterwards, the issue of birth control was the one that dominated most of our time in confession. I said in an earlier chapter that the Redemptorists had played a significant part in redesigning the practice of confession in the seventies and that it was a significant contribution. The other area where I feel we can take some credit is the fact that we were in the forefront of trying to interpret Humanae Vitae in some reasonable way for the ordinary people. We too paid our price. We fought many a hard battle with bishops and priests, and we were banned from a number of dioceses for being ‘soft’ on birth control!

I think we missioners got much more exposure to the problem than the average priest in a parish. This was because when we arrived in the parish people came to us for a second opinion. The word quickly spread that we were willing to talk about it, that we were often more flexible (or lax, depending on your point of view) than their own priests. This was not always the case. We too had some men who were insistent on laying down the law. I remember going to one parish where the priests told me that they had a Redemptorist mission some years previously, with a particular man on the mission team. In their own words, they said: It took twelve months for us to undo the damage he had done.’ The problem was that he was part of a team that presented a caring and open image, which lulled people into a false security as far as he was concerned. They came to him with their birth control problems and got a serious telling off! The priests wanted an assurance that none of the team of which I was a part would repeat that performance. It is also true that I came across many diocesan priests who dealt with the issue with great skill and sensitivity.

The result was that I and most of my companions spent endless hours in countless confession boxes listening to married people, almost invariably women, explaining their circumstances to us and asking our opinion. It was an incongruous situation to be in. Here was I, young and inexperienced, having no personal knowledge of marriage or sexual relationships and having a poor understanding of the physical, mental and emotional make-up of women, being asked to make judgements and give advice on the most intimate area of their lives. I heard stories of women who were terrified of getting pregnant for various health reasons and did not want to commit sin by using contraceptives. Another very common situation was of the woman in her middle years, who had got too old to risk pregnancy with any degree of safety and yet was potentially fertile. This situation could go on for up to ten years in a womans life.

The natural methods of family planning, in particular the Billings method which is the one that was most promoted at the time, have a lot to recommend them, but to assert that they worked well for all women in every situation never made any sense. I could never feel comfortable about telling a couple that they must abstain permanently from sexual relations, which was the other solution being offered by the Church. If they wanted to come to that decision themselves, for whatever reasons, that was their business. I did not think that I had the right, or the understanding of their situation, to impose this solution on them. I also felt that rather than being a solution it could lead to much more serious problems and even to the break-up of the relationship. I considered that the preservation of a good marriage relationship was of far greater moral value than the use or non-use of contra­ceptives.

After generations of dominance by the Church, people in Ireland had little or no skill in forming their own conscience. They constantly looked for a decision from the confessor on what was right or wrong for them. They wanted to know if it was a sin, because they still thought in terms of mortal sin, and the fear of going to Hell. So they wanted to be told that they could use some form of artificial birth control and not go to Hell. It was a most frustrating position for a priest to be in. If I told a person that the use of some form of contraceptive in their situation would not be a certain cause of damnation, there was a strong probability that some other priest would contradict this at a future confession and refuse to give them absolution until they gave up their evi1′ practice. Or a statement from the Vatican, or the bishops, asserting the official line would throw them into confusion again. So I always, if I could, tried to help them to make the decision for themselves. It was a tortuous process. Trying to explain to people who had never made a decision for themselves in anything to do with religion, how to go about forming their conscience, was so difficult. Doing it in a confession box, as was most often the case, made it even more hazardous. You would think you were doing well and then: ‘But is it a sin, Father?’

Sticking to the principle of what I was trying to achieve, I would answer: ‘I don’t know. That is for you to decide in your situation.’ I am sure that many a person left me feeling dissatisfied but I considered I was doing no service to them by becoming their conscience. Gradually the message began to get through, and more and more people slowly took responsibility for their own decisions and stopped confessing it at all.

There is no doubt that some priests abused their position as confessors during these years and became very obtrusive and interfering in the private lives of people. A good friend of mine, a married woman, told me of an experience she had in confession at one of our Marian shrines some time in the mid-eighties, when one would have thought that the issue had begun to die down. She was making a fairly routine confession, because she considered this to be part of the pilgrimage. When she had finished what she described as a little list of fairly innocuous sins, the interrogation began:

Are you married?,

‘Yes, Father.,

‘How long are you married?,

‘Five years, Father.’

‘And how many children have you?’

‘One, Father.’

‘Only one! And why is that? Are you using some form of birth control?’

At this point my friend was getting very angry, and she told the priest that it was none of his business. She got up and walked out of the confession box. Her initial reaction was to say to herself: ‘That finishes me with the Church.’

When she had time to cool down and reflect a bit on what had happened, she realised that it would be foolish of her to allow the behaviour of this priest to come between her and her faith. He had absolutely no right to question her on aspects of her life which she did not choose to bring up herself. And to start lecturing her on how many children she should have was totally outside his competence and his rightful role.

I know that there are many women around the country who could tell similar stories to that one. It was not a glorious era in the life of the Church in Ireland or indeed elsewhere. A great deal of moral bullying and unpardonable interference in the private lives of people went on. Some priests were taking out their anger at, and disapproval of, those theo­logians and fellow priests who dissented from the teaching by imposing it more rigorously on the people who were coming to them in confession.

I have the impression that not all priests dealt with the issue in any sort of direct way when they met it in confession. A great many seem to have avoided it. People came to them in confession and confessed that they were using contra­ceptives. The priest did not make any comment but simply gave them absolution. While I would at this stage in my life be generally in favour of this approach by the confessor to people confessing sins, because it gives the penitent total freedom as to what he or she wishes to bring up, I think that in the particular situation I am discussing, some priests could have been more helpful to people in teasing out with them whether or not they had actually sinned by using contraceptives. In other words, and to use the old concept, was what they had confessed matter for confession at all? The fact that the priest didn’t comment or didn’t make any effort to discuss the significance of individual conscience in the matter reinforced the belief that using contraceptives was always sinful.

The people had been schooled in the ‘firm purpose of amendment’ era, which meant that they believed that one’s sins were forgiven only if one resolved to stop the sinful behaviour. They knew in their hearts that they were going to continue using contraceptives, because they had decided that was the best option for them in their circumstances. So they began to feel more and more alienated from the sacrament of Penance, went to confession less and less, and many eventually gave up the practice entirely. I think that there is great sadness in the fact that, because of the dilemma in which they found themselves, which I believe was really an unnecessary dilemma brought about by an improper understanding of the issues involved, many people lost touch with a tangible expression of Gods forgiveness.

Gradually, over the years, a flexible pastoral practice became the norm, with few exceptions. Even then the official line was still held in public. Occasionally I, and some other preachers, attempted to say something from the pulpit reflecting this more flexible pastoral line but it was fraught with difficulty. I remember in one parish where I gave a talk on the topic during a mission, basically suggesting that there were situations in which it might be permissible to use artificial contraceptives without committing sin. By this time many bishops’ conferences around the world had come out with statements about how to deal with the problem in a pastoral way, and they were very helpful. I was using these as my authority. The following day the parish priest, who had not been present at the talk, but to whom it had been reported, was in a state of great alarm. He came to discuss it with me. Like a great many priests, he had not read any of the documents around the issue, so I gave him copies of some of them, and discussed the whole approach with him. Gradually I came to see that he was not able to go with what I was saying. For him it was a deeply personal and serious issue. He believed that as parish priest he would have to answer on the last day for the soul of every one of his parishioners and that if we, whom he had invited into the parish, led any of his people astray and endangered their salvation, he would be eternally responsible for it. Faced with a man who took both himself and his role so seriously, I was overcome by a feeling of hopelessness.

That man was not untypical in not having read anything on the subject, with the exception of Humanae Vitae itself. A great deal of material emerged, in particular through the seventies, which was helpful: there were some fairly nuanced statements from the Vatican, documents from various episcopal conferences and volumes of theological opinion. Too many priests are lazy when it comes to study, and it is easier to accept and impose a simplistic version of the official position than to go to the bother of acquainting oneself with the complexities of a question.

On another occasion I remember a parish where the local priests gathered in the sacristy each evening to listen to the sermons given at the mission. One of them, in particular, was inclined to interpret official Church teaching rigidly and dogmatically. On the evening I had chosen to speak on the topic of birth control, I arranged with one of my fellow missioners that when I was getting to that part of the talk, he would generate a discussion on some aspect of the mission with the priests in the sacristy, to distract them from listening! It worked! By that stage we had got so weary of the arguments and of the intransigence of those who held the doctrinaire line that we always tried to avoid drawing them on us. In contrast there was a parish priest of a town in Kerry who took me aside quietly at the beginning of the mission and said to me: ‘You might be able to say something about birth control to ease peoples minds. It will be easier for you to say it than me. I would get into trouble! Just something simple in your own words, to tell them they are all right/ This man was obviously comfortable with the notion of married people making their own decisions in these very intimate areas of their lives but too frightened to make it known publicly. Again it is a sad comment on the sort of fear that operated at the time.

Some years ago, in an article in The Irish Times, Garret FitzGerald summed up a lot of what I have come to believe about the way the Church handled the issue of birth control. In the article he stated that the Church’s teaching on contraception had done great damage to its moral credibility. I quote:

The institutional Church lost virtually all moral credibility with the great majority of people – inside as well as outside the Catholic Church – by its insistence on elevating the issue of the possible impact of contraception on sexual mores to the level of an absolute that must take precedence over all other considerations – including the maintenance of normal relationships by many married couples, and in extreme cases the safety of a wife’s life.

This was the crucial aspect. It wasn’t, I believe, the teaching itself that was the problem but the fact that the teaching was so vehemently and dogmatically asserted that it overrode the normal pastoral practice of the Church. It was ultimately, as I have said above, a question of power. An immense power struggle developed between those who approved of Humanae Vitae and those who disagreed with it. In the struggle the people and their needs were lost sight of. They became, as the common people always do when the powers go to war, the pawns in the battle. I think the debate brought out everything that is bad about the Church as an institution. History will judge us very harshly on this one.

Dr FitzGerald also pointed out another very significant aspect of it:

Because the vast majority of clergy recognised the moral invalidity of the absolute ban on contraception, and were known by their flock to do so, the discip­linary requirement that the clergy pretend to accept this moral absolutism had forced them to appear hypocritical, thus undermining their credibility in other spheres of moral teaching.

That was, in my view, the worst effect of the whole thing. The Church lost credibility in the moral sphere at precisely the time when the moral fibre of the nation was under greatest threat. Now, when much more serious moral issues are at stake, such as abortion, euthanasia, marital infidelity, the decline of standards in public office and apparently massive corruption in the upper echelons of the financial world, our voice is hardly listened to. During all those years I was working a great deal with young people. It was almost impossible to have any sort of serious discussion with them on morality. They saw the Church as having interest in only one area of morality, i.e. sex, and having only one thing to say on it: No! No to everything. People generally say today that the Church lost credibility in recent years because of the scandals. Certainly the scandals have caused problems but the credibility had been lost twenty years ago on the issue of contraception. We showed ourselves to be out of touch with the reality of peoples lives, rigid in our imposition of the rules and, ultimately and most damagingly, uncaring.

Why did I stay with it through all those years, when so many of my contemporaries left? In a strange way it was a time when great good could be done by the priest. It was possible to lift enormous burdens from people’s shoulders. It was very satisfying to sit with people who had a problem in this area, to discuss it with them at an ordinary human level and help them to see the different issues involved and to assess them in their relative importance. A priest could relieve the minds of people at that level and restore again a normal, healthy, loving sexual relationship in marriages where sex had become so fraught with tension and fear of pregnancy on the one hand and Hell on the other, that the love was in danger of being crushed out entirely. It was great to see a person walking out with the burden lifted from them. The fact that the burden had been put there in the first place by the Church did make it all a bit difficult. Still there was a great sense of purpose and a feeling that some good was being done. I never felt at the time that I was being a rebel or disloyal to the Church in acting the way I did. So much theological opinion, particularly on the Continent and America, was on the side of this type of approach, and the episcopal statements of countries such as Canada and some of the European conferences were a great help. They gave us confidence that we were doing the right thing.

I do look back at that time as a period of serious failure of leadership on the part of the Irish Church. Our bishops held totally to the strictest version of the Vatican line, without any deviation. I know that some of them did not agree with it in private. Because Ireland is small and was at the time overwhelmingly Catholic and because the bishops are generally not too much out of touch with their priests, they must have known of the dreadful traumas that were going on in peoples lives over this. It would have taken some courage, though not a great deal, because, as I have said, many other bishops conferences around the world did so, to make a statement giving some pastoral guidelines on the issue that would have given priests some flexibility in their dealing with the question in confession. It never came; I presume the bishops were deeply divided among themselves. The moral theologians who remained silent must also take some share of the responsibility for the damage done.

Today the use of artificial means of birth control is much less of an issue in Irish life or among Irish Catholics. For someone to mention it in confession now is most unusual. The battle has been fought and won and lost although recently my belief that the issue is no longer a serious one for Irish Catholics was contradicted by a woman theologian I was listening to at a lecture. This woman lives in a very poor area of Dublin city and her view seemed to be that the morality of birth control is still a serious problem for poorer urban women. The middle classes, because they have the education and the access to information to enable them to do so, have come to their own conclusions and gone their own way. The poor, precisely because they don’t have easy access to education or information, cannot so readily come to the same decision. If this is the case, then it is a disturbing situation. It is yet another example of how the poor lose out. If the Church, like the state, is economical with the truth about something, the people most left in ignorance are the poor. I think it self-evident that the people who were most liable to suffer through an over-rigid interpretation of Humanae Vitae were the women of the poorer classes. Have we to conclude that a Church which is supposed to have a special concern for the poor and the weak is still oppressing them in this area?

The tragedy of the whole bitter controversy, I believe, is that with a bit of common sense and a willingness by the two factions within the Church to listen to each other, it need never have happened. And I am not sure that the lessons have been learned. The way that other issues are being dealt with in the Church today would seem to suggest that they have not: for instance, the difficulties imposed by second relationships where the first partner is still alive, and the reception of the sacraments by people in these relationships; and all the problems around aided human fertility, and especially in vitro fertilisation, which is becoming more common by the day. The same attitudes that were shown about birth control are developing in the Church around these issues. A rigid line is being held in public and something very different is happening in private. Nobody in the Church is admitting publicly that this is the case nor are there any official voices publicly encouraging the use of individual conscience. A massive pretence of unity and agreement is being presented. People today are not deceived. All that is needed to clear up the matter and restore some credibility to the Church is an honest and unambiguous explanation of the place that law and conscience play in the moral life, and their relationship to each other. When will we in the Church let go of the desire to control the lives of people and instead encourage in them the facility for freely chosen moral decisions?

Allowing for what I have just been saying, it is fairly clear now that the controversy around Humanae Vitae and birth control had some very significant and lasting effects on the Catholic Church both in Ireland and around the world. Thoughtful Catholics began to realise for the first time that the moral teaching of the Church was not an inflexible list of directives that had to be observed in their entirety and without question but that they could begin to exercise their conscience and make their own decisions about what aspects of them applied to the circumstances of their own particular lives. Having explored the issue of authority and conscience in this one area, they began to exercise it in all other aspects of the moral life. From that time on, the traditional power that the Church had held over its people was greatly weakened. Of course, this also coincided with a rapid decline in belief in Hell as it had been presented in the past. The moral sanction that had been powerfully contained in that teaching was now losing its grip.

The other very interesting effect was that the debate and division within the Church resulted in a degree of focus on the theology of marriage and a consequent development of it that had never happened before. The Church fought the battle on the basis that a married couple could use natural methods of regulating conception and in the course of the debate they emphasised more and more the effectiveness of these methods. In doing so they were conceding something crucial, something that Catholic theology had never con­ceded quite so publicly before, that sexual pleasure without the possibility of conception was permissible and good. In fact a whole theology about the goodness of sexual pleasure in marriage was increasingly emphasised. In conceding this so completely they were actually losing the battle by the very arguments they were using in trying to win it. The more people came to believe and accept that sexual pleasure was a good thing, the more difficult it became to convince them that they should be denied it. This also had a profound effect on priests. They found themselves, by the nature of the debate, forced to become immersed in the new theology of marriage and sexuality. For many this was very unsettling. They had accepted celibacy believing that it was a superior way of life, and that sex was largely sinful and part of the evil nature of the body. The notion that sexual pleasure was good, liberating, life-giving and even holy, as the new theology asserted, made it harder for them to convince themselves that their way of celibate life, with its self-denial and loneliness, was still worthwhile. So I suspect that by trying so hard to hold the line on contraception the Vatican unwittingly undermined the theology that was holding compulsory celibacy together.