The Gospel Truth

Dead Certainties

April 6, 2015

I was intrigued by Simon Schama 1992 book, Dead Certainties. His title reminded me of my posts Uncertain Truths I & II. Schama surmised that even historical facts are not a 100% reliable.  Historians constantly argue over the meaning of the “facts.”

Since historians are to history what theologians are to theology. can the same unreliability be also as true of theology?

Theologians, who are the gatekeepers of faith and tradition, often  contradict each other. It falls to the Church magisterium, primarily the Pope to keep Church teachings on a steady and reliable course.

Since the magisterium is composed of human and not divine beings error, politics and guile often come into play. While the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church, its ways may not be that obvious or even understandable to the human intellect.   God may have some more mysterious purposes for even the turmoil and dissention that periodically afflicts His Church.

In modern times, supernatural issues do not offer any cause for concern.

But the mundane affairs of public and private morality, which ebb and flow with changes in the culture that supports them, can seriously divide the faithful.

I am not saying that there are no absolutes in the 10 Commandments but that each one elicits discussion and can change with further and deeper understanding.

The most overt of these is Thou shalt kill.   According to my 1963 college ethics book, which had the official seal of the Church—the Imprimatur–there were three exceptions to the rule–a just war, self-defense and the death penalty.

Most moral laws and arguments are founded on what might be analogized to a geometric theorem. In Geometry you have to start with a given in order to built a logical formula that makes what follows true and unassailable. Overturn the theorem and the formula collapses like a House of Cards.

The death penalty serves as the best example of the nature of a changing and even an evolving faith.   Saint John Paul II cast serious doubt on the efficacious use of the death penalty as a mode of self-defense in his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae.   He said that the situation did not exist where a state needed the death penalty to protect itself.

During a discussion in Bible study on another papal encyclical, one man stated emphatically that the pope’s encyclicals had to be taken seriously because they were not opinions but the teachings of the Church.

Many in the Church go so far as to assume that encyclicals are protected under the mantle of infallibility.

John Paul II did not offer any concrete evidence or rationale, scientific, moral or otherwise to support his change in the traditional understanding of a valid Church teaching on the death penalty.

Catholic writer and attorney, Helen Alvarre provided an insight to the future saint’s thinking during a talk I attended at St. Louis University on the eve of the pope’s visit to St. Louis in 1998. She said, He just didn’t like to see anyone die. This sounded like a personal opinion to me.

Since traditionalists are still free to believe in the death penalty, I guess we are all Cafeteria Catholics now!

The empirical data generally supports the death penalty as a deterrent. In the dozen years the death penalty was federally outlawed in all 50 states, the murder rate skyrocketed. Thousands of innocent victims died because of its absence.

Another teaching that has been under fire for over a half century has been the Church’s ban on artificial contraception. Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae inspired a widespread protest among millions of Catholic married couples that hurt the Church in many ways.

The background history that led to the pope’s unpopular decision is as compelling as it is sad.   The Church has been extremely consistent in this teaching, dating back to early Church history. However John T. Noonan’s 1965 book, Contraception, proved that most of its Biblical roots, such as the reliance on Onan, who had wasted his seed was a distortion of its Biblical meaning.

The Church has also relied on some of the teachings of the Stoics, who believed intercourse unlawful except for the purpose of creating children. The Stoics also condemned intercourse for pleasure because of an erroneous belief that during intercourse, but not otherwise, the female emitted a seed containing a soul.

This is the same kind of Manichean thinking that fueled the twisted thought of Augustine on sex and marriage.

The contraception ban has also relied on the natural law. According to another source I consulted, the Natural Law Theory of the Stoics, focused strictly on the sexual appetites and instincts of animals who mindlessly copulated singularly for procreation without any moral component.

Marital relations are far more complicated and run on a different plane than that of the mostly promiscuous animal kingdom.

With the appearance of the first oral contraceptives in 1960, many in the Church argued for a reconsideration of the Church’s historical positions. Neither John XXIII nor his successor Paul VI wanted the almost three thousand bishops and other clerics in Rome for Vatican II to address the birth control issue even though many of these bishops expressed their desire to bring this pressing pastoral issue before the Council.  Why?

In 1963 Pope John XXIII established a commission of six European non-theologians to study questions of birth control and population. After John’s death in 1963, Pope Paul VI added theologians to the commission and over three years expanded it to 72 members from five continents. The make-up included 16 theologians, 13 physicians and five women without medical credentials and an executive committee of 16 bishops, including seven cardinals.

Over several years the original members of the commission had considered and weighed carefully the relevant theological, sociological and psychological evidence.

A preliminary vote of the inclusive body showed an unofficial tally showed 52 to 4 in favor of reform with two abstentions.   Despite the fact that the pope stacked the commission with 15 cardinals, archbishops and bishops as official members for the final week of discussion, the high-level prelates reportedly voted 9 to 3 with three abstentions that the use of contraceptives was not intrinsically evil.

The Commission’s 1966 Majority Report proposed that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed. According to this report, use of contraceptives should be regarded as an extension of the already accepted rhythm method.

Especially important in changing commission members’ minds was an important survey Patty and Patrick Crowley did of the members of their Catholic Family Movement. The CFM members reported movingly how the rhythm method did not work for them and how it was inhibiting intimacy and hurting their marriages.

It is my belief, despite of the revolutionary nature of St. John Paul’s The Theology of the Body that the Church leadership does not understand the importance of marital intimacy and comfort in helping couples weather the many storms that flow naturally from such a relationship.  Sexual relations are often the metaphysical glue that holds marriages together.

The Commission also produced a minority report which argued If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930.

It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect… the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error… had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. (Pius XI— Castii Canubii)

The commission’s majority report, which was intended to be kept secret, was leaked to and published in the National Catholic Reporter in 1967. A year later, amidst widespread expectations, Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the church’s official ban on all forms of artificial contraception.

It is arguable that the die had already been cast just by the very fact of the Pope’s calling for a special commission, which created a reasonable doubt in the minds of millions of married couples. This should have relegated the issue to the private consciences of the faithful.

To hide behind the rubric of Infallibility is troubling because it ignores the facsimile of doubt it created from the very beginning. To date only a handful of papal statements have publicly been declared to be infallible… and only two of them after 1870 when Infallibility became part of Church dogma.

The Vatican also contributed to this situation by failing to fully inform the faithful which issues had been infallibly settled and which ones still bore the possibility of fallibility and change.

In 2013 Catholic writer Frank Maurovich, founding editor of The Catholic Voice relates his personal story of a 1964 interview with Dr. Thomas Hayes, a biophysicist working for the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.  Hayes believed he had a viable solution for the Church’s birth control dilemma.

Hayes underscored the biological fact that randomness in human intercourse differs radically from animal behavior whose biological drive occurs during specific times to perpetuate the species. Quite bluntly humans, especially men, are always in heat!

Marital relations serve another purpose beyond procreation, namely as expressions of love, joy, healing and mutual support. The conjugal act is not the act of one, but of two. And so, we cannot say that every conjugal act is open to generation. Once we learned that the breach was made…he concluded!

In Hayes’ understanding the probabilistic nature (of procreation) is due to the random spacing of the individual acts of intercourse rather than any probability within each act of sexual intercourse itself.   As a result he concludes it does not then depend on the direct fecundity of each and every particular act.

This answers the question many young married pose: Why does every marital act have to be open to pregnancy?

Logic, according to Hayes, dictates that if a married couple purposely interferes with the randomness of sexual acts, even in the rhythm method or what is called today, Natural Family Planning, they have transformed by an act of will what was a random natural act to a human act at a specific time in order to avoid conception. Thus he concludes that all forms of contraception should be permissible.

Hayes’ arguments do not support nor lead to the philosophy of Planned Parenthood.   His article comes to the same conclusion as the commission’s final report that the church’s constant teaching holds that each marriage should be fruitful and couples should avoid a contraceptive mentality that is, avoiding childbirth for selfishness, convenience or material gain.

Hayes also pointed out that the church had already approved the use of the rhythm method. If this approval has relied upon biological naturalness to distinguish rhythm from other contraceptive methods, it would now seem possible for the church to extend its approval to all contraceptive methods of birth control (provided, of course, husband and wife have serious reasons for limiting births in their family).

The possibility of acceptance by the church of all contraceptive methods of birth control has come about not by any change in moral principles but by the application of a more accurate picture of human reproduction as reported by current biological concepts.

It should go without saying that this principle does not include abortifacients, which are not contraceptives but work after a conception.

Could Hayes’ randomness when coupled with Onan and the Stoics view of animal biology lead to the dissolution of the historical theorem that created the ban on artificial contraception?

In my opinion it seems that more evidence exists for a modification in this teaching than Saint John Paul II offered for in virtually eliminating the death penalty.

With regard to the Church’s loss of face on infallibility since most people do not even understand a doctrine that the Church has done little to fully explain and has virtual kept locked up in the Vatican vault, I think that loss would be minimal.  Widespread dissent and disobedience to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical has already done its damage to the Papacy.

I also think that any blowback would pale by comparison as to how the Church has bungled the Pederasty Scandal.  To me this is far a more serious challenge to the Church’s integrity than any pill.

If Pope Francis truly wants to be the pope of hope and healing this would be an excellent issue for him to fully address.

About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at