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The disturbing politics behind the Church’s anti-contraceptive stand

In a previous post I mentioned that the real reason why the Roman Catholic Church is against contraceptives is Humanae Vitae, a 1968 encyclical written by Pope Paul VI insisting that sex must be kept open to the transmission of life. While the infallibility of such encyclicals may already be questionable to non-Catholics and even to liberal Catholics, what is more disturbing is how Humanae Vitae got promulgated even if the majority of the members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control 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“, as stated in the majority report:

The acceptance of a lawful application of the calculated sterile periods of the woman–that the application is legitimate presupposes right motives–makes a separation between the sexual act which is explicitly intended and its reproductive effect which is intentionally excluded.

Here the Commission acknowledges that even the “accepted” natural methods of birth control deliberately try to separate the unitive from the procreative purpose of sex.

The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention.

My understanding here is that there is no difference between “material conformity to the physiological processes of nature” (i.e., scheduling sex based on the wife’s fertility cycle to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant) and using contraceptives.

For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.

Whether by slipping a condom or counting the days since his wife’s last mentruation, man is using his skill to put nature under his control.

The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values.

The Commission is saying that what’s important is to distinguish between hedonistic sex and responsible family planning. In short, what matters is the intent, not the method.

Nevertheless, Pope Paul VI “explicitly rejected his commission’s recommendations in the text of Humanae Vitae, noting the 72 member commission had not been unanimous (4 theologian priests had dissented, and 1 cardinal and 2 bishops had voted that contraception was intrinsically evil–significantly Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission’s president and Bishop Colombo, the papal theologian).

But the real reason for Pope Paul’s rejection may be a lot more disturbing. In an article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao talked about a book titled Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church” written by an insider, Robert McClory. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an online version of the book and so I hope the readers will forgive me for quoting heavily from Tiglao’s article since contraception is a very hot issue today and the message couldn’t wait until I’ve read the book.

The overwhelming majority in the commission concluded that artificial birth control did not violate the Church’s teachings, and that Catholic couples should decide for themselves what methods to use. However, a Jesuit theologian wrote a dissenting report, signed by three other theologian-priests, a bishop and—this proved to be most crucial—by the ultra-conservative Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. It was Ottaviani who is said to have single-handedly convinced Pope Paul VI to reject the pro-contraceptive report signed by the 70-plus members of the commission, and instead adopt the dissenting report of just six members, that the Church should label artificial contraceptives as intrinsically evil.

Ottaviani was the most influential cardinal in the 1963 Papal Conclave, which elected as pope the bishop of Milan Giovanni Batista Montini, who assumed the name Paul VI. It was solely Ottaviani who was authorized to announce to the world the election of the new pope, whose Humanae Vitae encyclical set in stone the Church’s uncompromising stand against artificial.

The picture that emerges is as follows: Like all politicians, Ottaviani reminded Paul VI that he, indisputably the most powerful prince of the Church then, helped him become pope, so that he should therefore take his advice to reject the commission’s majority report. Pope Paul VI gave in, thinking that the Second Vatican Council was the more important battle, instead of contraceptive use, which wasn’t after all, a burning issue at that time. Ottaviani’s “Semper idem” abhorrence of contraceptives became the Church dogma, and succeeding popes never dared reverse a predecessor’s encyclical.

Ottaviani passed away in 1979, and his ultra-conservative bloc in the Church that wanted it to remain in the medieval world view weakened to insignificance. His legacy—or his curse—lives on though, most prominently in our country.

And that, my friends, is how all this mess began. The Church teaches that Humanae Vitae as well as every other Catholic dogma is infallible because it comes from divine revelation as the Holy Spirit descends on the pope. It seems now that such dogma had been conceived with less spirit and more politics, to the detriment not only of the faithful, but the rest of the Filipinos.

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