Rorate Caeli

Op-Ed - The President of the Catholic University of America is totally wrongheaded in his comparison of Humanae Vitae and Pope Francis

by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla, PhD, DPhil (Oxon)

CUA campus in Washington, D.C.
It is indeed a good thing when a president of a Catholic University takes the time to write an Op-Ed piece for a Catholic news agency.  John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America is the author of such a piece, his monthly column for Catholic News Service, that was recently published in the Arlington Catholic Herald, among other diocesan paper.  The Op-Ed piece is titled “One, holy, Catholic”.  In this editorial he expresses his deep concern over what he sees as division in the Church between those he calls “progressives” and “traditionalists”.   I share Garvey’s concern over the divisions in the Church, but I believe that the lens through which he sees the problem distorts and makes impossible to understand what the real conflict in the Church is about. 

Garvey reminds us that this summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae and the statement of dissent by a significant group of theologians, all from the United States.  Garvey claims that the Pope Paul VI’s upholding the Traditional teaching of the Catholic Church against those theologians who wanted that teaching changed provoked “an unprecedented crisis of authority in the American Catholic Church.”  I would ask Garvey to remember in the first place that there is no American Catholic Church.  There is the Catholic Church in America, or much better still, in the United States.  He summarizes what has happened in the past fifty years in this way:

Abortion and sterilization are commonplace. Artificial birth control has opened “wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”. Governments favor “those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective…(and) may even impose their use on everyone”.

Garvey then says: “In 1968 the pope’s critics envisioned a different future”.  What was that future that the dissident theologians envisioned?  What did they think the future of marriage and sexual morality would be like once the sexual intercourse was cut off from both the natural biological purpose of the act and the basic understanding of sexual intercourse in a Catholic marriage, when that act was cut off from the possibility of new life, that possibility that prevents that intimate act from being merely an act of closed-in selfishness?

In a somewhat curious defense of the dissidents, Garvey tells us that the statement of dissent  “generously” (!) acknowledged that the pope had a “distinct role” in the Church. This sounds like what Anglicans believe about the Archbishop of Canterbury, a primus inter pares, someone who comes last in the procession, but with no doctrinal authority at all.  The “distinct role” of the Pope in matters of doctrine is clearly defined by both the First and Second Vatican Councils. 

One of the reasons for the crisis of authority in the Church for the past fifty years and which has deepened in this pontificate is because of the creeping hyper-papalism and papolotry of the last century that continues even today.  Blessed John Henry Newman feared that a definition of papal infallibility, which doctrine he personally believed and understood it as an example of the development of dogma, would be misunderstood and would become a source of great mischief in the Church.  It turned out the that definition of the dogma of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I is quite narrow and circumspect in defining the charism of infallibility given by Christ to the successors of Peter, on which Rock Christ built his Church. That Paul VI thought that he had the authority as pope to ban the Roman Mass of Tradition and to impose on the Church a liturgy of New-Church that was discontinuous with the Roman Rite of Tradition, which was not the product of organic development but rather a product of the same crowd who undermined Paul VI on Humanae Vitae:  this is the heart of the crisis.  Nearly 80% of Catholics went regularly to Mass in 1960.  Now in my diocese, which is typical, the percentage is down to below 20%.  Not much to figure out here, unless one believes that the Holy Spirit thought that too many people were going to Mass before the imposition of the Novus Ordo.

The dissenters claim that Humanae Vitae was not an infallible teaching was simply stated with no explanation.  It would have been helpful and interesting to have a theological discussion about Humanae Vitae in terms of the definition of papal infallibility in both Vatican Councils.  But surely the more important issue is not whether the statement was “infallible” but rather was it true, true in the sense of being consonant with what the Church has always believed. 

But that discussion was not of any interest to those theologians drunk with the advent of New-Church that was part of the 1960s.  The chutzpah of that dissident group to claim for themselves, with no foundation in Catholic teaching, “the special responsibility of evaluating…pronouncements of the magisterium in the light of the total theological data.” What in the world is theological data?  Would Aquinas see the Summa as theological data to correct the Church’s teaching, as something that could be used to oppose the role of the Pope as the guardian of the Tradition of the Apostles from its foundation  before the writing of the New Testament to its Spirit led development for 2000 years?  The role of the Catholic theologian is to expound the Catholic faith in a faithful and humble manner and in a way that makes the Faith relevant to the world in which Catholics now live.  They are not to be those whom St. Paul describes in his Second Letter to Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires”.

Garvey makes an analogy between the crisis of authority in 1968 and that same crisis today precipitated by precipitated by the current pope.  He quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson about a case before him in the Supreme Court:  “the parties (have) changed positions as nimbly as if dancing a quadrille”. Garvey uses this quote to make the following point: Because the “progressives” did not like Paul VI’s decision to uphold the Traditional teaching on birth control, they challenged his authority.  Now the “traditionalists” are questioning Pope Francis’ authority because they do not like what he is saying about social and moral issues.

This political analogy is totally wrongheaded and makes it impossible to see what the crisis is really about.  The crisis in the Church for the past fifty years is a crisis of faith. There is a crisis of authority because of the crisis of faith.  Garvey makes an appeal to “unity”, using quite admirably to that sense of unity that was always so strong in his own family.

My father used to remind us that keeping the family together is a really important thing, valuable in itself. He would appeal to family unity in times of division. It was a reason for tolerating unfairness and even unjust treatment.

But the center of the unity of the Church is not the pope, certainly not theologians, or anyone else but the very person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, who died on the Cross to save us from our sins.  It is He who declared that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him.  To assert and believe this does not mean that one comes to conclusions like there is no salvation outside of the visible Catholic Church, for God’s love is not hindered by boundaries of any sort.   But it does mean that there is an “exclusivity” embedded in the Christian faith.  But this does mean that this exclusivity that is at the very heart of our faith goes contrary in the deepest sense to the secular world we live in and the ego-centric society in which we live.  And that clash that threatens to destroy unity even within a family Jesus clearly foresaw in quite stark and clear terms.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.  He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt. 10:34-11:1)

This is indeed one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, those hard sayings that are avoided like the plague in the current rehash of the 1960s that plagues the Church. What this means is that those entrusted with the passing on of the Catholic and Apostolic faith can never fudge the ultimate seriousness of what is at stake nor cloak the difficulty of leading a Catholic life in a conception of mercy that Bonhoeffer would link to “cheap grace”.

Garvey quotes the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “God does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals…(but) together as one people.” That is true and obvious.  But the fact remains that when I die I will face Christ as my Judge alone and naked.  I will not be judged as the People of God but as Richard Gennaro Cipolla with his particular sins and grievous failings.  The romanticism of the People of God will count for little.  I will stand there as a sinner and will be judged as a member of the One, Holy and Catholic and Apostolic Church founded by my Judge, and I will stand there in the sure presence of the Mercy of God bought by Jesus Christ on His Cross.