Sex and the Church


This Saturday, there will be an important conference on sexual morality and contraception, featuring both the Archbishops of Toronto and Ottawa, at St. Michael’s College on the campus of the University of Toronto. Ho-hum.

Pope Paul VI

Catholic bishops support Catholic teaching -- that's hardly a headline. But something deeper is going on which, among other things, casts light on the different paths taken by Catholics and Protestants in the 20th century.

The general view is that contraception is one of those peculiarly Catholic things not worth getting excited about because no one pays attention anyway. Catholic intransigence notwithstanding, everyone agrees that contraception is a good thing, like indoor plumbing and automobiles.

Perhaps so, but that's a relatively recent development in the life of the Christian Church. At the beginning of the 20th century, all Christians were agreed with the ancient and constant teaching that making conjugal acts deliberately infertile was immoral. The conclusion was that while not all sex leads to babies, the deliberate attempt to separate sex from babies would break a natural bond designed by God, and loosen the link between sex and marriage and, eventually, sex and love.

The Anglicans changed their teaching in favour of contraception in 1930 and most Protestants followed suit. Pope Pius XI protested himself in 1930, but many expected that the Catholics would eventually catch up. So when in 1968 Pope Paul VI restated the constant teaching of the Church going back to the apostles, there was surprise.

Actually, all hell broke loose. Pope Paul faced mockery in the culture at large, incredulity from other Christians and widespread dissent from his own Catholic flock. Even the Canadian Catholic bishops expressed their reservations.

Canadian Catholic bishops now enthusiastically teach what their predecessors dissented from in 1968. Moreover, they issued a joint letter in September called Liberating Potential -- treating the teaching on married love and contraception not as a burden to be overcome, but an invitation to the grandeur of sexual love that is total, faithful, fruitful and enduring. Saturday's conference is another step in that direction.

In 1968, few thought that Pope Paul VI's words would be remembered, let alone celebrated 40 years on. Instead, the old pope's teaching has proved remarkably fecund.

So what happened? In 1968, at the height of the sexual revolution, it was unlikely that any restatement of the moral tradition would have been well received. But the 40 years since have added an empirical argument to the moral analysis. Paul VI predicted that a culture of contraception would lead specifically to (a) widespread infidelity and lowering of moral standards, (b) men losing respect for women in their "totality" and treating them as objects for pleasure, (c) the imposition of involuntary contraceptive and sterilization campaigns on the poor of the world and (d) an attitude of technological domination of the body that would lead to an erosion of human dignity. In a culture awash in sexual liaisons of the most casual kind, with pornography saturating the Internet, marriages down, divorce commonplace, serial cohabitation frequent, abortion widespread and relations between the sexes just as fraught as ever -- to say nothing of massive human rights violations throughout the developing world in the name of population control -- the human debris of the sexual revolution might just be more open to listing to the ancient Christian moral tradition.

The renewed confidence of Catholic bishops is also related to developments among Protestants. News of further division in the Anglican world reverberates throughout the Christian world. Once the principle is embraced that it is morally licit to deliberately separate sex from the possibility of procreation, then it follows inevitably that conjugal life need not be ordered to any inherent purpose, but can be directed toward other, or any, ends.

It is less than a century from Lambeth 1930 to Lambeth 2008, but the Anglican bishops gathered this summer were occupied with the same essential question, even if the issue today is homosexuality. Many Catholic bishops who have watched the Protestant mainline accept divorce, abortion and homosexuality on the moral front, and loosen traditional beliefs on the doctrinal front, have concluded that the key division occurred over contraception.

In 1968, few thought that Pope Paul VI's words would be remembered, let alone celebrated 40 years on. Instead, the old pope's teaching has proved remarkably fecund.



Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Sex and the Church." National Post, (Canada) November 13, 2008.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2008 National Post

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