On key issue, many break with doctrine

Birth Control

April 10, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The outpouring of grief for Pope John Paul II reflects the extraordinary admiration and love that Roman Catholics feel for their Holy Father. But, as the pope noted, loving a father is not the same as obeying him.

On the key issue of artificial birth control, a large majority of Catholics in the United States, Europe and many developing countries have broken with the pontiff and the church's longstanding ban on contraception.

There is perhaps no other central teaching that so many Catholics have rejected in belief and practice. It is an issue the next pope surely will have to confront - most urgently on the narrow question of allowing condoms to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about the Catholic Church's doctrine on artificial contraception incorrectly quoted the Rev. Lawrence P. Adamczyk as stating that Catholics who use artificial birth control are committing a "grave sin." In fact, Adamczyk said it was a "grave matter" that would only be considered a "mortal sin" if the person violated the ban with full knowledge of Church teaching and consent.

More than three-quarters of Catholics in the United States say the church should allow the use of artificial birth control, according to a recent Gallup Poll. And millions ignore the ban every day.

One of them is Linda S. Pieczynski, a national spokeswoman for Call to Action, the nation's largest Catholic reform organization. The mother of three girls says she has always used artificial birth control. "I've read everything I could, and I don't really believe in my conscience that I'm sinning," she says.

She's wrong, according to traditionalists such as the Rev. Lawrence P. Adamczyk, associate pastor at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Catholic couples who choose artificial birth control are committing a grave sin, he says, and when it is committed with full knowledge and full consent, it is a mortal sin.

"People who die in a state of mortal sin suffer eternal separation from God, which we would call hell," he said.

But surveys and birth rate statistics show that many Catholics reject that view. Italy, which is 97 percent Catholic and the seat of the Vatican, has the lowest birthrate in Europe, and that rate has declined since Pope John Paul II was elevated in 1978.

Even in Latin America, where the church is far more conservative than in the United States and Europe, there is evidence that birth control is widely accepted. Surveys commissioned by Catholics for a Free Choice have found that 87 percent of Catholics in Colombia believe a person can use artificial contraception and still be a "good Catholic." More than 80 percent in Mexico and Bolivia agreed.

In Brazil, 70 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age said they have used modern contraception.

But even for Catholic birth control advocates, this is old news. "The issue is long-since solved, and nobody talks about it," said the Rev. Charles E. Curran, a Catholic priest and professor of human values at Southern Methodist University.

Modern Catholic teaching on birth control has its roots in a 1951 encyclical by Pope Pius XII, who condemned artificial contraceptives as a violation of natural and divine law.

In 1965, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to revisit the issue. In a report to Pope John's successor, Pope Paul VI, the panel of theologians, priests, bishops, cardinals and laypeople concluded that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil, and proposed that Catholics be allowed to decide the issue for themselves.

`Constant doctrine'

But Pope Paul rejected the proposal. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae ("On Human Life" ), he reasserted the Church's "constant doctrine" that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life." He also affirmed the co-equal and inseparable "unitive" aspect of the sex act as an expression of conjugal love and unity.

Objections to Humanae vitae from church dissenters were immediate. The day after it appeared, a group of 80 American theologians (hundreds more later signed on) argued that the encyclical's reasoning was faulty. They said it considered only the sex act, to the exclusion of the relationships between the people involved.

Among the dissenters was SMU's Curran, who argued that Humanae vitae was a "moral teaching" that has not been declared infallible. Under church doctrine, when there is "sufficient reason," and after searching their consciences, people can depart from official teaching and still be loyal Catholics, he said.

Curran was condemned by the church for his outspokenness and eventually lost his teaching job at Catholic University.

Pope John Paul II, who referred to sexual expression as "the language of love," reinforced that doctrine and stated that all forms of artificial contraception are intrinsically evil because they interfere with the transmission of life and the total and "reciprocal self-giving" required of married couples. (Sex outside of marriage, of course, remains forbidden.)

Today, Curran argues, the official ban on contraception has more to do with maintaining church authority than affirming life. "It has nothing to do with birth control. It's `if we admit we're wrong here, we would have to admit we might be wrong on other issues.' They're terribly worried about the slippery slope."

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