The spirit of Vatican II fades into history

Bishop Michael Cote of the Diocese of Norwich and his episcopal colleagues have made a mockery of religious freedom ("Religious liberty, the first freedom," op-ed, April 4). Follow the logic.

The Creator, according to the bishops, has impressed on every soul of good conscience that artificial contraception is immoral. If confirmation is needed, check with the pope. Hence, a conscience that approves of contraception is ill formed, and church leaders must reject insurance coverage for these immoral procedures. They further declare it an infringement on religious freedom to deny bishops the right to deny others the right to their freedom of conscience. Yes, the fathers of Vatican II were misguided in declaring conscience to be the highest moral principle, because it will always be true that "error has no rights." End of discussion.

Not quite. You see, the foundation supporting the immorality of artificial birth control rests on sand. It derives from a flawed teleology - what moralists call physicalism or biologism. This makes a virtue of unrestricted procreation and takes little account of what is a profound expression of intimacy and conjugal love. It ignores the suffering of countless families burdened with children they are unable to support, the devastation of AIDS, critical overpopulation. It has been rejected by virtually all moral theologians.

Some important historical context.

At the second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII formed a Pontifical Commission to revisit birth control. His successor, Paul VI, enlarged the commission to 68 to include not only bishops, pastors, and theologians but also married couples, psychologists, and other marriage professionals. The overwhelming majority concluded in its report that the ban should be lifted.

A separate recommendation, solicited by Pope Paul, was prepared by a man he much admired, Albino Luciani, Cardinal Patriarch of Venice. Luciani had earned a reputation as a caring pastor with firsthand knowledge of the anguish caused by the Vatican ban. Although his report would make a strong case for lifting it, a timid Paul would yield to pressures from hardliners and leave the ban in place.

Albino Luciani was to become Pope John Paul I, succeeding Paul VI. From his many conversations on the subject, many still believe that one of his early initiatives would have been the reversal of Paul's decision on birth control. But on the 33rd day of his papacy, before having a chance to implement any of his plans, John Paul I was dead. His successors would ensure that all his initiatives for reform would be interred with him.

If John XXIII and John Paul I were alive today, they would be saddened to see the reforms of Vatican II consigned to the ash heap of history. They would find the promise of episcopal collegiality and attentiveness to the voice of the faithful replaced with renewed authoritarianism. They would mourn the condemnation in all but name of liberation theology, which was to become the mind and heart of a new church.

Today, while the bishops are busy warning us about bad sex, the Republicans are trying to shred already frayed social safety nets - this in the spirit of the Gospel according to Paul Ryan. It takes a rebuke to the bishops by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and a declaration from 60 leading Catholic theologians and social justice leaders to shame the bishops into a response. When the Republicans reject a universal right to health care, the bishops give us a blitz of editorials about religious freedom.

The ultimate scandal is episcopal silence on the violence and war addiction that are corroding America's soul, just as they fuel terrorist revenge. Drone strikes that have killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians are a daily occurrence. Do our bishops also pretend that it is just "collateral damage," as if "jus in bello" were irrelevant? While tax dollars for life-giving social programs are diverted to death-dealing weapons, the faithful are asked to pray for peace.

For every new member of the Catholic Church there are four who defect. To begin stanching the flow our bishops must take the lead in refocusing the church on the central message of the Gospel, which has very little to say about genital morality and even less about blind obedience to an ecclesiastical monarch.

The author, a retired professor of information systems at Mass. College of Liberal Arts, lives in Waterford.

lives in Waterford.


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