Back to the Future in 1968: Rahner on Humanae Vitae and the Present Ateneo Dissent

In September 1968 issue of the America magazine, Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J. summarized the views of his fellow Jesuit, Karl Rahner S.J., published in Stimmen der Zeit, on the then recently published encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae.  The summary is long, but two points struck me:

In the first place, Rahner points out that Human Life cannot reasonably be considered irreformable doctrine. But this does not mean that it may be ignored. Since Catholics believe that the magisterium ordinarily operates under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the presumption should be in favor of the Pope’s declaration. Any such presumption, however, must also allow of the possibility that a Catholic can arrive at a carefully formed and critically tested conviction that in a given case the fallible magisterium has in fact erred. Nobody today denies that there are cases in which official, reformable teaching of the Holy See has in fact been erroneous. As examples, Rahner cites the views of Gregory XVI and Pius IX on liberal democracy, and various statements about the Bible issued in the aftermath of the Modernist crisis. It cannot therefore be assumed that a Catholic who conscientiously opposes the non-infallible doctrine of the magisterium, as it stands at a given moment, is necessarily disloyal. (In this connection an American Catholic might think of the long struggle of John Courtney Murray to obtain revision of certain papal pronouncements on Church-State relations.)

In the present case, Rahner continues, the complexity of the issue is such that no one opposed to the encyclical can claim absolute certainty for his own stand. But it is normal and inevitable that some should be unable to accept the pope’s doctrine. The encyclical, although it claims to be an interpretation of the natural law, does not in fact give very persuasive intrinsic arguments. The encyclical seems to look on human nature as something static and closed–not open to modification by free and responsible human decision. But for some time many moral theologians have been teaching that what is distinctive to human nature, as distinct from plant and animal life, is precisely man’s power to modify his own nature according to the demands of a higher good. The pope, in fact, seems to allow for a measure of rational manipulation of human fertility in permitting the practice of rhythm and the use of the “pill” to regularize the menstrual cycle. Undoubtedly this differs somewhat from the use of the pill for directly contraceptive purposes, but in some instances the distinction is so subtle that many will regard it as hair-splitting. Since a notable majority of the Papal Commission is known to have come out against the position later taken in the encyclical, one can hardly expect the majority of Catholics to find the reasoning of Human Life convincing.

Rahner’s arguments are echoed weeks ago when 69 (ominous number) professors of Ateneo de Manila University signed a petition in support of the Reproductive Health Bill, in defiance to the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines who insist on fidelity to Humanae Vitae:

As Catholic educators, Racelis said it was incumbent upon them to teach their students that the RH bill was not “immoral” as the Church claims.

“We respect the consciences of our bishops when they promote natural family planning as the only moral means of contraception. In turn, we ask our bishops to respect the one in three [35.6 percent] married Filipino women who, in their most secret core and sanctuary or conscience, have decided that their and their family’s interests would best be served by using a modern artificial means of contraception,” they said. (Manila Standard Today, 29 Oct 2008)

See the similarities? After 40 years, the seeds of dissent Rahner sowed in 1968 reaped 69-fold .  That is,

  1. Papal encyclicals are fallible documents.
  2. Catholics can disobey them without being disloyal.

Infallibility is defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia as follows:

  1. Infallibility means more than exemption from actual error; it means exemption from the possibility of error;
  2. It does not require holiness of life, much less imply impeccability in its organs; sinful and wicked men may be God’s agents in defining infallibly;
  3. The validity of the Divine guarantee is independent of the fallible arguments upon which a definitive decision may be based, and of the possibly unworthy human motives that in cases of strife may appear to have influenced the result. It is the definitive result itself, and it alone, that is guaranteed to be infallible, not the preliminary stages by which it is reached.

Furthermore, the Catholic Encyclopedia continued, in Session IV, cap. 4 of Vatican Council I, it is defined that the Roman pontiff when he teaches ex cathedra “enjoys, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith and morals”.

Was Pope Paul VI making a definitive statement as Vicar of Christ when he declares the evil nature of contraception? Let us listen to Pope Paul VI’s words in Humanae Vitae:

The Magisterium’s Reply

6. However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed, and especially because certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.

Consequently, now that We have sifted carefully the evidence sent to Us and intently studied the whole matter, as well as prayed constantly to God, We, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, intend to give Our reply to this series of grave questions.

So as Aragorn said in the Last Debate before the assault on the Black Gates of Mordor:

We come now to the very brink, where hope and despair are akin. To waver is to fall. Let none now reject the counsels of Gandalf, whose long labors against Sauron come at last to their test.

Let us heed then the counsel of Pope Paul VI and reject the melodious music of Rahner the Wise.  Let us reject contraception.  Let us reject the Reproductive Health Bill.

If it is the Pill they clamor for, then a Pill must be given–the Pill that brought many souls back to the Catholic Faith, the Pill that sent the Roman Emperor Theodosius begging for pardon before the doors of the Church of Milan under St. Ambrose: Anathema Sit. If they do not wish to listen to the Church, then they must be excluded from the Church, and sent outside in the darkness where they will wail and gnash their teeth until they repent and pay the last penny.

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About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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