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Birth Control Contretemps Drove Many Away from the Church's Dishonesty

"I believe the Catholic Church betrayed the collective wisdom of Vatican II
Volume 31, Issue 4,5 & 6, May 30, 2017

John T. Shields, Victoria (continued from Spring 2017 edition of Island Catholic News)

     The literal interpretation of Scripture was broadly accepted throughout Christendom. Infallibility was like an insurance policy against dissent. If he acknowledged that the Church not only misunderstood the intention of the authors of Genesis, but also had declared an article of faith for all Christians that had no biblical foundation, the Pope would have faced a strong rebellion by the Cardinals of the Curia. 
     He would have been torn between the Ecumenical Council’s new teaching, which he had personally promulgated at the end of Vatican II, and admitting that the Catholic Church had unwittingly fallen prey to serious error. He must have realized that it was a no win situation for him. It would have taken courage to open that debate in the Church. He opted to ignore the teaching of Vatican II.
     Unwilling to admit that the church had blundered in the fifth century and knowing that such an admission would cause great upheaval in the Church, possibly doing irreconcilable damage to his church, he employed all his great resources to squelch the import of the Council teaching. In his prologue to the new creed Pope Paul gave his reason for obfuscation. 
     He wrote, “… the greatest care must be taken, while fulfilling the indispensable duty of research, to do no injury to the teachings of Christian doctrine. For that would be to give rise, as is unfortunately seen in these days, to disturbance and perplexity in many faithful souls.”
     The strategy he employed to insure that the newly illuminated understanding of Genesis as it applied to the Original Sin was a diversion to redirect attention elsewhere that would inflict great damage to the lives of countless millions of conscientious Catholics. Moreover it would ruin the careers of theologians and biblical scholars. The Credo of the People of God had the affect of repudiating the truth uncovered by Catholic biblical scholars and threw cold water on half a century of impeccable research.
     Paul did not formally reject the Council’s teaching, but ignored it. Quickly, he silenced the theologians who were teaching the biblical insight. Any teacher who didn’t agree to be silent was removed from his or her chair at Church universities. To ensure that the Church’s past mistake did not come to full public awareness he announced another surprise decision that deeply disturbed many of the faithful. 
     Less than a month after, on July 25, 1968, he issued his long awaited encyclical on birth control. For months the Catholic world was abuzz with rumours that the Pope would ease the Church’s condemnation of birth control. A commission initially appointed by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and expanded by Paul VI had recommended to him that artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil. 
     Copies of the report had been leaked to the press. However, Paul stunned the Catholic world in his Encyclical Humanae Vitae. He reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of all forms of contraception. The reaction among laity everywhere was deep anguish.
     The international media coverage produced front-page news. The decision set off a firestorm of protest and derision across North America and beyond. In my parish in Austin, Texas the phones rang constantly expressing anger and distress. 
     We heard from the callers that couples felt they must choose between their conjugal happiness and their membership in the Church. The use of contraception for family planning was decreed to be an ongoing state of mortal sin. There wasn’t any praise for the Pope. But the outcry was not focussed on the Church’s error or the failure of infallibility.
     At the time I did not make the connection between the Pope’s rejection of one of the principal teachings of the keystone documents of Vatican II, The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation and the implications for Original Sin, and Humanae Vitae. The former was like a stake through the heart of the integrity of the Church. The latter struck me as a cruel disregard of its pastoral mission.
     The bishop of Austin had required that every parish read a letter from him that directed Catholic couples to strictly obey the Pope’s condemnation of contraceptives on pain of sin. On the following Monday I was called to his office. He not only rebuked me for preaching about freedom of conscience, but threatened to throw the Paulist Fathers out of his diocese for my insolent defiance of his decree.
     I tried to remind the bishop that one of the most important affirmations of the Council was the Declaration on Religious Freedom. In this document the Council Fathers, his fellow bishops, affirmed:
     “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God.”(Para 3)
     The bishop’s threat to deny the Eucharist to people who conscientiously follow the dictates of their conscience to preserve the conjugal foundation of their sacramental marriage, goes directly against Dignitatis Humanae. Vatican II condemns the use of threats and coercion to compel anyone to act against their conscience. 
     He was most upset by my argument that adult Christians had a responsibility to weigh the papal teaching against the implications of potentially destroying married life. While most couples that called the rectory confided that they understood the directive of the Pope, they also asserted that they had an equally profound understanding of conjugal relations in their home. 
     I supported their responsibility to make an informed decision to save their marriage. The expectation of unqualified obedience to the papal directive flew in the face of the understanding they had of freedom of conscience from studying the Declaration on Religious Freedom.  
     Unfortunately the bishop had very little sympathy with the position I took in reinforcing the Council’s position on freedom of conscience, but he refrained from taking any action against me at that time.
     The next year, however, a new pastor was put in charge of the parish. In the face of a backlash from a more conservative faction in the parish that included threats by wealthy parishioners to withhold their contributions to the parish, a vocal debate arose around Vatican II and those who resisted the Council’s teachings. The pastor requested the Paulist’s President (Superior General) to come to Austin to mediate between those parishioners who strongly supported the Vatican II reforms and those who wanted the “radical new ideas” to cease. 
     The meeting of the two sides had adamant supporters on both sides of the issue. The President announced to the priests that he had listened to both sides, had consulted with the pastor and the bishop, and was unable to find common ground. Almost as soon as the President returned to New York, the pastor removed me from my role as Director of Religious Education, and demanded that I no longer publicly teach Vatican II theology, nor publically preach about the reform thinking of the Ecumenical Council. I was being punished for being an advocate for the Council. I was to be reassigned as the Chaplain for the nuns who taught at the parish school.
     From all that followed from Pope Paul’s denial of fundamental teaching of the Council, it was clear to me that a strong tide was running against key reform ideas of Vatican II. When I appealed the pastor’s decision to the President, he would not meet with me. He would not consider intervening in the pastor’s decision and would not reassign me to another Paulist house.
     I realized that I had only two alternatives; submit to unwarranted discipline that went against my conscience, or to leave the Paulists. I chose the latter. It would be the beginning of what felt like exile from the Church, the loss of my identity as a priest and eventually the complete disillusionment with the Church.
     I believe that the Church betrayed the collective wisdom of the guidance that emerged through Vatican II. I also believe that the bishops’ failure to publicly assert the collegial authority of the Council and insist that the Church hold true to its governance responsibility set back the intended reform for the Church in the modern world. 
     My strongest regret is that the worldview that was enshrined in the belief in a fallen and corrupt human nature – the consequence of an adherence to an original fall from grace –  as opposed to an evolving movement of an unfolding and evolutionary view of the human as part of a conscious cosmos was re-asserted. 
     The Church opted for a stance that sacrificed its identification with the pilgrim people wandering ever closer to divine call to Wisdom.
John Shields died March 24, 2017. He was 79 years of age.