‘Humanae vitae,’ annulments and marriage, the common good



Thank you for your republication of Commonweal articles concerning Humanae vitae (“An Unhealed Wound,” June 15). One of the issues not thoroughly discussed was the effect on the lives of the clergy. I was eleven years into religious life and two years away from ordination when Humanae vitae was published. After a year of discernment, I left my order and abandoned my dreams of a life of service. The wounds were profound and the scars remain.

I had a complete loss of trust in the church’s moral teaching authority. I also felt that I could not represent the church in preaching about birth control.

I was not alone. I know of classmates who left (some before and others after ordination) for similar reasons.      

Seldom do I read articles regarding Humanae vitae as one of the causes of the decline in priestly vocations. At least for this ex-seminarian, it was the major reason.

John A. Leonard
Bronx, N.Y.



About forty years ago I told a Jesuit priest, the head of the theology department at the Catholic university I had gone to, my medical history. I had five children, four by C-section, the Last Sacraments with one. The rhythm method didn’t work. He said, “I fail to see how God will be honored by four motherless children. You should be using birth control. I took a vow of chastity. You and your husband did not.”

I am well past the age of childbearing, but I fail to see how having more children than can be cared for, or putting one’s health at risk, can be moral. We upset nature in many ways—with medicine, operations, eyeglasses, and transplants. Birth control can be a benefit to a good marriage and good health.

Jane Merchant
Falmouth, Maine



I wonder if I might take the liberty of adding a footnote to Jack Miles’s interesting letter responding to the Humanae vitae issue (August 10). He notes three interesting things. First, that after a promising start, Vatican II was precluded from issuing an authoritative teaching on contraception within marriage because Paul VI stepped in, and reserved the matter to himself. Second, that the minority report of the commission on birth control (with which the pope was eventually to side) placed its emphasis not on contraception itself, but on the consequences for papal authority of admitting an error and making a change in the teaching that had prevailed since Casti connubii. Third, having surfaced the possibility that the Holy Spirit might have spoken through the doctrinal change effected in 1930 by the Seventh Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion, he notes that for the minority report such an eventuality was clearly beyond imagining.

True enough. But, then, skepticism about the guidance of the Spirit went well beyond that and may have extended, in the view of a beleaguered Paul VI, to the thinking of the Fathers assembled in ecumenical council at Vatican II. Why else, after all, would he have withdrawn from their purview not only the matter of birth control, but also the issues of clerical celibacy, reform of the Roman curia, and the establishment of a mechanism that might have served to make episcopal collegiality the institutional reality it has never become? All four issues touched ultimately on the papal authority. On that neuralgic matter, it seems, the thinking of the Council Fathers could not reliably be assumed to be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. Here, as is so often the case, the central issue and stumbling block is the stubbornly persistent ultramontane vision of the papal primacy.

Francis Oakley
President Emeritus, Williams College
Williamstown, Mass.



Pope Francis and pastoral leaders on many levels understand the sacramental theology of marriage far better than Ross Douthat or Cardinal Burke (“A Precarious Unity?” March 19).

What is the indissoluble bond in a Christian marriage? Is it the law of the church that has defined marriage as a contract based on consent and consummation? Or is it the grace of Christ accepted and lived out in mutual self-giving love by the couple? I think most would at once say it is the latter: the grace of Christ made visible in mutual self-giving love of the two persons.

How does this sign come into existence and make a marriage indissoluble? It is evident to many of us that it comes by a process that will usually take years. This process is the constantly renewed and deepened decision by the couple to love each other. They are the ministers of the sacrament, and together with Christ they make an indissoluble covenant bond of love. Of these we can say, “God has joined them together.” The sacrament bond is internal to them. It cannot be an external law.

The vows made in church begin the commitment. But every time an annulment is granted, the church acknowledges that the “indissoluble sacramental bond” did not come into existence. The sacramental union comes into being through tested fidelity and love. Church courts can only judge by externals, and so they must arrive at annulments by sometimes tortured reasoning. To me this is a development in doctrine made possible by the human development of the past hundred years. We have a deeper understanding of intimacy, of the “I and Thou,” of depth psychology, of how divine grace works with human freedom. As Pope John XXIII put it: “It is not that the Gospel has changed; it is that we have begun to understand it better.”

What Pope Francis and many Catholics realize today is that those “whom God has joined together” are those who have personally internalized the decision to love unconditionally. They have united themselves to grace.

Many well-intentioned persons fail in their decision; they are not “joined by God”; their marriage fails. In a second marriage with a new partner they may decide fully and wholeheartedly to love one another. If so, whether they have or have not obtained a Church annulment, their second union becomes a union in Christ. They are in a state of grace.

No annulment can undo a true marriage. An annulment does not “do” something. Annulment simply acknowledges the existing fact: the prior marriage was not “in Christ.” If an annulment is not granted we cannot conclude that the first marriage was “joined by God.” We simply know that there was no conclusive external evidence to prove the contrary.

Cardinal Burke and Ross Douthat presume that church procedures that are human laws are actually divine revelation. Divine Revelation, in Scripture and tradition, tells us that the essence of marriage is an event: the event of Christ’s death and Resurrection informing a man and woman’s lived-out love commitment. The only assurance of this event is by spiritual discernment, which cannot be reduced to legal proofs. Pope Francis and many more see this.

This is why he calls for discernment about welcoming the divorced and remarried to Communion.

Fr. John Hynes
Wilmington, Del.



However thoughtful and edifying are the several contributions to “Civic Virtue and the Common Good” (June 1), there is, as Matthew Sitman notes, much more to be said.

A concern with the common good is indeed a staple of Catholic moral thought, but, as the Vatican document “Economic and Financial Questions” makes clear, this concern ultimately rests on a fundamental conception of what it is to be human that is embraced by many intellectual traditions, both religious and philosophical. On this conception, each human being is owed an inalienable and unqualified respect precisely because he or she is a unique member of the human species.

The practical implications of this conception do have to be worked out in the course of the varied historical and material vicissitudes in which people live out their lives. This is the domain in which the practical wisdom that Cathleen Kaveny rightly emphasizes is irreplaceable. But it is a practical wisdom that never countenances violations of the inalienable and unqualified respect due to each human being. Indeed, the ability to exercise this practical wisdom is a distinguishing feature of the human way of being, and hence of the respect due it.

Today, this robust tradition of concern for the common good faces at least two forceful challenges. In the domains of economic and technological policies and practices one finds strong support for an “instrumental rationality” that prizes efficiency above all. It condones, explicitly or otherwise, the treatment by some people of others as tools or commodities or both. In the domains of scientific theory and research, today’s default working hypothesis is that the human species is just one of many animal species, having no special status.

Confronting these and related challenges, proponents of the common good need a clear appreciation of its historically and conceptually rich foundation.

Bernard P. Dauenhauer
Montgomery, Ohio

Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: 
Also by this author
Out of the Shadows

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