It is not, I think, adequate to simply say that everyone should follow his own conscience and thus reject the encyclical if his conscience so directs. If one takes seriously all the good reasons in favor of a use of contraceptives—if one, say, follows the thinking of the majority of the papal commission—then it is not merely a neutral matter. On the contrary, there is an obligation on the part of those Catholics who perceive the morality of contraception to positively foster and propagate their convictions. This means doing everything in their power to educate people in the valid use of contraceptives. It means making money available to the poor for the purchase of contraceptives. It means convincing governments that they should listen to the voice of the Catholic people and not to the voice of the Pope on this issue. It means doing everything possible to negate and repudiate the encyclical, putting in its place a very different teaching.

People should of course be free to follow their conscience. But there is much sense in the traditional corollary that they should have an informed conscience; a lot of mischief is done in the name of conscience. In this instance those opposed to the encyclical would seem to have the positive duty of trying to inform the consciences of those who might feel an obligation to follow it: to inform them that they should know all the good theological arguments in favor of contraception; to inform them that they cannot cast off the obligation of making up their own minds on the shoulders of popes and bishops; to inform them that it is possible that good morality might require that they use contraceptives.

Though much has changed in recent years, the attitude of many Catholics toward the papacy is still one of unthinking subservience and obedience.

Though much has changed in recent years, the attitude of many Catholics toward the papacy is still one of unthinking subservience and obedience. When they are told these days to “follow their conscience” this will be tantamount to telling them to obey the Pope; for that, and only that, is what following their conscience means to them. Very strenuous efforts will be needed to crack this mold. The people must be given a real choice and this means, in great part, so breaking the hold of the papacy on them that they can rationally and judiciously weigh the alternatives before them. One would not in the face of a people’s temptation to resort to genocide, racism, the killing of the old and the weak, just tell them to do as they saw fit. One would argue against them, try to point out the dangers of their temptation. The same should be done with those tempted to unthinkingly follow the pope’s encyclical.

What will this do to the authority of the papacy? Assuming the problematic, that the papacy still has authority, it will force the papacy (and the bishops) to argue back, to refine its own reasons, to take account of its critics. It will force the magisterium to expose itself. As already noted, there remain many millions of Catholics who do take the Pope’s words as binding. The Pope has in his encyclical seriously misled them; he has taught them a bad morality. The only way they are likely to see this for themselves is to see the papacy pushed to the wall, forced to argue its position more fully, and thus forced to show the weakness of its moral teaching.

Those Catholics now tempted to leave the Church should remember how many others will stay and feel bound by the encyclical, how many will unnecessarily suffer, how many families and children will feel the consequences. To leave these people, to walk out on them, would not be right. As Christians and as Catholics they will need help and education. Only their fellow Catholics are likely to be in a good position to speak persuasively to them and to offer them the assistance of a sensitive Christian community. In its own utterly wrong way the Pope’s encyclical is beautiful: rounded, ringing and resonant. It seems to me now the obligation of the Catholic community to come up with, and publicize, a wiser and more correct teaching, equally rounded, ringing and resonant. The formation of the position will not be difficult; the ingredients are already present, nearly complete. The real work will come in publicizing it: the work of speaking against the present encyclical, the work of withstanding authority, the work of moral education. This is no time to leave the Church, but a time to make it what it should be. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Pope will be caught up in this work as well.

Published in the June 15, 2018 issue: View Contents
Daniel Callahan, a former Commonweal editor, is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and the author of What Price Better Health: Hazards of the Research Imperative.
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