Contraception, then & now

Interference

In his article “On Good Authority? Jacques Maritain & ‘Humanae Vitae’” (March 23), Bernard Doering writes that “differences among the council fathers were so profound that agreement proved impossible,” and so the question of birth control was not decided at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). While differences undoubtedly existed among the council fathers, the question of birth control as such was not actually discussed in the aula during the council when the time for debate indicated that it should have been. I was present as a peritus at the concluding session of the council. On the day when the birth-control debate was slated to begin, Archbishop Pericle Felici (in charge of day-to-day affairs at the council) read a letter from Pope Paul VI to the conciliar assembly requesting that birth control not be discussed, as the pope was reserving the issue to himself. The council fathers applauded.

Later that day, at a press conference conducted by a small number of U.S. bishops, a religion-affairs correspondent (I think he wrote for Time magazine) asked: “Why did you bishops applaud today when the pope took one of the most important issues facing the council out of your hands?” The bishops present were nonplussed and no satisfactory reason was given. Who knows how the teaching on birth control would have been formulated by the council fathers, and how different the subsequent history of the church might have been, had this interference in the work of the council not taken place?

(Rev.) Paul Surlis
Crofton, Md.


Maritain’s Blind Spot

Bernard Doering reports that Jacques Maritain had reservations about Humanae vitae because Maritain believed “there was no moral difference between employing the rhythm method and using the pill.” As much as I admire Maritain, I can’t help wondering whether he knew what he was talking about in this instance. Maybe he had his own doubts, and that’s part of the reason he submitted to Humanae vitae. Artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning are equally effective at spacing and planning births. (Those with doubts about NFP’s effectiveness should Google the statistics on the Creighton Method, which admittedly was not available in Maritain’s day.) But it’s striking that Maritain apparently failed to notice that all varieties of NFP treat marital coitus very differently from the way it’s treated by those using artificial contraception. NFP means, by definition, subordinating your desires to a pattern not of your own devising. A couple using NFP will therefore experience moments of unfulfilled longing that a couple using artificial contraception will not experience. NFP demands patience, forbearance, restraint—and even a sense of humor—at moments when artificial contraception puts a couple at the liberty of their own appetites. So while neither method is “natural” in the sense of arising spontaneously from nature, the two methods are significantly different in terms of the virtues they require and cultivate.

Christopher C. Roberts
Philadelphia, Pa.


Priority Check

John Garvey’s column “We Are Complicit” (March 23) is just about the sanest commentary I have read on the whole health-care/contraception controversy. And his comment about those sleeping easily “with the thought of torture and the imprisonment of millions” while worrying about same-sex unions and contraception should give Catholics much to contemplate.

In the same issue, Mary Jo Bane’s “Who Will Speak of the Poor?” and Richard W. Miller’s “‘Global Suicide Pact’” also make it clear that there are far more important things for people of goodwill to worry about than contraceptives. Yet, for the past few months, diocesan publications have been filled with endless complaints about the inclusion of contraceptives in the new health-care mandate, while paying scant attention to the wars being waged by the United States; our torture of political prisoners; growing poverty, particularly among children; and the real doomsday threat of global warming.

Meanwhile, the bishops are aiding and abetting presidential candidates who oppose contraceptives and gay marriage while calling for more war, condoning torture, ignoring poverty, and denying the reality of global warming.

Margaret M. Carlan
Chelsea, Mass.


If It Ain't Broke...

As an administrator, I often have an idea of how to do things better. Before I use my authority I must ask myself, “What am I trying to fix?” The Obama administration has failed to do just that. Has there been demonstrable harm from the religious-affiliated institutions’ excluding contraceptives from coverage? Is there evidence of increased unwanted pregnancies, adverse complications from back-alley abortions, or medical bankruptcies resulting from this exclusion?

If there is not, and I know of none offered, then what is at play is an imposition of values by the government. In effect the administration is telling religious-affiliated institutions it is time to jump into modernity with both feet. Whether this is true is a peripheral issue. Preservation of First Amendment rights is central. Government does not and should not have the right to tell religious institutions what particulars of freedom of conscience they can exercise. Especially without presenting convincing evidence that such exercise results in harm.

Philip J. Eulie
Rancho Cordova, Calif.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 
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