Faith and Reason: An encyclical made for one: Our series of articles on the question 'why have sex' is continued by Christopher Hardwick, who believes this is a matter in which conscience has more authority than Popes.
Saturday 28 August 1993
Humanae Vitae was symptomatic of a compulsive need to legislate when it comes to sexuality which pervades the Catholic Church in particular and, to a degree, church hierarchies in general.
Instead of stepping back in awe at the mystery of sex there is a tendency to rush in with prescriptions as to exactly who can do what with whom when. This results in what Thomas Merton called 'a dreadful atomisation of sex'.
It may be that even to ask the question, what is the purpose of sex? - let alone providing as narrow an answer as Humanae Vitae did - is reductive. The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe has memorably described prayer as 'wasting time with God'. And wasting time is the one thing a neurotically functional individual or society cannot do. Following McCabe, we can view sex as, among other things, a lovely way of wasting time with someone else.
In papal encyclical and pornographic magazine sex is functional, whether the function be to make money through titillation or babies through conception. But, as everybody knows, there are multiple forms of sexual companionship. Lovers are at play and do not confine sex by interrogating it any more than children playing 'tig' stop to ask what the purpose of their play is.
Christianity's continuing mistrust of sex is all the stranger given that it is the most materialistic and fleshly of religions. Jesus's miracles provide bread, fish, and good wine. The eucharist is a shared meal. Through the incarnation God refuses to be seen as proposition or abstraction and instead becomes a human being; a physical and sexual being experiencing bodily pleasures, pains, and needs.
Authentic Christianity savours matter. As the book of Wisdom puts it: 'Yes, you love all that exists, you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence' (xi, 25). Ironically enough it sometimes seems that the Church's assent to this affirmation is qualified with the phrase 'except the genitals'.
The Vatican's directives on social issues outline broad principles, leaving us to colour in the detail as appropriate to circumstance. In contrast, in the sexual sphere we are invited to believe that there are no variables and contingencies but only norms. This is bizarre given that in no other area of human activity are the currents of motive and action so deep and subtle. If the incarnation is a reality Christianity is not anti-humanist but humanism amplified to the full. Therefore its critique of human behaviour should take into account nuance of context and motive. It is de-humanising to reduce people to moral ciphers whose behaviour can be evaluated as right or wrong in a contextual vacuum.
What is alarming about the leaked drafts of Veritatis Splendor is that they seem to render conscience redundant. If the Church is supported by 'the charism of infallibility' in its proclamations on matters of morals as well as matters of faith then all the faithful need do is read and digest moral instruction manuals issued by Rome. In this scheme of things unity is uniformity and questioning is subversion. If there is any place for conscience and intellect its with the prams and the jumble-sale notices . . . outside the church door. If that sounds like rhetorical over-statement it is hard to see what else we are to infer from statements such as the following in the draft of the encyclical: 'We cannot indeed see in opposition to the magisterium of the pastors of the Church a legitimate form of Christian freedom and the diversity of gifts of the Spirit.' Which is to say that once the magisterium has spoken any divergent or qualifying view is illegitimate.
Yet every couple and every family know from daily experience that conflict, though destructive when covert, can be creative and tractable to resolution when openly aired. But the draft of the new encyclical prohibits dissent, viewing conflict not as potentially cathartic and creative but as necessarily fragmenting:
'Dissent through lack of agreement or because of a different opinion stands in opposition to the unity of the Church and the demands of its hierarchical constitution as the people of God.'
So on this reading the dissenter may be sincere, but is always in error. Authority is right simply by virtue of being in authority. Authority is right when it tells you not to use a contraceptive. Authority is right when it tells Franz Jagerstatter he has an overriding duty to fight for Hitler.
Jagerstatter was no free-thinker. Sexton in his parish church, he was conventionally pious with a devotion to the saints. So he went to see the Bishop of Linz when prompted by his conscience to refuse to join Hitler s army. And the bishop was unambiguous. He said that Franz's conscience was erroneous because his responsibility to his family must take precedence over wider political considerations. He said that he should join up.
It should be acknowledged that on the particular issue of birth control Jagerstatter would probably side with John Paul II. Certainly he would dismiss any idea that the Pope should think again simply because so many disagree with him. And in one of his letters written from prison he asserts that God created marriage 'to assure the perpetuation of the human race'.
But the draft form of Veritatis Splendor is not explicitly about birth control. It is far more radically conservative than Humanae Vitae because it is about the need to render unquestioning obedience to the Pope and his hierarchy whatever the specific issue.
This is where Jagerstatter's example becomes a challenge. Jagerstatter thought, prayed, and consulted about his stance. And his wife, pastor, and bishop all at various times urged him to join up. But in the end he stuck to his refusal to do so, deciding that his conscience was sovereign.
Opinion will divide as to whether he was right given that he left a wife and three young children. But nobody can call his following of conscience lazy moral relativism when it had such drastic consequences.
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