November 13, 2019

The Florida Bishops on Abortion and Contraception

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, January 22, 2019, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter that was signed by every bishop and included in parish bulletins across the state. It began by citing this powerful passage from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.

. . . If the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed. So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being.

The Bishops’ letter went on to lament the legalization of abortion, to pray for those it has affected, and to condemn the procedure. Five of its six paragraphs were devoted to that purpose. The sixth, however, which appeared early in the document and broke its narrative flow, shifted awkwardly to a milestone celebrated a year earlier—the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae and the canonization of its author, Paul VI, last October. That paragraph included the following passage:

This prophetic encyclical shook the world 50 years ago with its countercultural instruction rejecting artificial contraception and welcoming children as gifts from God that are part of married love. Yet, growing numbers of women of all faiths and no faith are rejecting artificial contraception and realizing that fertility is not a disease to be ‘treated.’ Rather, spouses are discovering natural family planning, as it promotes healthy reproduction, healthy relationships, and a healthy environment.

That passage raises two questions. The first is, what evidence do the bishops have that “growing numbers of women of all faiths” are “rejecting” artificial contraception and “discovering” natural family planning?

It seems likely that they have no real evidence but instead are simply reasoning, “The birthrate has drastically declined in economically advanced countries, so that must mean natural family planning is working.” If that is the case, the prelates are guilty of an embarrassing leap of logic, for it is much more reasonable to believe the reverse—that women “discovered” artificial contraception and “rejected” natural family planning.

(Incidentally, even if the declining birth rate were attributable to natural family planning, it is strange that the bishops would take such a celebratory  tone—in every one of twelve Catholic countries in Europe the birth rate has fallen far below the 2.1 replacement rate, a fact that may foreshadow the extinction of the Catholic family in those countries.)

In any case, if the bishops truly believed their assertion, they would by now have encouraged diocesan priests to hail the success of natural family planning from their pulpits. But I have never heard such a homily, nor found any reports of one. If there were any, the congregations would surely have chuckled at the homilists’ naiveté.

The second question is, why did the bishops mention artificial conception at all in their otherwise laudatory condemnation of abortion?

I believe the answer is because of another leap of logic: The bishops presumably inserted the issue of contraception to quiet the controversy that Humane Vitae created and that led to the disaffection of millions of Catholics. The bishops’ reasoning seems to have been, “Because Paul VI has been declared a saint, his encyclical must be considered saintly, so mentioning it in this context will surely turn widespread rejection of its message to widespread acceptance.”

The flaw in this reasoning is the assumption that canonization validates all of the saint’s thoughts and words. That assumption conflates the person and the idea when they are actually very different. All people, saints included, bear the twin marks of original sin—clouded minds and weakened wills. Saints differ from the rest of us NOT in having been free from error but rather in having been exceptional in loving God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength. (See Mark 12:31)

Here are three examples of saints’ intellectual errors concerning the nature of women:

  • St. Augustine: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” 
  • Saint Albertus Magnus: “One must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil . . . Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.” 
  • St. Thomas Aquinas: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten . . . .”

Today, the Church recognizes the profound error (and unparalleled slander) of all three beliefs. Yet it does not question the sanctity of the saints who expressed them because it understands that not even the most exceptional love of God and His truth guarantees inerrancy. In other words, Paul VI could have been mistaken in his view of the morality of contraception and yet fully deserving of canonization.  For the Florida Bishops to imply otherwise will not persuade the laity to accept Humanae Vitae, but it could have the ironic effect of making them question the quality of the bishops’ thought processes, even when applied collaboratively.

Perhaps the bishops had another purpose for inserting the paragraph on contraception into their commentary on abortion—to bolster their condemnation of abortion. In other words, they may have thought, “Mentioning our condemnation of contraception as well as that of abortion will remind Catholics and non-Catholics alike of our historical consistency on both matters, and that reminder will surely strengthen our position on both.”

If they thought this, they will surely be disappointed, because referencing the Church’s teaching on contraception is certain to remind many Catholics of their disagreement with the Church about that subject. Equally certain is that it will remind many non-Catholics of their long-held view that the Catholic Church has been foolishly intransigent on contraception. Neither reminder has much chance of enhancing the Bishops’ credibility.

Any way one considers the bishops’ melding of contraception and abortion, it was a mistake that they should by all means avoid repeating.

Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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3 comments
  • “(Incidentally, even if the declining birth rate were attributable to natural family planning, it is strange that the bishops would take such a celebratory tone—in every one of twelve Catholic countries in Europe the birth rate has fallen far below the 2.1 replacement rate, a fact that may foreshadow the extinction of the Catholic family in those countries.)”

    Despite the flaws and muddled reasoning of the author in this article, the parenthetical comment above is an accurate assessment, not only for European countries but also our own. I personally don’t believe that the declining birth rate is attributable to the use of natural family planning. However, the widespread promotion of NFP can easily be interpreted as a concession to the contraceptive mentality.

    On the contrary, I hope that the message of the Church will transition to a more positive promotion of stable, faithful, child-rich families, such as traditionally have been the backbone of a vigorous Catholic presence in the world… for the glory of God and the salvation of souls!

  • Contraception paved the way for abortion and morally both practices are fruits of the same tree, man’s refusal of God’s sovereign law in matters of sexuality. Both practices are inherently evil. Pope St. Paul VI was not declaring a novelty when he upheld the moral teaching on artificial contraception. Fr. John Hardon said that the number one imperative in apologetics today is to counter the contraceptive mentality. The culture of death has only exploded and overwhelmed society in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, which was enabled if not triggered by the promotion of artificial conception. The Church must not abandon or soften the teaching of the truth about sexuality: all sexual behavior that is not conformed to the divine order for marriage and the family do harm to man, individually and corporately. The bishops’ statement referred to in this article seems to have understood that. The author of the article seems not to have.

  • I have generally been a great admirer of Mr. Ruggerio and his writings, however I find his take on the Fla. bishops letter to be, to put it generously, muddled.

    He partially quotes what he calls ‘the sixth paragraph’ of the letter dealing with contraception and Humanae Vitae and makes assumptions about the bishops’ intentions which are totally unfounded given the portion cited.

    His critique is riddled with phrases like: ” I believe the answer is…” and “bishops presumably inserted…” and “…reasoning seems to have been…” and ”
    …the assumption that canonization validates…” and”It seems likely that…” and “If that is the case…” and “… a celebratory tone.” and “In any case, if…” and “…another leap of logic:…” and (a second time)”…seems to have been…” and Perhaps the bishops had another purpose…” and “In other words they may have thought…” and “If they thought this…”.

    Mr. Ruggerio closes his critique with the statement: “Any way one considers the bishops’ melding of contraception and abortion, it was a mistake that they should by all means avoid repeating.”

    Holy cow! Aside from his highly speculative ‘reasoning’ on the bishops’ intentions, Mr. Ruggerio’s contention that they should not ‘meld’ the two in a pastoral statement is beyond nonsensical. 1. The connection between contraception and abortion is incontrovertible. They are linked as are Siamese twins. It is the ‘contraceptive mentality’ (that we used to talk a lot about but don’t anymore) combined with the ‘problem’ of failed/sloppy usage of the pill that are the underlying motives for supporting the lefties’ sacrament of abortion-on-demand. 2. If the bishops are to be taken to task for not having preached Humanae Vitae to the rafters in the past, their raising it now must be lauded as a breakthrough. To use the heightened awareness of abortion/infanticide to re-introduce the topic of contraception as a root cause is a most welcome development.

Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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