Part 1 explained that Catholic teaching on contraception, and its larger teaching on marriage, were based on St. Augustine of Hippo’s experience with Manichaeism. In the 1960s, there was cause for hope that Augustine’s influence would be overcome. Part 2 explained how that hope was dashed. Part 3 discussed why the Catholic hierarchy have continued to remain silent about the division caused by this teaching. Part 4 will examine how Catholic teaching would have been different if Augustine had not been influenced by Manichaeism.
Imagine for a moment that St. Augustine’s thinking had not been profoundly influenced by Manichean heresy but had instead been governed solely by the Gospel emphasis on love. In that case, he would likely have followed the example of the Lord Himself, the New Testament authors, and Pope Leo XIII, none of whom said a word about procreation. Of course, Augustine might still have spoken of the great privilege married couples enjoy as agents of Providence in the continuation of the human race, but without making that privilege the sole or central purpose of marriage.
Had St. Augustine’s thinking been governed solely by the Gospel, the Church’s Code of Canon Law on marriage would surely have taken a very different form. Instead of being expressed as “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children,” it might have been worded as follows:
The purpose of marriage is the fostering of mutual love between a man and a woman in ways that draw them closer to God and provide others with an example of His goodness.
No reference to mutual fidelity and support or to the nurture of children would have been necessary because those things are clearly implied by the focus on love and closeness to God. Further, no reference to procreation would have been necessary because marital love by its very nature creates the desire for children. Having that desire under the direction of reasoned choice is not a rejection of God but an affirmation of His gifts to us of intellect and will.
Might some individuals exercise choice foolishly and even sinfully, for example by refusing to have children for purely selfish reasons? Of course. But to assume that the Church must therefore restrict or deny reasoned choice to all married couples is to doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to touch minds and hearts without clerical assistance.
If Augustine had emphasized mutual love rather than procreation, as described above, what would the effects have been in the Church over the centuries? The question cannot be answered with certainty because of the span of time involved, the vast number of contributors to doctrinal development, and the impossibility of predicting all the changes that might have occurred. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify the ideas and behaviors that are logically related to the focus on procreation versus those related to a focus on love and to decide, on that basis, what the effects would likely have been.
Over fifteen centuries, billions of married people would have been spared the burden of believing that marital sex is carnal and feeling guilty over their sexuality in marriage. Thus, one significant source of marital tension would have been diminished for these people.
There would have been no reason for the birth control movement to arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and become a force around the world because the Church would have had a long record of supporting prayerful, reasoned choice concerning procreation. (Incidentally, Margaret Higgins Sanger would not have seen her mother struggle with 18 pregnancies and 11 live births in 22 years and eventually die of cervical cancer. And by being spared that experience, Margaret might have remained in the Church rather than becoming such a vocal opponent.)
If Augustine had focused on marital love rather than procreation, Pius XI might still have written Casti Connubii to defend the sacredness of marriage, condemn abortion, and warn against the Eugenics movement that many influential people were supporting at the time. He would no doubt have also addressed the role of sexuality in bringing married couples closer to each other and to God. He might even have encouraged married couples to consider prayerfully their role in the creation of new life. But he would have done all this without condemning contraception.
If Casti Connubii had been about marital love rather than procreation, the advent of the birth control pill would not have caused a crisis in Catholic thought. The new form of contraception would simply have joined all other forms, including coitus interrruptus, as acceptable methods for couples to consider in planning their families.
Moreover, if Casti Connubii had been about marital love rather than procreation, there would have been no need for Pope John XXIII to assemble a special Commission on Birth Control or for Paul VI to write Humanae Vitae. And if Paul VI had not written Humanae Vitae, millions of Catholics would not have left the Church or stopped receiving communion because they were violating the Church’s teaching on contraception. (Theology quiz question: Who should more respect to God—those who left the Church because they could not in conscience accept its teaching on contraception, or those who simply ignored the Church’s teaching yet continued receiving communion?)
If Augustine had focused on marital love rather than procreation, the hierarchy would have been less inclined to suspect marital sex of being, in some vague way, sinful. Accordingly, they would have been less inclined to consider marriage a disqualification for the priesthood. The argument for celibacy based on Christ’s example would still have had considerable force, but the idea of married priests as an acceptable alternative to celibates would have been given a fair hearing. And if that idea were embraced, the priest shortage that has become increasingly problematic in western countries in recent decades would be less serious and perhaps non-existent.
Moreover, if married men were allowed to become priests, the problem of the homosexual takeover of some seminaries documented by Michael Rose in his book Goodbye, Good Men would have been less likely to occur. (The book reveals how a clique of homosexual professors whom Father Andrew Greeley dubbed the “lavender Mafia” screened out qualified heterosexual candidates for the priesthood while accepting and later rewarding homosexual candidates.) And though it could not be concluded that the Church’s pedophilia scandal would not have occurred, it is nevetheless certain that the libertine attitude that fostered aberrational sex would have been less prevalent in the seminaries.
If Augustine had focused on marital love rather than procreation, the Church would not be at cross-purposes with itself in its efforts on behalf of the poor, as it sadly is now. In other words, the Church would no longer be telling Third World people, under pain of sin, that they are forbidden from using safe, proven methods to prevent conception but must instead risk producing more offspring to face starvation.
Finally, if Augustine had not focused on marital love rather than procreation, millions of disheartened Catholics who left the Church because of its teaching on marital sexuality would in all likelihood still be members.
All these desirable effects would likely have occurred if Augustine had focused on marital love rather than procreation in his pronouncements on marriage; indeed, most of them would have occurred if the Church had changed his non-scriptural teaching at any time during the last century!
However, rather than denying or explaining away the missed opportunities of the past, the hierarchy should understand that the opportunity for change still exists. Moreover, they should realize that seizing that opportunity and changing Catholic teaching on contraception will in no way weaken the Church’s opposition to fornication, adultery, sexual abuse, pedophilia, and abortion. Far from it. By demonstrating their humility and their courage to change what cries out to be changed, they will lift the cloud of distrust that has shrouded their ministry and restore their credibility with the laity.
Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved