From the Publisher: When Doctrine Goes Askew

Sex continues to dominate theological dissent  but the enemy grows older. The spectacle of sexagenarians tottering to the microphone to speak on behalf of the “sexually active” and even to make such activity the mark of maturity is one that awaits its Evelyn Waugh. In the meanwhile, books like Philip S. Kaufman’s Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic must be content to be their own parody.

The author has been a Benedictine monk for nearly fifty years, he was born in 1911, and his book, despite the title, is not about how little you have to believe in all the amplitude of that churlish concern, but about sex. Well, sex and power. Not will power but the will to power, which he seems to think explains all those teachings on sexual morality. He writes in order to lift the burden of the moral law from the shoulders of its violators.

Father Kaufman is concerned with what he calls birth control as well as divorce and remarriage, and what it comes down to is that he is in favor of the sexual revolution. He puts great weight on polls and statistics which show that Catholics are engaged in the same kind of misbehavior as much as the rest of the population: they practice “birth control,” i.e., contraceptive sex, they marry, divorce, and want to remarry.

There was a time when theologians would have regarded such statistics as alarming, as calling for prayer and fasting, retreats, crusades of preaching and exhortation. Kaufman belongs to the enlightened band whose teaching has had not a little to do with producing those statistics; their characteristic claim is that, like Aristotle’s Lesbian Rule, precept should adhere to practice and Catholic doctrine must conform to actual misbehavior.

The unexamined assumption of this extraordinary nostrum is that all is well in the secular society whose mores these unfortunate Catholics have adopted. It is as if unleashing sex and liberating it from moral constraints has produced a population of saner, gentler, kinder, and happier people. Kaufman exhibits little or no critical attitude toward the personal and social effects of the behavior he would sanction. His concern is to assure miscreants that it is the Church, not they, who are in the wrong and to bless the very behavior that is ruining their lives and the society in which they live.

Such obtuseness is incredible. Where are the theologians to speak in thundering and prophetic voices about the sexual insanity of our society? Battered wives and abused children are the product of the contraceptive mentality. Divorce is the result of immaturity on the part of one or both spouses. It is a disaster for the children and the ruination of society, as more and more secular studies are pointing out.

The Christian message is not simply that fornication and adultery and contraceptive sex separate us from the love of God; they are naturally ruinous as well. They are why we are so miserable. Immoral behavior cannot make us happy in any serious sense of the term. Jews and Protestants and sane non-believers have ex-pressed their gratitude that, in these parlous and hedonist times, the Church of Rome almost alone speaks out on behalf of natural morality. Yet Catholic theologians continue to prattle as if the prohibition of destructive behavior were the problem and the urgent need is to remove the prohibitions so that immoral behavior can be engaged in with insouciance and in good conscience.

Father Richard McCormick in his introduction writes that “Kaufman knows very well that there are powerful forces at work in the church attempting to reduce the reflections in his book to ‘isolated speculation.’” He finds this book courageous. Perhaps writing an inane book can count as courage, but Father McCormick’s suggestion that it is the Church’s doctrine that “stumbles at the bar of experience and ideas” is surely wrong. Such moral theology as Kaufman and his cohorts offer is based on a woeful misunderstanding of experience and on discredited ideas. The country is caught up in a sexual frenzy that is destroying lives and souls. The remedy is not to encourage Catholics to join the lemmings but to turn them inland.

There was a time when theological discussions of the Church’s ban on contraceptive sex were serious. It was possible a quarter of a century ago to imagine that the use of contraceptives might enhance a marriage and contribute to the mutual love of spouses. The “principle of totality” was developed in support of this. It was a serious suggestion, seriously proposed. Its proponents were no friends of the sexual revolution nor were they concerned to dismantle the moral teaching of the Church. No doubt this is why Paul VI gave such respectful consideration to the principle of totality in Humanae Vitae. His reasons for rejecting it have been discussed and pondered since, and it is the rare theologian indeed who would come to its defense today. It is my experience that the more one reflects on the principle of totality the less defensible it is. Nonetheless, I respect those who put it on the agenda for theological discussion because of the seriousness of their motives.

Two decades have passed since the appearance of Humanae Vitae. Like many others, I look forward to Janet Smith’s book which will deal definitively with the history and doctrine of that encyclical. What is inescapable is that the Roman Catholic Church has seen no reason to alter its absolute ban on contraceptive sex. This has left dissenting theologians two choices. Either they accept the teaching authority of the Church on this matter as reposing on those principles enunciated in Lumen Gentium, n. 25, and like Richard Roach, S.J., some years ago and Michael Novak in the previous issue of this magazine in this space, withdraw their dissent, or like Fathers Kaufman and Curran and McBrien and McCormick and the rest of that now grizzled and grumpy band, they challenge the Magisterium and seek to mislead us into thinking that we can disagree with authoritative Church teaching and remain faithful Catholics. It is not surprising that these same en-lightened minds assure us that we can commit adultery yet remain faithful spouses. They are logical in their illogic. Father Kaufman’s pages on the Gospel passages denouncing divorce, if they were only meant to amuse, would be high comedy. He makes deconstructionists look like docile readers of texts. Father McCormick speaks of what he calls the free flow of ideas. Ah, yes.

Dissent is no longer serious. It has been discredited, not simply by counterargument, but by events. Anyone who thinks that contraceptive sex is the salvation of marriage deserves punishment and not instruction, as Aristotle said in a similar case. What is needed is to liberate people from obsession with their genitals, to get the naked bodies off our television and movie screens, to scrub out the mouths of talk show hosts. More positively, we need theologians who will once more speak of the sanity as well as sanctity of purity and chastity. Alas, what we have is aging theologians like Kaufman who throw millstones to drowning people. They might ask themselves about another use to which those millstones could be put.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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