Eureka! Sebastian Moore Instructs the Pope

The spectacle of theologians presuming to interpose themselves between the magisterium and the rest of us is so familiar it has almost lost its power to shock. The condescension and insolence with which dissenting theologians examine documents of the ordinary magisterium remind us of nothing so much as an exasperated teacher correcting the essays of a backward pupil. When I was young, attacks on the pope were to be found in the Watchtower and contempt for the Vatican was what one expected from well-dressed Jehovah’s Witnesses who got a foot in the door. A Protestant style has long since become the preferred manner of address of professional theologians. More than any other single group, the professional theologians of the United States have tried to undermine the magisterium and mislead the faithful as to the authentic teaching of the Church. Nonetheless, Archbishop John May of St. Louis, in his role as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, went before the American Catholic Theological Society last summer to read a prepared speech in which he praised theologians for their efforts, denied that there is any tension between theologians and bishops, and blackened the name of several stout defenders of the magisterium. We live in odd times.

In two recent articles, one in Commonweal (January 26,1990), the other in The Tablet (October 7, 1989), Sebastian Moore, of the Order of St. Benedict, Professor of Theology at Boston College, has taken up the tattered banner fallen from the hands of Charles Curran and provided us with particularly virulent examples of what is wrong with present-day Roman Catholic theology in this country. Even for the unfortunate genre into which they fall, these articles are extreme instances of arrogance of manner and muddiness of argument.

Characterizing magisterial teaching, Moore maintains that Cardinal Ratzinger and the Holy Father are engaged in an “escape from reason”; they are “promoters of anti-intellectualism,” as detached from reality as New Age guru, Matthew Fox, all associated in a “flight from understanding.” Throwing his epithets around, Moore ends by accusing Cardinal Ratzinger of “fundamentalism.”

Why does Moore feel compelled to call Cardinal Ratzinger and the Holy Father fundamentalists, creation scientists, and obscurantists when they aren’t dissembling and deceiving us in magisterial documents? The topics of these screeds, I scarcely need tell you, is that old standby, contraception. Sebastian Moore, it seems, has run out of patience. He is embarrassed by his Church, whose ban on artificial contraception makes him fidget in the censorious company of his fellow moderns. In what has to be competitive for the record of theological chutzpah, Moore invokes St. Thomas Aquinas against the magisterium.

A writer who gives magisterial documents, the Holy Father, and Cardinal Ratzinger grades of F must be, you will imagine, one whose own position is remarkable for clarity, cogency, and precision. Let us see.

In his Commonweal article Sebastian Moore invokes what he calls the “theorem of the supernatural,” which he attributes to St. Thomas Aquinas, via Bernard Lonergan. This “theorem” releases nature from the clutches of the grace/sin dichotomy and permits it to live a life of its own. I am not here concerned with Moore’s “theorem of the supernatural,” not because I think it makes much sense, but because his claims about the ban on artificial contraception in The Tablet article are independent of it.

Writing on what he calls the “Crisis Over Contraception,” Moore puts the problem swiftly before us. “On the one hand it is becoming clear that the acceptance of contraception involves in principle no abandonment of the natural law tradition on which the proscription has been based. On the other hand, Pope John Paul II is going so far in the opposite direction as to speak of contraception as ‘voiding the cross of Christ.'”

Precisely how is it “becoming clear” that contraception is compatible with the natural law tradition? Sebastian Moore remembers a remark of Bernard Lonergan’s in Rome in 1967: “They’ll never prove it’s against the natural law, for the simple reason that the relationship between coition and conception is statistical.” Moore did not understand this remark when he heard it, but over the years its meaning has become clear to him.

What he was referring to was a huge and wide-ranging change in the way we see nature, to which my mind was not yet attuned. It was the change from the classical vision, in which there is a one-on-one relationship everywhere between cause and effect, to a new vision in which the causal relationship has to be expressed in terms of probability, as unimaginably vast numbers and stretches of time make possible the emergence of new forms.

In the matter under discussion the insight comes down to this: “an enormous number of male spermatozoa are expended for the sake of an occasional offspring.” Consequently, under the new insight, “the frequency of acts of intercourse and the comparative infrequency of conception are bound together in an altogether new type of relationship.”

On the one hand, coition is seen as the cause of conception, however infrequently it brings it about; on the other hand, the frequency of coition and infrequency of conception is a probability-shaped relation. Moore argues that either sexual intercourse is inviolable or it is not.

If it is [inviolable], then neither contraception nor the rhythm method is allowable. For the rhythm method interferes with the relationship as we now understand it every bit as much as does contraception. For it seeks to reduce virtually to zero the probability factor that is the nerve of the relationship. Conversely, if the relationship is not inviolable, then both the rhythm method and contraception are in principle acceptable.

The form of this argument is as follows: “If act A is illicit and act B is the same kind of act as A, then B is illicit; conversely, if act B is permissible and act A is the same kind of act as B, then A is permissible.” Everything depends, of course, on the claim that A and B are the same kind of act. We will return to the reasons Fr. Moore gives us for regarding rhythm and artificial contraception as the same kind of human act.

Fr. Moore tells us that the realization that coition-conception is a probability-shaped relation amounts to a paradigm shift: “A model, a way of ordering things, that decides the kind of question one asks, gives way to a new paradigm that allows us to see the world as never before.” We are being told of a revolutionary new way of seeing the relations between spouses that quite simply replaces the old way. How does the history of debate over contraception since the appearance of Humanae Vitae in 1968 look from this new perspective?

Errors of the Past

Not only did the encyclical lack the new paradigm, so did the revisionists. “The revisionists complained of the biologism of the natural law tradition, and sought to urge authority away from this to a personalist understanding. And in the end, authority said No, and dug its toes in.” As Moore sees the past two decades, both the magisterium and its critics were deficient in the same way. “It was not the rejection of biologism that was needed but a more insightful biology, into which the personalism of sexuality could be seen to fit perfectly. This was not yet to hand. Now it is.”

Let us get clear what Moore is saying: The encyclical banned artificial contraception because it viewed the relation between coition and conception as a one-on-one causal relation. “As long as one is thinking within this paradigm it is quite clear that artificial contraception frustrates this causality while rhythm does not, for rhythm is the avoidance of intercourse at times when one is likely to be bringing this causality into operation. The moral difference between rhythm and artificial contraception is clear so long as one is in the Aristotelian mode.”

Moore maintains that not only Humanae Vitae but apparently all its previous critics have been in the grips of an Aristotelian notion of one-on-one causality and within this perspective the prohibition of artificial contraception makes perfect sense. It thwarts a natural process, and the unbroken tradition condemning such activity has been perfectly within its rights. Now, however, modern biology enables us to see that the relation between coition and conception is statistical. From this point on, the discussion of contraception is or ought to be dramatically altered. Within the new perspective, Sebastian Moore assures us, artificial contraception need no longer be seen as a thwarting of nature.

At this point, we might expect Moore to congratulate the Holy Father and his predecessor for not caving in to the bad arguments of previous dissenters. Dissenting theologians, after all, adopting the same perspective as those who reiterated the ban on contraception, wrongly objected to the stand of the magisterium. This is the clear implication of Moore’s remarks, but somehow he cannot bring himself to say it, assuming, of course, that he does indeed see the implication of what he writes. He concedes that, on the allegedly discardable old perspective, the prohibition was well grounded. But that concession entails that those who, arguing within that perspective, dissented from the prohibition and claimed that it was not well grounded, were wrong. From his enlightened perspective, Moore should both excoriate the dissenters and praise the magisterium. He does neither.

Imagine now a theologian in the position Moore suggests he occupies. As he pondered the ban on con-traception, an obiter dictum of Bernard Lonergan rattled around in his head and then, suddenly, decades later, bingo, he has it. The probability-shaped relation between coition and conception permits a paradigm shift enabling us to see that artificial contraception is no more illicit than the rhythm method. Upholders of the ban and its critics were prisoners of a surpassed paradigm, within which, to be sure, the magisterium was right and its critics wrong. But now a paradigm shift is possible thanks to a more insightful biology. If you were that theologian, what would you do next?

Surely, your first impulse would be to get this news to the Vatican, book a flight on Alitalia, get to Cardinal Ratzinger and the pope as soon as you could. You have, as you think, a basis for altering the moral teaching of the Church. As important as what you think you know is the task of presenting it to “authority” in such a way that “authority” will be persuaded of the truth of what you say. Thinking, as you do, that “authority” has been perfectly right within the old paradigm, you can begin by underscoring that. Then you lay out the new insights of biology.

Perhaps Sebastian Moore tried this route and failed, and that is why he has written so insolently of those in authority. I do not know. What is clear is that insulting your addressee is rarely a prelude to changing his mind. If, as one fears, his first impulse after shifting paradigms was to launch a public attack on Cardinal Ratzinger and the Holy Father, one might ask, in Moore’s words, “What is going on here?” Of course, if he expected anyone to be moved by the logic of what he has to say in his articles, he is in for rueful disappointment.

The fact is that Sebastian Moore doesn’t seem to be too sure whether his paradigm shift is all that new. Not only does he trace it to an article of Bernard Lonergan’s of 1943—Moore’s reader becomes used to his reverent tone whenever he mentions the late Fr. Lonergan, a tone theologians once reserved for the magisterium—but he also claims that married couples have always known what allegedly only modern biology has enabled us to see, namely, that the relation between conception and coition is statistical.

The relation between coition and conception is statistical. Moore clearly considers this to be stop-the-presses stuff. Yet at the same time he tells us that from time immemorial husbands and wives have known that not every act of coition results in pregnancy. I think we can grant him this point. But how then does such a connubial commonplace become the material for a paradigm shift? Does Moore, by calling the relation between coition and conception statistical, mean that the relation is not causal? Or does he mean that coition is an event which sometimes does and sometimes does not result in pregnancy? He mentions the millions of spermatozoa searching for a single egg, but presumably this is true in each act of coition and, if coition is causal, this is the manner of its causality. Talk of spermatozoa is fairly recent, but it is merely a finer grained account of what has always been recognized, namely, that not every act of coition issues in conception. It is difficult to see how the finer grained analysis alters the commonplace recognition. It is incumbent on Fr. Moore to show us that it does.

Of Two Minds

It makes a lot of difference whether Moore means to say that he is bringing to our attention a biological breakthrough or simply calling attention to what couples have always known. His inability to make up his mind on this point, however, far from being a lapse, characterizes his style. It is clear that he thinks that modern biology has liberated us from the paradigm operative up until now, but he is extremely stingy in telling us exactly how this is supposed to work.

Let us return to what he identifies as his argument: “If rhythm is permissible, then artificial contraception is.”

Alternatively, “If artificial contraception is condemned so too must be rhythm.”

The suppressed premise in both of these arguments is that rhythm and artificial contraception are the same kind of act. Since they seem about as much alike as dieting and bulimia, it would have been helpful to see how Moore might establish their sameness. He apparently regards it as so obvious a consequence of his paradigmatic shift that he hurries on. He does suggest that the point of the use of rhythm is to reduce the chances of conception to zero. But this is like saying that the point of dieting is to reduce the intake of calories. Regurgitating food right after it is eaten accomplishes what dieting does, but surely no one would classify it as the same act. Moore’s argument from analogy as it stands is worthless.

Sebastian Moore insists that the moral difference between rhythm and artificial contraception is clear within the Aristotelian paradigm. He tells us that their difference disappears within the new paradigm. I would like to report that Moore shows us how this comes about, but the astonishing fact is that he does not. He provides no argument whatsoever for the moral sameness of rhythm and artificial contraception within the new paradigm. He tells us that, within the new perspective, rhythm is every bit as much an interference as artificial contraception. The reason is that rhythm seeks to reduce virtually to zero the probability factor that is the nerve of the relationship. Perhaps he means that artificial contraception succeeds in reducing to zero the probability factor, perhaps not. As an argument this is, let us say, wanting in clarity and cogency.

You and I might think that a messenger with news he deems of earth-shattering importance would tell us what it is, but then Moore is not noteworthy for clarity. He can’t make up his mind whether what he is saying is a conceptual breakthrough or a fact known from time immemorial. He can’t make up his mind whether the ban on artificial contraception makes sense in the old paradigm but not in the new. Rather than regarding the ban on artificial contraception as an honest mistake of the unenlightened within a surpassed paradigm, he turns to Humanae Vitae with scarcely repressed disdain. He quotes from paragraph 11, in which the Holy Father writes:

The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordained laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging people to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

Moore’s reaction to the apparent recognition of the statistical relation he is touting in the very encyclical supposedly written within a previous and surpassed paradigm is excited. “What is going on here?” he demands. Is “authority” recognizing the pattern of frequent intercourse and infrequent conception as a probability-shaped relationship? Not on your life. The encyclical sees this “as a divine order not to be interfered with: it is a kind of mystical biology, with a virtual equation of Mother Nature with God.” Now that comment is, not to put too fine a point upon it, dumb. Is Moore asking us to reject creation as a divine order? Does he think that to see nature as bearing the mark of its creator is to identify the two? Did he perhaps not notice the pope’s mention of laws of nature? He is too eager to reject the passage to give it even the benefit of a moment’s effort to understand. This reaction pre-pares us for the unsatisfactory passage that follows.

The encyclical seems aware of the biological news Moore has been announcing. Confronted with this problem, he assures us that the encyclical does not face squarely up to the statistical nature of the relationship. Why? It cannot do so and also consistently maintain the ban. How so? It is here that Moore concedes that within the old paradigm there is a moral difference between rhythm and artificial contraception. But in the new paradigm they are morally equivalent. How are we to see this? Not in anything Sebastian Moore puts before us. What we have at the crucial point where an argument is required is only Moore’s assurance that now rhythm and artificial contraception are morally equivalent, accompanied by offensive condescension toward the encyclical. One begins to see why Moore did not take his views to Rome. His oracular pronouncements promise what they do not deliver. In order for the only argument he formulates to work, he must establish its assumption, namely, that rhythm and artificial contraception are morally equivalent. This he fails to do. His grade is F.

Moore observes sadly that it never seems to occur to the authorities to question the basis for the ban on artificial contraception. But he, like other revisionists, has said nothing that is not already addressed in Humanae Vitae. Has it ever occurred to Sebastian Moore that just possibly it is he and his fellow dissenters who have it wrong? Perhaps it is they who are in need of “what Lonergan calls intellectual conversion, the discovery of intellectual blind spots, the recalling of where they first occurred.” Theologian, cure thyself.

There is indeed a crisis over contraception, but it is important to see where it resides. The crisis is not due to an intransigent authority. The magisterium under the guidance of the Holy Spirit continues to direct the faithful along the path that will take them to their eternal goal. The crisis is to be found among professional theologians who for over a quarter of a century have been devising bad arguments for what they hold on the basis of defiance. There are no good arguments for untenable positions, and it is perhaps not surprising that dissenters try to supply what is wanting in their logic by insult and obloquy. The crisis is to be found in seminaries where the visibly inept discourse of dissenters has become the norm of teaching; the crisis is to be found in marriage preparation courses and sex education courses which fail to transmit the teaching of the Church. And the crisis is found in those bishops who have permitted this to happen and worse, and end up by congratulating the group that has sustained this crisis by its arrogance, illogic, and increasingly, vituperation. Even theologians like Sebastian Moore must be able to see that, on the level of natural talent, they are hopelessly outclassed by the Holy Father and Cardinal Ratzinger. It is indeed a crisis when the patience and holiness of these men is confronted by such sophomoric assaults as we have seen.

God did not become man in order that men might become theologians, but theologians too are called to salvation. Let us pray for them and for the church in which for too long they have been permitted to embarrass us with their childish tantrums.


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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