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Julie Hanlon Rubio

St. Louis University


The article argues that contemporary dialogue on sexuality and contraception represents a new way of approaching Christian sexual ethics. Through an analysis of the experiential reflections of practitioners of natural family planning and artificial birth control, it shows that both sides seek the following goods: self-giving, relational intimacy, mutuality, sexual pleasure, and a strong connection between sexual and spiritual experience. It claims that while each side has distinctive insights, their shared concerns offer a way beyond the post-Humanae Vitae tension on sexual ethics. In this new dialogue, proving HV right or wrong will be much less important than helping Christian couples develop their sexual relationships in the context of their commitment to Christian discipleship.

J. Introduction Because academic arguments about Humanae Vitae1 are typically characterized by tension and intractability, conversation among those who disagree on sexual ethics has all but ceased. Discussions continue among conservatives, in forums removed from mainstream academic conferences,2 while liberals sometimes use teaching on contraception as an example of various problematic tendencies in the church, but otherwise indicate by their silence that the issue has been settled. The a Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1968).

See, for instance, Kenneth D. Whitehead, ed., Marriage and the Common Good (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2001), proceedings from the Twenty-Second Annual Convention of Catholic Scholars.

Julie Hanlon Rubio is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at St. Louis University (St.

Louis, MO 63108). She received her M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School and her Ph.D.

in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California. Her book, A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family (Paulist, 2003) recently received a Catholic Press Association award. Her articles have appeared in Theological Studies, the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and INTAMS Review. She is currently working on a history of American Catholic thought on marriage and family, 1965-2005.

HORIZONS 32/2 (2005): 270-94 Rubio: Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception 271 language used to talk about the other side is almost always reductive and dismissive. Even the Common Ground Initiative, founded by Cardinal Bernadin in 1996 to encourage dialogue between liberals and conservatives in the church, only took up the issue of sexual ethics in

2004. Because of the delicate nature of the discussion, for the first time proceedings were not made public and participants were asked not to take the content of conversations outside the confines of the conference. Dialogue itself was a scandal!

Yet dialogue has never seemed more important. There is a groundswell of popular literature on natural family planning written by couples and those who work with them, and a small, but growing response from couples who use contraception.3 Theologians in the post-Vatican II generation also seem somewhat more willing to give serious consideration to sexual ethics, as they move beyond narrowly focused discussions regarding the morality of particular contraceptive acts and the question of dissent.4 Their work suggests that the unnecessary and unhelpful divide between "liberals" and "conservatives" can be transcended. This new generation is much less invested in defending or criticizing Humanae Vitae; they are more interested in contributing to the development of sexual relationships that are as central a part of the life Christian discipleship as prayer, parenting, and social justice. A new sort of sexual ethics that fails to fit into the usual categories is beginning to emerge.

For participants, proving the other side wrong on contraception is not the point. Rather, dialogue is valued if it leads to recognition of areas of shared concern and contributes to more authentic Christian living. This paper, which examines the new theological conversation, is envisioned as a contribution to a new way of doing of sexual ethics that focuses less on argument about norms and more on dialogue within a diverse Christian community about practices. While I will not claim to resolve the debate over contraception, I will suggest that reframing the dialogue around a new focus on sexuality as a dimension of discipleship is valuable in itself.

The method I will utilize is designed to encourage this new dialogue. After a brief review of the document at the heart of the modern debate, I will turn to experience,5 analyzing the arguments of advocates See articles by Pamela Pilch and Leslie Tender in Commonweal, 23 April 2004, and multiple responses in Correspondence sections in subsequent issues.

See, for instance, Richard Gaillardetz, A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 101-11 and David McCarthy, "Procreation, the Development of Peoples, and the Final Destination of Humanity," Communio 26 (Winter 1999): 698-721.

experience is a significant source for contemporary Christian Ethics for both libHORIZONS of artificial contraception and natural family planning, pointing out key claims made by each group, identifying distinctive contributions, and searching for common ground. Listening to practitioners from both sides will allow for a new way of seeing the contemporary social map of sexual ethics. Contemporary Catholic writing on family planning differs from Vatican II-era discussions marked by competing concerns with resisting or adapting to the modern world by upholding or questioning moral norms. Younger writers both embrace the relationalfocus of contemporary culture and maintain a counter-cultural understanding of sexuality as a dimension of Christian discipleship. This is a good place for a new conversation to begin.

II. Humanae Vitae and Its Aftermath

Humanae Vitae is significant for the purposes of this article not only because it ignited the contemporary debate on contraception, but also because the commission appointed to decide if church teaching on contraception should change incorporated the experiences of married couples. Prior to the second Vatican Council, some prominent Catholic theologians, including Bernard Haring, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Louis Janssens, raised questions about the official teaching against contraception, while others, notably Cardinal Suenens, Josef Fuchs, and John Ford, upheld the traditional view.6 In order to deal with growing controversy, Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to study the subject. It started as a group of six men, most of them scientists, and eventually expanded to include over sixty members, including four women.

In Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, Robert McClory details the crucial roles played by Pat and Patty Crowley, leaders of the Christian Family Movement (CFM), whose testimony was influential in pushing the majority of the commission toward acceptance of artificial birth control. Initially, the Crowleys did an informal survey of the membership of the CFM, a network of groups of lay Catholic couples who met weekly to discuss the role of faith in their daily lives. They were staggered to find that "even the most dedicated, committed Catholics are deeply troubled by erais and conservatives, though its precise value is disputed. See Margaret Farley, "The Role of Experience in Moral Discernment," in Lisa Sowie Canili and James F. Childress, eds., Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1996), 134-51, and

Karol Wojtyla, "The Problem of Experience in Ethics," in his Person and Community:

Selected Essays, trans. Theresa Sandok (New York: Peter Lang, 1993): 107-28.

William Shannon, ed. The Lively Debate: Responses to Humanae Vitae (New York:

Sheed & Ward, 1970).

Rubio: Beyond the Liberal/Conservative Divide on Contraception 273 this problem."7 Frustrated users of the rhythm method testified in their letters that the method "seriously endangered [their] chastity," "[made them] obsessed with sex throughout the month," allowed them to show only "guarded affection" in fertile times (during which many women experienced their highest levels of sexual desire).8 They urged the Commission to allow married couples to decide for themselves when sex was appropriate, taking account of all relevant dimensions of their sexual relationship and their married life.9 According to Patty Crowley, at the end of the Commission's third meeting in 1964, Pope Paul VI urged the group to "continue its deliberations, listen to the anxiety of so many souls, and work diligently without worrying about criticism or difficulties."10 Commission members dared to hope that change was imminent.

The Crowleys returned to the next meeting of the Commission with a more systematic survey of over 3000 couples in 18 countries that was to have an even greater effect. Though most couples said the method worked well enough, and 64% said it helped them grow in selfsacrificial love, 78% believed that it was harmful to their marriage, in that it increased tension and reduced spontaneity. As the Crowleys saw it, couples "were struggling to find something positive in what struck them as basically negative."11 One woman questioned whether the sacrifice was worth it: "Rhythm leads to self-seeking, promotes excess in infertile times and strain in fertile times. Is contraceptive sex irresponsible when I have already borne 10 little responsibilities?"12 The Crowleys' surveys, which were complemented by similar, smaller studies done by Commission members from Europe and Australia, significantly influenced members of the commission.13 When a straw vote was taken among the nineteen theologians of the group at the Commission's final meeting, fifteen agreed that contraception was not intrinsiRobert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 72. See also Robert Blair Kaiser, The Politics of Sex and Religion (Kansas City, KS: Leaven Press, 1985) Ibid., 73. McClory notes that the studies of psychiatrist John Cavanaugh were also used to support the idea that rhythm was psychologically harmful, especially for women.

Ibid. This is a popular version of the principle of totality, proposed as an alternative to act-centered moral analysis.

Ibid., 78-79.

ai Ibid., 91.

Ibid., 92. For an alternative view of the Commission, see George A. Kelly, The Battle for the American Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 153-98 and James Hitchcock, "The Significance of the Papal Birth Control Commission," in Patrick G.D.

Riley, ed., Keeping the Faith: Msgr. George A. Kelly's Battle for the Church (Front Royal, VA: Christendom, 2000). Both question the relevance and accuracy of the CFM surveys.

After listening to the lay women of the Commission, one bishop commented, "This, is why we wanted to have couples on our Commission" (McClory, 106).

HORIZONS cally evil.14 Commission members then asked the women to speak of their experience, and they did. Patty Crowley in particular testified to the negative psychological effects of rhythm, to the testimony of married couples that it did not foster married love or unity, to their belief that it felt unnatural. 15 In sum, said Crowley, "the sense of the faithful is for change."16 However, despite the Commission's official report, which reflected the views of the majority17 of Catholics that the totality of the married relationship should be considered when analyzing the morality of contraception, a minority report (authored by Germain Grisez and signed by four Commission members) convinced the pope that the church could not have erred for centuries and that when the good of procreation is blocked by contraception, the integrity of the sexual act is violated.18 In 1968, he issued Humanae Vitae, affirming that every sexual act must remain open to procreation.

Some liberal theologians argue that the document has never been received by lay Catholics. McClory notes that of all episcopal conferences in the world, 17% fully accepted the teaching, 56% were opposed, and 28% uncertain. 19 The Crowleys, who had been convinced the teaching against contraception would change, felt betrayed and, along with the other U.S. lay members of the Commission, urged couples to follow their consciences.20 At Catholic University, Charles Curran authored a dissenting letter that was signed by over six hundred Catholic scholars within a few weeks. 21 This organized public theology was greeted with suspicion by the Vatican. Yet, the majority of American Catholics stopped using the rhythm method and polls show that most believe they should be permitted to make their own decisions about family planning.22 Ibid., 90. The final vote of the entire commission was fifty-eight to four.

Ibid., 103-04 Ibid., 107.

Of course, a worldwide survey of Catholics has not yet been done. It is possible that such a survey would reveal a greater diversity than the current data suggests.

Ibid., 110-11.

Ibid., 145.

Ibid., 141.

Ibid., 140.

Eighty seven percent of Catholics agreed with this statement in a 1993 Gallup poll [Los Angeles Times, 7 January 1993, p. E6). Vincent Genovesi reports that only about 4% of couples use NFP, In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality, 2d ed., (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 206. The pro-NFP Couple to Couple League believes the figure may be even lower, perhaps three percent. See John Kipley, "How Many?" available at ccli.org/articles/howmany. See also, Richard Fehring and Andrea Matovina Schlidt, "Trends in Contraceptive Use Among Catholics in the U.S.: 1985Linacre Quarterly 68/2 (May 2001): 170-85. Seventy percent of Catholic couples did not use contraception in 1955; see Kelly, 188, relying on demographic research from 1973.

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