This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.
A typical headline calling attention to the forthcoming (October) Vatican conference of bishops reads: "Vatican: Most Catholics reject our teachings on contraception, sex." The bishops are convening to deal with these often-rejected teachings.
Some supporters of the Church's teachings soften the edge on the rejection theme. Thus the LifeSiteNews headline: "Most Catholics don't know Church teaching on sex, life, and family: Vatican." An honest report issued by the Vatican summarizing the "brutally honest" responses on its recent questionnaire showed that many church leaders "get it." Church officials promise not "close their eyes to anything" during the two-year debate scheduled for these subjects.
The idea of asking clergy and laity for their opinions is not wholly new. The classic, modern statement by the great convert to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman, came in his 1859 "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine." At first Newman had to apologize for having written thus, but as time passed, his emphasis gained credibility among many in the church.
In 1993, Drew Christiansen, writing for the Jesuit weekly America, celebrated Newman's document:
"It is at least natural to anticipate such an act of kind feeling and sympathy to great practical matters." Christiansen reminded readers: Newman, republished on the eve of Vatican II, spoke of the church as "a conspiracy of pastors and faithful in which the faithful should have a respected place . . . there is something . . . [in the relationship] which is not in the pastors alone."
LifeSiteNews complains that too few pastors preach on the Church's teachings on sexual matters, leaving the laity ignorant. The Vatican's report on the findings of its recent questionnaire noted that "some responses also voice a certain dissatisfaction with some members of the clergy who appear indifferent to some moral teachings." The Vatican authors of the report, The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, know that they are not countering indifference so much as disagreement and open rejection.
In 1993, Peter Steinfels quoted my late friend-and-neighbor Father Andrew Greeley after the issuance in 1968 of the anti birth-control papal encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The encyclical was contributing, Greeley had said, to the then already perceived "catastrophic collapse of the old Catholic social ethic." Greeley had noted a poll that found more American Catholics than Protestants saying that premarital sex was "not wrong at all." Steinfels also quoted Father Bernard Haring: "No papal teaching document has caused such an earthquake in the church as the encyclical Humanae Vitae."
I got my own close-up view from the Protestant margins on the night that news of the Humanae Vitae reached American shores. At a large gathering at a Benedictine monastery in Colorado where I shared the platform with three notable Catholics, one of them being Haring (who had been the Pope's confessor months earlier), the Redemptorist priest was stunned at the anti-birth control teaching. He knew that most of the pope's counselors on the subject expected change.
I had my turn to be stunned when the monastery's Abbot asked me to offer a homily at the Compline service that evening "because no Catholic on the premises is willing to reflect so soon." So, with "catastrophe" and "earthquake" just beginning to be felt, I did preach -- and have shuddered often ever since.
One hopes for fresh approaches after the bishops have "consulted the faithful" in matters of doctrine and practice. No one will envy them in their efforts to revisit -- or revise? -- the Church's teachings.
Associated Press. "Vatican: Most Catholics reject our teachings on contraception, sex." New York Post, June 27, 2014, News.
White, Hilary. "Most Catholics don't know Church teaching on sex, life, and family: Vatican." LifeSiteNews, June 27, 2014, Opinion Catholic Church.
Christiansen, Drew, S. J. "A Conspiracy of Bishops and Faithful: Reading Newman's 'On Consulting the Faithful' today." America: The National Catholic Review, September 27, 2010.
Rush, James and Associated Press. "Vatican considers historic easing stance on contraception and marriage as it finally concedes ordinary Catholics don't follow the rules." Mail Online, June 26, 2014, News.
Steinfels, Peter. "Vatican Watershed - A special report.; Papal Birth-Control Letter Retains Its Grip." The New York Times, August 1, 1993, Archives.
Pope Paul VI. "Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth." Papal Encyclicals Online, July 25, 1968. Accessed June 29, 2014.
"The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization: Instrumentum Laboris." The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops and Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014. Accessed June 29, 2014.