Contraception misconceptions

Opinion: Columns

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Kathleen Hopkins

One View

I would like to respond in all charity to Carolyn Righeimer's letter in the March 7 issue [It's about religious freedom, Viewpoints]. Whose religious freedom is in question?

1) Casti Connubii [Pius XI's 1930 encyclical on birth control] asserted that the only purpose of the marital act was procreation. Any other purpose was a sin. This was overruled by the subsequent encyclical, Humanae Vitae [Paul VI, 1968], which taught that procreation and the expression of love between the spouses were equal purposes of the marital act. Couples incapable of pregnancy (post-menopause, hysterectomy, age, unknown factors, etc.) could still have relations in good conscience. This was a change from prior teaching. St. Augustine also taught that abortion was allowable up until "quickening" or movement of the fetus (about 16 weeks). That seems to have been changed.

2) Therefore, teachings can change, and have many times over the centuries. Humanae Vitae is an encyclical, which is a discipline, not a doctrine or a dogma. It was never taught "ex cathedra" and therefore is not infallible. The Pope could change it tomorrow if he wanted to. Moreover, the Magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church] is not the only factor in the validity of a Church teaching. There is something called the Sensus Fidelium, Sense of the Faithful, which must be in agreement with the teaching. If a teaching of the Magisterium is widely unaccepted ("not received") by the faithful, it is not a valid teaching. Many theologians of unimpeachable credentials think that a 98 percent rejection rate for the encyclical Humanae Vitae fits this description. In a sense then, contrary to popular opinion, the Church actually does function as a democracy.

3) In the 1600s, my ancestors in Massachusetts were compelled under law to belong to the established Protestant Church and to pay taxes thereto, under pain of imprisonment and heavy fines. Talk about not respecting freedom of conscience. This predates the American Revolution, and such laws inspired the constitutional guarantee of freedom to worship and the separation of church and state.

4) Finally, the formation of conscience does not depend solely on the Magisterium. It has several components. A person must first be knowledgeable of the teaching of the Church on the matter in question, then consult whatever expert might have knowledge of the issue in question (for example, this could be a medical doctor with knowledge of the couple's particular circumstances), then prayerfully listen to God and make the best decision possible for him/herself. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that a person must (not may, but must) follow his/her conscience, even if that conscience disagrees with the Church's teaching, or is not well formed.

5) The Church has the right to be left out of coercion by the State, but does not have the right to coerce obedience to its teachings among those who are not its members — or even among its members. "For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery." (St. Paul to the Galatians 5:1).

6) The Church is entitled to be free of government interference in its teachings and practices. It is not "entitled" to grants and taxes from that government to advance its mission, nor is it entitled by right to tax exemption for contributions made to it.

Now can we please get on with praying to and worshipping God without involving politics?

Kathleen Spears Hopkins, an Oak Park resident, holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago, a B.A. from Catholic University, and is a writer specializing in theological reflection.

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Reader Comments

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Marty Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: April 2nd, 2012 7:22 PM

My wife and I brought the Journal with us on a trip to New Orleans, which is where I read this incredible and insightful piece, and now that I'm home I have to put in my two cents of support. This is a masterpiece of reasoning by Kathleen Hopkins (who is a friend) and I was thrilled to read it. Thank you for "telling it like it is" as we used to say back in the Sixties! Conscience is indeed inviolable, even by the bureaucrats in the Vatican.

Thank you Ms. Hopkins  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 10:49 PM

Ms. Hopkins, Thank you. I have recently felt trapped in a crisis of faith because my conscience does not agree with the Magisterium on this issue. You have provided me with a well-reasoned and theologically grounded justification for maintaining my Catholic faith.

Joan Suchomel from Oak Park  

Posted: March 22nd, 2012 12:11 AM

Ms. Hopkins, thank you so much for submitting this essay. I wish all public discourse could be this thoughtful, intelligent and well-reasoned.

John Butch Murtagh from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2012 11:18 PM

Kathleen - Hopefully without being sacrilegious, I believe you should would be a wonderful Pope. Thanks for the clarity.

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