Thursday, October 16, 2008

1968 and all that ...

This post originally appeared in the Brandsma Review , along with lots of other excellent stuff! Information on how to subscribe is available at their website.

Peter de Rosa opined in the Herald (July 23) on Humanae Vitae. His piece was a catalogue of misconceptions (if you'll excuse the pun!) and is one of the strongest indications yet of how the opponents of HV are stuck in the past. Mr de Rosa seems to be fighting the battles of forty years ago with the knowledge and insight of forty years ago. Put bluntly, Paul VI was right in his predictions and thus his moral teaching has an ever-increasing credibility for those who examine it with an open mind.

However let's return to De Rosa and his reminiscences for a moment.
... After lecturing in ethics at the Westminster Seminary, I moved on to teach theology at Corpus Christi, an international college. It was there I did the unforgivable: I contradicted the Pope on a matter of ethics.

The main contention here is simply not true. Contradicting the Pope is not unforgiveable; as with many things in the Church, forgiveness is offered upon repentance. The way back is always simple. Say sorry!
When Paul VI banned all forms of contraception, I openly disagreed, beginning with personal letters to the London Times and Time Magazine ... I organised a letter to The Times of polite disagreement from the UK clergy ... Over 100 priests signed up ... Meanwhile, they persuaded many of the signatories to withdraw this "terrible insult to the Holy Father". Fifty-five priests stayed with me.

This is where we see a more telling picture begins to emerge. This isn't a heartfelt, agonising decision for a loyal priest who genuinely believes the Church has taken the wrong path. This is a man who is planning and executing a political campaign. He is in the business of rounding up signatures and making common cause with the news media against the Church. Moreover, De Rosa seems on his own account to have turned it into a sort of popularity contest. Thus 55 priests "stayed with me" as if loyalty to the person of De Rosa were some sort of virtue!

What is particularly disturbing about this paragraph is that it opens with a statement that is seriously misleading. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that De Rosa is being deliberately dishonest. He could be so historically ill-informed that he genuinely believes that out of the blue and as a new departure "Paul VI banned all forms of contraception". It is possible that he has persuaded himself that Pope Paul VI made a radical departure rather than simply reaffirming almost 2000 years of constant Christian witness. Or it's possible that he is being a little careless in what is after all a newpaper op-ed, not a scholarly treatise. The fact remains that Pope Paul VI continued what had been the constant practice of the Christian Churches East and West, which was established from immemorial custom at the time De Rosa was ordained. He claims to have "loved his vocation" but from the outset his vocation was to the priesthood of a Church that had an absolute ban on contraceptive marital intercourse (scroll down to no's 53-56). He knew well that for nigh on two millennia the Church had set her face against contraception of whatever kind; after the Anglicans sold the pass Pope Pius XI deliberately reiterated the Church's teaching on contraception so that no-one could be left in any doubt. Is De Rosa aware of the obvious implication that after so many years of study (presumably involving theological study) he wasn't aware of that teaching? Or did he volunteer for the priesthood on a purely provisional basis, i.e. not the Church as he actually found her but as he wanted her to be?
I had no problem with what the bishops did. They run a totalitarian regime in which the Pope has absolute power.

Obiviously he had no problem with it, that's why FORTY YEARS LATER he's still complaining about it in a newspaper. (Although it must be a bit of a comedown from the [London] Times and Time Magazine to the Herald!) The business about totalitarianism is risible, however. The Pope has immense spiritual authority which comes from Christ. He has at last count no secret police, a very few armed men who would be over-run in minutes by any determined military force, no prison, no torture apparatus, no Gulag or Laogai and in fact none of the structures of a modern totalitarian state. If De Rosa or anyone else wants out of the Catholic Church, all he has to do is say so. And no-one can stop him! As for absolute power, that's even more ridiculous. The Pope has no power to change the content of the Faith. He has no power to change the Natural Law. He can no more add a Person to the Holy Trinity than he can make murder moral; he is bound by teaching of Christ and the Church. He couldn't alter that even to accommodate Peter De Rosa.

I was the one out of line. I warned the remaining signatories we would never have clerical preferment. We'd be lucky to survive.

This is a very odd comment to make. He's just taken a long-standing solemn teaching of a very old institution indeed and trashed it publicly. He's done so after having taken a salary from the self-same institution for many years. He even (at Ordination) promised obedience to his Ordinary (and that Bishop's successors) and was now reneging on that promise. With all that, his principal concern seems to be for his prospects of promotion! Any reasonable person, who lived in the real world as opposed to some sort of clericalist cocoon would realise that this kind of behaviour gets you fired, and rightly so. What's even odder is the "lucky to survive" comment. Survive as priests? Why would they even want to? If they disagree that profoundly with a seriously held and institutionally reinforced position of that kind, isn't resignation the honourable course of action? Alternatively, we might be in Dan Brown territory where De Rosa and his cohort feared not for their livelihood but for their lives. Did he get wind of an albino assassin haunting the precincts of the Westminster diocese?
... scarier things were to come ... Bishops told us individually to recant. Unless we did, we would lose our present posts. If we continued to disobey, we would have to leave the priesthood ... My discussions with Cardinal Heenan were friendly. But he still threatened me. If I openly contradicted the Pope once more I would never have another teaching post in the Church.

There's that pesky promise of obedience again, freely entered into and given voluntarily. What's even more amazing is that De Rosa seems to see himself as some sort of martyr. When he promised to obey, he was offering an open-ended gift of himself and his whole life. He was called on it. The demand to pay was not with his blood, like a genuine martyr but only with his job. Of course he could have taken the alternative course of humility. Supposing he had said to himself "The Church is a lot older and wiser than I am ... She also has certain guarantees from Christ regarding not falling into error ... OK I'll give way to her judgment and see if I can find a way to live with this". Or he could simply have said "The Church is wrong but I was wrong to sign up for the priesthood under these conditions. She's keeping to her view but mine has changed, so I quit!" Either of these positions would have been both honest and honourable. Instead of which ...
I met with him on a regular basis after that, trying to find an accommodation. None was possible, of course.

Now there's a surprise! A priest who dissents from the formal, solemn teaching of the Church cannot be accommodated!

Then we get to the really fun part, where 1968 comes alive again, as if science and demographics have been preserved in amber for the last 40 years. (And as if 40 years of experience haven't shown that NFP is as effective as ANY form of artificial contraception at avoiding pregnancy but without the side effects!)
I believed then, as now, that the ban on contraception was a disaster. Pastoral experience taught me that it led to marital misery. Most Catholic couples rejected official policy; they respected the Pope but honoured God and their families more.

Marital Misery? Strong words. How exactly, I wonder? Too many children, perhaps. In which case one could simply ask the question, which one would you give back? Perhaps, he is referring to the genuinely hard cases of a wife with a violent spouse who simply cannot face another pregnancy. Of course the Church is pretty clear about what she should do - GET OUT fast, and use the protection of civil law against her sinful husband. Perhaps he means rampant marital breakdown, which we all know was stopped dead in its tracks by the widespread rejection of HV. Or maybe he's referring to the spread of venereal diseases which of course thrive in an environment where a man sees his wife as his "respected and beloved companion" (HV 17) to whom he is faithful.
Two years later when I was finally forced out ... I said the world population had reached three billion. By 2000, it would be six billion. To think we could stop the nuclear explosion of people by sexual abstinence and the safe period was like suggesting we try emptying the English Channel with a teaspoon ...
Two years? Why on earth did it take that long? Would a police officer who refused to enforce laws he didn't like be given that much leeway? Would a politician who refused to follow the party line have two years grace? Of course this is where De Rosa's problem with outdated demographics come into play. He honestly seems to believe that entomologist Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb has actually been vindicated. It most assuredly has not. The problem in the West, at least, is not too many people but too few. Fertility is not increasing but decreasing. We are in fact facing into a demographic winter.

However, Mr De Rosa seems to be determined not to allow the facts to get in the way of a good story, even if they are facts with which he could reasonably be expected to acquaint himself, particularly if he bases his justification of such a major decision on them.
... I realised later I could have remained a priest had I merely sexually abused children ... I felt, however, that I had escaped after 21 years solitary confinement. I was a free man at last.

His peroration is a nauseating combination of a gratuitous cheap shot on the one hand and a piece of self-aggrandising nonsense on the other. The fact that child abusing priests were tolerated for so long has precisely nothing to do with De Rosa's rejection of Humanae Vitae. It's simply a gratuitous piece of nastiness on his part. The reference to "21 years of solitary confinement" is both contradictory and offensive. To say that he experienced six years of seminary life and fifteen years of priesthood as "solitary confinement" hardly matches his reference to "the vocation I loved" and "dreamed of ... since I was five". To suggest that his experience, even if he found it tough, was comparable to that of Fr Walter Ciszek (who REALLY spent five years in solitary)or Fr Alfred Delp or Ignatius Pin-Mei Cardinal Kung is simply crass. I'm sorry he didn't remain faithful to his ordination promise and indeed to his vocation but God can bring great good even out of betrayal and disloyalty. As a response to men like De Rosa (and many others) the great good of The Theology of the Body, NFP and the whole counter-cultural witness of the Church in the contemporary period has arisen. It's just a pity that men like De Rosa are so trapped in the past that they can't be a part of it.


FrB said...

Great article! It's refreshing to see humbug being so thoroughly skewered.

Pam H. said...

Wish more people could (would?) read the refutations. Can't understand why they need them, anyway, tho'....