English Catholics and religious authority

By Michael Hornsby-Smith
In Roman Catholic beliefs in England
published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991. pp. 168-177.

Published on our website with the author’s permission

8.2 Contraception

There seems to be general agreement that in the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council expectations of a change in the official teaching of the Church on the matter of birth control were well-grounded. The final report, the Papal Commission on Population, Family and Birth(The Tablet, 22 April 1967 had seemed to pave the way for such a change by providing reasoned arguments (Kaiser, 1987) but in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI (1968) reaffirmed the traditional prohibitions. Many active Catholic lay people at that time were shattered and rebellious that their expectations had been dashed. While the unrest did not develop explosively in the way that David Martin had predicted, there seems little doubt that it generated a crisis of authority in the Church in ways which are not entirely clear.

Our interviews with ordinary Catholics, that is randomly selected Catholic electors in four parishes in the London and Preston areas, were obtained in the mid-1970s, some six or seven years after the publication of Pope Paul’s encyclical. By then the public protests of both priests and lay people were over, the fuss had died down and most English Catholics had adapted to the new situation. In our interviews with them we explored their attitudes to religious auth­ority and the teachings of the Church. More often than not the question of contraception was raised spontaneously to indicate an area where there was explicit disagreement. Where the issue was not directly addressed, we specifically prompted comments about the Church’s teaching on such issues as contraception, divorce and abortion. In Table 8.1 we have classified the responses on contraception under twelve main headings. The illustrative quotations have been selected from ordinary Catholics in all four parishes, both sexes, all age groups and social classes. Some of the respondents are committed to the extent of attending Mass more frequently than the weekly norm, while others have only tenuous links with their local parish.

Table 8.1. Classification of responses on contraception (Catholic electors, four parishes)


What you need is to try and get people to control themselves, which can be done through the grace of God.

p Male, 61, married, skilled manual; more than weekly)

2. (Some want the Church to say it’s alright, when the Church can alright … [and] go against God’s laws.

(pi; F male)

B.Cause of Misery

3. ;This has been one of the unchristian things about the Church, this business of birth control … It puts tremendous stress >011 people.

Male, 42, married, skilled manual; weekly)

4.cases all the love and affection which was within a marriage wasnt there … and I think a lot of very good people have suffered quite a lot, and their marriages … too, because of it.

(l i; Male,56, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

5. the nuns and priests who preach, who dont get married … they think the more babies you have the more little Catholics you’ll have.

Female, 47, separated; non-manual; never)

6.I think … they should have contraception and abortions. I think they should be allowed. They ruin a lot of people’s lives without them.

pi Female, 23, single, casual worker; occasionally)

C.Emotional Strain

7.Because some people arent very good at having babies and it being not very good for them … and for all sorts of reasons: psychological, emotional, financial.

(liFemale, 3 , married, unskilled; weekly)

8.>I am inclined to think that for family reasons … beyond a certain stage, for a particular couple …I don’t think Cod wants to see a stress situation in a family to the point of it breaking up.; Male, 43, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

9I’ve got four children and I think that’s enough, so on that line I agree with birth control … When I had the last child I went through a lot of upset nerves because I [already] had three little ones.

(ps; Female, 37, married, non-manual; weekly)

D.Economic Reasons

10.Speaking generally, from our point of view, with four children … it takes a lot of bringing up … in material terms and in everything else. There’s a limit to how far you can stretch yourself.

(ps; Male, 45, married, clerical; weekly)

11. If they know they can’t afford to have a child … and young couples today can’t find places to live anyway, so why not avoid having any children until they know that they can bring them into the world?

(Female, 50, married, manual; special occasions)

E. Overpopulation

12 There must be some way of controlling population in places like India without half the population starving.

ls Male,17, single, student; weekly)

< 13.World population is obviously one of the things … The doctrine God will provide has its limitations.

(ps; Female, 40, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

F.Inadequate reasoning

14.Obviously you’re not killing life because you’ve no life there in the first place. (psFemale, 22, single, non-manual; weekly)

15. I don’t really see where God’s teaching comes into it.

(Male, 44, married, non-manual; weekly)

16.What the Church does say is that you can use this rhythm method for … contraception. So the intention is there … but that you can’t use mechanical methods of contraception.

(li; Female, 30, married, non-manual; monthly)

G Inchoherent Authority

.17.One is not really going against the Church if you use contraception … I’m going according to the bishops and priests who leave it up to yourself, to your conscience. lsFemale, 28, married, skilled; Christmas and Easter)

18.I think it is a worry to have one priest say one thing and another to say another thing because you don’t know where you are.

Female, 29, married, clerk; weekly)

H.Resented authority

19.I don’t believe what they say … because they’re not going to fetch the kids up. They’re not going to give to your family if you have one after the other I think it’s nothing to do with them.

(Female, 29, married, manual; special occasions)

20. It’s only when you are involved that you start really seriously thinking about these things … on some of these things one gets the impression that the rules have been made by celibates for celibates.

(lsMale, >56, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

21.It’s up to me, not the Church … If I want to [use contraceptives] I just go ahead and do it. The Church doesn’t come into it.I mean, they can’t keep the children for you if you have them one after the other … It’s alright preaching it, but …

(pi; Female, 32, married, manual; irregular)

I.Confined legitimacy

22 I don’t agree with a little man sitting in Rome on a golden throne telling me that I can’t take the pill if I want to take it or … for medical reasons because that’s a business between me and my God.

(lsFemale, 47, divorced, clerk; never)

23. As far as religious doctrine is concerned, the pope is infallible. As far as practical, day-to-day social existence is concerned, the question the pope’s infallibility.

(Male, 30, married, skilled manual; occasional)

J.Appropriated legitimacy

24.I think on this matter I know better because I am directly involved … we are supposed to listen to the pope and the clergy because they are God’s representatives here on earth . It’s just on something so personal, I know better.

(Female, 29, married, clerk; weekly)

25.This is one of the areas where [many Catholics] begin to make up their own minds I think that, more and more, people are beginning to think things out for themselves in a well-informed way.

(ps; Female, 40, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

26.A very large proportion of the Roman Catholic community find it extremely difficult to submit to the authority of the pope in his stand .. In spite of what Rome says, a very high proportion of priests will tell you that it is a matter for your own conscience.

(li; Male, 68, married, non-manual; weekly)K.Redefined legitimacy

27.[The] Church lays down guidance but I think it’s ultimately your conscience whether you practice birth control or not think the Church … shouldn’t be too specific [but] guide one’s conscience.

(ls; Male, 30, married, skilled manual; occasional)

28.They’ve not given a definite answer to contraception, have they really? They’ve given you a guideline that you should take … and they’re against it.

(Male, 53, single, clerical; weekly)

Anticipated transformation

29. Whether [the Church] will change its outlook, I don’t know. People might change it for them … They can change their ways in things like serving Mass … Maybe in time they might have to [change] … It’s a bit late in coming, really.

(li; Female,52, married, manual; monthly)

30.The teachings of the Church on sex and marriage can’t be changed overnight; it would rock the boattoo much. They would have to be eroded over time.

(li; Male, 34, married, non-manual; special occasions)

Key to respondent characteristics:

Parish; sex, age, marital status, occupational category; Mass attendance.

It was in fact very difficult to find one of our ordinary Catholics who was unambiguously in agreement with the Church’s official teaching on contraception, and even those who claimed not to have used artificial methods of birth control themselves tended to be sympathetic to the difficulties of young people. The examples given of neo-official comments (1-2) tended to be offered by a tiny handful of regularly practising, elderly people in inner-city parishes and to be rather judgemental. Thus one man in Preston thought that people just wanted their own selfish pleasures and to carry on like that (1). Similarly, an elderly woman in London urged the practice of self-control fearing that we are losing all sense of moral control now

Around one-half of our respondents volunteered a range of excuses or justifications (Scott and Lyman, 1968: 46) for rejecting the official teaching of the Church on contraception. Categories and d all have the flavour of excuses, in the sense that they appear to admit to breaking the rules of the Church but deny full responsibility The first of these categories (3-6), mentioned by respondents in all four parishes, stressed that the Church’s traditional teaching had been the cause of a great deal of generalised human misery. Thus one man referred to parish gossip between women who had mentioned in confession that their husbands were using contraceptives and it has caused very, very great distress (li). Two respondents thought that contraception might have been a particular cause of suffering or conflict in their parents marriages (eg 4). As one woman put it: And that whole sex thing could have possibly led to something not quite right in my parents’relationshipIn the case of one respondent (6) there was no distinction made between contraception and abortion; in both cases the teachings of the Church ruin a lot of people’s lives.

In the second category of excuses, the focus was more explicitly on the emotional strains resulting from the official teaching. In some cases reference was made to stress specifically on the mother, especially if she already had a number of small children to bring up (9). Thus references were made to the circumstances and how the mother can cope and one woman observed that she had seen too much suf fering and too many >women old before their time through having too many children. For a young man contraception was necessary to actually protect women. from having eight or nine children when they can only handle one or two and a young mother feared she would be too harrassed to be a good mother if she had more than two or three children . Other respondents referred in general to family stresses. Thus one young woman claimed scriptural support for her view:

In the Bible God said go out and love man He didn’t say >go and breed like rabbits…I don’t think they have a right to put a strain on a family with fear of condemnation if you don’t follow these rules they’ve laid down for us. Because they are not in the Bible, so they are of no relevance, as far as I am concerned. Female, 27, married, skilled manual; never)

Economic ‘excuses’ also mentioned by a number of ordinary Catholics This was particularly felt by those who already had several children and considered additional children would stretch their resources so far (10) that it would be difficult to bring children up properly rather than in hardship Others referred to the problems faced by young marrieds in finding appropriate shelter (11)

The next three categories of response (e, f and g) all have the nature of justifications in the sense we have noted before, that is where responsibility is accepted for a breach of the official rules while denying that there is anything wrong with this (Scott and Lyman, 1968: 46 . The first of these categories, mentioned mainly by people in the two suburban parishes, involves concern for the rapid increase in the world’s population (1213) w’h ts concomitant problems of feeding it, preventing starvation, finding sufficient space for it, and generally a minimum quality of life. Thus for one respondent if they’d had the foresight, they would have realised the dangers of over-population and the doctrine would have been modified before now(ls).

>The second justification identified the reasoning for the official ruling on contraception as inadequate (14- 16). A number of quite distinct criticisms were made. Firstly it was argued that, unlike abortion, contraception did not involve the killing of life (14). Secondly, it was doubted that there was a clear indication of God’s law (15). Thus one man observed:

You can’t find [any] derivation for birth control [in scripture] … And this makes me think that they’re wrong … I think they know that now … [but] its difficult to admit you are wrong; you’re on a hiding to nothing … It just seems ludicrous to let women have children and children… [I’ve also come to] the realisation that sexual intercourse is .. not [just] specifically to have children … [but also] an expression of love and affection and respect for each other, (ps; Male, 36, married, non-manual; weekly)

Thirdly, distinctions between the rhythm method and the use of the pill or mechanical methods of contraception were regarded as inappropriate or unconvincing, especially when questions of intentionality were considered (16). Thus a young woman argued:

I just can’t see any reason why it’s wrong … If they can agree with the rhythm method I can’t see why they can disagree with the pill… In a lot of cases people just can’t afford to have children; it’s just not practical. And it causes a lot of problems in marriage if you’ve got to be thinking about the right time of the month and everything, you know. You can’t regulate the sex life like that. It causes arguments and problems Female, 20single, non-manual; more than weekly)

Finally, a number of respondents commented that the teaching of the Church simply was not clear enough:

They don’t give their reasons properly for it (PI)

I wouldn’t say that I’m in opposition to the Church on [contraception] because I don’t know what the Church’s teaching really is. (LS)

A related category suggested that religious authority in the Church on this issue was incoherent (17 18). What was stressed here, particularly by people in the London suburban parish, was that priests differed in their position and advice on the contraception issue. Gossip and conversation networks, especially for women, are probably extremely effective in disseminating such information where it is not a taboo subject. Thus reference was made by our respondents to the fact that different priests say different things & and the suggestion was made that priests must know and turn a blind eye Under these circumstances the legitimacy of the clerical leadership is inevitably weakened.

For around one-half of our respondents authority appeared to be contested, to use Houtart’s expression which we noted in the previous chapter. In the first place clerical authority is resented because priests don&t have to suffer the consequences& of their teachings. Here we are concerned with the prohibition of contraception (1921)but similar remarks were also made in connection with abortion and divorce. Thus a woman sterilised after she had had seven children thought:

they should relax a bit because it’s not fair to children they don’t bring them up for you … They shouldn’t tell people what to do; they don’t know anything about married life. (Female, 42, married, manual; weekly)

Another woman remarked priests don’t have families so don’t understand .A third woman complained that a lot of people making the rules are not in a position of having to obey them and a fourth that priests meddle too much in people’s lives&. A fifth described how she tried to reconcile her belief that it was a sin to go against the Church, even if the Church was mistaken, with the realities of her own situation:

to me, if the pope has said such-and-such a thing, then that’s it, and if I’ve gone against the pope… I’ll have committed a sin … Well I think it would have to be up to me in the end because … I would have to solve the situation … The priest himself is in a different situation to what I would be … Supposing it was birth control and he said no you mustn’t do it that way, you must do it this way And supposing I became pregnant again and I couldn’t afford to be … Then he hasn’t got to live with that situation, has he? We have to. And who else is going to suffer? The rest of the family. So to me, I’d have to go it on my own …I would probably ask his advice but if I didn’t think he was right then I probably would [go it on my own] I usually solve my problems on my own. ls; Female, 38, married, skilled; monthly)

Something of the flavour of the agonies over the ruling on contraception experienced by older generations of Roman Catholics is apparent in the comments of a man (20) who was active in one of the larger Catholic organisations. He considered that people of his parents’ generation had suffered greatly as a result of the prohibition. He explained that he and his wife had always conformed to the rules of the Church I tell you one thing it’s been bloody difficult! He continued:

Although I have accepted the ruling of the Church … nowadays I am not so sure in my own mind that it is sinful, say, to use the pill… It’s only when you are involved that you start really seriously thinking about these things. And what I think is this … Sex is a part of marriage. It’s not all of it, but its a part of it and sex isnt merely the act of having intercourse … Everybody … needs some sort of love and affection … And I feel if somebody says you mustn’t make love to your wife… (husband) … or you mustn’t give your wife (husband) a cuddle .. because if you do you are going to have some feelings and if you do that you are going to have intercourse, and if you do that you’ve got to conceive or you’ve got to leave it whether you conceive or not.I don’t think … that that is right. And I think that with an informed … and sincere practising Catholic who have a family, you know, they’re not being selfish … in that sense, I don’t think that using the pill is wrong.

Turning to his wife, he asked her if she agreed and she, with some emphasis affirmed I do,I do He continued:

That’s what I call Christian marriage … But what I am beginning to think is that the rules on these sort of things are based purely on the physical aspects of marriage. They’re not on the spiritual aspects or … love …I dont think anybody is against the Church and I think in a lot of cases the Church is humane… But I do think that on some of these things one gets the impression that the rules have been made by celibates for celibates Male, 56, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

Two points in particular might be not >ed here. Firstly, there is in this man’s unaggressive deliberations, not only the rebuke that the rules are made by those who do not really understand the situation, but also a reflection of a new emphasis in the theology of marriage on the validity of sexual intercourse in affirming the worth and love for the spouse. Such a shift of emphasis away from procreation has been a constant theme in the writings of lay specialists such as Dr Jack Dominion who sees sexual intercourse as a precious gift from God, a recurrent act of body language of love… a recurrent affirmation of personhood. confirming each other’s sexual identity … an act of reconciliation … a continuous experience of hope of being loved… an act of thanksgiving for our partner’s being.(1989; see also 1975: 165 1977: 59-65;1981: 95-7). Such a theology seems much closer to the everyday experiences of married people than the older emphasis on the primacy of procreation.

Secondly, it seems likely that this man is reflecting the agonies of the last generation of lay Catholics to accept the legitimacy of the clerical leadership to teach authoritatively in this area of personal relationships, even if that teaching is found to be unconvincing. Subsequent generations of Catholics seem much more likely to regard contraception as purely a personal matter and to halt creeping infallibility at this point. In other words it seems that since the publication ofHumanae Vitae (Paul VI, 1968) most lay Catholics have decided that the legitimacy of clerical authority should be excluded from this area. In all probability this exclusion is permanent and irreversible. A number of examples of such confined legitimacy were given by our respondents (22-3 . Thus one woman confided that she disagreed with her husband who thought that he couldn’t really be a Catholic if he disagreed with their ideas on birth control and divorce., adding you can disagree with certain things but still agree with Catholicism Similarly a middle-aged man believed that it was’t their prerogative to tell me whether I should have three or four children The next category of response explicitly appropriates legitimate authority in this area and stresses making up your own mind on the basis of an informed conscience (24-6). Thus a frequent Mass attender thought that:

the Church has got to change its view on contraception .. perhaps the Church’s view of family and married life is rather restrictive … I think the authority of the Church is something which is coming into question and I think that, more and more, people are beginning to think things out for themselves. And I think that if you are a true Christian, a true Catholic, who really believes in God, and so on, you hope that you will make your decisions with His help in a well-informed way… There are a lot of practising Catholics who … do not follow the authoritarian line of the Church,ps; Female, 40, married, non-manual; more than weekly)

The final two categories of response focus more explicitly on reinterpretations of authority in this area. For some ordinary Catholics the teachings of the Church were to be regarded as guidelines to action rather than as immutable rules of conduct (27-8 . Others anticipated that change in the official teaching would come eventually (29-30), even if the transformation would be painful both for those who previously had struggled to conform and for the clerical leadership which would have to retreat from a former position of certainty and authority. Interestingly, one respondent (29) observed that people might impose change in the rules on the leadership, in ways analogous to those others have suggested might be relevant in the case of intercommunion. A young man acknowledged that the teachings cannot be changed overnight because that would rock the boat too much, but also conceded that the rules were right for earlier generations of Catholics and were bound up with the‘Catholic family remaining Catholics and producing Catholics’ (30). The suspicion that the prohibition of contraception was a device for ensuring the continued growth of the Catholic community in an earlier, defensive period was voiced by several of our respondents.

In a recent article a theologian has suggested that the way out of the present crisis over contraception may lie in the recognition that a shift of paradigm is taking place (Moore, 1989). The evidence we have reviewed suggests that the significance of such a shift of paradigm, which purports to legitimate the use of contraception within marriage, does not lie with lay people who have largely made up their own minds on this matter, and now regard it as none of the business of the clerical leadership in the Church. Rather such a shift will simply have relevance for the clerical leadership and provide them with a legitimation for a transformation in their own position. In the meantime, lay people will have moved on, possibly to contest the authority of the clerical leadership in other areas of religious life.