Habits of Mind at The Tablet

FAITH Magazine September-October 2008 s

1. False Assumptions in the Editorial Line

by Fr David Barrett

The assumptions made by The Tablet throughout its issue for the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae (26th July 2008) throw a light upon its editorial stance. They are pre-judged, never fully articulated or worked out, and they significantly damage even the magazine’s interpretation of the survey of Catholic attitudes and actions which they published in that issue.

In her editorial, Catherine Pepinster reproaches Pope Paul VI for what she claims are his assumptions in Humanae Vitae, but she is painfully unaware of her own. For example, she writes,

“ Thinking Catholics, who knew what had happened in Rome before the encyclical, who had absorbed all that Vatican II had to say about the Church as the People of God, had assumed that their concerns would be listened to and change in the Church’s stance on birth control was inevitable.”
The assumption here is that only unthinking Catholics did not expect or desire such a change in the Church’s teaching. We can presume that not only was Pope Paul therefore necessarily an unthinking Catholic but also the then Karol Wojtila, or the other highly accomplished theologians and experts who formed the so-called ‘minority group’ of the Papal Commission set up to discuss the question of the contraceptive pill. The Tablets unthinking characterisation is evidently ridiculous. Pope Paul was known as a subtle and profound thinker, and there have developed numerous schools of moral theology in the period since 1968 which not only think intelligently but also support and have sought to develop the teaching enshrined in Humanae Vitae.

This brings us to another assumption of The Tablet. Throughout the editorial there is no mention of the notable and profound development of the Church’s teaching in the area of human sexuality in the Magisterial teaching of Pope John Paul II. Most serious schools of moral theology are attempting to get to grips with the huge legacy left to the Church in the area: John Paul carefully expounded the link between the Church’s teaching on sexuality, which includes the question of contraception, with a more personalist approach to moral theology and also a deeper appreciation of the goodness and meaning of the human body as expressive of the person – the so-called ‘Theology of the body’. To focus exclusively just on Humanae Vitae, notwithstanding that the 26th of July saw its40th anniversary, and to use this text as the sole representative of the Church’s teaching is to lose a sense of the continuum and real development that the articulation of the foundations for the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception has seen in the period since then. If The Tablet is going to engage in an attack on the Church’s teaching in this area, it cannot assume that the Church’s teaching in this area was solely and exhaustively articulated in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. To do so is culpable if not in actual dissent then at the very least in ignorance.

The next interesting assumption of the editorial is to pronounce the survey undertaken as “definitive”. For any student of ecclesiology the very term should raise a smile. For although the survey is described as definitive by the Magisterial editor, the Church’s teaching is not deemed so – even though John Ford and Germaine Grisez have argued most persuasively against Francis Sullivan that the teaching enshrined in Humanae Vitae (note, not the document itself but the teaching it articulates) fulfils the criteria of Lumen Gentium 25 for a teaching taught by the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church “as a teaching to be held as definitive” – that is, infallible. Indeed, the contrary assumption is found in several places in the 26th July edition of The Tablet. CharlesCurran – a noted dissenter from the Church’s teaching on this and other issues – has the following to say: “These issues are not core to Catholic faith but are somewhat peripheral. They fall under the accepted category of non-infallible (read: fallible) teaching.” This is simply not true.

As Ford and Grisez have shown, and subsequent Magisterial teaching has expressed, the charism of infallibility extends to faith and morals – to specific moral norms, not just to matters directly revealed, but also to those matters closely connected (such as the Natural Law) to the Deposit of Faith and needed to safeguard that deposit. For a teaching to be infallible, it does not need to be defined formally by Pope or Council or be explicitly revealed. The conditions are plainly set out in the Second Vatican Council. One need only read Lumen Gentium 25. Yet, here Curran not only dissents from the Church’s teaching on contraception but also denies a teaching of the Council itself.

If the matter were not so serious, it would be a cause for amusement to see The Tablet attribute to this survey a definitiveness which it denies to the actual Teaching Office of the Catholic Church. Perhaps the Lord should have said to Peter, “Upon this Tablet I will build my Church” – except that The Tablet seems more into the business of demolition than of construction. For evidence of this, one need only re-read the disgraceful attacks of the journal and its editor on the person and teaching of John Paul II after his death.

A last assumption in The Tablets editorial concerns the character of modern non-acceptance of the Church’s teaching. The editor informs us:

The Tablets survey of Mass-going Catholics in England… shows that, 40 years on, more than nine out of 10 of them do not think the use of condoms is wrong. That is their verdict on Humanae Vitae, though surprisingly half of them have never heard of it.”
How can half of the nine out of 10 give a verdict on something they have not heard of? This is not an attempt to be clever in argument against The Tablet. We are simply highlighting the point that at least a major factor in the so-called rejection of the doctrine is that most people in Britain have never heard the doctrine adequately explained, never mind convincingly argued. The editor herself in her own article later in the issue interestingly highlights this silence in the Church, attributing it to a breakdown of communication between the Church hierarchy and the laity. Now there is a truth here, however it is not the whole truth. The deeper reason is that there has been an almost total lack of a compelling presentation of this doctrine as a life-giving truth and not just aVatican policy that we are “stuck with”. After all, the survey itself said that only 16 per cent were fully aware of Humanae Vitae, 37 per cent “somewhat aware” (whatever that means), and 47 per cent “not aware/never heard of it.” Furthermore only 33 per cent had even had the issue discussed at their marriage preparation class.

In reality, there is a growing number of clergy who accept this teaching and are seeking to show it in its positive and life-giving fullness in their pastoral work: many of them have had the opportunity to be involved in movements which embrace the Church’s teaching and/or have come into contact with Humanae Vitae for themselves and subsequent Magisterial teaching. Some clergy are afraid that by teaching the doctrine they will lose their people. Yet it is the experience of many that if it is taught within the full context of the nature of the human person and of relationships and sexuality, it is more readily welcomed than The Tablet supposes. This author has found many people more positively receptive to the teaching than he would ever have imagined.

There is a last reason for the silence. It is akin to the silence in the Church concerning the Nicene Creed for about 20 years or so after its formulation in 325: there were many bishops and clergy in the East who did not accept homoousios and who thought that silence, obfuscations and subsequent formulations of the creed would sweep away this inconvenient and troublesome doctrine. The same is true today. Many – even bishops and clergy – see the teaching concerning contraception to be troublesome, inconvenient or even false. When the strength of argument began to swing against them the Arians of the fourth century changed tack and decided to focus on a particular individual – Athanasius – in order to defeat the teaching. It was a clever tactic which almost succeeded: but many inthe West realised that a condemnation of Athanasius was in reality a condemnation of Nicea. So too today, instead of engaging with the entirety of the twentieth century Magisterial teaching concerning artificial contraception – Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II – The Tablet focuses on Humanae Vitae and seeks to knock that down so as to knock the whole edifice of teaching in this area. For over forty years The Tablet has remained vociferous in its campaign against the teaching. It is not to be congratulated for this consistency, but to be pitied. How sad that a once great Catholic publication should become an instrument of something so counter to the Catholic spirit – and more akin to the machinations of fourth century heresy. Now is the time for clergyand people to get to grips with what the Church really has to say and not to read everything through the misleading prism of an organ of dissent.

2. Ignorance of Sin in the Sex and Relationships Survey

by Fr Hugh MacKenzie

The Von Hügel Institute’s relationships survey, as presented in The Tablets 26th July issue, seems seriously flawed. It cannot be used as an indicator of the moral belief concerning contraception of Mass-going Catholics in England. Yet this is how they have tried to use it, in their editorial and in their news report “Catholics shun Church contraception doctrine”. Reports in other publications have also used it in this way.

Their mistake appears to be to equate the admission of past use of contraception with currently holding the belief that it is morally acceptable. Many people sometimes, or for a while, act contrary to sincerely held convictions (by committing a sin), and other people, given time, come to recognise past behaviour as wrong (they may repent and convert). So on two counts past use of contraceptives need not imply any degree of approval in the present. It would appear to be something of a shock, not to say disappointment, to The Tablets mindset, but a Catholic who has acted against Church teaching does not necessarily join that magazine in attempting to justify their action through dissent. Repentance of disobedience is a real option for some. Howmany? We don’t know, for the survey designers, as we shall now see, seem oblivious to this phenomenon.               

The Tablet presents statistical tables which imply that they asked people if they “had used” contraceptives. In answering yes to this, the respondent is not expressing an opinion. Respondents could alternatively answer “Never use”, or “Would use”. The latter seems to mean “wouldn’t mind using”. Those not answering are described as “expressing no opinion”. But those in the “have used” column are not expressing an opinion either. “Wouldn’t mind using” does seem to be expressing an opinion, and “Never use” could be taken to be saying “would mind using”, and, at something of a stretch, to be saying, as The Tablet assumes it is, “I believe it’s morally wrong”.           

But “have used” does not necessarily correspond with moral acceptance at the time, let alone now. Ignoring this fact leads to misleading conclusions. For instance, they conclude from increasing “Never use” figures for increasing age groups that “More of the older respondents say that using various means of contraception, including condoms, would be wrong.” This is not justified. We just do not know the percentages who “Have used” a particular type of contraceptive who believe it is morally wrong. It is quite possible that the “Have used” figures for young people contain a higher proportion of people who believed it was wrong back then or believe it is wrong now.

The Tablets editorial tells us that “more than nine out of 10 (respondents) do not think that the use of a condom is wrong”. This seems to be based upon the survey report’s affrmation that “only 9 per cent said they wouldn’t use (condoms) as it would be wrong.” Now “wouldn’t use … as it would be wrong” is, as we said above, if given some lee-way, a possible interpretation of the “Never use” answer. But as we’ve pointed out this does not include those who once used them but think they are wrong. Indeed there seems to be more than 9 per cent who think it’s wrong because “a total of 15.7 per cent regarded the teaching (of the Church on contraception) as right.”

The Tablet editorial has maintained the category confusion, which might more accurately be called a disregard for the phenomena of sin and conversion. In proudly telling us how many do not agree with Church teaching on condoms they seem to have ignored those who did once use them even though their belief was then and/or is now that it is wrong.

Based upon this statistical analysis The Tablet editorial has the Church shuddering in our seats concerning the “Verdict of the people”: “… the time has come”, it tells us, “to face the reality of Catholics and contraception by means of this definitive survey, in the interests of truth.”

In the interests of the “definitive” truth of the “verdict” which The Tablet is throwing at our feet, it would of course be very helpful to see the actual questions asked. Despite communications and conversations with The Tablet and the Von Hügel Institute the actual questions didn’t quite arrive on our desk. Is it actually “in the interests of” divine truth or a political agenda that this survey has been undertaken? We think we should be told.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2008