Friday, February 24, 2012

Who speaks for Church teaching?

First, I want to point out that this article focuses on comparing dissenting Catholics and the hierarchical Church. This post is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment on the immorality of contraception. In the current public attempt the HHS is making against the Church's conscience, religious liberty is the issue. As Bishop Lori so eloquently put before Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in his "Parable of the Kosher Deli," it could have just as well been an ultimatum forcing Jews to serve pork.

And now, for the rest of the post.

So who speaks for authentic Church teaching? The bishops? Or people who call themselves Catholics who disagree with the bishops?

The correct answer is: bishops.

And those of you with short attention spans can probably stop reading at this point. :) For the rest, consider this from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

CCC#85 The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
Unfortunately, this HHS contraception/abortifacient ultimatum has stirred up a variety of lay people identifying themselves as Catholics and decrying their own bishops. For example, Maura Casey, writing an editorial for the Hartford Courant wrote this week:
Like me, many would consider themselves irresponsible mothers if they did not tell their children to ignore the church's teaching on birth control.
Her basis for saying this is not the main point of this post––although she is wrong to have blanketly asserted contraception equals less abortions when the FDA approves drugs that cause abortions as well as other contraceptives (cf., Witherspoon Institute)––not to mention there have been studies, such as this one published in Contraception magazine (also quoted in PDF here at USCCB) that showed, over 10 years an increase of contraceptive use and elective abortions. She also ignores the moral dimension of contraception in itself, justifying its use earlier in her commentary on the basis that her mother once said she lived a sickly life "in hell" without it. It was not a good presentation of moral theology, but I digress.

Casey rooted her argument in the title of her piece, "Catholic women must speak out". Forget for one moment that women are speaking out quite frequently against the bishops, including Sr. Carol Keehan, as mentioned in my previous post. Casey argues that women should defend government mandated "free"1 contraception, because otherwise:

priests, bishops...and scores of male commentators will get away with the pretense that they are speaking for us.
Forget again the scores of female commentators and religious that oppose contraception.2 Search any pro-life or Catholic news site like, or even your local parish for scads of women who agree with the bishops. Forget for another moment the anti-male bigotry underlying her comment, insinuating if bishops are male, they can't correctly teach the God-revealed truth on this matter.

But in one sense, I agree with her on this point:

The bishops don't speak for her.

They speak for what the Catholic Church teaches. If she chooses to "ignore" that teaching and teach her children to "ignore" that teaching, then no, the Church does not speak for her. If she wants to reject Church teaching under the guise that her medical decisions automatically equate to good morality, then no, the Church does not speak for her.

Her implication is that she, and other "Catholic" women (and men, too, I suppose, though she allies herself with none in this article), who "ignore" Church teaching are the true teachers of what is right.

That brings us to a catechetical moment. The sin of contraception3 is a plain, well-known teaching of the Church.

The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity. (Vademecum for Confessors, 2.4)
CCC#2370 [E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.

Such a goal cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced. Relying on these principles, sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law. (Gaudium et Spes, 52)

In his catechesis on Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II, echoed Paul VI's condemnation of contraception, and later stated: "contraception is not morally correct."

See here ( or Fr. Mitch Pacwa ( for examples of the consistent teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium going back to ancient times.
The list goes on and on. It is no secret that the Church has long taught contraception is sinful. And the faithful are to hold to infallible teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium. That is Catholic doctrine. Even Casey in her article admits she rejects "the church's teaching on birth control."

That being said, I want to finish with a look at canon law and the status of a person who rejects the Church's teaching on this or that matter of the faith. The Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law reads:
Can. 1364 An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
"Latae sententiae" literally means "automatic." An apostate, heretic, or schismatic is automatically excommunicated from the Church without the need for some formal declaration. So what is an apostate, heretic, or schismatic?

Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the christian faith. Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
Now, I'm not going to speak to Casey specifically. Maybe there are factors, misunderstandings, personal struggles, etc., that may extenuate her culpability in publicly denouncing Catholic teaching. Maybe or maybe not. She is unfortunately the writer of an article that I found useful as an example on this issue. She is not specifically the issue here.

The point is, a Catholic who obstinately denies a truth of the faith is a heretic and thus incurs an automatic excommunication. Likewise, a Catholic who refuses to accept the teaching of those under the Pope, i.e. the bishops, is a schismatic, and also incurs automatic excommunication.

No doubt some who still call themselves Catholic (and even some openly ex-Catholics) have no problem rejecting Catholic teaching. But the point is, such a person, by definition, cannot be representative of Catholic teaching. Such a person's Catholic identity itself is broken. At best, the truly excommunicated could only call him/herself a representative of excommunicated Catholics.

Bottom line––keep it simple. When you want to know what is authentic Catholic teaching, go to the "teaching" authority of the Church, that is, the bishops in union with the Pope. Even when I read a lay person's or theologian's works, I always look for Magisterial backup for their work if they propose something that is Catholic teaching.

EDIT TO ADD: A commentator messaged me that appealing to documents by the bishops to defend the bishops' authority is a catch-22. If that was all there was to it, that would be correct. But if I had to explain the inspiration of Scripture and the basis for Church authority in every post I made, my posts would probably double in size. But I thought it worth mentioning a very brief rationale as to why the Church's claim to authority is not self-validating. The argument is similar as to why we accept the Scriptural quality of some books of Scripture in part because they are validated by other books of Scripture. Authority belongs properly to God. We believe that the historical Jesus Christ, the One who died and rose from the dead, was God Incarnate who gave that authority to those apostles and their successors. Scoffers render it impossible for God to have given authority to a successive hierarchical body on the basis that that body cannot claim to have authority. But the early Church testifies to such authority, the subsequent historical Church sustains that heritage, and the Scriptural texts produced by that Apostolic Tradition speaks to this reality. The first Christians consistently looked to the teaching of the bishops as a matter of historical record. Our faith holds that the Church's authority is backed by God. We believe in the authority of the bishops because they trace their appointment to Jesus Christ. It is not a "self-validating" enterprise. But like I said, that is the super-short version without getting into specifics.

See tract on Apostolic succession for another brief article.

1As another aside, this business of justifying contraceptives under the guise that it will be free is absurd on its face. Someone, of course, will pay to provide these products, whether through higher premiums, fees, or directly. Proponents also argue that fewer health problems will result and pay for itself. However, as I stated in my first blog post on this HHS issue, why not hand out free shoes. Or as others have suggested, free toiletries or hygiene products. Furthermore, it remains debatable whether fostering even more sexual activity in this country is going to reduce health issues. Oral contraceptives do not prevent STDs, for instance. And finally, since when would a "cost savings" make something moral anyway? If we murdered 1000 random sickly people per day, we could save a lot of money. Saving money does not make something right.
2Recently, "free contraception" supporters parroted the idea that 98% of Catholic women used birth control. That myth was subsequently debunked. See here (, for example.
3In this, I am not referring to medicinal use of contraceptives where birth control is not the intent (see Humanae Vitae under the subhead "Lawful Therapeutic means").


  1. I agree with Maura Casey. I prefer birth control to abortions and find it hard to believe the church thinks over population is what God had in mind. Shall we choke and starve to death. Do you encourage population growth to increase and guarentee your future income? If you think God wanted to encourage population growth, what is celibacy about?

  2. Hi, Anonymous - you are, of course, free to agree with Casey. But in doing so, you would not be speaking for the Catholic Church, which was the point I was making here.

    As to the additional issues you brought up:

    Celibacy is a gift for those who can accept it, as Jesus taught (Matt. 19:12) and as Paul did (1 Cor 7:1,7). Jesus and Paul were also celibates in harmony with this teaching.

    Also, please review a number of resources regarding the myth of overpopulation.

  3. p.s. The density of human population would not change the morality of contraception anyway. :)