Rhetorically the dilemma is a devastating weapon of controversy.
This essay needs a brief introduction. The Jesuit community at Boston College published a working paper about initiating a dialog between faith and culture. One of the important statements of this paper was the understanding that Religion and secular intellectual culture need to open their horizons to one anothers insights. Both raise important questions and need each other to answer them fully. (1) A similar view emerges from the documents of the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuits, held in Rome during the early part of the year 1995. Here, the need for dialog between faith and culture is expressed in terms of awareness and action in support of social and economic justice. (2), (3) Beneath all this, and in addition to the old concerns, there is yet another new agenda recognized by GC 34, and that is the need to bring ecological perspectives into our Christianity. (4) As to this new agenda, no other time than the present has been more in need of a dialog between faith and culture, or more specifically between science and religion. On top of all these concerns is the letter of John Paul II of 1988 to Jesuit Father George V. Coyne. (4) In this letter, the Pope urges most compellingly to initiate a dialog between science and religion. To follow up along these lines, and considering the most crucial issues of today, the materials selected for this essay are certain considerations of responsible procreation in a world of limited resources. Human ecology and demography provide us with data demanding radical and immediate action, while Catholic moral sense resists these changes in order to safeguard precious human values.
And now, without further delay, let us go to the heart of the problem, which is the rather obvious conflict between the traditional, moral norms of marriage and family, on one hand, and effective, solutions to resolve the global population growth, on the other.
It may be of good practice to identify clearly the position from which I view the terms of the conflict. This will save us a lot of time, and will lessen the possibility of confusion. According to the point of view presented here, we are to consider the various positions as we experience them within the Church, and not as it may be between the representatives of the Vatican and the representatives of the World. More precisely, the conflict is not even considered here as that between Catholics who are true to their vocation, and Catholics who may have been tainted by the world and became somewhat indifferent to matters of faith. I present the differences in views as they are experienced by people of faith within the Church, who also have a deep respect for life. It is what we understand as a serious threat to human life in the long run that leads us into the dilemma. Let us examine the terms of the conflict.
As to the moral concern from the ranks, the following statement sums up the general idea: The procreative and unitive values of human sexuality are ethically inseparable by human choice because their combination comes not from mere evolution but from Gods wise provision for human good. These are the words we read on page 64 in the Handbook on Critical Sexual Issues (1984) by Donald McCarthy and Edward Bayer, (Editors). (5) The statement is a close reiteration of the position Pope Paul VI took in the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae in 1968. (6)
The problem inherent in this statement is not the put down mere evolution
receives. This may be just a bad choice of words, as we should know that the
evolutionary process is Gods wise provision for human good. The problem
is the elevation of the statement on inseparability of the unitive and procreative
values of human sexuality to the status of an absolute, and universal principle
that cannot be changed whatsoever in any circumstances. The reduction of the
problem to these two elements is far too simplistic because in addition to the
procreative and loving moments in the life of a family, we also need to recognize
our responsibilities toward future generations and toward a limited and fragile
earth that we leave behind to support them. In view of our present experiences,
it would be most destructive to let the trends of today run their course toward
unlimited growth unchecked and to have the human population double in size to
twelve billion in the next forty to fifty years. The disharmony between the
general moral principle of inseparability and the need to stabilize world population
through effective means creates the dilemma. If we were to follow the traditional,
moral directives of no direct interference in matters of fertility, we may easily
put ourselves into a situation of grave reproductive irresponsibility. If, on
the other hand, we were to follow the ecological imperative of stabilizing world
population through effective means, which by their very nature imply direct
intervention, we come to be at grave odds with the demands of traditional, moral
norms, whose aim is to safeguard fundamental human values in the context of
the family as given without intervention. In other words, whatever we do, we
are in a bind. This is the nature of the dilemma.
The best source, that provides a clear and detailed summary of traditional teaching on sexual morality in marriage and the family, is the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI. This traditional view centers around the respect of husband and wife for the mystery of human life that finds its origin in the creative love of God. (6) Both, husband and wife, collaborate with God in the generation, and education of their children. (7) In this context, their responsibilities imply the recognition of their duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values. (8)
Since marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children (9), each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. (10) Consequently, the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion are gravely immoral. (11) Similarly, gravely immoral are those contraceptive actions which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, propose to render procreation impossible. (12)
If there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical
or psychological conditions of the husband and wife, or from external conditions,
it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms, immanent in the generative
functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only. (13) This requires
the discipline of periodic continence. Such discipline bestows upon family life
fruits of serenity and peace, and it fosters unselfish love. (14) The recourse
to infecund periods is licit because at such times the married couple make legitimate
use of a natural disposition. In contrast, direct contraceptive practices are
not licit because they impede and frustrate the same natural processes. (15)
As in the traditional view, so in the ecological perspective, respect for life is the central issue. Again, I would like to remind the reader that I present the various views as they are experienced by people of faith within the Church, who also have a deep respect for life. Life is the greatest gift each of us received from God our Creator. We express our gratitude by caring for all forms of life, most of all for human life, and we do this in the concreteness of ecological relationships, which we strive to understand and appreciate. We support conservation, keep an eye on abuses and speak up against ecologically destructive behaviors, such as the overuse and destruction of the commons, and the desire for unlimited demographic and economic growth on a limited earth.
The critical, ecological issue today is the imbalance between exponential population growth in a world that has only limited resources. There are many signs showing that we, at six billion, are approaching the carrying capacity of the earth, and that in some parts of the world we have already overstepped the ecological limits. Erosion and degradation of fertile land, deforestation, desertification, the spread of famine and disease, and the steady loss of biological diversity are the signs of an already grave ecological imbalance between our growing numbers and the ability of the earth to support us.
We should not confuse the effects of the ecological crisis on human lives with
the similarly devastating effects of social and economic injustice. Marginalization
of a large segment of society, through deprivation of services, such as access
to housing, clean water, education and medical help, the high level of unemployment
and the existing extremes in the distribution of wealth, these are the fruits
of social and economic injustice. They, from another than ecological source,
add to human misery and aggravate the already heavily felt problems.
In the ecological perspective, we are keenly aware of the parameters of population growth. The efficient and worldwide reduction of death rate through medical science and medical technology, without a similar reduction in birthrate, is the most significant single cause of the demographic imbalance we experience in our time. If we do not respond to this situation promptly, natural factors will balance matters by increasing death rate. In response to this threat to human life, we are to control our growth by means which do not offend against the fundamental issue of respect for life. Consequently, the only available means to control population growth is by lowering birthrate to two children per family for most families, and to do this by avoiding conception. All other avenues, such as abortion, and medical neglect are fundamentally contrary to respect for life. In the ecological perspective the concern is efficiency of control, and the effort required is a totally practical one.
As we consider the various factors in the two views, the traditional and the ecological the dilemma becomes very clear indeed. From the traditional point of view, direct means to avoid conception are unacceptable on moral grounds. From the ecological point of view, means whose fundamental option is openness to procreation, do not provide the needed demographic results and are unacceptable also on moral grounds.
There are usually two avenues toward solution in case of a genuine dilemma. The first is the use of the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils. By its nature, this solution is a most unhappy one because the price to pay whatever we choose is usually quite high. If that must be the avenue to follow, then we have to weigh the relative values of the two choices: morally unacceptable means of control vs. reproductive irresponsibility with grave consequences. For good reasons, I will not attempt to make this choice here but I do realize that knowing what is involved, the choice is a very heavy burden to carry by individual couples. That is why the parents of today should receive a great deal of help and support. I also realize that no real help can be provided without a proper dialog between science and religion on the true meaning of reproductive restraint.
The second avenue is to step out of the dilemma altogether by changing the conditions of the situation. A first class example of this kind of solution was given by Christ our Lord when he was confronted with the question: Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor of not? If he said yes, then he would have lost face before the people and would have been looked upon as one who betrays their religion. If he said no, then they could have accused him before the emperor for exciting the people against him. Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax. When they handed him a small Roman coin he asked them, Whose head is this and whose inscription? Caesars, they replied. At that he said to them, Then give to Caesar what is Caesars, but give to God what is Gods. (16)
The conditions of a dilemma are that we must make a choice, but there are only two mutually exclusive choices, neither of them acceptable. To change the conditions of a dilemma we must see if we can change an either-or situation of the two opposing views into an and situation. This can be done if there is an element of good in both opposing views. I see no possible means to achieve this change of conditions in our traditional moral vs. ecological moral dilemma unless we are willing to begin anew, starting with the one common denominator fundamental to both positions, and that is respect for life based on true experience and not on theory.
1. Jesuits and Boston College. A working Paper for Discussion. Page 7. September 1994. The Jesuit Community at Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167-3802.
2. The interim documents of General Congregation 34 of the Society of Jesus. National Jesuit News, April 1995. Special pullout section. Our Mission, Section 1.1. Paragraph 19. Page 6.
Today we realize clearly: No service of faith without promotion of justice, entry into cultures, openness to other religious experiences.
3. Same as 2. Section 1.1.2. Paragraph 28. Page 11.
Our commitment to social justice and sustained human development must focus on the transformation of cultural values which sustain an unjust and oppressive social order.
4. Same as 2. Section 4.6 Recommendation to P. General on Ecological Issues. Page 35.
The contemporary debate between development and ecology can often be posed as an opposition between First World desires and Third World needs . . The Society of Jesus may contribute to overcoming some of the dilemmas.
5. McCarthy Donald and Bayer Edward (Editors): Handbook on Critical Sexual Issues. Image Books, a division of Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1984.
6. Pope Paul VI. The Encyclical Letter On The Regulation of Birth (Humanae vitae), 1968. Published by the United States Catholic Conference. Paragraph 8.
Marriage is not, then, the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces; it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love.
7. Same as 6. Paragraph 8.
By means of the reciprocal and personal gift of self, proper and exclusive to them, husband and wife, tend towards the communion of their beings in view of mutual personal perfection, to collaborate with God in the generation and education of new lives.
8. Same as 6. Paragraph 10.
The responsible exercise of parenthood implies, therefore, that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values.
9. Same as 6. Paragraph 9.
Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children.
10. Same as 6. Paragraph 11.
Nonetheless the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by their constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.
11. Same as 6. Paragraph 14.
. . . we must once again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth.
12. Same as 6. Paragraph 14.
Similarly excluded is every action which, either 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.
13. Same as 6. Paragraph 16.
If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of the husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms, immanent in the generative functions, for the use of marriage in the infecund periods only, and in this way to regulate birth without offending the moral principles which have been recalled earlier.
14. Same as 6. Paragraph 21.
Such discipline bestows upon family life fruits of serenity and peace, and facilitates the solution of other problems; it favors attention for ones partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, , the enemy of true love; and deepens their sense of responsibility.
15. Same as 6. Paragraph 16.
The Church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious. In reality,
there are essential differences between the two cases; in the former the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; in the latter, they impede the development of natural processes.
16. Matthew 22:15-21.
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