Francisco Tatad’s Answer to Senator Miriam-Defensor Santiago – Part II

Why this  layman

Senator Santiago has raised certain “theological” objections which, given what we just saw in the first part,  may be safely missed in any  discussion of the RH bill.  But because they tend to challenge certain Catholic truths,  they must be satisfied.

Any of our credentialed Catholic theologians  should be able to respond. But until then, even a layman should pitch in.  After all the Lord sometimes reveals to babes what he withholds from the  wise (Cf Mt 11:25).

Miriam classifies theology as either traditional or progressive.  That labeling is political.  In theology as elsewhere, the errors are many,  the truth is but one.  Theology is either good or bad; sound or unsound.

Let us now look at her objections.

Is Humanae Vitae infallible?

Objection:  Humanae Vitae is a non-infallible document, which teaches that  contraception is intrinsically evil, but is dismissed by some theologians as erroneous. Therefore, mature Catholics should be free to ignore it altogether

Our reply: Although the 1968 encyclical was never specifically proposed ex cathedra, some theologians have since concluded that its teaching on contraception meets the conditions for an infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium set forth by Vatican II.

In “Contraception, Infallibility and The Ordinary Magisterium,” an article which appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review in 1978, Russell Shaw makes a strong case for it, drawing on a similarly-titled article, “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium,”  by Rev. John C. Ford, S.J., Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology, Weston College, Weston, Massachusetts, and Dr. Germain Grisez, Professor of Philosophy, Campion College, University of Regina, Canada, and appearing  in the June 1978 issue of Theological Studies. [2]

Shaw begins with two assumptions. One,  that the Catholic Church enjoys the charism of infallibility in belief and teaching (even though not everything is infallibly believed and taught). And two,  that the ordinary magisterium is exercised infallibly when the conditions set forth by Vatican II are met.

Conditions for infallibility

These are four, namely:

1)                 that the bishops be in communion with one another and with the pope;

2)                 that they teach authoritatively on a matter of faith and morals;

3)                  that they agree in one judgment; and

4)                  that they propose this as something to be held definitively.[3]

Lumen Gentium, 25, provides the original formulation:

Although the bishops individually do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim the teaching of Christ infallibly, even when they are dispersed throughout the world, provided they remain in communion with each other and with the Successor of Peter and that in authoritatively teaching on a matter of faith and morals they agree in one judgment as that to be held definitively.[4]

To fulfill these conditions, it is  necessary and sufficient that the bishops remain bishops within the Church, even though they do not act in a strictly collegial manner; that they act in their official capacity as teachers, not simply as individual Catholics or theologians expressing their personal opinions; that they agree in one judgment, even though not an absolute mathematical unanimity is required; and that they propose a judgment on faith and morals to be held definitively, i.e., as something which the bishops have an obligation to hand on and which Catholics have an obligation to accept, rather than as something merely optional for either the bishop or the faithful.

An ancient teaching

Humanae Vitae did not initiate a new teaching. It merely reiterated an old one with greater clarity and depth.  In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubi, Pope Pius XI already condemned contraception as a violation of natural law. Long before that, some  Fathers and Doctors of the Church had taught that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. Among them, St. Jerome, St. Augustine,  St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas,  St. Charles Borromeo, St. Alphonsus Liguori.

Until 1962 at least, Catholic bishops universally agreed in their teaching and judgment on the morality of contraception. While theologians may not agree unanimously in their principles or arguments, they do not disagree that individual contraceptive acts are intrinsically wrong and constitute a grave moral evil. No Catholic theologian has ever taught that “contraception is a good act.”[5]

Initial concerns

Indeed,  upon its publication, some bishops immediately saw  what pastoral difficulties Humanae Vitae would entail.  To mitigate those problems,  they tried to introduce certain qualifications with respect to the teaching.  But no episcopal conference ever failed to accept the encyclical.  The fact that some Catholics insist that contraception is morally permissible cannot be invoked to question the validity of the teaching. The validity of the teaching is reflected not in the dissent of those who cannot accept it,  but in the witness of those who hold on to it. [6]

Paul VI as prophet

Humanae Vitae is now 43 years old.  But it did not take that long for mankind to see Paul VI’s prophetic words  fulfilled.  In 1968 he said:

1)     that the widespread use of contraception would lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality;

2)     that “the man” would lose respect for “the woman” and would come to the point of considering her as “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as a respected and beloved companion;”

3)      that it would place a dangerous weapon in the hands of those public authorities who take no need of moral exigencies;” and

4)     that it would lead man to think that he had limitless dominion over his own body.

All these have come to pass.  But why does so much misunderstanding of the teaching persist?

Teaching misunderstood

In his book, “Ethics of Procreation & The Defense of Human Life,”  Martin Rhonheimer,  the Swiss philosopher who teaches  ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and is easily one of the most important philosophers of our day, [7]writes:

“Unfortunately, right from the start dissenting theologians interpreted the encyclical’s teaching in the light of the naturalistic and legalistic patterns in which they had been educated before Vatican II, based on a misreading of the Thomistic tradition. Imbued with a logic of a naturalistic understanding of natural law, and at the same time trying to escape from its shortcomings, they now said that interference with nature by ‘artificial’ methods was not necessarily immoral, provided it was done for the good of the person. In an attempt to convince the pope, the (rejected) majority report of the papal commission, which was instituted to study the problem, asserted, for example, that contraception was similar to capital punishment causing a physical evil to achieve a higher moral good.

“Yet the teaching of Humanae Vitae on responsible parenthood wisely emphasizes conjugal love and the virtue of chastity and not the ‘natural’ as opposed to the ‘artificial.’…”

Chastity is the issue

Rhonheimer explains:

“Chastity, of course, is not the highest virtue, and there are other factors that can be corrosive for conjugal love. But chastity is indispensable for human persons to achieve emotional maturity and to be able to really give themselves to another person in true and faithful love. Those who desire sex at low cost will tend to be less willing to pay the high price of enduring love and lifelong faithfulness… Contraception is intrinsically evil because it is essentially opposed to conjugal chastity and its requirement of a parentally responsible and virtuous bodily-sexual behavior. It is therefore opposed to the human good, natural law and the sanctity to which we are called.

“The moral law both natural and divinely revealed is not simply a set of prescriptions or rules not to be violated, but the expression of the human good that consists in the virtues, and the guideline to practice these virtues and to attain holiness. Marriage and conjugal love involve the common journey of two persons toward this goal. What is most important in a journey is to take the right path and to follow it with every single step. This is why an acceptance of the procreative task of marriage in general is not sufficient; rather ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life.’ And this, as Gaudium et Spes has clearly asserted, ‘cannot be achieved unless the virtue of conjugal chastity is sincerely practiced’.”

The principle of totality

That “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of human life” is what is questioned by those who invoke  the “principle of  totality.” It  simply means  that if the totality of one’s marriage is open to children, then each marriage act need not be; the couple could contracept, from time to time.

It doesn’t quite add up.  In his essay, Humanae Vitae and the Principle of Totality, Ralph McInerny, one of the foremost Thomists of our time, points out  that “it is single acts that are the primary carriers of moral quality and are good or bad… How can a plurality of acts have a moral character denied to each of them taken singly?” he asks.  “To speak of single acts as episodes suggests that they can have no moral value as such.  But if they cannot, neither can the life of which they form parts. The married life of a couple may indeed in the main be made up of morally good conjugal acts but this provides no basis for slaying that this contraceptive conjugal act is not bad,” he writes.

“The principle of totality cannot ground the claim that singular acts which, taken as such are offensive, cease to be so when considered in the light of the moral life taken as a whole. The moral imperative is not that we should act well more often than not.  Rather it is: Do good and avoid evil,” McInerny writes.[8]

But who decides what is good and what is evil?


Miriam is right: conscience.   But with some qualification. First of all, conscience must be properly formed in the truth; it must be a certain conscience, not an erroneous one.  Conscience cannot have its own individual truth, otherwise there will be a riot of consciences, and no one will know what the real truth is.

With a true conscience, one should be able to repeat  what Blessed John Henry Newman wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, and which Pope Benedict XVI quotes in his essay “On Conscience”:

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing),  I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—-still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.[9]

There can hardly be a higher tribute to the primacy of  conscience. But it  suggests that  between conscience and the pope, one will precede the other, but they will always be together on the same side.  There is no suggestion that a true conscience would ever run in conflict with the Church.  That is the opposite of some  “progressive theologians” suggest.

But what is conscience, in the first place?

The word defined

The noted German philosopher and sociologist Robert Spaemann from  the University of Munich says, “Conscience is a human faculty for recognizing good and evil; it is not an oracle. It shows us the way, it causes us to look beyond our egotistic perspectives towards the universal and towards that which is right in itself. But reaching this viewpoint requires reflection, expertise and, if I may say so, moral expertise. This involves a correct sense of the structure of the hierarchy of values, which is not distorted by ideologies.”[10]

The Pope concurs

Pope Benedict XVI not only agrees but adopts Spaemann’s view as his own.  He writes[11]:

“I wish to make my own what Robert Spaemann has said about it: Conscience is an organ, not an oracle. It is an organ because it is something that for us is a given, which belongs to our essence, and not something that has been made outside of us.  But because it is an organ, it requires growth, training, and practice…Conscience requires formation and education. It can become stunted, it can be stamped out, it can be falsified so that it can only speak in a stunted and distorted way. The silence of conscience can become a deadly sickness for an entire civilization.

“In the Psalms we meet from time to time the prayer that God should free man from his hidden sins. The Psalmist sees as his greatest danger the fact that he no longer recognizes them as sins and thus falls into them in apparently good conscience. Not being able to have a guilty conscience is a sickness, just as not being able to experience pain is a sickness, again as Spaemann says. And thus one cannot approve the maxim that everyone may always do what his conscience allows him to do: In that case the person without a conscience would be permitted to do anything. In truth it is his fault that his conscience is so broken that he no longer sees what he as a man should see.”

The duty of conscience

The Pope continues:

“In other words, included in the concept of conscience is an obligation, namely, the obligation to care for it, to form it and educate it. Conscience has a right to respect and obedience in the measure in which the person himself respects it and gives it the care which its dignity deserves. The right of conscience is the obligation of the formation of conscience. Just as we try to develop our use of language and we try to rule our use of rules, so must we also seek the true measure of conscience so that finally the inner word of conscience can arrive at its validity.

The duty of the magisterium

“For us this means that the Church’s magisterium bears the responsibility for correct formation. It makes an appeal, one can say, to the inner vibrations its word causes in the process of the maturing of conscience. It is thus an oversimplification to put a statement of the magisterium in opposition to conscience.  In such a case I must ask myself much more. What is it in me that contradicts this word of the magisterium? Is it perhaps only my comfort? My obstinacy? Or is it an estrangement through some way of life that allows me something which the magisterium forbids and that appears to me to be better motivated or more suitable simply because society considers it reasonable?

It is only in the context of this kind of struggle that the conscience can be trained, and the magisterium has the right to expect that the conscience will be open to it in a manner befitting the seriousness of the matter.

The formation of conscience

“If I believe that the Church has its origin in the Lord, then the teaching office in the Church has a right to expect that it, as it authentically develops, will be accepted as a priority factor in the formation of conscience. There corresponds to this, then, an obligation of the magisterium to speak its word in such a way that it will be understood in the midst of conflicts of values and orientations. It must express itself in such a way that an inner resonance of its word may be possible within the conscience, and this means more than just an occasional declaration of the highest level.”

The role of bishops

The Pope goes on to clarify the role that bishops as teachers of morality and theologians as experts should play.

“The bishop is a witness to the mores ecclesiae catholicae, to those rules of life that have grown up in the common experience of the believing conscience in the struggle with God and with historical reality.  As a witness, the bishop must in the first place know this tradition in its foundations, its content, and its various stages. One can bear witness to what one knows.  The knowledge of the essential moral tradition of the faith is therefore a fundamental demand of the episcopal office.

“Since it is a question of a tradition that comes from conscience and speaks to conscience, the bishop must be a man of a seeing and listening conscience. He must strive, in living the mores ecclesiae catholicae, to see that his own personal conscience is sharpened.  He must know morality not second-  but first-hand. He must not simply pass on a tradition, but bear witness to what has become for himself a credible and proven lifestyle.”

The role of theologians

Starting from the same mores ecclesiae catholicae, the theologian for his part must seek and recognize in the mores that which is specifically moral and constant and  understand them in a unified way in the total context of the faith. He seeks the ratio fidei, writes the Pope.

“He then brings this reason of faith in a critical way into dialogue with the reason and the plausibility of the particular time.  He helps toward the understanding of the moral demands of the Gospel in the particular conditions of his day and so serves the formation of conscience.  In this way he serves also the development, purification, and deepening of the moral message of the Church.

“Above all, the moral theologian will also take up the new questions that new developments and relationships pose for the traditional norms.  He will attempt to know precisely the objective components of such discussions (for example, the technology of armaments, economic problems, and medical developments) in order to work out the best way to pose the questions and so arrive at the relationship with the constants of the moral tradition of the faith.  In this sense he stands in critical dialogue with the moral evaluations of society, and in all this he helps the teaching office of the Church present its moral message in the particular time.”

What they should do and not do

The theologian’s task, says the Pope,  is to precede the magisterium, take stock of the new questions, study them and prepare the answers, thereby bringing its pronouncements into the dialogue of his time and relating the basic lines of the discussion to concrete situations.  The theologian must fill in any lack of information, clarify shortcomings of the linguistic or conceptual presentation, and at the same time deepen the insights into the limits and range of the particular teaching. It is not for him to inveigh against any teaching and encourage the faithful to reject it because of those shortcomings.

As a future theologian, Miriam has to ponder these things.

[1] The author is a former Cabinet minister and Senate Majority Leader.   He is a board member of the International Right to Life Federation and World Youth Alliance, two international humanitarian organizations based in the United States.

[2] Shaw, Russell, Contraception, Infallibility and the Ordinary Magisterium, in Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993W

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7]  Rhonheimer, Martin, Ethics of Procreation & The Defense of Human Life, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington

[8] McInerny, Ralph, Why Human Vitae Was Right: A Reader, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1993

[9] Cardinal Ratzinger Joseph, On Conscience, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2007

[10] Spaeman, Robert, Basic Moral Concepts, Routledge, London, 1989

[11] Cardinal Ratzinger Joseph, On Conscience, Ignatius Press

Francisco Tatad is a former senator of the Philippines. He has a blog entitled First Things First. Read the first part of this article.

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One comment on “Francisco Tatad’s Answer to Senator Miriam-Defensor Santiago – Part II
  1. […] (Part 2 deals exclusively with theological issues raised by Miriam and should properly be addressed to Catholics.) […]

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