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REJECTION OF HUMANAE VITAE IN 1968 STARTED THE FALL OF THE DOMINOES

January 25, 2010

YOU KNOW THE DOMINO THEORY.  STACK UP DOMINOES IN A ROW AND KNOCK OVER THE FIRST ONE AND THEY ALL BEGIN TO FALL IN TURN.

Now I will be the first to admit that the domino theory is not 100% applicable to the moral and doctrinal life of Catholics.  Yet, I have insisted ever since 1968 that the rejection of the Encyclical Humane Vitae would start the process of destruction in the belief in many of he Church’s teachings about human sexuality and then other doctrines not even remotely related to sex.  History has proven that that is exactly what has happened and is happening in the Catholic Church.

Mary Eberstadt, writing in the current issue of First Things, describes in fascinating detail the process of disintegration which has taken place in the Anglican Church following the rejection by the Lambeth Conference in 1930 of the Christian prohibition on artificial contraception.  In her article, Christianity Lite, Eberstadt demonstrates the inevitability of the death of the Anglican Church.  While we can find assurance in the reassurance of Our Lord that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against the Catholic Church, it does not protect us from the chaos of heresy and heterodoxy as plagues affecting the Church.

The rejection by the Anglican Church at its Lambeth Conference in 1930 of is traditional belief in the evil artificial contraception is leading to the demise of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church; God forbid that the rejection of Humanae Vitae should lead to even greater trouble in the Catholic Church than we are already experiencing.

Here is an excerpt from the Eberstadt article, I urge you to read the entire article in First Things:

How did sex, of all subjects, come to occupy such a prominent place in the division of Christendom? In a sense, the potential was always there. From the first believers on up, the stern stuff of the Christian moral code has been cause for commentary—to say nothing of complaint. “Not all men can receive this saying,” the disciples are told when Jesus puts divorce off limits. Observers throughout history, Christian or not, have agreed: that particular moral teaching and its corollaries are hard indeed. From pagan Rome two thousand years ago to secular Western Europe today, the Church’s rules about sex have amounted to saying no, no, and no to things about which non-Christians have gotten to say yes or why not.

Even so, there is no denying that the traditional rules do seem more problematic now than ever before. Widespread abortion, ubiquitous pornography, diminished social opprobrium, and above all easy and effective contraception: All have divided recreation from procreation as never before in history. They have also been the driving force behind the embrace of Christianity Lite itself. After all, many would say, hasn’t this explosion of sexual expression made what was once a difficult moral code practically an impossible one? Shouldn’t the proper Christian response be one of mercy, rather than censure—including a merciful rewriting of the moral rules in these particularly difficult times?

Yet to say that the sexual revolution made Christianity Lite inevitable, as many people would, is to miss an important historical point. It was the Anglicans who first started picking apart the tapestry of Christian sexual morality—hundreds of years ago, long before the sexual revolution, and over one particular thread: divorce. In fact, in a fascinating development now visible in retrospect, the Anglican departure over divorce appears as the template for all subsequent exercises in Christianity Lite.

For about two centuries, and despite its having been midwifed into existence by the divorcing Henry VIII, the Church of England held fast to the same principle of the indissolubility of marriage on which the rest of Christian tradition insisted. According to a history of divorce called Untying The Knot, by Roderick Phillips, “no bishop, archbishop, or incumbent of high Anglican office in the first half of the seventeenth century supported the legalization of divorce.”

Even so, this early dedication to principle would turn out not to hold, ultimately eroding one priest and one parish at a time. In the United States, Phillips reports, Anglican churches soon were relaxing the strictest restrictions, making divorce more or less easy to come by depending on where one lived. Meanwhile, although the Church of England lagged behind the Episcopalians, by the mid-eighteenth century divorce was theoretically and practically available by an act of Parliament—a recourse that, although not widely exercised, went to show that exceptions to the indissolubility principle could be made.

Then came another turn of the theological wheel that could not have been foreseen by the first reformers. As of the General Synod in 2002, divorced Anglicans could now remarry in the Church. A spokesman noted carefully at the time: “This does not automatically guarantee the right of divorced people to remarry in Church.” But such cautions were plainly a matter of whistling in the dark. If Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles can now marry in the Church—having already married and been divorced from other people—why should every other Anglican not enjoy the same mercy?

Thus does the Anglican attempt to lighten up the Christian moral code over the specific issue of divorce exhibit a clear pattern that appears over and over in the history of the experiment of Christianity Lite: First, limited exceptions are made to a rule; next, those exceptions are no longer limited and become the unremarkable norm; finally, that new norm is itself sanctified as theologically acceptable.

Exactly that pattern emerges in another example of the historical attempt to disentangle a thread of moral teaching out of the whole: the dissent about artificial contraception. Here, too, Anglicans took the historical lead. Throughout most of its history, all of Christianity—even divided Christianity—upheld the teaching that artificial contraception was wrong. Not until the Lambeth Conference of 1930 was that unity shattered by the subsequently famous Resolution 15, in which the Anglicans called for exceptions to the rule in certain difficult, carefully delineated marital (and only marital) circumstances.

Exactly as had happened with divorce, the Anglican okaying of contraception was born largely of compassion for human frailty and dedicated to the idea that such cases would be mere exceptions to the theological rule. Thus Resolution 15 itself—for all that it was a radical break with two millennia of Christian teaching—abounded with careful language about the limited character of its reform, including “strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”

And also as had happened with divorce, the effort to hold the line at such carefully drawn borders soon proved futile. In short order, not only was birth control theologically approved in certain difficult circumstances but, soon thereafter, it was regarded as the norm. Nor was that all. In a third turn of the reformist wheel that no one attending Lambeth in 1930 could have seen coming, artificial contraception went on to be sanctioned by some prominent members of the Anglican Communion not only as an option but in fact as the better moral choice. By the time of Episcopal Bishop James Pike, only a quarter century or so later, it was possible for a leading Christian to declare (as he did) that parents who should not be having a child were not only permitted to use contraception but were, in fact, under a moral obligation to use the most effective forms of contraception obtainable.

Bishop Pike was only one of many leaders of Christianity Lite to participate in this same theological process leading from normalization to sanctification. Although the Eastern Orthodox churches sided generally with Rome on the issue of contraception, most Protestant churches ended up following the same script as the Anglicans—moving one by one from reluctant acceptance in special circumstances, to acceptance in most or all circumstances, and finally (in some cases) to complete theological inversion. No less an authority than the Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, for example, eventually embraced birth control to cope with what he called the “terrifying and tragic problem” of overpopulation.

In just a few decades, in other words—following the same pattern as divorce—contraception in the churches of Christianity Lite went from being an unfortunate option, to an unremarkable option, to the theologically preferable option in some cases. Now consider a third example of the same historical pattern holding in another area: dissent over traditional Christian teachings against homosexuality.

Although homosexuality may be the most explosive current example of the effort to reshape Christianity into a religion more congenial to modern sexual practice, it is actually new to that party. As many on both sides of the divide have had occasion to remark, homosexual behavior has been proscribed throughout history, by Judaism as well as Christianity, until very, very recently—including in the churches of Christianity Lite. (Henry VIII, to name one prominent example, invoked the alleged homosexuality of the monks as part of his justification for appropriating the monasteries.)

Yet “extraordinarily enough,” as William Murchison puts it in his book Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (2009), “a question barely at the boundary of general consciousness thirty years ago has assumed central importance to the present life and future of the Episcopal Church.” Why this remarkable transformation? In part, because the reformers at Lambeth and elsewhere did not foresee something else that in retrospect appears obvious: The chain of logic leading from the occasional acceptance of contraception to the open celebration of homosexuality would prove surprisingly sound.

That is precisely why the change in doctrine over contraception has been used repeatedly by Anglican leaders to justify proposed changes in religious attitudes toward homosexuality. Robert Runcie, for example, former archbishop of Canterbury, explained his own personal decision to ordain practicing homosexuals on exactly those grounds. In a BBC radio interview in 1996, he cited the Lambeth Conference of 1930, observing that “once the Church signalled . . . that sexual activity was for human delight and a blessing even if it was divorced from any idea of procreation . . . once you’ve said that sexual activity is . . . pleasing to God in itself, then what about people who are engaged in same-sex expression and who are incapable of heterosexual expression?”

Similarly, archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has also retrospectively connected the dots between approving purposely sterile sex for heterosexuals on the one hand and extending the same theological courtesy to homosexuals on the other. As he observed in a lecture in 1989, three years before he became bishop, “In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.”

Thus, in retrospect, does the modern Anglican path—from careful, even reluctant line-drawing over contraception at Lambeth in 1930, to divorced noncelibate homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson today—appear not only unsurprising but practically inevitable. Put differently, the rejection of the ban on birth control was not incidental to the Anglicans’ subsequent implosion over homosexuality. It was what started it.

Moreover, as of the December 2009 ordination in Los Angeles of the Episcopal Church’s second noncelibate gay bishop, it is clear that homosexuality’s theological status—like that of contraception before it—is now moving from an option to a religiously approved option. It therefore joins divorce and contraception in the signature religious cycle of Christianity Lite, conferring on a once prohibited sexual practice a theological seal of approval.


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