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"It is through conscience that human beings see and recognize the demands of the divine law. They are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in everything they do."
Religious Liberty, no 2.

Dissent In and For the Church: Theologians and "Humanae Vitae"

by Charles Curran
published by Sheed & Ward, New York, 1969, pp 156-172.

Physicalism and a Classicist Methodology in the Encyclical

Charles CurranThe encyclical on the regulation of birth employs a natural law methodology which tends to identify the moral action with the physical and biological structure of the act. The core practical conclusion of the letter states: “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” (H.V. n. 14). “Equally to be excluded.... is direct sterilization. . . . 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” (H. V. n. 14). The footnotes in this particular paragraph refer to the Roman Catechism and the utterances of more recent popes. Reference is made to the Address of Pius XII to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives in which direct sterilization is defined as “that which aims at making procreation impossible as both means and end” (n. 13, AAS 43 [1951], 838). The concept of direct is thus described in terms of the physical structure and causality of the act itself.

The moral conclusion of the encyclical forbidding any interference with the conjugal act is based on the intimate structure of the conjugal act” (H. V. n. 12). The "design of God” is written into the very nature of the conjugal act; the person is merely “the minister of the design established by the Creator” (H.V. n. 13). The encyclical acknowledges that “it is licit to take into account, the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions.” Recourse to the infecund periods is licit, whereas artificial contraception “as the use of means directly contrary to fecundation is condemned as being always illicit” (II. V. n16). 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” (H.V. n. 16). The natural law theory employed in the encyclical thus identifies the moral and human action with the physical structure of the conjugal act itself.

Humanae Vitae in its methodology well illustrates a classicist approach. The papal letter admits that “changes which have taken place are in fact noteworthy and of varied kinds” (H.V. n. 2). These changes give rise to new questions. However, the changing historical circumstances have not affected the answer or the method employed in arriving at concrete conclusions on implementing responsible parenthood. The primary reason for rejecting the majority report of the Papal Commission was “because certain criteria of solutions had emerged which departed from the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the teaching authority of the Church” (H. V.n.6).

The encyclical specifically acknowledges the fact that there are new signs of the times, but one wonders if sufficient attention has really been paid to such changes. The footnotes to the encyclical are significant even if the footnote references alone do not constitute a conclusive argument. The references are only to random scriptural texts, one citation of Thomas Aquinas, and references to earlier pronouncements of the hierarchical magisterium. A more inductive approach would be inclined to give more importance and documentation to the signs of the times. The footnote references contain no indication of any type of dialogue with other Christians, non-Christians and the modern sciences. When the letter does mention social consequences of the use of contraception, no documentation is given for what appear to be unproven assumptions. Since the methodology describes the human act in physical terms, the practical moral conclusion is the absolute condemnation of means of artificial birth control. The encyclical thus betrays an epistemology that has been rejected by many Catholic theologians and philosophers today.

IV. Different Approaches with Different Conclusion!

Natural law theory has traditionally upheld two values that are of great importance for moral theology: (1) the existence of a source of ethical wisdom and knowledge which the Christian shares with all humanity; (2) the fact that morality cannot be merely the subjective whim of an individual or group of individuals. However, one can defend these important values for moral theology without necessarily endorsing the particular understanding of natural law presupposed in the encyclical. In the last few years Catholic thinkers have been developing and employing different philosophical approaches to an understanding of morality. One could claim that such approaches are modifications of natural law theory because they retain the two important values mentioned above. Others would prefer to abandon the term natural law since such a concept is very ambiguous. There is no monolithic philosophical system called the natural law, and also the term has been somewhat discredited because of the tendency among some to understand natural in terms of the physical structure of acts. We can briefly describe three of the alternative approaches which have been advanced in the last few years — personalism, a relational and communitarian approach, a transcendental methodology. As mentioned above these three approaches emerge within the context of' a more historically conscious worldview and understand anthropology and moral reality in a way that differs from the concept of anthropology and moral reality proposed by the classical methodology. All these approaches would deny the absolute conclusion of the papal encyclical in condemning all means of artificial birth control.

A more personalist approach has characterized much of contemporary ethics. For the Christian, the biblical revelation contributes to such an understanding of reality. A personalist approach cannot be something merely added on to another theory. A personalist perspective will definitely affect moral conclusions, especially when such conclusions have been based on the physical structure of the act itself. Personalism always sees the act in terms of the person placing the act. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World realized that objective standards in the matter of sexual morality are “based on the nature of the human person and his acts” (n. 51). An essay by Bernard Haring shows how a personalist perspective would not condemn artificial contraception as being always immoral.56

Classical ethical theory embraces two types or models of ethical method: the teleological and the deontological. H.Richard Niebuhr has added a third ethical model — the model of responsibility. The moral agent is not primarily a maker or a citizen but a responder. There are various relationships within which the responsible self exists. “The Responsible self is driven as it were by the movement of the social process to respond and be accountable in nothing less than a universal community.”57 Robert Johann in developing his understanding of anthropology acknowledges debt to Niebuhr.58

In the particular question of contraception, a more relational approach would not view the person or a particular faculty as something existing in itself. Each faculty exists in relationship with the total person and other persons within a universal community. Morality cannot merely be determined by examining a particular faculty and its physical structure or a particular act in itself. The changed ethical evaluation of lying well illustrates the point. Both Johann and William H. van der Marck (who embraces a more phenomenological starting point) have employed a more relational approach to argue for the licitness of contraception in certain circumstances.59

A third philosophical approach espoused by a growing number of Catholic thinkers today is a theory of transcendental method. Transcendental methodology owes much to the neo-Thomist Joseph Marechal and is espoused today in different forms by Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Emerich Coreth.60 In general, transcendental method goes beyond the object known to the structures of the human knowing process itself. According to Lonergan, “the intrinsic objectivity of human cognitional activity is its intentionality.”61 Lonergan’s ethics is an extension of his theory of knowing. Moral value is not an intrinsic property of external acts or objects; it is an aspect of certain consciously free acts in relation to my knowledge of the world. The moral subject must come to examine the structures of the knowing and deciding process. 62

Lonergan uses as a tool the notion of horizon analysis. Basic horizon is the maximum field of vision from a determined standpoint. This basic horizon is open to development and even conversion. Lonergan posits four conversions which should transpire from the understanding of the structures of human knowing and deciding — the intellectual, the moral, the religious, and the Christian. Ethics must bring people to this Christian conversion so that they can become aware of their knowing and doing and flee from inauthenticity, unreasonableness, and the surd of sin. Thus Christian ethics is primarily concerned with the manner in which an authentic Christian person makes ethical decisions and carries them out. However, such a meta-ethics must then enter into the realm of the normative, all the time realizing the provisional value of its precepts which are limited by the data at hand. 63 One commentator has said of Lonergan’s ethic as applied to moral theology: “The distinct contribution of the moral theologian to philosophical ethics would consist in clarifying the attitudes which are involved in man’s responding in faith to the initiative of a loving God who has redeemed man in Christ." 64Thus a transcendental method would put greater stress on the knowing and deciding structures of the authentic Christian subject. Such a theory would also tend to reject the encyclical’s view of anthropology and of human generative faculties.

There has been even among Catholic theologians a sharp negative response to the practical conclusions of the papal encyclical on the regulation of birth. This essay has tried to explain the reason for the negative response. The concept of natural law employed in the encyclical tends to define the moral act merely in terms of the physical structure of the act. In contemporary theology such an understanding of natural law has been severely criticized. Newer philosophical approaches have been accepted by many Catholic thinkers. Such approaches logically lead to the conclusion that artificial contraception can be a permissible and even necessary means for the regulation of birth within the context of responsible parenthood.

V. Application to the Situation Ethics Debate

In the last few years moral theology and Christian ethics have been immersed in a controversy over situation ethics, The controversy tends to polarize opinions and fails to show the huge areas of agreement existing among Christian moralists. There are, nevertheless, many real differences in approaches and in some practical conclusions. The principal areas of practical differences between some situationists and the teaching found in the manuals of moral theology and the following: medical ethics, particularly in the area of reproduction; conflict situations solved by the principle of the indirect voluntary, especially conflicts involving life and death, e.g., killing, abortion; sexuality; euthanasia; and divorce.

These major points of disagreement have one thing in common. In these cases, the manuals of Catholic moral theology have tended to define the moral action in terms of the physical structure of the act considered in itself apart from the person placing the act and the community of persons within which she lives. A certain action defined in terms of its physical structure or consequences (e.g., euthanasia as the positive interference in the life of the person; male masturbation as the ejaculation of semen) is considered to be always wrong. I have used the term “negative, moral absolutes” to refer to such actions described in their physical structure which are always wrong from a moral viewpoint. Thus the central point of disagreement in moral theology today centres on these prohibited actions which are described primarily in terms of their physical structure.

In the area of medical ethics certain actions described in terms of the physical structure of the act are never permitted or other such actions are always required. Artificial insemination with the husband’s semen is never permitted because insemination cannot occur except through the act of sexual intercourse. 65 Contraception as direct interference with the act of sexual intercourse is wrong. Direct sterilization is always wrong. Masturbation as the ejaculation of semen is always wrong even as a way of procuring semen for semen analysis.66 Frequently in such literature the axiom is cited that the end does not justify the means. However, in all these cases the means is defined in terms of the physical structure of the act. I believe in all the areas mentioned above there are circumstances in which such actions would be morally permissible and even necessary.

Catholic moral theology decides most conflict situations by an application of the principle of the indirect voluntary. Direct killing, direct taking of one’s life, direct abortion! direct sterilization are always wrong. However, the manuals of theology usually define direct in terms of the physical structure of the act itself. Direct killing according to one author “may be defined as the performance (or the omission of) an act, the primary and natural result of which is to bring about death.”67 According to the same author “direct abortion is the performance of an act, the primary and natural effect of which is to expel a nonviable foetus from its mother’s womb.” In these cases direct refers to the physical structure and consequences of the act itself. One exception in the manuals of theology to the solution of conflict situations in terms of the principle of the indirect voluntary is the case of unjust aggression. The physical structure of the act is not the determining factor in such a conflict situation.

In general a Christian ethicist might be somewhat suspicious of conflict situations solved in terms of the physical structure of the act itself. Such a solution seems too facile and too easily does away with the agonizing problems raised by the conflict. Likewise, such an approach has tended to minimalize what is only an indirect effect, but the Christian can never have an easy conscience about taking the life of another even if it is only an indirect effect.

The case of “assisted abortion” seems to illustrate the inherent difficulties in the manualistic concept of direct and indirect. For example, the best available medical knowledge indicates that the woman cannot bring a living child to term. If the doctor can abort the fetus now, he or she can avert very probable physical and psychological harm to the mother from the pregnancy which cannot eventually come to term. The manuals indicate that such an abortion would be direct and therefore immoral. However, in the total context of the situation, it does not seem that such an abortion would be immoral. The example of assisted abortion illustrates the impossibility of establishing an absolute moral norm based on the physical description of the action considered only in itself apart from the person placing the action and the entire community. It seems that the older notion of direct enshrines a pre-scientific worldview which is somewhat inadequate in our technological age. Why should the doctor sit back and wait for nature to take its course when by interfering now she can avoid great harm to the mother? In general, I do not think that conflict situations can be solved merely in terms of the physical structure and consequences of the act.

Perhaps the approach used in conflict situations of unjust aggression would serve as a better model for the solution of other conflict situations. In unjust aggression the various values at stake are weighed, and the person is permitted to kill an unjust aggressor not only to save one’s life but also to protect other goods of comparable value, such as a serious threat to health, honour, chastity, or even material goods of great importance.68 (I believe that in some cases the older theologians went too far in equating the defence of these values and the life of the aggressor.) Thus in the question of abortion there seem to be cases when it is moral to abort to save the life of the mother or to preserve other very important values. I am not proposing that the fetus is an unjust aggressor but rather that the ethical model employed in solving problems of unjust aggression avoids some of the problems created by the model of direct and indirect effects when the direct effect is determined by the physical structure of the act itself.

The present discussion about the beginning of; human life centres on the criteria for identifying human life. Are the physical criteria of genetics and embryology sufficient? Or must other criteria of a more psychological and personalistic nature be employed for discerning the existence of human life? What then would be the difference between the fetus in the womb and the newborn babe who is now existing outside her mother’s womb? There are many complicated problems in such a discussion. For many, the biological and genetic criteria are the only practical way of resolving the problem.69 I am merely pointing out that the problem exists precisely because some people will not accept the biological and genetic considerations as establishing an adequate criterion for determining the beginning of human life.

Many theologians maintain the meaning of sexuality has been distorted in the Catholic theological tradition for many reasons including an overemphasis on the physical structure of sexual actuation. In the question of euthanasia, Catholic and other theistic ethicists generally approach the problem in terms of the limited dominion which the individual has over his or her own life. Today even Christians claim a greater power over their own existence both because of scientific advances and because of better understanding of participation in the Lordship of Jesus. However, in one important aspect in the area of euthanasia the question of dominion over one’s life is not primary. Catholic thinking has maintained that the patient does not have to use extraordinary means to preserve life. In more positive terms, there is a right to die. Many Catholic theologians remind doctors they have no obligation to give intravenous feeding to a dying cancer patient. Likewise, a doctor may discontinue such feeding with the intent that the person will thus die. But the manuals of theology would condemn any positive action on the part of the doctor — e.g., injection of air into the bloodstream — under the same circumstances.70

At the particular time when death is fast approaching, the primary moral question does not seem to revolve explicitly around the notion of one’s dominion over life. The problem centres on the difference between not giving something or the withdrawal of something necessary for life ,and the positive giving of something to bring about death. Is the difference between the two types of action enough to warrant the total condemnation of positively interfering? I do not think so; Catholic theologians should explore the possibility of interfering to hasten the dying process, a notion similar to the concept of assisted abortion mentioned above. But the theologian would also have to consider the possibility of a general prohibition based on the societal effects of such interference.

The problem of describing moral reality in terms of the physical description of an act viewed in itself apart from the person also manifests itself in the question of divorce. According to Catholic teaching a consummated marriage between two baptized persons is indissoluble. But consumption is defined in solely physical terms. Thus the notion of consummation as found in the present law of the Church is inadequate.71 Moreover, divorce in general qualifies as a negative moral absolute in the sense described above. A particular action described in non moral terms (re-marriage after a valid first marriage) is always wrong. The "entire question of divorce is too complex to be considered adequately in the present context since it involves biblical, historical, conciliar, and magisterial aspects. But the concept of “the bond of marriage” adds weight to the arguments against divorce. The bond becomes objectivized as a reality existing apart from the relationship of the persons which is brought into being by their marriage vows. Christians, I believe, should hold some element transending the two persons and their union here and now. But can this bond always be considered totally apart from the ongoing relationship between the two who exchanged the marital promises?

Thus a quick overview shows that the critical, practical areas of discussion in contemporary moral theology and Christian ethics centre on the absolute moral prohibition of certain actions which are defined primarily in terms of the physical structure of the act. Moral meaning is not necessarily identical with the physical description of an act. Modern anthropology is in a much better position than medieval anthropology to realize that fact. The underlying problem is common to every human science - the need to clearly differentiate the category of meaning as the specific data of any science involving human reality. Historians of ideas would be familiar with this problem from the nineteenth century differentiation of Dilthey between the Geisteswissenchaften and Nalurivissenchafien.72 In the Anglo-American context, Matson has recently published an informative survey of the present status of this same differentiation involving the notion of human behavior.73

A word of caution is in order. It appears that some proponents of situation ethics have not given enough importance to the bodily, the material, the external, and the physical aspects of reality. On the other hand, contemporary theory is less prone to accept the physical and the biological aspects of reality as morally normative. An analysis of the current scene in moral theology and Christian ethics in a broad ecumenical view indicates that the primary point of dispute centres on the existence of negative moral absolutes in which the moral action is described in physical terms. It would be unwarranted to conclude that the moral act is never identified with the physical structure and description of the act. However, one can conclude that an ethical theory which begins with the assumptionthat the moral act is identified with the physical structure and consequences of the act will find little acceptance by contempory theologians.


56. Bernard Haring, “The Inseparability of the Unitive-ProcreativeFunctions of the Marital Act,” Contraception: Authority and Dissent' ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Herder and Herder, (1969) pp. 176-192.

57. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 88.

58. Robert O. Johann, SJ., Building the Human (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), pp. 7-10.

59. Robert O. Johann, S.J., “Responsible Parenthood: A Philosopical View,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 20 (1965), 115-128; William H. van der Marck, O.P., Toward a Christian Ethic (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1967), pp. 48-60. Note that Germain G. Grisez in his Contraception and the Natural Law (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1964), argues against artificial conception although he explicitly denies the “perverted faculty” argument. However, Grisez seems to accept too uncritically his basic premise that the malice of contraception “is in the will’s direct violation of the procreative good as a value in itself, as an ideal which never may be submerged.”

60. For a succinct exposition of transcendental philosophy, see Kenneth Baker, S.J., A Synopsis of the Transcendental Philosophy of Emerich Coreth and Karl Rahner (Spokane: Gonzaga University, (1965).

61. Lonergan, Collection, p. 228.

62. In addition to the bibliography of Lonergan’s which has already been mentioned, see Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Insight New York and London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1964); Donald H Johnson, S.J., “Lonergan and the Redoing of Ethics,” Continuum 5 (1967), 211-220; and John P. Boyle, “Lonergan’s Method in Theology and Objectivity in Moral Theology,” The Thomist 37 49(1973), 589-601.

63. David W. Tracy, “Horizon Analysis and Eschatology,” Continuum 6 (1968), 166-179.

64. Johnson, “Lonergan and the Redoing of Ethics,” 219, 220.

65. Pope Pius XII, Address to the Fourth World Congress of Catholic Doctors, Rome, September 29, 1949, A.A.S. 41 (1949), 560; Pope Pius XII, Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives, October 29, 1951, A.A.S. 43 (1951), 850; Pope Pius XII, Address to the Second World Congress of Fertility and Sterility, May 19, 1956, A.A.S. 48 (1956), 472.

66. Pope Pius XII, A.A.S. 48 (1956), 472; Pope Pius XII, Address to the Italian Urologists, October 8, 1953, A.A.S. 45 (1953), 678; Decree of the Holy Office, August 2, 1929, A.A.S. 21 (1929), 490.

67. John McCarthy, Problems in Theology II: The Commandments (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1960), pp. 159, 160. The author mentions other current definitions of direct killing (e.g. an act which aims, ex fine operis, at the destruction of life) earliest pp. 119-122.

68. Marcellinus Zalba, S.J., Theoiogia Moralis Summa II,,Theologia Moralis Spccialis (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristian 1953),pp. 275-279.

69. Such an approach is adopted by Paul Ramsey who claims that at least from blastocyst the fetus must be considered as a human being. For further developments in Ramsey’s thought and my own critique, see Charles E. Curran, Politics, Medicine and Christian Ethics: A Dialogue with Paul Ramsey (Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1973), pp. 110-131.

70. Gerald Kelly, S.J., Medico-Moral Problems (St. Louis: Catholic Hospital Association, 1957), pp. 128-141.

71. For a fuller critique of the notion of consummation, see Dennis Doherty, “Consummation and the Indissolubility of Marriage,” Absolutes in Moral Theology?, pp. 211-231.

72. Wilhelm Dilthey, Pattern and Meaning in History (New York Harper Torchbook, 1967).

73. Floyd W. Matson, The Broken Image (Garden City, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1966).