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The Facts of Life & Marriage: Social Science & the Vindication of Christian Moral Teaching

W. Bradford Wilcox

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In 1968, Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae, an encyclical affirming the Christian tradition's ancient and constant moral teaching that contraception is wrong. Sadly, Humanae Vitae came as a shock to many Christians inside and outside the Catholic Church, who thought that the church was ready to accommodate herself to the modern view of marriage as primarily a relational, not procreative, institution.

Indeed, in the wake of Humanae Vitae, the Catholic Church largely lost her ability to successfully convince the American laity, not to mention Christians throughout the West, of the truth and beauty of her moral teaching on matters related to sex and marriage. Three historical, sociological, and intellectual factors help account for this failure.

Three Failures

First, Humanae Vitae came at the worst possible moment in history. The encyclical arrived in the wake of Vatican II, just after the Catholic Church had thrown open her windows to the modern world. Unfortunately, the modern world was then succumbing to the siren song of the sexual revolution, was awash in a pervasive anti-authoritarianism, and inclined to a hedonistic ethic fueled by unprecedented affluence. As the Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson observed at a forum sponsored by Commonweal magazine, "American Catholics truly became American at [precisely the] moment when America itself was undergoing a cultural revolution"...

Second, and just as ominously, this rejection led many of these same Catholics to call into question their commitment to the whole fabric of Catholic moral teaching on sex-related matters. If the Catholic Church is wrong on birth control, the thinking went, she is probably wrong on divorce and remarriage, premarital sex, and so on. As Johnson, himself a critic of Humanae Vitae observed, "The birth control issue finally initiated many American Catholics into the hermeneutics of suspicion," a hermeneutics that made them skeptical of all the church's pronouncements regarding sexual morality...

Third, the mistaken view that the church is hopelessly out of touch, hopelessly inflexible, and hopelessly bereft of compassion on matters related to sex and marriage has been and continues to be advanced by Catholic intellectuals with substantial public platforms. The pronouncements of Charles Curran, Andrew Greeley, Richard McBrien, and other like-minded Catholic theologians and social scientists have only added to the confusion, dissent, and scandal that swirls around Christian moral teaching...

Read the entire article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 1/8/05

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