Current controversy over the Pope's attitude to teaching on birth control has developed into broader questioning of his teaching authority, writes Agostino Bono in Rome.
THE present controversy surrounding Pope John Paul 11's guidance on birth control concerns not only the teaching itself, but also the Vatican's chosen path in enforcing adherence to its line by Catholic theologians.
What distinguishes the 1989 situation from the controversies of 20 years ago over Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical opposing artificial means of contraception, is that today's debate centres on the current Pope's use of the magisterium, the Church's teaching authority.
Besides defending the encylical's anti-contraceptive teaching, John Paul II has evolved new reasonings in an effort to make Humanae Vitae more acceptable to a new generation of married couples. While not formally declaring the birth control teaching infallible, the Pope has emphasised that the teaching is part of the unchangeable truths entrusted to the Church because it was "written by the creative hand of God." Yet, just as the 1968 encyclical did not put an end to theological debate, neither has a decade of the current Pope's strong defence of the teaching.
Instead, some theologians are interpreting the Pope's refusal to listen to dissent as de facto upgrading of the teaching from a changeable one, to a fundamental article of faith.
Both levels of the magisterium require assent by Catholics, but the ordinary magisterium can evolve as times and circumstances change. The extraordinary magisterium is evoked when the Pope solemnly declares that a teaching is infallible. Encyclicals are part of the Church's ordinary magisterium. The result is today's dissenting theologians are trying the birth control issue to an overall challenge of the Pope's use of authority. Referring to the decades of continued dissent over Humanae Vitae, they say this terachisvg ' must be regarded as open to change.
In January, Redemptorist Fr Bernard Haring, a moral theologian, suggested a church commission of bishops, theologians and laity to reexamine the question of contraception and study to what extent papal pronouncements on the issue should be considered "as doctrine revealed by God." Shortly after, 163 north European theologians issued a more forceful declaration. They cited the anti-contraceptive teaching as an example of misuse of papal authority. "The concept of New Testament truth and Jesus' teaching about salvation are enlisted by the Pope to represent a specific teaching that cannot be justified either in holy Scripture or in the traditions of the Church," the declaration said. "When the Pope does that which is not part of his office, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism," added the "Cologne Delcaration."
The signatories also lumped this exam* with papal choices for bishops and Vatican denials of permission for specific professors to teach Catholic theology at public universities, both of which involve Church discipline more than doctrine.
This declaration is "more serious" than previous dissenting statements in the post-Vatican II period, said German Fr Waller Kasper, a dogmatic theologian and papal supporter. "It is the broadest questioning of the Pope that has taken place so far."
The Cologne statement marks a deepening of the split amongst theologians, because moderates "serious professors whom I esteem, always faithful to the Pope" signed it "to express their intolerance of Rome," Fr Kasper said.
In the 1960s, debate focussed on which contraceptive means were morally acceptable, and the relationship between individual conscience and adherence to a specific Church teaching was publicly questioned by many theologians.
The 1968 encyclical gave Pope Paul's definitive answer by declaring artificial and chemical means ol contraception immoral, and requiring assent to the teaching. But it did not end the debate, and in many developed countries subsequent surveys showed that a large proportion of the Catholic population followed their own consciences when it came to the anti-contraceptive teaching.
The debate concerning the use of the Church's teaching authority has not been confined to north European theologians, however. A special issue of New Blackfriars, the Dominican theological journal, this week devoted itself to the theme "What Counts as Catholic Teaching?"
Containing contributions on the subject from leading British theologians such as Edmund Hill OP and Nicholas Lash, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, the special issue calls into question the established understanding of the Church's teaching authority.
"Consciously or unconsciously, the Church is increasingly modelling itself on the modern state, and excessive proximity of central government is one of the features of advanced industrial societies," says the preface.
Inside, Edmund Hill, the Lesotho-based English theologian who recently earned the wrath of Catholic Conservatives with his book Ministry and Authority in the Catholic Church, criticises the term "magisterium" (teaching authority) as it has been used recently.
"The notion that the teaching of doctrine is the exclusive preserve . . . of Popes and bishops is bizarre surely. I doubt if the Pope or any of the bishops were themselves taught their catechism, before they reached their present exalted office, by Popes or bishops in in illo tempore, or that the catechisms they were taught from were actually compiled by any Pope or bishop," he writes in New Blackfriars.