Critique of Birth Control Ban Paves Way for Okaying Same-Gender Relationships

By Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, September 24, 2016

Sometimes, you have to be grateful for the opposition.  They are often the best source for learning important news about positive Catholic LGBT items—though, of course, they don’t see these news items as very positive. This week, I learned about an important statement by an international group of moral theologians and physicians only because I read a news story about a group of conservative scholars who opposed the statement.  News about the progressive statement did not, at first, make big news, so it had not come to my attention until the conservative group opposed it.

The progressive statement to which I am referring is known as the Wijngaards Declaration, and its focus is to oppose the magisterial condemnation of what is referred to as “artificial contraception.”  The declaration takes its name from the Wijngaards Institute, a London-based Catholic think tank, which organized and released the statement.   The report, whose official title is “Promoting Good Health and Good Conscience: The Ethics of Using Contraceptives,” does a careful and specific critique of Humanae Vitae (HV), the 1968 encyclical which re-affirmed the magisterial opposition to couples using birth control.  A summary of the 20,000-word report can be found by clicking here (and it is very readable, so highly recommended).

While the declaration does not mention LGBT topics directly, it is important for Catholic advocates of LGBT issues to be aware of because it contains some critical theological arguments that could be used to advance the Church’s approval of same-gender relationships.

First, a little background as to how these ideas are connected.  In Catholic teaching on both birth control and same-gender relationships share an important common argument:  the magisterium’s claim that the natural order dictates that all sexual activity be open to procreation.  So birth control is not permitted because, depending on the method, it prevents the union of sperm and egg.  Likewise, homosexual relationships are not permitted because they are biologically non-procreative.

The Wijngaards Declaration very convincingly challenges HV’s idea that the natural order reveals that all sexual activity is designed for procreation.  In simple, though technical, language, the Declaration points out an important error in HV’s argument:

“HV’s argument is that because the biological ‘laws of conception’ reveal that sexual intercourse has a ‘capacity to transmit life’ (HV §13), each and every act of sexual intercourse has a ‘procreative significance’ (HV §12) and ‘finality’ (HV §3), and an ‘intrinsic relationship’ to procreation (HV §11).

“This misinterprets the biological evidence. The causal relationship between insemination and, on the other hand, fertilization, implantation, and ultimately procreation, is statistical, not necessary. The vast majority of acts of sexual intercourse do not have the biological ‘capacity’ for procreation, and therefore they cannot have procreation as their ‘finality’ or ‘significance.’ “

Their critique dispels the notion that all sexual activity is “naturally” procreative.  By pointing out that a great number of acts of sexual intercourse do not result in procreation indicates that it is not in God’s design for sexual activity to so intimately connected to procreation that all sexual activity must be open to it.

The report also argues that Scriptures reveal that it is not a requirement for all sexual activity to be open to procreation.  Instead, other motivations exist which would make sexual activity morally approved.  The report states:

“The Bible identifies a variety of morally worthy non-conceptive motives for engaging in sexual intercourse. This is confirmed by evolutionary biology and modern sociological surveys, among other disciplines.

“Those non-conceptive motives for sexual intercourse include pleasure, love, comfort, celebration and companionship. They are morally worthy even without the concurrent occurrence of either a ‘procreative significance’ of the biological ‘laws of conception,’ or the agents’ procreative intention.”

A third critique refutes the argument from authority that church officials often use to condemn birth control and same-gender relationships.  This argument from authority is often stated along the lines that the Church has always condemned these activities, so there can be no change towards approving them.  The Wijngaards report observes that this kind or reasoning raises the teaching on birth control (and, by extension, this could also apply to same-gender relationships) to the level of an infallible teaching—which it clearly is not.  The report states:

“. . . [A]ccording to Catholic theology, for a doctrine – including a moral doctrine – to be able to be defined infallibly and thus irreformably it must be either revealed or required for the defense or explanation of revealed truth (Cf. CDF: Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), DH 4536 [AAS 65 (1973) 401]). If it is not, then it cannot be defined infallibly.

“The teaching that using ‘artificial contraception is an intrinsic wrong always and everywhere is not revealed, nor has it ever been shown to be essential for the truth of the Christian revelation. Accordingly, it cannot become the object of an infallible definition.

“Hence, the appeal to a supposed constant tradition of magisterial teaching on the subject cannot by itself settle the question and foreclose the discussion, because the requirements for an infallible definition are not met.”

The report also argues that the use of contraceptives helps the common good by promoting women’s health, by preventing the spread of HIV, and by providing for better care for children and their development, among other things.  This argument for the promotion of the common good has also been used by theologians to argue for the approval of same-gender relationships. In the latter case, theologians argue that since healthy and committed same-gender relationships provide increased personal benefits to the spouses, the common good also benefits because the spouses can often better contribute their gifts to society.

In the conclusion, the Wijngaards report notes that the reasoning they applied to contraception can be applied to other topics, including some related to LGBT issues.  They note that the process of consulting science and reason, as well as paying attention to people’s experiences must also be followed in the future development of church teaching on sexual matters.  The report states:

“In societies such as the Catholic Church there are many specialized and complementary domains of expertise. The collaboration between those different domains is important for the common good of the society.

“Therefore, we recommend that the Catholic magisterium seek the opinion of Christian theologians and experts in other relevant disciplines with regard to the ethics of using modern non-abortifacient contraceptives for the purposes of family planning.

“We also recommend that their opinion be sought on the other areas of Catholic sexual ethics which will likely be affected by a revision of the present teaching banning the use of contraceptives for family planning, namely the negative evaluation of masturbation, homosexual relationships, and in vitro fertilization.

“Regardless of the consultation process adopted, the opinions gathered should be independent, representative of the majority view of the pertinent academic communities, and made public.”

Of the 143 international Catholic scholars who signed the report, seven of them have spoken at New Ways Ministry’s educational events:  Christine Gudorf, Joseph Selling, Gregory Baum, Sidney Callahan, Rev. Charles Curran, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, and Susan Ross.

The Wijngaards report is a major step forward in the discussion of Catholic sexual morality.  Its implications reach far beyond just the discussion of birth control.  Perhaps that is part of the reason why the conservative backlash against it was so swift.  It is as if they seem to recognize that a change in this one area of teaching could affect a myriad of change in other areas as well.  Wouldn’t that be great?


10 replies
  1. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    Of course. I would add that the Church shifted the wording of the primary purpose of marriage from the procreation of children and then the union of the couple to putting both of these together as primary.
    On the issue of infallibility, two points. First,never in the history of CC teaching has there been an infallible teaching in morality. As an aside, JP2 wanted to do so with abortion and Ratzinger, of all people, advised against it. Second, only three matters of faith have been decreed infallible, the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception and the circular reasoning that the Church can speak “under strict conditions” to state that some belief is infallible. Further, this was promulgated in a session when most cardinals did not attend because Rome was under siege. Obviously, the third so-called infallible teaching does not rise to the level of teaching “necessary for salvation”. For that, my online friends, see the Creed. Finally, as the two teachings on Mary indicate that everything we hold as infallible about Mary was promulgated to protect what we believe about Jesus. The meaning of these two dogmas of Mary also require deep reflection and may not necessarily be taken literally, similar to the profundity of what we believe about Jesus said.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    Great article! And, of course, the vast majority of Catholic heterosexual married couples use non-abortive medical contraception in their bedrooms, and don’t give a flying fig what these cranky old bishops (“COBs”) say about it. The main reason that Catholic gay couples are targeted for abuse by the “COBs” is simply that these couples are gender-visible, and hence they become convenient targets for ecclesiastical abuse. Frustrated and forcibly-celibate old men presuming to dictate the terms and limits of human tenderness and intimacy? Perhaps in “La-La Land” — but certainly NOT in the real world of authentic human relationships. Our Anglican siblings have no ethical problem whatsoever concerning the prudent use of medical contraception, and they are now increasingly supportive of faithfully-bonded same-sex relationships as well. The RCC urgently needs an “operating system upgrade” to fix its blinkered approach to bonded human relationships. Accepting a married priesthood would be a great place to start the upgrade.

  3. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    As a Canadian I am proud to promote Fr. Andre Guindon OMI (dec.) who in his works The Sexual Language, (1976) and The Sexual Creators (1986) illustrated beautifully Newman’s teaching on the Development of Doctine–in this case that our sexuality is not something frozen in time. Vatican II also recognized this when it did away with the primary and secondary ends (description) of marriage. (See Loretta’s comment above). Guindon’s “The Sexual Creators saw “fecundity” as more than purely biological but life enhancing. John McNeill SJ also recognized this in his first major work “The Church and The Homosexual”. Gregory Baum (another Canadian!!) helped kick off this unfolding dialogue with his article “Catholic Homosexuals” in the National Catholic Reporter (I think in 1972). The teaching on Probabalism fits in here (where a minority opinion on a moral topic by legitimate scholars can be held or promoted). Bravo for Frank DeBernardo bringing the legitimacy of our LGBTQ+ position forward through this Wijngaards Declaration (and indirectly from the Conservative backlash!). It stands in a solid tradition!

  4. Albertus
    Albertus says:

    One can only fully agree with the reasonging followed and conclusions drawn by the above report. However i find it odd that one other obvious flaw in the thinking behind Paul VI’s Encyclical Humanae Vitae continues to go unnoticed, even by the above report. Humane Vitae allows for married couples to practice ”natural birth control”, meaning, a highly unnatural method of plotting a woman’s fertility cycle on the calender and then having sexual relations only on her supposed ”infertile” days, when conception would be impossible. Impossible or not, the intention of having sexual relations and avoiding conception at the same time is the idea behind this so-called ”natural” birth control method, which official Church teaching allows, and which is taught and explained to married couples under the auspices of Church authority. Tne flaw here is that this so-called natural method ALSO frustrates the supposed natural order of creation by separating sexual relations from reproduction! IF one accepts the fallacy that sexual relations must always have reproduction as their goal in order to be morally justified, then the ‘rhythm method” allowed by the Church is just as morally reprehensible as the pill or any other means of contraception. This is such an obvious contradiction to the central theme of Humanae Vitae and the logic behind it, that it amazes me that this contradiction is not more often unmasked and attacked. For the fallacy that every sexual relationship must to be open to reproduction in order to be a morally right act becomes immediately transparent in the light of the Vatican’s blessing of the so-called ”natural” rhythm method, which allows – even encourages – married couples to have sex and avoid children at the same time.

  5. Wilhelm Wonka
    Wilhelm Wonka says:

    This has just occurred to me: Paul the Apostle, in one of his letters, prescribes marriage not for procreation, but as an antidote for unbridled passion. I kid you not.

  6. Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf
    Bishop Carlos A Florido, osf says:

    I agree with the comments above. I believe that no one but God is infallible. I mean no one! Think of the number of infallible doctrines that have been discarded or forgotten. Bishops, including yours truly, must stop attempting to control humanity!


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