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?