The Irish Bishops and the Legalisation of Contraception (1978): Mgr Cremin Speaks Out. Full Text of Interview.
Monsignor Patrick Francis Cremin gave a four-part interview to the Irish Independent in 1978. The first, second and fourth parts of the interview were largely dedicated to criticising the Irish hierarchy for their stance on the legalisation of contraception. They are all posted in full below.
The third part of the interview was concerned with the radical liberal drift at Maynooth seminary and in the Irish Church more broadly. It can be read in full here. (NB: see also the earlier explosive dossier The Scandal of Maynooth from 1973 — Mgr Cremin was one of the dossier’s sources.)
From the Irish Independent, 8th November, 1978:
By JOSEPH POWER
Our Religious Affairs Correspondent
The fact that the Irish bishops did not explicitly express disapproval of legalisation of contraceptives has disturbed many priests and people, a leading Maynooth theologian claims today.
The bishops’ statement on Proposed Legislation Dealing With Family Planning and Contraception last April has been understood as giving a green light for legislation, says Right Rev. Monsignor Patrick Francis Cremin, professor of moral theology and of canon law at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Independent, he said there is no discernible warning light showing against the proposed legislation.
The bishops, he stressed, have the right and the duty to give to their people clear, authoritative guidance on issues of morality and to teach moral principles and any legislation designed to facilitate the availability of contraceptives fell within their special competence.
The views expressed are meant to emphasise Pope Paul VI’s appeal against legalising contraception. They have come at a time when the Government is preparing legislation to make contraceptives available, and follow on the Statement issued by the bishops last April dealing with the proposed legislation.
Dr. Cremin told me he expressed his views in an effort to clear up, in so far as possible at this stage, at least some of the bewilderment of priests and people, and even some bishops to judge by their comments, in the wake of the statement.
He expressed them also to provide guidance for other priests and people, besides the many who had individually sought guidance from him.
Monsignor Cremin, a native of Kerry, who was appointed by Pope John XXIII as an expert to prepare for the Second Vatican Council and again as “Peritus” at the Council, is the only Irish theologian who was a council expert throughout Vatican II.
Moreover, he served on three Council commissions, including the commission concerned with bishops and the government of dioceses which dealt with the Council decree On the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church.
He was also available as an expert to the Irish bishops during the Council, as he had been for the Maynooth Plenary Council held in 1956.
At the invitation of the then Nuncio in Ireland, Monsignor Cremin gave the press conference on Pope Paul’s Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae, on the day it was published.
His views, he explained, are intended to provide guidance especially for some of the two thousand or so priests, including half the Irish bishops, for whose formation in moral theology and canon law he had some responsibility over the years in the national seminary. He told me there were very many priests and people who had voiced disappointment at the bishops issuing a statement without clearly expressing disapproval of the proposed legislation to legalise contraceptives.
Frequently heard were such remarks as “The bishops have sold the pass,” or “The bishops have let us down,” or “The bishops have abdicated their responsibility.” Indeed, with these priests and people the credibility of the bishops and their teaching or ruling authority had been damaged, he added.
The monsignor hoped priests and people might at least be reassured to know that Pope Paul VI had appealed to the rulers of nations not to introduce contraception by legislation.
Whatever the Irish bishops’ reasons for making the kind of statement they did make, they must naturally be of the same mind as the Supreme Pontiff, to whom they were subject, on a moral issue such as this.
Monsignor Cremin explained that after remaining silent for many years — in the disordered state of the Catholic Church, even in Ireland, and the emotional thinking found in the realm of theology and religion — he now felt impelled to speak, however reluctantly.
“It should go without saying,” he told me, “that for one in my position it is quite distasteful to make a contribution that is necessarily critical of the conduct of ecclesiastical affairs by bishops, who, in communion and subject to the Supreme Pontiff, occupy the sacred office of rulers in the Church of Christ.”
“But I am moved to make it because of the great seriousness of the matter in question.”
He emphasised that the hard fact was, and must be faced, however incredible it might seem, that legislation legalising the availability of contraceptives was inevitably opening the door in due time to the legalisation of abortion, of divorce, and even however far-fetched this might seem just now — of euthanasia after it has been introduced, if it is, in England.
Naturally, added Monsignor Cremin, the legislators who had run so easily to legalising abortion in England, and other countries, might think twice about legalising euthanasia, since they themselves had been safely born and could not be aborted, but had yet to die.
On that commission he was assigned especially to the Study Group on Marriage along with seven other experts under the presidency of Cardinal Pericle Felici.
Preserve Our Christian Ethos and Faith
First installment of a four-part interview given by Monsignor Patrick F. Cremin, S.T.D., J.U.D., Professor of Moral Theology and of Canon Law, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Our traditional Irish Christian faith cannot ultimately survive if our Christian ethos is undermined and our Christian way of life demoralised, as a result of the passing of legislation which facilitates contraception and opens the way to the legalisation of abortion and other evils.
If that should come to pass, the question must be asked, and it will be asked by future generations of Irish men and women, how far the loss of our Christian faith must ultimately be laid at the door of the Irish Bishops of the time, who, in three statements on the proposed legislation on contraception, issued after their statement on ‘Ireland and Europe,’ failed to express their disapproval of the proposed legislation and provide their people and legislators with the lead which they needed.
If this contribution appears to be unduly critical or severe in some ways, I can only plead that potentially desperate situations may require desperate remedies, and that there are already in the Irish Church and have been for some time, in my opinion, some situations which are no longer just potentially desperate, however much the cracks may be papered over or a blind eye turned to them.
The Statement of the Irish Bishops has been generally understood by the press, radio and television, and inevitably therefore by the public generally, as conveying that the Irish Bishops, without expressing any disapproval, accept that legislation will be enacted amending the Criminal Law of 1935 and legalising contraceptives.
It has been construed as “clearing the way for the proposed legislation”, as acknowledging that “a total ban on easy availability of contraceptive no longer is viable” and that “for many people in Ireland the debate on contraception is over”, as giving “no indication that there would be objection to amending legislation, provided it was sufficiently restrictive,” and as saying to the legislators “you are free to do as you like” but ‘if you do, you are going to wreck society’.
It is true that, side by side with these interpretations of the Statement, one priest (who has been a staunch defender of moral values in all areas of human life) has said that in their Statement the Irish Bishops are not in favour of legislation that will make the sale of contraceptives legal, and that they want minimum amending legislation. Add to this the statement attributed by the press to the head of a Catholic organization that “they accepted that the Government would be introducing a Bill to legalise contraceptives”, and the organisation “would be concentrating its efforts on ensuring that there would be strong limits and controls in the Bill to prevent the sale of contraceptives to unmarried people.”
When the Bishops in their statement have not explicitly said that they disapprove of any legislation that would legalise contraceptives, what is the man in the street to make of all these interpretations? What is anyone to make of them?
We know what some speakers from Protestant Churches (not the Church of Ireland) have actually made of them. They have welcomed the statement as a big concession by the Roman Catholic Bishops, as a “decision not to block the sale of contraceptives”, as facilitating a “move towards pluralism” as “for the good of interchurch relations” (a concept of unreal ecumenism which they share with many Catholic “ecumenists”), as a progressive and forward step, as a document whose “thinking would pave the way for the removal of the ban on divorce”, and as finally putting on record “the separation of Church and State in matters of morals”.
This last sentiment of a Protestant speaker was echoed with obvious relish by a reporter who explained that the statement gives “practical endorsement to Dr. Tomás Ó Fiaich’s view, when he became Primate, that there should be a clear division between the morals and religious responsibilities of the Church and the legislative and administrative functions of the State.”
In fairness to Dr. Ó Fiaich, who — if reported correctly — might unfortunately be thought to have advocated complete separation of Church and State, it should be said that he cannot be blamed for the weakness of the recent Bishops’ Statement, since it followed essentially the lines of the two previous weak Statements issued by the Bishops in 1973 and 1976 on the legalisation of contraceptives. Of course it can be said that he did not repair the weakness of these two Statements — nor that of the less weak Statement in 1971 — made by the Bishops while his predecessor was President of the Irish Episcopal Conference.
Was this the best the Bishops could do?
If one asks why the Bishops’ statement has been the subject of so many diverse interpretations, most of them assuming that the Bishops do not disapprove of the legalisation of contraceptives, the answer is that the Bishops have not said explicitly in it that they disapprove of such legislation. Much less have they said that the legislators ought to retain the prohibition in so far as it already exists in regard to contraceptives.
Not only that, but there are a number of observations in the statement which can be understood as favouring the interpretations just mentioned and as suggesting that the Bishops do not necessarily disapprove of the legalisation of contraceptives.
(i) For one thing, after saying that ‘No one can, by passing a law, make what is wrong in itself become right,’ the Bishops go on to say that “It does not necessarily follow from this that the State is bound to prohibit the distribution and sale of contraceptives” and they leave the matter at that. They do not add that it may follow from some other consideration, such as the objective moral order, that the State should prohibit ‘the distribution and sale of contraceptives.’ The result is that the reader of the Statement may infer that the State may permit ‘the distribution and sale of contraceptives,’ merely because to do this does not make their use morally right.
(ii) There is in the Statement the admission that “the present legal situation regarding contraceptives is indeed unsatisfactory” without the Bishops indicating whether that unsatisfactory legal situation (brought about by the McGee decision of the Supreme Court) might not perhaps be remedied otherwise than by enacting legislation amending that which does already exist.
Legal situation on contraceptives unsatisfactory
(iii) There is also the statement that “It can be argued that there is need for some minimum amending legislation and that this would bring about a better situation than we now have.” It is not followed by any suggestion that this argument might not be cogent and could be refuted. (Is it being conveyed or insinuated that the argument mentioned is necessarily valid?) Much less is there any suggestion that an even better situation might perhaps be brought about by constitutional amendment.
(iv) The Statement speaks of “some of the difficulties inherent in the framing of amending legislation in the area of contraception”, and it speaks also of other matters that would need attention, if such legislation is introduced, such as the need to respect the conscientious rights of doctors and others, including Health Board Personnel. In speaking of these matters, the Bishops appear to be accepting the fact that such legislation will in all likelihood be introduced, without expressing any disapproval of it. They are content merely to urge against it the considerations which they enumerate in drawing attention to some of the bad effects of such legislation.
Clearly, what emerges from an examination of the text of the Bishops’ Statement itself is that it is difficult to ascertain what is the essential message being conveyed in it, at least if, in making it, they are to be understood to be exercising their “magisterium” or that special teaching authority which they enjoy as Bishops in virtue of their office in the Church.
They appear to be concerned, on the one hand, not to express explicitly any disapproval of the proposed legislation on contraceptives, and concerned on the other hand to convey implicitly some disapproval of it and yet — it can be argued — in such a way as to leave individual observations in the Statement, and therefore the overall Statement itself, open to the interpretation that they do not disapprove of the legislation.
If, seeking some reassurance, one looks for clarification of the Statement, or for some definition of its essential message, from comments made subsequently by individual Bishops, one does not really get any farther. Comments from four Bishops in all were reported in the press.
Subject of many diverse interpretations
(1) On the day the Statement was published in the press, a contribution (which was clearly prepared carefully and supplied) was carried from one Bishop, presumably acting as a spokesman as he has so often done in the past. In it, as reported, he said that insufficient attention had been given to two important aspects of the Supreme Court decision in the McGee case. One was that “there was no kind of opening or encouragement in the decision towards the availability of contraceptives for the unmarried.” The second was that “the judges, in their decision, excluded abortion and abortifacients from the scope of the judgment. There was no implication in the judgment favourable to abortion or to the use of abortifacients.”
In making these observation, was this the best that this Bishop could do to reassure concerned readers and to recommend the Statement?
As regards his first observation, concerning the first aspect of the decision in the McGee case, if his somewhat unclear statement is meant to imply, as it would seem, that only married couples were favoured by the McGee judgment, then his statement is incorrect, because the law, as it has stood since that judgement, has been that any person may import contraceptives provided they are not for purposes of sale. In any case, even if — as he appears mistakenly to believe — the McGee judgement did restrict the availability of contraceptives to married couples, is he so unrealistic as to think that any such restriction in that judgment could guarantee that the same restriction, if built into the proposed legislation, could be enforced effectively, so that contraceptives did not in fact become available to the unmarried?
As regards this Bishop’s second observation, concerning the second aspect of the decision in the McGee case, even allowing for his having no special knowledge of law, is he again so simple as to believe that “the scope of the judgment” in the McGee case is any guarantee against the legalisation of abortion at some future date?
One wonders, therefore, what purpose was supposed to be served in connection with the Bishops’ Statement by this Bishop, in making only the observations he did make. Certainly, priests and people generally would have benefited more if they could have been given a valid reason why their spiritual leaders, the Bishops, refrained from expressing disapproval of legislation legalising contraceptives. If Pope Paul saw fit, as we shall see, to express to Rulers of Nations generally his disapproval of such legislation, how is it that the Irish Bishops did not see fit to express to our legislators their disapproval of the proposed legislation in our country?
This question has not been answered by this Bishop — nor by any of the three other Bishops who commented on the Statement. Perhaps it is not too surprising that he confined himself to saying that their discussions ‘were within the four walls’ of the Statement, after he and his three colleagues, as representatives of the Irish Hierarchy, had met the Minister for Health and Social Welfare two months later.
(2) On the day after the Statement was published, another Bishop was reported in the press as saying that the Hierarchy had “put the ball back in the Government’s court.” (This would seem to confirm the fear which some discerning observers have had for some time, that certain serious matters may not have been treated with due seriousness.)
The idea even of a game being played was expressed subsequently by some political commentators. One suggested that, with the Minister for Health in a quandary, “a word (from him) in the right ears and a cleverly worded statement is issued and the matter settles itself” and wondered “why Liam Cosgrave didn’t think of this ploy or is it that the Hierarchy refused to assist him in this way and if so why?”
Is it not very regrettable that a Statement issued by the Irish Bishops should be such as to lend itself to commentary of this kind from anyone?
The Bishop who spoke of the ball being put back in the Government’s court is reported as saying also that “the Bishops’ view was that the Church did not need the State to bolster up its teaching”. If this is the view of the Bishops or even of some of them, then it is really disturbing to know that those Bishops who hold that view have missed the whole point of what is involved in this issue.
The fact is that the teaching in question is not just the Church’s teaching. It is the teaching of God Himself in his divine, natural law, which the Church merely declares — and must declare — with her God-given authority. It is not a question of whether the Church needs the State to bolster up its teaching, but whether the law of God, which is necessarily taught by the Church established by Christ, should at least not be contravened or its infringement authorised by the State, whose only authority also comes ultimately from God as the Church’s does.
Will the Bishops in question, whose view has been quoted above, take consolation in thinking that the Church does not need the State to bolster up its teaching, God’s teaching, if in due time — and inevitably, if legislation is passed legalising contraceptives — the State contemplates legalising abortion or the murder of the innocent, unborn child? Or in thinking that such a consideration can justify the Bishops in washing their hands of their responsibility to oppose unambiguously and vigorously any such contemplated legalisation of abortion?
From the Irish Independent, 9th November, 1978:
Second section of a four-part interview with Monsignor P. F. Cremin, S.T.D., J.U.D., Professor of Moral Theology and of Canon Law, St. Patrick’s, Maynooth.
Two days after the Bishops’ Statement on proposed legislation dealing with family planning and contraception was published last April, a third Bishop was reported in the press as saying — presumably in an effort to correct some of the interpretations of it that were already current — that “any suggestion that the Irish Bishops’ Conference had given the green light for legislation making contraceptives widely available was false.” He pointed out that “in their statement this week the Bishops did not say there should be legislation or, if there should, what it should be.”
Presumably this Bishop was articulating or interpreting the mind of the Bishops generally. He was certainly not contradicted publicly by any of them; and his statement about the green light was endorsed by the Bishop who spoke some weeks later.
It will be noticed that this Bishop pointed out that “the Bishops did not say there should be legislation”. Of course the Bishops did not say this. But neither did they say that there should not be legislation; and this is the reason for confusion and dissatisfaction. From the silence of the Bishops on this point, readers of their Statement are left to infer that they do not disapprove of legislation; and very many readers have inferred just this, as is evident from the various interpretations set forth already above.
The question is: Why did the Bishops not express disapproval of any legislation? Either they approve or they disapprove of it. Presumably on this issue they cannot be credited with a blank mind, nor, we hope, with a divided one — notwithstanding a fairly common belief that some Irish Bishops favour unacceptable views concerning the Church’s teaching on contraception or its force.
It will be noticed also that this Bishop described as false “any suggestion that the Irish Bishops’ Conference had given the green light for legislation making contraceptives widely available” (italics mine). He did not say that the suggestion was false that the Bishops’ Conference had given the green light for legislation making contraceptives (not widely) available. Consequently this comment, with its careful qualification, by one of the Bishops has been understood as confirming the view that the Bishops’ Statement has given the green light for legislation legalising contraceptives.
‘No discernible red light showing’
After all, in that Statement of the Bishops there is no discernible red light showing against any forward movement of the proposed legislation on contraceptives, as there would have been if the Bishops had included in it merely another half-a-dozen words: “We disapprove of legislation legalising contraceptive.” Readers of the Statement, therefore, naturally tend to assume that, if the Statement does not give a red light, it must give a green one. Or could it possibly be that it is meant to give an amber light, that will remain amber long enough to allow the proposed contraceptives legislation to slip through before it turns to red? For turn to red it inevitably must, but too late alas, when the sequel is an ever-growing demand by the pressure groups for the legislation of abortion.
More recently in August, this same Bishop — when dealing with a charge made by one of the legislators that recent statements by the Irish Bishops on family planning law were ambiguous — gave a reply which, as reported in the press, was rather unclear on a number of points. I consider here only the most important one of these. He is reported as saying:
The decisive criterion to be applied in questions of this kind is not whether a particular practice is contrary to Catholic teaching, but whether the removal of legislation prohibiting it would be so harmful to public morality as to outweigh any advantages accruing from the greater freedom which would thereby be permitted to individuals. (italics mine)
To begin with, there is here a lack of accuracy and therefore of clarity. In particular, it is not clear to what exactly the speaker is referring in this passage, when he speaks first of “a particular practice” and later of “the removal of legislation prohibiting it.” (I take it that, in the context of the charge made and of his reply to it, of which the concluding part is the passage quoted above, the speaker has in mind either contraception or else contraceptives and their use or availability).
If by “a particular practice” he means contraception or the use of contraceptives, there is no question of “the removal of legislation prohibiting it” since it is not prohibited by civil law. If, on the other hand, it is to the availability of contraceptives (by way of sale) he is referring, this is indeed prohibited by legislation but it can scarcely be called “a practice.” In view of this inaccuracy and the confusion arising from it, it is therefore not clear what he is speaking of in the above statement, in which he tell us, first, what the decisive criterion is not and, then, what it is.
On the one hand if, using the word “practice” accurately, he is referring to contraception or the use of contraceptives, then, as always “in questions of this kind,” the decisive criterion to be applied is, in fact, whether it is contrary to Catholic teaching, not, it is true, considered formally as Catholic teaching, but considered as teaching that declares the natural, moral law of God, which is necessarily taught by the one, true Church of Christ, whose prerogative and duty it is to declare and interpret the moral law of God, as is explained further below.
On the other hand, when he talks of “legislation prohibiting it” (“it” referring to “practice” in the previous line) he may be, and he seems to be, speaking of the availability of contraceptives (by way of sale), to which he applies the term “practice” inaccurately or in a very loose sense indeed. In that case, the decisive criterion is not what he says, “whether the removal of legislation prohibiting it would be so harmful to public morality as to outweigh any advantages accruing from the greater freedom which would thereby be permitted to individuals.” (Italics mine)
The speaker appears to be appealing here to a criterion which applies, not to an action that is morally wrong in itself, but to an action that is in itself morally neutral, that is one that may be morally good or morally bad, depending upon the circumstances.
But, in the matter being considered here, there is not question of a morally neutral action, that is, if we assume that here, as would appear, the speaker is talking of the availability of contraceptives (by way of sale, which is prohibited by civil legislation). There is question of the availability of contraceptives, whose essential use is necessarily for an action that is morally wrong in itself.
When this Bishop speaks, therefore, of “any advantages accruing from the greater freedom which would thereby be permitted to individuals”, he is evidently contemplating “the greater freedom” to do morally wrong actions, and contemplating also “advantages” accruing from this greater freedom as the good effect of the removal of the legislation prohibiting the availability of these means of doing what is morally wrong.
Does the Bishop really consider that “the greater freedom” to do morally wrong actions would be a good effect? Does he consider that what would accrue from providing such freedom would be “advantages,” which could perhaps outweigh the harm to public morality resulting from the removal of the legislation in question?
Incidentally, is what here appears to be an application of a mistaken criterion merely a correct reflection of the application of the same criterion by the Bishops in their Statement, when they say in No. 4: “The law-maker has to consider the effects which new legislation in this area is likely to have. He must weigh the good against the bad. The good which a law may do must be set against the harm which it can do”?
Finally, some weeks later, a fourth Bishop spoke at great length, concerning the Bishops’ Statement and its implications. But, as reported, he did not say that the Bishops disapproved of legislation legalising contraceptives; nor did he say that he himself disapproved of it.
On the other hand, he did speak of “legislation for family planning — in itself a most worthy objective”; as he did say that the Bishops did not wish “to see any obstacles in the way of acceptable legislative initiatives towards meeting these problems” that is “problems which confronted some families in the sphere of family planning.”
It is regrettable that this Bishop did not reassure his listeners that in these statements he was referring, if that was in fact the case, only to such family planning as is morally lawful. Unfortunately, the report of his contribution might be understood by some readers as not excluding morally unacceptable methods of family planning, when he speaks of “legislation for family planning” as “in itself a most worthy objective,” and of “acceptable legislative initiatives.”
“But,” he continued, referring to the observation of the Bishop whose view he was endorsing, “this should not be seen as giving a green light to making contraceptives widely available (italics mine) through legal channels throughout the country”. The reader will notice that the expression “widely available” has been used again, with the consequent implications already pointed out above.
‘The old charge of Rome rule’
This Bishop also said that the Bishops’ Statement “should eliminate for good the old charge of Rome rule”. Is he then conceding that this particular Statement in fact contains no authoritative guidance which could be described as “Rome rule” or rule by the Irish Bishops? If that is what he means, how can he claim that it “should eliminate for good the old charge of Rome rule” (italics mine)? Or is he implying — and this would be a very disturbing implication indeed — that this Statement indicates a policy on the part of the Irish Bishops, in virtue of which they are henceforward going to refrain from giving any authoritative guidance in matters which have to do, for example, with proposed legislation, even if the matters have a definite moral implication or involve issues of morality on which the Bishops have the duty, as well as the right, to give guidance?
In any case, the observation made by this Bishop about the charge of “Rome rule” being eliminated has implications which are disquieting; especially when it has been made by a Bishop who in the recent past has ventured into the delicate area of Church-State relations and of public ecclesiastical law. One wonders on what title he did venture into this area, if now he implies that the elimination of the charge of “Rome rule” is something to be commended.
What is wrong with “Rome rule” (even when it does become “home rule” or is followed by the State), provided (and I stress the word provided) the “rule” that is described as “Rome” is merely a legitimate exercise by the Pope or the Bishops of their God-given authority to teach in the field of faith and morals, and (I would emphasise) only in that field, in virtue of the mandate given to the Pope as Vicar of Christ, and to the Bishops under the Pope, in the one true Church of Christ? Guidance given by the one, true Church of Christ in matters of faith and morals is authoritative guidance given by the only body established by God to interpret and apply His will, as made known to man in revealed truth and in divine and natural law, for the benefit of man with a view to his attaining his eternal destiny.
From what has now been said about the comments made by the four Bishops who spoke individually on the Bishops’ Statement, it is evident that, even after these comments, the Statement cannot satisfy any reader who seeks in it the benefit of any such clear, authoritative guidance as Bishops would be expected to give to their people on such a moral issue as the proposed legalisation of contraceptives.
It cannot be forgotten that, in virtue of the office entrusted to them by God in the Church founded by Christ, not only the Pope but Bishops also, in union with the Pope and subject to him, have serious obligations and responsibilities as well as important powers. They are not only custodians of the faith but also guardians and defenders of the moral law.
In that capacity, they have the right and the duty, in virtue of the commission which the Apostles, whose successors they are, received from Christ when he founded His Church, to give to the people entrusted to their care clear, authoritative guidance in issues of morality, whether private or public. They have, therefore, the right and the duty to teach moral principles which men are obliged to observe, as being the correct norms of human conduct laid down by God to conduce the spiritual welfare of man and lead him to eternal salvation.
Any legislation designed to facilitate the availability of contraceptives is obviously a moral issue which falls within the special competence and the right and duty of the Bishops, as of the Pope, to give guidance on. In fact Pope Paul did give guidance on it when he appealed to Rulers of Nations in his Encyclical Letter “Humanae Vitae”, as we shall see.
Moreover, this matter is one of vital importance for the spiritual and social welfare of the Irish people, and at that precise moment of our history when our national moral climate and distinctively Christian ethos are at serious risk. Indeed, it is difficult to recall an occasion when a matter of such national importance, and so obviously pertaining to the special competence and responsibility of Bishops, demanded unambiguous and firm guidance from the Irish Bishops.
One is at a loss, therefore, to understand the issue by the Irish Bishops, or by any Bishops of any country, of a Statement which does not explicitly express their disapproval of the proposed legislation on contraceptives. They might choose not to make any Statement, and be blamed therefore for allowing a situation to go on by default on which they should have given guidance.
But, if they choose to issue a Statement, one would have expected it to be such as would give unmistakably clear guidance to their People, including in this case the legislators; and such guidance by way of an expression of disapproval or a directive or a prohibition — as Pope Paul has given in his appeal to Rulers of Nations — as would entail an exercise of their “magisterium” or that special teaching authority which they possess as rulers in the Church of Christ.
Strangely, however, it is difficult to find in their long Statement anything which must be construed as an exercise of their special teaching authority and could not have been told with equal authority and force by any individual non-Bishop or any group of non-Bishops, as, for example, any moral theologian or group of moral theologians.
Clear teachings of the Catholic Church
There is, of course, the statement (in No. 2) that it is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that artificial contraception is morally wrong. But the Irish Bishops saying this — after all, they could not deny it — adds nothing to the force of this teaching, which has been given to us down the centuries by the Church through Popes and Bishops (in union with and under the Pope), in virtue of the special teaching authority vested in them as rulers of the Church of Christ.
However, apart from this recitation of the Church’s teaching on the morality of contraception, there does not appear to be in the Bishops’ Statement anything magisterial or bearing the note of their special teaching authority. It consists for the most part merely of an exposition of the social evils or other effects which legislation on contraceptives may have, and of the serious problems inherent in the formulation of amending legislation. There are also a couple of statements, such as any moral theologian might have made, enunciating an established moral principle.
Since their Statement the Bishops have not actually opposed the prospective legalisation of contraceptives, one must wonder what moral principle they will invoke in opposing, as they must, any proposal for the legalisation of abortion. That is, when, following on the legislation legalising contraceptives if it is enacted, the propaganda for legalising abortion inevitably reaches such a point that the Bishops must issue a Statement on it.
In fact, such propaganda has already, as was to be expected, increased considerably towards that point, and is being manipulated ever more boldly by a bigger and more vocal band, in the short time that has elapsed since the Bishops issued their inadequate statement last April.
The Bishops could, of course, condemn any attempt to legalise abortion, on the ground that it is contrary to the moral law of God. Why not equally oppose other legislation which has the effect of facilitating violation of that same law?
One mast return again to the unanswered question: why the Irish Bishops, in issuing their statement last April, did not magisterially and unambiguously express disapproval of the proposed legislation or give a definite directive? Could it be that the Bishops as a body and especially some individuals among them — perhaps a small number who, although not necessarily the more wise, succeeded in getting their way for policies of weakness or non-action, and others who allowed them to get their way — have been suffering for many years from such a lack of moral courage as Pope Paul VI tried some years ago to counter in Bishops generally, with regrettably little success among the Bishops of some countries?
When speaking of the duty and responsibility of Bishops, in an Apostolic Exhortation addressed by him to the Bishops of the Universal Church on the firm anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8 December 1970) Pope Paul said: “Dearly beloved brothers, let us not be reduced to silence for fear of criticism.”
He then emphasised: “This demands much courage of each one of us….It is a question of personal and absolutely inalienable responsibility for us to meet the immediate daily needs of the People of God. This is not the time to ask ourselves, as some would have us do, whether it is really useful, opportune and necessary to speak; rather it is the time for us to take the means to make ourselves heard. For it is to us Bishops that St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is addressed: Before God and before Christ Jesus who is to be judge of the living and the dead, I put this duty to you, in the name of His appearing and of His kingdom: Proclaim the message, and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it: refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience.”
From the Irish Independent, 11th November, 1978:
The Day the Bishops Met Mr. Haughey [Minister for Health and Social Welfare]
The final installment of an interview given by Monsignor P. F. Cremin, S.T.D, J.U.D., Professor of Moral Theology and of Canon Law, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Within two weeks of this first Statement being issued by the Irish Hierarchy on March 11, 1971, a truly magisterial and very much stronger statement of his own was issued on March 22 by the late Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland, the revered and respected John Charles McQuaid. No doubt, this Statement was prompted by the obvious weakness and inadequacy of the Statement issued by the Irish Bishops as a body and in particular by its invoking a consideration which, if viewed in the abstract as a principle (as it was actually described), would be invalid as enshrining a kind of consensus morality, and by its not appealing at all to the fundamental consideration of the norms of objective morality and the demands of the objective moral law.
No doubt, it was prompted also by his perceptive realisation of the seriousness of the campaign already being waged by pressure groups against our distinctively Irish Christian ethos. It was inspired, too, by his deep consciousness, from the very day of his episcopal ordination more than 30 years before, of his duty and responsibility as a Bishop — of which, in the present crisis in the Church, Pope Paul found it necessary in his Exhortation to remind Bishops generally throughout the Church.
The Statement issued by Archbishop McQuaid, for its force, incisiveness and prophetic insight, is an examplar of what statements should be from those whose sacred office it is to protect faith and morals. It should be re-read at this time in its entirety, and the concluding paragraphs deserve to be quoted here in full: —
Given the proneness of our human nature to evil, given the enticement of bodily satisfaction, given the widespread modern incitement to unchastity, it must be evident that an access, hitherto unlawful, to contraceptive devices will prove a most certain occasion of sin, especially to immature persons. The public consequences of immorality that must follow for our whole society are only too clearly seen in other countries.
If they who are elected to legislate for our society should unfortunately decide to pass a disastrous measure of legislation that will allow the public promotion of contraception and an access, hitherto unlawful, to the means of contraception, they ought to know clearly the meaning of their action, when it is judged by the norms of objective morality and the certain consequences of such a law.
To add to the confusion, it is being suggested that our society ought to be brought into line with the outlook of other countries. Hitherto, we have endeavoured to legislate according to the established beliefs and standards of our own people. One can conceive no worse fate for Ireland than that it should, by the legislation of our elected representatives, be now made to conform to the patterns of sexual conduct in other countries.
It is also being suggested that such uniformity of sexual outlook and practice can, in some obscure way, assist the reunification of our country. One must know little of the Northern people, if one can fail to realize the indignant ridicule with which good Northern people would treat such an argument. It would indeed be a foul basis on which to attempt to construct the unity of our people.
It may well come to pass that, in the present climate of emotional thinking and pressure, legislation could be enacted that will offend the objective moral law. Such a measure would be an insult to our Faith; it would, without question, prove to be gravely damaging to morality, private and public; it would be and would remain, a curse upon our country.
Could any Bishop, speaking in virtue of his sacred office, have better raised the alarm or have issued a better warning for the protection of the Irish people than Archbishop McQuaid did in this Statement? Can anyone say that the apprehension he expressed was not justified, “that in the present climate of emotional thinking and pressure, legislation could be enacted that will offend the objective moral law”? Since he spoke, the climate has not changed for the better but has progressively worsened.
When the lead given by Archbishop McQuaid was not followed by the Irish bishops, and when no other positive lead was given by them, it was inevitable that many of our people, including some of our legislators, should have come to be reconciled to the idea of contraceptives legislation being introduced or should even have come to favour it.
Many of them, who had themselves been thinking right but needed reassurances which they did not get, succumbed to the pressure and the brainwashing. It came not just from the press, radio and television, but also more insidiously from some professional and many spurious theologians, and from priests influenced by them, who eroded the official teaching of the Church on contraception.
Naturally, many even well-educated people, including legislators, were led to believe that the views of such theologians or priests may be right, or must at least have something to be said in their favour. In this belief, many came to think that the use of artificial means of contraception may not be morally wrong, and even that the Catholic Church’s teaching that it is morally wrong can (and may) be changed — which is, of course, impossible, as impossible in fact as that the Catholic Church could cease to be the one true Church founded by Christ. Moreover, as a consequence of thinking in this way, many came to believe that contraceptives may properly be legalised by the legislators.
They could only be confirmed in this opinion, or even led to it in the first place, when, after Archbishop McQuaid’s Statement clearly and forcefully expressing disapproval of any legislation that would legalise contraceptives, they read successive Statements from their spiritual leaders, not saying quite clearly that the Bishops disapprove of any such legislation, or that such legislation would offend against the objective moral law and therefore could not possibly be for the common good of the people of this State.
The question may therefore be asked, even if it cannot be answered, what share of responsibility the Irish Bishops must bear for the success to date of the campaign to have legislation introduced to legalise contraceptives, since (1) they gave free rein to theologians and priests who have been subverting true, authentic Catholic teaching on the morality of contraception, and since (2) they did not give timely leadership and firm magisterial direction in their successive Statements concerning such legislation.
A notable stage in the success of this campaign was the setting up of Family Planning Clinics in Dublin and in other centres throughout the country, with only one local Bishop reported as giving guidance to his flock concerning them. When the challenge issued by those who set up those clinics was not met, it was left to a very small number of dedicated citizens to devote themselves, at great cost of time and energy, to the task of defending the traditional beliefs and standards of our people, as best they could.
However, notwithstanding the best efforts of these self-sacrificing defenders of our Christian ethos, the success of the campaign and of the brainwashing by the family planning organisations continued. One striking piece of evidence, as well as a measure, of its success to be seen in recent months was the remarkably big number of different national bodies which made representations to the Minister of Health and Social Welfare in favour of the proposed legislation to legalise the availability of contraceptives.
Incidentally, whatever prompted the Irish Catholic Hierarchy to send representatives to a meeting with the Minister for Health for discussions with him about the proposed legislation? It is difficult to recall on the Irish ecclesiastical scene a more pathetic picture than that carried in the press the next day of the four Bishops, on their way out from a meeting with a Government Minister after discussions with him concerning the proposed legislation.
Here we had four Bishops, representing the Irish Catholic Hierarchy, who are the divinely appointed guardians of morals, emerging from the Custom House after discussions with the Minister for Health — concerning what? — concerning proposed legislation that would make available contraceptives or the means of immoral acts and conduct.
Any reader of the press account of the meeting might easily have formed the impression that the four representatives of the Irish Bishops had been discussing with the Minister for Health something that was negotiable, and that they had met him just as any public representative might have done to negotiate with him about some health amenity for their constituents.
Moreover, through their representatives, the Irish Bishops were just one body in a queue of a score or more national bodies, and, it would appear, merely on an equal footing with the other bodies which, however worthy most of them were, were not divinely appointed guardians of faith and morals for anyone, as the Catholic Bishops were for the vast majority of the people of the State.
As for the discussions which took place with the Minister, evidently the four Bishops did not express disapproval of the proposed legislation, since none had been expressed in the Bishops’ April Statement, and the spokesman for the four Bishops assured reporters that the discussions “were within the four walls” of the Statement. (He also said that the four Bishops were happy with the reception they got from the Minister. Indeed. No doubt the Minister, too, was happy with the reception his proposed legislation got from the Irish Bishops in their Statement in April.)
It must be assumed that the discussions had to do with the controls and limitations that might be built into the proposed legislation, such as that contraceptives be made available only to married people — as if their use by married couples was somehow less wrong morally (and therefore less injurious to the individual or common good) than their use by others. This limitation had been recommended to the Minister some days previously by the representatives of the Church of Ireland, quite understandably since Anglican teaching regards contraception as morally lawful for married couples.
As the Anglican Church does not enjoy the inestimable benefit of the magisterium or teaching authority bestowed by God upon the one, true Church of Christ, it is not to be wondered at if, with the best of good faith, its teaching may run contrary to the natural moral law on certain moral issues including this one of contraception.
Whatever their representatives discussed with the Minister, the fact is that the Irish Bishops will be credited (or discredited) with some responsibility for controls on limitations found in the legislation if it is actually introduced.
This must prove a further source of loss of confidence in them, when the controls or limitations, which will rightly or wrongly have been attributed to them, will prove not to be effectively enforceable. It is noteworthy that even the existing law against the sale of contraceptives is now to be challenged by one of the family planning groups as being unconstitutional.
Why did not the Irish Bishops, in keeping with the mind of the late Pope Paul, express in their Statement their disapproval of the proposed contraceptives legislation, and leave it at that?
Having regard to this and other actions, as well as certain non-action, of the Irish Bishops as a body or of some of them, may I respectfully ask this question? Are some Bishops, in company with many Bishops in other countries these days, lacking in a proper appreciation of the nature and the duties of their sacred office, and, more particularly, in a full awareness and correct understanding of the important Decree of the Second Vatican Council “On the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church”?
Or is it perhaps — and this would be even more serious — that, from a lack of moral courage, they have not been concerned with discharging properly their office of teaching and ruling, at least as members of the collective body of Bishops or of the Episcopal Conference, but have been acting, or refraining from acting, as if they were dealing, not with faith and morals, but with secular affairs with which politics may be played? One does not really require much special knowledge of the Council Decree on Bishops, or of the nature and duties of the office of Bishop, to feel it necessary to ask these questions.
I have taken the liberty of asking them and of voicing certain criticisms out of my concern for the good of the Irish Church and in the interests of religion. Integrity in these times, and especially with the young, is rightly valued as the price of credibility, particularly with reference to religious belief and practice as presented or represented by those who occupy sacred and responsible offices in the Church of Christ.
One fears that the time may already have passed when the Irish Church and its members can afford to suffer further harm from any further loss of the credibility of its rulers.
Such loss of credibility has become so much easier in these days of the newly-found influence of the media, since these expose the weakness of any contributors who, in a mistaken effort to placate, succumb to the temptation to dilute the message of the Gospel. Jesus Christ never watered down what he had to say, nor ever considered whether his saying it would be well received or not by his listeners.
In view of the weakness of the Irish Bishops’ Statement issued last April, and in view of their representatives having discussions with the Minister for Health early in June merely “within the four walls of the Statement,” it is a distinct likelihood that the proposed contraception legislation will be introduced and will be enacted, unless deterred by a people clearly instructed by their spiritual leaders.
That the late Pope Paul VI has made the position clear may not be as well-known to the ordinary people as it is to their spiritual leaders. Naturally it is unthinkable that the Irish Bishops would not unreservedly agree with Pope Paul in an appeal which he made to rulers of nations and with the guidance it contains, or with his assessment of the moral issues involved in introducing legislation to legalise the provision of contraceptives. Unfortunately, in their most recent Statement and in their three previous Statements, they refrained from quoting this appeal, and refrained also from issuing an appeal of their own on similar lines, for the benefit of the people and their legislators.
What then was the appeal made by Pope Paul to the rulers of nations? It is to be found in No. 23 of his Encyclical Letter “Humanae Vitae,” issued on July 25, 1968, as follows: —
We wish therefore to address rulers of nations, since they principally are charged with the responsibility of safeguarding the common good and are in a position to contribute so much to protecting good morals: never allow the upright morals of your peoples to collapse; see to it in every way that those practices, which would be opposed to the natural and divine law, are not introduced, as a result of legislation, into the family, which it the primary cell of the State.
There are a number of important points to draw attention to in this appeal.
(1) The appeal is made precisely in the context of Pope Paul’s treatment and condemnation of contraception, direct abortion, and direct sterilisation as being morally wrong. (It is the principles of sterilisation that determine the morality of using the anovulant pill). And it is to these, that is, contraception, abortion and sterilisation, he is referring when he speaks of “those practices which would be opposed to the natural and divine law.”
(2) The appeal is quite explicit that these practices (contraception, abortion and sterilisation) should not by legislation be introduced into the family, so that it specifically applies to the legalisation of contraceptives for married couples.
(3) In his appeal, Pope Paul is merely presenting or presupposing the moral considerations and principles set forth down the centuries by so many of his predecessors who occupied the chair of Peter, as Vicar of Christ.
(4) In this appeal, which is made in the course of a document that is notable for the gentleness of its presentation, Pope Paul actually addresses two strong injunctions to rulers of nations, “never allow” and “see to it in every way.” There is no soft-pedalling here.
(5) The fact that the Pope is apparently addressing rulers of nations without qualification, and not just Catholic or even Christian rulers only, emphasises the point that the moral considerations and principles he is enunciating are of the natural, moral law of God, which must regulate the conduct of all men, Christian and non-Christian alike, who have all been created by God and for whose eternal happiness with him, which his law is meant to help them to attain.
(6) Finally, the fundamental reason for not introducing contraception by legislation, which Pope Paul mentions in his directive to rulers of nations everywhere, is that it “would be opposed to the natural and divine law.” (This reason is also the basis of the opposition to such legislation expressed by Archbishop McQuaid in his directive to the legislators of this State. But this reason was not adduced at all, nor was the natural and divine law even mentioned, by the Irish Bishops in any of their four Statements, or by any of the individual Bishops in their reported observations on the most recent of these Statements.)
This appeal with its twofold injunction must be understood by our people, as well as by our Bishops and our Government, to have been addressed to the legislators of our country, even though it has not been brought to their notice by the Irish Bishops in their Statements on the legalisation of contraceptives. For it was issued by the Pope himself in an Encyclical Letter in which he spoke in virtue of the mandate entrusted to him by Christ, and his authority extends over the whole Church, including the Church in Ireland, its Bishops as well as its other members.
It would be very helpful, of course, if this appeal of the late Pope Paul were brought to the attention of our people, including our legislators, not just by the present writer who has no special teaching authority, but by the Irish Bishops who have.
However, in the last analysis, this situation may have to be saved, if it can saved, by those people who believe that the proposed contraceptives legislation should not be introduced. Those of them who do make the effort to influence for good their public representatives in the Dáil and Seanad, whose responsibility it is to make laws, can take comfort in the knowledge that they will be acting in accordance with the mind of our late Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, as expressed in his Encyclical Letter “Humanae Vitae”.
The value of this Encyclical’s defence of the dignity of woman and of human life at its very source has come to be recognised more and more in recent years, and particularly by non-Catholics who are not unduly impressed or influenced by dissenting Catholic theologians, and it will undoubtedly be recognised more and more as the years go by.
So too, inevitably, will be seen and vindicated the wisdom of the Encyclical’s defence of upright morals and the common good of peoples, in its appeal to rulers of nations to refrain from making laws that would be opposed to the natural, moral law of God.