Scholars affirm Church  teaching on sexuality

The arguments that opponents of “Humanae Vitae” put out in a recent statement delivered to the United Nations are old and tired and don’t take into account decades of lived experience as well as development in Catholic theology about human sexuality, according to Janet E. Smith, one of the authors of a statement affirming the Church’s teaching.

So Smith, the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, author of “Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later” and editor of “Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader,” reached out to a handful of other Catholic scholars to ask them to publicly support Church teaching.

When it was released at The Catholic University of America on Sept. 20, the “Affirmation of the Church’s Teaching on the Gift of Sexuality” carried the signatures of 500 Catholic scholars who had earned at least a doctorate. By Sept. 25, more than 1,000 scholars had affirmed that “the Catholic Church’s teachings on the gift of sexuality, on marriage, and on contraception are true and defensible on many grounds, among them the truths of reason and revelation concerning the dignity of the human person.”

The statement came in response to a document generated by the Wijngaards Institute, calling on the Church to repudiate its teaching against artificial contraception nearly 50 years after Pope Paul VI issued “Humanae Vitae.” The Wijngaards Statement was introduced at the U.N. the same day the affirmation was released.

Smith said she felt it was necessary to respond in this moment because those who oppose the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” have tried for decades to persuade the Church to change its teaching and have gotten nowhere. Now, she said, they see an opening to persuade governments to require the Church to go against, if not change, its own teaching in order to provide health care to people who need it.

At the same time, she said, the public perception seems to be that nobody supports the Church’s teaching against contraception. “People have no idea how many people really support this,” Smith said. “These are not people who are blindly obedient. They’ve thought about this. They know how to scrutinize things.”

Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, was one of the people who helped generate attention and support for the affirmation. A small group was able to reach hundreds and get permission from Catholic University to post it on the CUA website and have a press conference on the campus.

Hasson and Smith said the Wijngaards Statement disregards all the work that has been done in the area of Catholic teaching on sexuality in the last 50 years, including St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and resources developed in the areas of natural family planning.

The dissenting statement also ignores the expressions of love, intimacy and self-giving that the Church teaches are bound up in sexual intercourse, and the negative effects the sexual revolution has had on women.

“That’s the lived experience,” Hasson said. “Women know, in an organic way, that this has not worked out very well for women. Women are uniquely valuable, and women have been demonstrably harmed more than men. Nobody likes to be used and treated as an object.”

Smith said it’s notable that, while the affirmation has garnered signatures from several priests and bishops, it was driven by lay people. About 20 percent of the original signers work in the medical field.

“Most of the people who signed this are married people with children,” she said. “They are living what the Church teaches. They know the greater intimacy, the greater commitment to their spouse, so much love for their children.”

The affirmation did get a statement of support from Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York, the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

“The Church’s teaching in this area is sometimes caricatured and maligned — more often, though, it is simply unknown or not understood well,” Bishop Malone wrote in a Sept. 21 post on the USCCB blog. “The Affirmation statement beautifully and clearly summarizes the Church’s teaching.”

The signers of the affirmation tended to be younger than those who signed the Wijngaards statement, mirroring what Hasson sees in the general population. Younger Catholics, who have learned about Theology of the Body and sought out more information about Church teaching on their own, tend to be more supportive.

“There’s a greater percentage of young people who understand it,” Hasson said. “They’re driving the newness, the creativity within the Church.”

“It puts the lie to the statement that Catholics don’t accept this teaching,” Smith said.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.