“We anathematize [both] the inventors of the new error… [and the pope] who did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” With this statement, Pope Leo II affirmed the conclusion of a general council: Pope Honorius was condemned as a heretic.
In the early 600’s, Pope Honorius faced a heresy within the Church. When he was asked how to handle the heresy, he replied by forbidding discussion of the topic at all. Because he failed to teach the Faith, and because he forbad the use of both orthodox and heretical phrasing, the council found him derelict in his duties and condemned him as a heretic. His condemnation was confirmed by two ecumenical councils and the very liturgy of the Church, which for two centuries repeated the condemnation in the papal oath. The condemnation still stands.
Note well: he was not a heretic for having mis-taught. No Pope has ever mis-taught Church doctrine. Rather, his heresy lay in his silence.
Now, he was a good bishop in all other respects. He did much good for the people of Rome and for the Church as a whole. He died well-respected in most circles. But, his silence on one point of doctrine eventually condemned him.
From all the evidence, he was silent because he didn’t know what to do. That’s the problem with being infallible: infallibility means you won’t teach the wrong answer. Sadly, infallibility doesn’t mean you know the right answer, or that you are able to competently teach the right answer even if you do know it. Competent teaching is a skill like any other skill: use it or lose it.
As everyone knows, North American bishops have had a similar problem. Many of them dealt with actively homosexual priests primarily as if they suffered from a psychological problem instead of a sin problem. When the psychology Ph.D.’s treated these priests and told the bishops the priests were cured, the bishops believed the experts. They put the priests back in ministry.
Bishops don’t know anything about psychology. They had to rely on the secular experts. They had to rely on psychologists about sex because they had stopped teaching Church doctrine about sex. Since they weren’t regularly teaching sexual morality, they lost their ability to think clearly about it. They didn’t know the right answers anymore. That’s why they were stuck with the answers of lay Ph.D.s.
When did bishops stop teaching sexual morality? We in the United States can point to June 22, 1965 and Boston’s Cardinal John Cushing amazing statement, "I could not in conscience approve the legislation [supporting legalization of contraception, but] I will make no effort to impose my opinion upon others… I do not see where I have an obligation to impose my religious beliefs on people who just do not accept the same faith as I do."
Every bishop and every priest is responsible for the salvation of every person living within his diocese and/or parish. He is not just responsible for teaching and sanctifying the Catholics in his diocese, he is responsible for teaching and sanctifying everyone in his diocese. What would we say of a math professor who said, “I do not see where I have an obligation to impose my belief that 2 + 2 = 4 on students who just do not accept the same mathematics I do.” The Catholic Faith is more true and certain than the sunrise, indeed Catholic truth is the source from which the sun draws its ability to rise. But Cardinal Cushing reduced the eternal and divine Truth to the level of human opinion. He repudiated his responsibility to teach this Truth to the people of the world.
Pope Honorius was condemned simply because he forbad discussion of a doctrine. In a single statement, Cardinal Cushing denied both the truth and his own office. He labored under a materially heretical misunderstanding. The religious beliefs he held were not his anymore than the Mass he celebrated was his or the baptisms he conferred were his. These are all Christ’s, that is, they are all God’s. He did not hold beliefs, he held truths. We believe these things because they are true, and they remain true whether or not we believe them.
It is important that we fully understand this point. The Creed I repeat every Sunday is not a statement of what I believe, it is a statement that I recognize reality. The secular world has a somewhat similar practice: psychologists will sometimes ask a mental patient what year it is. If the patient answers correctly, it is likely he has at least some grip on reality. So it is with the Creed. I repeat the Creed at Sunday Mass to demonstrate that I am not yet theologically insane. I hold to the teachings of the Church because I am made for Truth, and this is it.
It is therefore somewhat disconcerting to listen to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In the December 12th New York Times, Cathy Cleaver Ruse, the pro-life spokeswoman for the USCCB said, "When it comes to contraception as a policy issue - access, availability - the Catholic bishops do not get involved in that debate. But when it comes to abortion, that's a different matter. It's far greater than just a religious issue. It's a human rights issue."
The statement is breath-taking on several levels. Let’s consider a few.
First, every hormonal contraceptive acts as an abortifacient. The morning-after pill is the same damned thing (literally) as the birth control pill. Neither one really prevents ovulation, rather, all hormonal contraceptives keep the developing embryo from implanting in the uterus. That is, all hormonal contraceptives interrupt an existing pregnancy by causing a chemical abortion. Now, the bishops are no more embryologists than they are psychologists, so we can, perhaps, forgive their abysmal ignorance on this point.
But even if we ignore their ignorance of biology, it is certainly the case that abortion becomes necessary in any culture that sanctions contraception. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically recognized this fact when it upheld legal abortion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. Abortion is a necessary backup for contraceptive failure. The Pope understands and acknowledges this connection. So do secular American judges. Why doesn’t the USCCB?
And what on earth could the spokeswoman mean by implying that contraception is “just a religious issue”? As has been pointed out in an earlier column, religion binds back together what is broken. Part of what is broken in us human persons is our human rights. We are only fully human when we are free from sin. Thus our right and ability to be fully human is inseparable from religion, the binding together of the human nature broken by sin. Whenever we consider a truly religious issue, we are necessarily dealing with a human rights issue.
That’s why Cushing’s statement was material heresy, after all. He thought it was alright for the non-Catholics in his diocese to be slaves to sin, just as his American Catholic bishop predecessors prior to the Civil War heretically taught that it was sometimes alright for non-Catholics to be slaves to other men.
The Canadian bishops are scarcely better off. Consider the Winnipeg statement (http://www.therosarium.ca/winnipeg.html ) issued by those bishops in 1968. For nearly forty years, both secular and heretical Catholic commentators used this strangely worded statement as proof that contraception is acceptable for Canadian Catholics. For nearly forty years, the Canadian bishops have done essentially nothing to contradict this idea. They could elaborate, they could give a detailed explanation of the statement to demonstrate that it does not support the use of contraception. Instead, they are as silent as the USCCB, as silent as a condemned pope.
It is a matter of supreme irony that the Comstock laws, the American laws which made the sale or use of contraceptives in the United States illegal, were almost entirely the work of Protestant churches and politicians near the end of the 1800’s. These Protestant laws were overthrown by secular courts nearly a century later precisely because the Catholic bishops were silent at precisely the moment their voices were most needed. Many still are. Apparently, slavery loves company. It is not for nothing that St. John Chrysostom, a father and doctor of the Church, said, “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.”
But all hope is not lost. Nearly a decade ago, the bishops of the Philippines discovered their voices, saying:
"It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5% of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing then this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples.
Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives. But we did not know then how to help you discover God’s presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: 'follow what your conscience tells you.' How little we realized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you."
A few bishops on this continent have also begun to re-join the eternal college of bishops and are now speaking out against contraception. Continue to pray for the bishops, to sacrifice for them, and to make your voices known to them. Commemorate the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Write, phone, talk to your bishops, request private audiences throughout this coming year and personally insist on public orthodoxy and public teachings against contraception. This insistence on the part of the laity is a spiritual work of mercy towards the bishops, and God insists we be merciful.