But there have always been those people”, Pope Francis warned, “who, without any official title, go about disturbing the Christian community with discourses which unsettle souls: ‘Ah, no, what he said is heretical; that cannot be said, not that, the doctrine of the Church is this’”. In reality, “they are fanatics about things which are not clear, like those fanatics who went about sowing weeds to divide the Christian community”. So, “this is the problem: when the doctrine of the Church, which comes from the Gospel, which the Holy Spirit inspires — because Jesus said ‘He will teach you and will help you to recall all that which I have taught’ — becomes ideology”. Thus, we see “the great error of these people: those who were going there were not believers; they were ‘ideologized’; they had an ideology which closed their heart to the work of the Holy Spirit”. On the other hand, “the Apostles had animated discussions, but they weren’t ideologized: their heart was open to what the Spirit was saying”. This is why, “after discussion”, they begin their letter by writing: “‘For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’”.
“We mustn’t be surprised when we hear these opinions on the ideologies of doctrine”, the Pope stated. “The Church has her own magisterium, the Magisterium of the Pope, of the Bishops, of the Councils and we ought to follow on that way which comes from the preaching of Jesus and from the teaching and the assistance of the Holy Spirit: it is always open, always free”. And “this is the freedom of the Spirit, but in the doctrine”. Instead, those “who went there, to Antioch, to create havoc and to divide the community, are ideologues”. Because “doctrine unites; the Councils always unite the Christian community”. And ideology “divides”, but “for them ideology is more important than doctrine: they leave the Holy Spirit to the side
— Pope Francis
Morning meditations in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae
May 19th, 2017
“Correlation does not equal causation” is a sentence I often hear in online debates. However, one of the first things that I learned in medical school (in order to be able to read scientific publications) is that nowadays, biological sciences establish correlation, not causation. In other words, clinical trials do not prove that a certain drug causes a cure, but whether such a drug correlates with a cure in a more statistically significant way than a placebo / alternative drug.
Why? Because scientists today rightfully acknowledge that reality is too complex for us to ascribe one single cause to phenomena. As scientists say, reality is multifactorial. This means that every occurrence most likely does not have one single cause, but a multiplicity of causes, all of them converging together to produce that event.
For example, a cancer may have the following risk factors: age, smoking and drinking. So, if an elderly alcoholic smoker develops that cancer, what exactly caused the disease? If we must pick one cause, we will not be able to do so. There are good arguments for every single one of the causes, so if we chose just one we will lose the explanatory power given by the other two causes. But the cancer was actually caused by the interplay of all three causes. In fact, the three causes acted synergistically, meaning that adding them together most likely has an effect greater than the sum of each individual cause.
Of course, scientists may try to ascertain causality by testing one cause while trying to isolate every other single cause that may confuse the results. But that can only happen in a highly controlled and selected environment. Reality does not operate as in a laboratory, and a good scientist is aware of this when he extrapolates his findings to the real world.
I bring this up because I wish to address one argument I have seen around on the occasion of Humanae Vitae‘s (HV) 50th birthday. This argument is, in fact, older than this birthday and resurfaces periodically in Catholic social media. This argument states that Pope St. Paul VI has been prophetic, in that he made several predictions of the social implications of allowing artificial contraception… and they all came true.
This is a good argument. I have used it several times and probably will continue to do so. The problem is that this argument can be mishandled. And in fact, it has. There is a certain Church sector that is so eager to fight the widespread dissent on HV and the prevailing sexual heterodoxy, that they have started to treat Paul VI’s predictions as the single lone cause for every social ill.
So, when Catholic thinkers started to associate the #Metoo campaign (a campaign meant to raise awareness against sexual abuse of women) with HV’s prediction of a “general lowering of moral standards,” other Catholics of a more liberal persuasion denounced them, claiming that sexual abuse was already widely prevalent before HV and the Sexual Revolution. According to them, abuse is caused by an asymmetrical relation of power and a demeaning view of women as mere subordinates without a voice, which were already present in traditional, patriarchal societies prior to the 1960s. They claim that feminism, by releasing women from those shackles, actually empowered them to fight abuse and #Metoo is just the natural consequence of that path.
As I saw both sides going after one another in social media, I couldn’t help but notice how both explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. It is true that if we objectify women by assigning them an inferior social role relative to men (as happened before HV), we are inducing a societal mentality prone to sexual harassment (just check some of the rape statistics in India or some Arab countries.) But it is also true that if we objectify women through sexual hedonism (as the personalist view of Paul VI and John Paul II teach us), we risk doing the same thing. By developing technology that facilitates the separation of sexuality from procreation, we are enabling every kind of commitment-free sex, including abuse.
In this sense, it may very well be true that artificial contraception has hindered what feminism has sought to achieve by overthrowing the societal structure of women’s abuse. Just how much of the blame can we ascribe to each factor (hedonism vs. patriarchy) is something that is impossible to dissect. Both converge in a synergic fashion to produce this most vile outcome.
However, as the feminists and the conservatives went at each other’s throat during this debate, they didn’t simply defended their thesis of what the most important cause was. They have strayed further than that and have started to undermine any other potential explanation that might cause the abuse. And they have done so along ideological lines. Those who defend HV’s prophetic role usually badmouth feminism as a source of moral decay. Feminists, on the other hand, have turned away from HV’s prophetic role as if it were unimportant. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they might achieve better outcomes if they banded together, each one fighting alongside his/her own calling.
We see the same thing happening in the abortion debate, on the artificial separation between “supply” and “demand.” Liberals prefer to focus on demand, while conservatives work on the supply side. So far so good. But the problem is that liberals seem to think that policies that curtail supply are unnecessary, if not counterproductive (of course, they would never apply this logic to other violations of human rights, like “let’s not outlaw abuse, just try to change culture so that abuse might become rarer”.) On the other hand, conservatives often sabotage worthy government policies that would diminish demand, simply because those policies do not align according to what they think the government’s role should be.
In other words, each side focuses in one simple cause, as if that one single cause could explain everything and as if we dealt with that one single cause, the problem would be largely solved.
This attitude stands in stark contrast with the scientific view I expounded earlier, according to which reality is complex and multifactorial. It is the opposite of the scientific attitude: it is ideology.
Ideology is a very comfortable worldview, in that it supplies easy answers to every problem, without any need of reflection or discernment. This happens because the answer is always the same. If you are confronted with a societal problem and you’re left-wing, your automatic response will be: “We need more State. State is always the answer.” If you are confronted with the same problem and you’re right-wing, you will reflexively say: “We need less State. State involvement is always a problem.”
But according to a mature and realistic worldview, each problem should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, solving the problem will require less State. Other times, it will require more State. Some other times, it will require better State. What matters most is that we are guided, not by pre-formatted answers to every single question, but by solid moral values that may guide our discernment of each particular case.
Catholic Social Teaching (CST) can provide that moral framework, in that it contains principles that should guide every single political decision: solidarity, subsidiarity, common good and human dignity. It is proper to ideology to appropriate the moral principles closer to it, so as to adjust them to the preconceived ideological answer for all the questions. A faithful Catholic, however, should know these principles well and let them guide him, irrespectively of whether it aligns with a given political ideology or party. We cannot defend the human dignity of the unborn child, but not of the illegal immigrant, and vice-versa. We cannot use subsidiarity as an answer to every single question, even when it objectively conflicts with the demands of solidarity, for that would mean turning it into an ideology. And mutatis mutandi, the same can be said about solidarity.
For CST knows that reality is not unidimensional, but rather multifactorial. In this sense, CST views the world as a bidimensional (left-right), or even tridimensional (left-right and earthly-heavenly) reality. Just like a tesseract is incomprehensible to a being stuck in a 3D world, so CST is incomprehensible for the ideologized mind. However, as Catholics, we are called to transcend simplistic perceptions, the artificial boundaries of the mundane, and open ourselves to infinity, to a wisdom that seems like folly to worldly men.
I have brought this up since I have dedicated my last three articles to HV (and indirectly, to Casti connubii, as a precursor of HV.) In doing so I have unearthed many treasures of wisdom from these documents, some of which usually go unnoticed, which may cause equivocations endangering our fidelity to the Church. One of those is how they stress the need for social justice.
For example, HV does not allow the use of artificial contraception as a way to assuage social difficulties, even in developing countries because: “No statement of the problem and no solution to it is acceptable which does violence to man’s essential dignity; those who propose such solutions base them on an utterly materialistic conception of man himself and his life” (HV #23 – Seeking true solutions).
What true solutions are there, besides artificial contraception, then? HV continues (emphasis from now on is mine):
“The only possible solution to this question is one which envisages the social and economic progress both of individuals and of the whole of human society, and which respects and promotes true human values. No one can, without being grossly unfair, make divine Providence responsible for what clearly seems to be the result of misguided governmental policies, of an insufficient sense of social justice, of a selfish accumulation of material goods, and finally of a culpable failure to undertake those initiatives and responsibilities which would raise the standard of living of peoples and their children. If only all governments which were able would do what some are already doing so nobly, and bestir themselves to renew their efforts and their undertakings! There must be no relaxation in the programs of mutual aid between all the branches of the great human family. Here We believe an almost limitless field lies open for the activities of the great international institutions.”
— HV #23
In this same paragraph, HV makes reference to another of Paul VI’s encyclicals: Populorum progressio (PP). Meaning, both encyclicals should be read in tandem. It has been noted by some apologists how HV’s 50th birthday has been so noteworthy in Catholic circles, but the same hallmark has gone completely unnoticed as PP is concerned. And yet, there is also so much widespread dissent from PP!
“Now if the earth truly was created to provide man with the necessities of life and the tools for his own progress, it follows that every man has the right to glean what he needs from the earth. The recent Council reiterated this truth: “God intended the earth and everything in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should flow fairly to all.”
All other rights, whatever they may be, including the rights of property and free trade, are to be subordinated to this principle. They should in no way hinder it; in fact, they should actively facilitate its implementation. Redirecting these rights back to their original purpose must be regarded as an important and urgent social duty.”
— PP #22
Also, about “Unbridled Liberalism“, Paul VI has this to say:
“However, certain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations
This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the “international imperialism of money.”
Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.
But if it is true that a type of capitalism, as it is commonly called, has given rise to hardships, unjust practices, and fratricidal conflicts that persist to this day, it would be a mistake to attribute these evils to the rise of industrialization itself, for they really derive from the pernicious economic concepts that grew up along with it.”
— PP #26
The same authority that wrote HV has also written PP. We can’t really undermine one without undermining the other. We cannot compartmentalize St. Paul VI into bits that are “followable” and bits that are dispensable. The writer of HV and the writer of PP are one and the same person. The hand that penned one also penned the other, the mind that concocted one also concocted the other and the God-given authority that signed one also signed the other.
However, it is in Casti connubii (CC) that the interlink between sexual ethics and social justice is especially notorious. For after extensively condemning the divorce, contraception and any kind of sin of the flesh, Pius XI exhorts us thus:
“Now since it is no rare thing to find that the perfect observance of God’s commands and conjugal integrity encounter difficulties by reason of the fact that the man and wife are in straitened circumstances, their necessities must be relieved as far as possible.
And so, in the first place, every effort must be made to bring about that which Our predecessor Leo Xlll, of happy memory, has already insisted upon, namely, that in the State such economic and social methods should be adopted as will enable every head of a family to earn as much as, according to his station in life, is necessary for himself, his wife, and for the rearing of his children, for “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” To deny this, or to make light of what is equitable, is a grave injustice and is placed among the greatest sins by Holy Writ; nor is it lawful to fix such a scanty wage as will be insufficient for the upkeep of the family in the circumstances in which it is placed.
If, however, for this purpose, private resources do not suffice, it is the duty of the public authority to supply for the insufficient forces of individual effort, particularly in a matter which is of such importance to the common weal, touching as it does the maintenance of the family and married people. If families, particularly those in which there are many children, have not suitable dwellings; if the husband cannot find employment and means of livelihood; if the necessities of life cannot be purchased except at exorbitant prices; if even the mother of the family to the great harm of the home, is compelled to go forth and seek a living by her own labor; if she, too, in the ordinary or even extraordinary labors of childbirth, is deprived of proper food, medicine, and the assistance of a skilled physician, it is patent to all to what an extent married people may lose heart, and how home life and the observance of God’s commands are rendered difficult for them; indeed it is obvious how great a peril can arise to the public security and to the welfare and very life of civil society itself when such men are reduced to that condition of desperation that, having nothing which they fear to lose, they are emboldened to hope for chance advantage from the upheaval of the state and of established order.
Wherefore, those who have the care of the State and of the public good cannot neglect the needs of married people and their families, without bringing great harm upon the State and on the common welfare. Hence, in making the laws and in disposing of public funds they must do their utmost to relieve the needs of the poor, considering such a task as one of the most important of their administrative duties.”
— CC #116-121
In other words, the care for the families’ material well-being, even ensured by the State, is an inextricable part of the same doctrine that fulfills the Church’s sexual ethics. Neglecting this essential part of Christian doctrine with the overarching excuse of “prudential judgment” places ideology above the common good, and most importantly, above Christ’s teachings as preserved and interpreted by the Church He instituted.
In my cancer analogy, if a cancer is caused both by smoking and drinking, a good doctor should not say: “You lose the smoking and you can drink all you want” or “You cut the drink and smoking cessation is not as important.” In both instances we may be alleviating the risk by eliminating one of the factors, but we are also increasing risk by crystallizing behaviors that also cause the cancer. It is ineffective to do so and bad practice.
In the same vein, it does no good to introduce ideological wedges on the abortion debate. If a woman is pregnant and pressured to abort because her wage can’t afford a child, who is to blame for the baby’s death? The politician that allowed the employer to pay her a lousy wage for her hard work? Or the politician that made this a legal option, enshrined in society as a common practice, and who sells it as an empowering solution for economic ills, even enabling the employer to say: “heh, she can always abort“? Trying to scrutinize parcels of the blame is not feasible, and is in fact, a useless endeavor. Both made their contribution to generate the perfect storm of legality, accessibility and necessity. Both converged to create the situation in which the baby should be killed. One created the office where the abortion took place and the other drove the woman to that office. To excuse one of the politicians is to create a mindset where our political activity will necessarily be lame and incomplete. If we are really invested in saving human lives, we should not underestimate any possible venue to diminish the likelihood of this vile act to happen.
And to whitewash one side just to validate our own ideological prejudices is particularly abominable, since we are then putting an abstract set of ideas above saving a concrete unborn child, a human being endowed with inalienable rights, our brother/sister and an image of God.
The same can be said of any other person in a vulnerable situation and whose well-being and dignity is endangered by policies that are not completely aligned with CST, like the illegal immigrant, the poor and the sickly.
Going back to HV, we should indeed proclaim how this document was prophetic. It was. Everything that St. Paul VI predicted has come to pass. But HV does not exhaust itself on the ban of artificial contraception. Paul VI does not exhaust himself on HV. And the Church’s doctrine does not exhaust itself on its sexual teaching. We do no honor to HV by undermining the wholeness of the voice that proclaimed it.
One of the overtones of Francis’ papacy is that we should not turn our religion into an ideology. Let us break free from the mental and spiritual shackles of worldly ideologies and embrace reality in all its complexity and fight for the dignity of our brethren in all fronts. I am certain that Paul VI would’ve wanted it.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.