Catholic church needs new approach to contraception
IN response to “Catholics under the spotlight” (Lesotho Times, October 22, 2015), 57 Roman Catholic Church (RCC) healthcare facilities are said to be under the spotlight for continuing to refuse to offer “artificial” family planning services because of the church doctrine which only advocates natural methods of birth control, and this is said to have been confirmed by Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL) Acting Executive Director Baptista Paseka Ramashamole.
The controversy carried on in a threatening and emotional atmosphere between the adamant advocates of “artificial’ birth control ( pill) and their opponents from the Catholic point of view, have overlooked the fact that birth control has been in existence since the dawn of civilisation.
Egyptian papyri dating from 1850 and 1550 BC contain prescriptions for concoctions of honey, crocodile’s dung moistened lint and other ingredients which were recommended for the specific purpose of avoiding conception.
The RCC teachings, through the pastoral constitution in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes) does not condone uncontrolled procreation. Married couples are urged to take into account both their own welfare and that of their children.
They are also urged to assess the interests of the family and material conditions of the times as well as their state of life.
It is for this reason that we say the Catholic Church is not opposed to responsible planned parenthood. The problem lies in the means employed by other organizations or societies.
Assuming that the end justifies the means .i.e. the end is to control fertility and in pursuing that end, there are different means employed, it is not surprising therefore that the Catholic church has advanced her own family planning method known as natural method or periodic abstinence.
Basotho traditional doctors have advanced their own methods, so are the western societies with their pill or artificial methods.
However, from my research, there are no family planning methods that are foolproof.
Periodic abstinence or natural method advocated by the RCC is based on what I might call an “obligation ideal” that is impossible for realization in the context of Lesotho.
It must be emphasized that no woman should attempt to use this method unless she has received instructions from trained personnel, which is non existent in the remote areas of Lesotho where these 57 healthcare facilities are mostly found.
The question is how natural is this periodic abstinence because the majority of women experience a peak in sexual desire at the time of ovulation and immediately before and after the onset of their menstrual period, and it is at this point that couples are more sexually active.
Yet, it is precisely at this point in time that couples are advised by the RCC to refrain from sexual activity if they wish to abide by the church’s natural family planning method. The natural method not only inhibits conception, but the expression of affection, emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
Nature has two types of intercourse, one that is biologically “open to life” and the other which is not for concupiscence. It is not by accident that conception does not always follow upon sexual intercourse.
However, it has been the traditional teaching of the RCC that every act of sexual intercourse must be left “open” to the possibility of procreation and it is this stance which has led the Catholic church to ban the use of all so called artificial contraceptives, while giving qualified approval to the practice of rhythm or what is regarded as natural family method.
It should be noted that according to the Catholic church transformation, neither in recent years nor beyond has there ever been an infallible definition by a pope or an ecumenical council concerning specific moral issue, there is a broad consensus among catholic theologians that even in the exercise of its ordinary universal magisterium, the church has never taught infallibly in the area of concrete moral norms.
For this reason, many catholic theologians maintain that the use of artificial contraceptive does not constitute a moral evil or sin, and it is not as a result an objective moral wrong to use artificial contraceptives.
A typical example is the upheaval in the Congo where nuns were raped, and the views of moral theologians was sought whether under such circumstances it was lawful to use the pill or artificial contraceptives for the nuns.
Mgr Lambruschini , professor of moral Theology at the Lateran University pointed out that the victims of rape cannot choose to abstain as married people can, therefore in these circumstances it would be justified in protecting herself by the suppression of ovulation.
It has been through the radical transformation within the RCC that a number of conferences of Catholic bishops i.e. the bishops of countries like: Holland, France, US, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, Belgium and South Africa, have written their pastoral letters advising catholic spouses of their right in conscience and of their possibility for legitimate moral disagreement with the teaching of the church.
The South African Bishops in their pastoral letter have categorically said the following with reference to artificial contraceptives: “Situations will, no doubt, arise in which another pregnancy is unacceptable for reasons such as health or difficult domestic conditions, and where a regime of continence would threaten family peace, marital fidelity or the future of the marriage itself.
“Here, in common with many other hierarchies, we would say that it is best for the parents to decide what, in their given circumstances, is the best or only practical way of serving the welfare of the whole family”
(Full text of the South African Bishops letter appears in The Tablet, (March 3 1974).
The above text means that catholic spouses are urged to, responsibly and without guilt or confession, use artificial contraceptives. However, couples must remain open and honest in periodically reevaluating their situations so as to avoid caught in the contraceptive mentality which can unfortunately become a threat to their marital chastity and fidelity.
It is not the RCC which refuses to offer artificial family planning services to its healthcare clinics and hospitals, but the Lesotho Catholic Bishops Conference, as stated in the “Guidelines for Catholic Medical Ethics for Lesotho” (1981 p12 ) The LCBC teaches that natural methods (for example the mucus ovulation method) are the only methods acceptable by the Catholic church and that the church declares any mechanical or chemical means used for the purpose of preventing procreation to be an illicit means of birth control.
But this traditional Catholic doctrine based on Humanae Vitae of 1969, is called into doubt or expressly denied today within the very Catholic church by various bishops conferences as mentioned above, precisely because Humanae Vitae is not the infallible or irrevocable catholic doctrine.
We expect the LCBC in the same manner to release their pastoral letter on family planning based on recent findings and evidence and not hide behind the general pope`s teaching of 1969.
It is a fact that the magisterium within the RCC is vested in the pope, but the bishops have authority in their respective countries.
This is the reason why we have seen bishops in different countries releasing their pastoral letters contrary to the one promulgated by the pope through Humanae Vitae.
It is a fact that Christian Churches from ancient times to date , in matters of morality have erred and committed blunders in their teaching so much that there is a growing gap between what the Christian church leadership officially teach and what the faithful have come to believe and practice as a responsible way before God.
Disagreeing with the church on moral issues such as the use of various family planning methods must be regarded as an expression of Christian responsibility, precisely because the church is not without spot or wrinkles, it has shortcomings even in her teaching.
This is the reason why the catholic spouses are advised of their right and possibility for legitimate moral disagreement with the church teaching.
The catholic community should understand that in search for truth, it will happen rather frequently and legitimately so that with equal sincerity, some of the laity will disagree, criticize, debate and take issues with the church leadership that is what has made the RCC church strong, the principle of unity in diversity.
It is not heretical to say that it permissible and justifiable, within the context of Lesotho, for couples to use family planning methods of their choice for different and obvious reasons such as delaying pregnancy, totally or partially avoiding falling pregnant, child spacing and above all prevention of HIV/AIDS.
The provision of family planning services within the catholic healthcare clinics and hospitals is a matter of urgency for the good of our bishops, priests and nuns and the catholic population, because in one way or the other, if the bishops are not infected, they are affected by poor health or death of their family members some of whom die very young because of HIV/AIDS or other related diseases.
The problems emanating from large families has a negative socioeconomic impact to all Basotho, Catholics or protestants, so provision of artificial family planning in the Catholic healthcare clinics will benefit us all, irrespective of our political affiliations, race or denominations.
Family planning services must not only be accessible but affordable and available throughout all catholic healthcare clinic and hospitals, this is my prayer to the Lesotho Catholic Bishops Conference, to avoid subsequent decision either to avoid unwed parenting by recourse to abortion or to bring a child to birth under circumstances which seriously jeopardize his/her well-being.
It is a fact that today children born out of wedlock are becoming part of our culture, which is unfortunate because that threatens God’s plan for marriage and responsible parenting.
Moreover, orphanages that are mushrooming all over the country must be re-evaluated and not be glorified for personal gain by certain individuals or organisations.
Let us all urge LCBC not to hide behind the Old Catholic ecclesiology “Roma Locuta Est, Causa Finata Est”, meaning Rome has spoken, the case is ended.
Lesotho Catholic church is not, or ought not be, a franchise of Rome. It is high time our Lesotho Catholic Bishops Conference, assisted by the theologians and scholars of the church, pronounce their pastoral letter on the use of artificial family planning for the good of all the catholic community and the public.
Glory and honour be to God.