A STAFF CORRESPONDENT
"CATHOLICS Petition for
Birth Control" said the headline in the Guardian last Thursday. Under the headline there was a long report on a document, sent to
: the Pope and all Catholic Archbishops and signed by 500 leading Catholics in 18 different countries, urging the Catholic Church to change its birth control teaching "radically and without equivocation". Within hours the report had been cabled by news agencies to countries all around the world. A well-kept secret was out. Then the questioning followed.
How significant was the document? The Guardian had described it as "a last determined effort by very determined people to swing the balance of decision of the Pope's birth control commission in their direction."
My inquiries throughout the last week have confirmed that this is an accurate statement of the position. Those to whom I have talked have said that they realise the submission will be the subject of criticism.
As one man who played an important part in drafting it said: "We will he told that we should have remained silent, that the Commission already had at its disposal all the expert opinion it needed. In a matter of this importance, however, we feel that no worthwhile opinion should be ignored."
How worthwhile is the opinion put forward in the submission? I found that the document was very far from being a hastily prepared summary of lay thought. It has been in preparation for many months.
Early in the year a small committee of like-thinking men and women drafted a "rough" of the document. This was then sent, in secrecy, to more than 500 people occupying key jobs in more than a dozen different countries.
I was told; "We chose people in all branches of medicine, sociologists, demographers, 'population experts', etc. We looked for everyone who had written anything about the subject. All of those we approached were Catholics and therefore could be expected to be aware of the religious as well as the human factors involved."
Letters containing the rough document went out to Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, the United States, Bolivia, Belgium, Chile, the Congo, Austria, Brazil, Switzerland, Colombia and to people in England. Each person was asked to study the draft and to comment upon it.
When the answers were received, a committee set about the task of incorporating these various opinions into the original draft.
The final document, which was sent to the Pope and to every Catholic Archbishop around the world about three weeks ago, was prepared in four languages (French, Italian, German and English) "so that the exact shade of meaning could be conveyed".
All those who were canvassed for their opinion agreed to have their name attached to the final document. Names of signatories in other countries remain secret, but it is known that among those signing in this country were Sir Francis Walshe (neurologist); Mr. John Ryan (gynaecologist); Dr. T. Brogan (medical adviser to the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council); Mr. Paul Burns (publisher), and Mrs. Rosemary Haughton and Michael de la Bedoyere (authors).
The committee behind the document decided that its full text would not be made public. I was given a briefing on its contents, however, on the grounds that readers of a Catholic newspaper should be able to satisfy themselves as to the accuracy of reports published elsewhere.
The document begins by reviewing the decisions of the Second Vatican Council which "formulated a doctrine of marriage that has shown itself capable of integrating the eternal values of Christianity with various contemporary insights, such as a consciousness of the dignity of the whole man in his unity of body and soul and an understanding of marriage as a community of persons called to a responsible fecundity".
It goes on to point out that human fecundity today poses very real problems which a large part of the Catholic community "has not yet sufficiently appreciated". The document then poses particularly the problem of "population explosion" and the fact that many nations are finding themselves faced with the urgent task of regulating fecundity.
"It seems," says the document, that "the possibilities of applying various techniques depend upon the intellectual and psychological dispositions of individuals . . . methods of control, for example, based on continence, seem to be particularly unsuitable remedies for the great demographical problems". Developing this point the document says that "an effective and practical regulation of fecundity is not only a necessity but an immediate duty".
In one of its strongest paragraphs is expressed the view that "the Church cannot take the responsibility before history of minimising one of the main problems which humanity must face, let alone of constituting an obstacle to general research into real solutions".
The signatories, in considering pastoral directives of past days, feel that these directives given in exact terms belong to their particular historical contexts and "should be understood as having been inspired by a then contemporaneous interpretation of the natural law which is now recognised as deficient".
After referring to the position "of a large number of generous Catholic married couples, placed in the position of having to chose an attitude that will best safeguard the multiple objectives of their marriage", the document goes on to express anxiety at a tendency to suggest that these sort of problems can be solved on the disciplinary and pastoral level "simply by maintaining the old directives which for several objective reasons are doubtful today".
It adds: "Such a solution would entail, for the Church, the grave risk of losing its moral authority as a result of a fatal cleavage between ecclesiastical teaching and the deep insight of today's world".
In its concluding paragraphs the document stresses that the great moral problems relative to human fecundity, in the view of its signatories, are situated on a level which is not that of regulating techniques.
Techniques alone, it goes on, are not sufficient to resolve either demographic problems or the difficulties of individual couples. Both nations and individuals require moral motivations to guide them in the exercise of their fecundity and to give meaning to their choices.
The signatories felt that the need for such motivations is being felt more and more both where the phenomenon is one of underpopulation and where nations are threatened with overpopulation and "in view of the never finished task of humanising sexuality".
As the signatories to the document see it, this presents the Church with a specific task. In fact, they say, there is no other spiritual power which could, with greater authority, invite couples to that responsible exercise of their fecundity which would reflect a generous concern for the common good in their concrete social situations.
They believe that the Catholic doctrine of marriage as formulated by the Council, based as it is on the respect due to the human person, offers married couples "a noble ideal allowing them to show themselves faithful to their vocation in their own times".
But this teaching needs to he presented with clarity and free from all equivocation, "particularly from that sort of interpretation which would tend to rely upon a physicalist conception of the natural law".
The document ends by insisting on the impossibility of laying down or maintaining moral directives which "are too particularised on the technical or physical levels without provoking a major crisis of conscience and endangering the permanency and eminent dignity of the Christian message".