Monday, July 28, 2008

A Catholic Church contraception counterfactual

An op ed from a former Catholic priest on Pope Paul VI's anti-birth control encyclical 40 years ago, and how it might have been different:

In traditional Catholic morality, the nature of a human act, the intention and the circumstances must be all considered in weighing its rightness or wrongness.

But as Pope Paul presented his case, intention and circumstances are irrelevant. The nature of contraception is so heinous, so intrinsically evil that alleviating circumstance and good intention don't count.

We can all acknowledge that contraception is on a different level from, say, killing a human being. Yet killing is an act that may not be determined good or bad until we know intention and circumstances. The placing of absolute judgment on contraception itself—by pill, condom or whatever—raises the bar to a level that seems to many responsible and thoughtful people to be irresponsible.

Killing is not always wrong. But contraception always is?
The problem with Humanae Vitae is rigidity. The pontiff was correct in seeing what strange fruits the revolution would produce, but his cure was as bad or worse than the disease.

He could have acted differently. He could have said that the world is facing an unprecedented challenge in human history that requires careful study and expert inquiry. He could have said that selfish, non-generative lifestyles are not acceptable, that thoughtless contraception cheapens sex, that circumstances count very much and that people have an obligation to weigh carefully what they do.

He could even have praised the values of natural family planning. He could have become a respected conversant among national and world bodies seeking credible answers. But because of the absolute ban, popes, bishops and theologians have had little to offer except a repeated no, no, never!

Church leadership left the table 40 years ago, painting itself into this corner.

Within the church itself the saddest byproduct is what has been happening to its membership. Many parents of the 1960s retained an overall confidence in the church while dissenting on the contraception issue. Their children widened the sense of separation, and the grandchildren may not even realize there ever was a religious institution that had wisdom and a sense of real community to share.

I've never known very much about Catholicism, so I've never thought that the pope's decision on contraception could have been any different from how it was. Many religions have confronted issues of modernity, especially sexual, with barriers rather than moderation. The possibility that the Catholic response could have been more moderate raises the question of whether the American political landscape and even other religions' stances might have also been more nuanced.

On the other hand, an issue that the author does not consider is that as a religious policy issue, people are generally not very good at moderation. Moderation can be interpreted as outright acceptance.

So on one hand, the religious authorities can decide to maintain credibility by proclaiming a moderate position, but risking that the public would be too liberal with the position. Or the religious authorities can risk losing credibility with the public by proclaiming a clear-cut ban. If the religion's major objective is to ensure that people follow the law, is it possible that there might be more compliance in the first scenario? As much as I would like to say that there would be more compliance under a liberal stance, I don't have any information that would lead me to conclude one way or the other. Obviously the solution is that in cases where the religious authorities just want a specific outcome, they should conduct randomized policy experiments before they decide on religious law. It's a pipedream, I know, but I'm mostly serious. Many religious decisions turn on predicting outcomes that are unknowable without formal study.

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