Sex & Santorum

LAST WEEKEND I RECEIVED A PHONE CALL from Joan Corboy who was the wife of one of our APCDs back in Ethiopia in the early Sixties. She is now pushing 90, the mother of eight, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a wonderful woman. She called me to test her memory (it is, by the way, much better than mine!).

Since I work at a Catholic college she wanted to know if I could get my hands on an article by Judge John T. Noonan, a Harvard educated lawyer, who had written a piece on contraception back in the mid-sixties.

Joan, who is a faithful Catholic (Yes, Virginia, there are still some) was annoyed (to say the least) at all of Rick Santorum’s remarks on contraception, remembered the article, and wanted me to track it down for her.

I had no idea who John T. Noonan, Jr. was, or about the article he had written on contraception.

But thanks to a few good nuns at the school, and a great library, I tracked down the citation: John T. Noonan, Jr., “Authority, Usury, and Contraception,” Cross Currents (Winter 1966).

Noonan, to sum up a lengthy and impressive career, was a professor at the Notre Dame Law School, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and is a prominent lay Catholic intellectual. In 1957 he published a book that is seen as the definitive history on a rather obscure and innocuous topic, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, published by Harvard University Press, 1957. He later wrote Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists, also published by Harvard University Press, in 1966.

First, a quick summary of where the Catholic Church was in the 1960s for those who can’t remember where they put their car keys, or were still stars in their mother’s eyes. From 1962 to 1965 the Roman Catholic Church at its highest and most universal level — the Pope and all the bishops — undertook the Second Vatican Council to reform many of the Church’s doctrines. One of the distinctive features of the Second Vatican Council was an emphasis on the pilgrim character of the church, conceived of not as a perfected reality but as a struggling people seeking to show God’s love in the world. A second was an unprecedented commitment to religious freedom for every person. A third, the leitmotif of the council, was confident acceptance that Catholic doctrine develops in history. All these aspects of Vatican II had consequences for moral theology.

For our purposes, the question of whether using contraception was a sin against God’s Law was, more or less, on the table.

It was after this conference that Noonan published his book, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists. He also published — and this is what Joan Corboy recalled — an article in Cross Currents Magazine, entitled “Authority, Usury, and Contraception” and this publication was previously published at the college where I work, therefore, Joan’s reason for tracking me down with her request to see if I could find out a piece of information which she remembers from the Sixties. (Given that I can’t remember where I put my car keys, I was dutifully impressed that she remembered this long ago article and publication.)

You see, the article in Cross Currents sets the groundwork for two claims that numerous others have followed. Noonan made two conclusions: first, the Church’s teaching on usury changed with changing circumstances; second, we should expect its teaching on contraception to undergo a similar change. And this claim was being made by this eminent and respected Catholic (who had been an observer and advisor at the Second Vatican Council.) It did not go unnoticed by the theological community.

More background. Rick Santorum believes in a highly traditional Catholicism that adheres fully to what scholars call “the teaching authority” of the Pope and his Bishops. Most “modern” Catholics believe that Church doctrine should adapt to changing times and needs.

[A side note on Santorum’s position on contraception is taken by literary critic James Wood, who wrote on the New Yorkerwebsite on February 24, 2012, that Santorum’s environmental stance is “coherent only within a theological eschatology” that is distinctively Protestant in nature. To Wood, Santorum sounds less like a 21st-century Catholic and more “like an eighteenth-century American Puritan.”]

But back to sex! In 1968 when Pope Paul VI released the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) that reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on birth control, a group of over two hundred theologians, led bv Father Charles Curran, published an article in the New York Times the very next day that rejected the Papal teaching on contraception. The text of their argument included this claim:

The encyclical is not an infallible teaching. History shows that a number of  statements of similar or even greater authoritative weight have subsequently been proven inadequate or even erroneous. Past authoritative statements on religious liberty, interest-taking, the right to silence, and the ends of marriage have all been corrected at a later date.

Father Curren, naturally, would get into trouble for this letter in the Times. The Vatican forced the Catholic University Trustees to bar him from teaching in their theology department. Curran who had trained in Rome had, for all those years, been an outspoken critic of the prohibition of artificial contraception. He argued that his dissent was legitimate within the framework of traditional Roman Catholic theology. The head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, strongly disagreed. Ratzinger, as you know, is the current Pope Benedict XVI.

So, we have this one priest, (among many) Charles Curran standing up against the Vatican on the issue of contraception on the grounds that an encyclical is not infallible. And we have this Catholic lay authority, John T. Noonan, writing a history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and Canonists.

It is a fascinating study, as Noonan, the historian, has focused on the historical development of this sexual morality in the context of the times. For example, Noonon shows that within the first 450 years of the Christian Era, as Christianity entered the Hellenic world, there was no conceptually refined teaching regarding sex, marriage and the family. The Church’s doctrine on contraception was formulated by St. Augustine.

While forms of contraception, everything from magical practices and questionable potions,  and, of course, the ever popular withdrawal method, were used during the first 450 years of the Christian Era, it wasn’t until St. Augustine (450-1450) initiated a line of thinking regarding sexual concupiscence and conjugal relations that the ‘sin’ got codified. St. Augustine would go onto write City of God and framed the concepts of original sin, a just war, and no sex for fun or pleasure. It was Augustine, in fact, who developed the whole idea of a Catholic Church.

All of this brings us back to Santorum’s recent statements and the can of worms he has opened for the Republican party. He has gotten our attention, as well as our anger and outrage. And when a good Catholic woman who happens to be a senior citizen, and a mother of eight, gets pissed at him, then we are really talking!


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  • I would add St Paul’s teachings as underpinnings for St Augustine. One should also look at Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals for guidance on church teacing on sexual topics including contraception and extra-marital sexual relations. He makes Pope Benedict look like a libertine.

  • John, while the issue at hand is of interest, I just about screamed when I saw the mention of JOAN CORBOY … in 1968 when I returned from being a PCV in Liberia, I was one of the fortunate many who started life after PC at PC/HQ … for several years I lived immediately across the street in NE Washington from Joan, her husband and the growing band of merry Corboys … in all the good ways possible, it was just like living across the streets from ones parents … I was fostering a Liberian high school student in those days and they accepted us into their warmth as if he was one of their own … what wonderful memories!!!! … give her a big e-hug for me when you next see or talk to her.

  • Fascinating! I am among the many who might still be part of the Roman Catholic faith if it weren’t for its stand on matters sexual and gender. In the late 1950s I abandoned the whole thing,
    although it took me years to get over the engendered guilt. I am now a ‘pillar’ of a liberal protestant church and very happy with my choice.

  • Bless Joan! Still way sharper than I ever was…

    And great note from Dale Gilles–the Corboys in a nutshell.

    Meanwhile… Go, Santorum go!! I’m rooting for him all the way.


  • The range of Peace Corps experiences is vast as this discussion shows.
    I wish I had known Joan Corboy. More importantly, I wish that this wise woman had had some clout at Peace Corps Washington with this very problem. We could have used her help.

    I worked with desperately poor women who wanted to control their fertility and who wanted to keep the children they already had, alive and well. The two needs were linked because when they became pregnant while still nursing, they had to wean the nursing child. This was the most dangerous time in that child’s life because the mother may not have had food to feed that child. The choice for these mothers was always which child to save at the expense of which other of her children.

    We wanted to teach the “rhythm system,” ineffective as it might have been because there was nothing else available. Colombia was not only Catholic but the priests had civil authority. The local priest denied us permission to teach “rhythm” because he explained that if the women knew how to be sexually active without becoming pregnant, they would become promiscuous. Who knew Rush was Catholic?

  • Humanae Vitae recognizes the desire and usefulness of planning pregnancies to avoid health, financial and other problems and allows this to be done. It rejects, howvever, artifical means to prevent fertility. This teaching by Pople Paul VI has been confirmed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict 16. Father Curren and others both inside and outside the Catholic clergy objected to this teaching. However, the reemphasis by our lastest popes in effect means, “we have heard your disagreements, but the teaching stands.”

    With this in mind the Conference of American Bishops has stated its intention to hew to the Church’s teaching and not give support, pay for or provide articial birth control materials or procedures.

    In sum, the Feds have issued the mandate, the Bishops have simply stated that they will not act against their faith.

  • Leo,

    That is why the Bishops insisted that all insurance plans carry coverage for natural family planning education and equipment….OH WAIT.

  • Leo,

    It would have been. “Oh wait” means that the bishops never suggested it, never even considered it. It was not on their agenda.

  • John, thanks for this timely posting. In regard to Vatican II, a comission was appointed that was to study the issue of contraception use between married couples. The majority opinion of that group was to recommend to the Pope, with the majority of the Conclave voting to support the recommendation, that the Pope use his authority to approve some form of contraception for married couples. Unfortunately, Pope John Paul XXIII, who called Vatican II, died, and his successor, Pope Paul VI, accepted the minority report of the commission. We Catholics have been left with the unaddressed paradox of the Catholic Church: that of its being opposed to abortion, while, at the same time, being opposed to contraception. It’s tempting to walk away, but for now I prefer joining my voice with Catholics who have joined Voice of the Faithful and Future Church.

  • I remember when Paul VI traveled to Colombia. His message to the faithful poor: “Do not use the birth control pill.” I felt as if I had been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat.

  • Pope Paul VI was not as emphatic about contraception as was John Paul II. Read his encyclicals.

  • You would be amazed at the number of poor Colombian women who do not read Latin. Paul came to Colombia and told them not to use the pill.

  • I remember my Episcopal priest referring to the rythym system of birth control as Vatican Roulette.

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