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Bishops and mandates

Bernard Doering | Sunday, February 19, 2012

My wife Jane and I, along with a considerable number of the Notre Dame teaching faculty and emeriti, are deeply concerned about the official stance that the University may take regarding the dust-up over mandates, contraception and freedom of religion. A vast majority of Notre Dame faculty and staff were in admiration of Father Jenkins’ deft and sensible handling of the controversy over the invitation to President Obama to speak at a Notre Dame commencement ceremony, and they are ready to support him again in a truly religious and rational handling of this developing controversy.

A large number of bishops complain that the Obama mandates will force them to pay for various forms of contraception in violation of their freedom of conscience because, by permitting lay Catholics to use contraceptives in violation of the “official” teaching of the Church, they become enablers of sin and evil. But whose consciences are involved in judgments on birth control? The Church has always taught the primacy of the individual conscience, and re-affirmed it in Dignitatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council. What about the primacy of the individual consciences of all members of the Notre Dame faculty and staff, especially those of women? In the thorny thicket of moral actions with double or multiple effects, many judgments have to be taken into account: the judgments of the bishops, those of the moral theologians and ethicists and those of the lay members of the Body of Christ, the often ignored Sensus Fidelium, that is, the almost universal agreement of the Faithful.

The teachings of the encyclical Humanae Vitae are a matter of discipline, not of doctrine. Teachings promulgated in encyclicals are not infallible unless the Pope expressly declares them to be so. In 1990 at a press conference introducing an instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is our present Pope Benedict XVI, listed several examples of teachings that had been reversed, such as statements promulgated by the Holy See in regard to ecumenical activities, relations between church and state, personal freedom and the rights of conscience in choosing a religion and declarations of the Pontifical Bible Commission made at the beginning of the 20th century. To this list can be added teachings, long considered official and irreformable: the trial of Galileo, the burning of Joan of Arc, the acceptability of human evolution, the possibility of salvation without baptism, the existence of Limbo and many others. The teachings of Humanae Vitae can and should be revisited.

Many of us see in the bishops’ present position an attempt to legislate general rules of moral conduct that they cannot get their own subjects to obey. The potential of their position to divide the faithful even further than did the invitation extended to President Obama is very real. It will only increase the well-documented drift of Catholics away from the Church, especially among the younger generations.

Bernard Doering

professor emeritus

Romance Literatures and Languages

Feb. 19