“Maneuvered into a dead end”

60 years ago the first "birth control pill" came on the market in the USA. Millions of women worldwide still use it today – despite medical and social controversies. And despite the clear position of Catholic moral teaching.

Interviewer: There are differences even in the name: for some it is the "birth control pill," for others the "fertility pill". Which term do you think is more appropriate?

Prof. Dr. Stephan Goertz (moral theologian at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Mainz): I would use a term that does not already contain a moral valuation. The pill is a hormonal contraceptive, so you could say contraceptive pill. Of course, hardly anyone talks like that in Germany. But for ethical consideration, it's important not to smuggle judgment into language use already.

Interviewer: For the female world, the "birth control pill" meant a significant contribution to sexual self-determination and a release from the burden of unwanted pregnancies. What then was the reality for most women up to that point?

Goertz: The novelty of this form of anti-conception is that now a woman can decide for herself a relatively safe method of contraception. And unlike, for example, the use of a condom is not dependent on the will and cooperation of her partner. If one does not perceive this gain in freedom, one will never arrive at a morally just judgment. The Catholic tradition still finds it difficult to recognize women as responsible subjects of their own sexuality.

Interviewer: Now, Catholic moral teaching provides that "every conjugal act must remain intrinsically ordered towards the generation of human life", as stated in the encyclical "Humanae vitae". Why does the church take this position?

Goertz: You are right: Catholic doctrine at this point is clearly hostile to all so-called "artificial" forms of contraception. Ultimately, behind this judgment is the ancient notion that the first purpose of human sexuality is to produce and raise legitimate offspring within the context of marriage. This priority of reproduction is a law of nature to which man has to submit.

In addition, there is the old Christian devaluation of sexual desire. To those who consider sexuality as something basically unpleasant, it can be justified only in terms of procreation. The sexual pleasures of a pair of lovers were suspect to tradition. It should be remembered that church morals were formulated by men who saw their spiritual lives threatened by sexuality. You can study this well with St. Augustine.

And ultimately, the primacy of nature is also behind John Paul II's moral teaching, which is rigorous on this ie. The problem: Since Pius XII. the method of choosing time is "allowed," the biological regularity of the female cycle becomes the moral standard behind which all other aspects must take a back seat. However, it is not clear why a biological law should be more important than the question of which method is appropriate and responsible for a concrete couple in their life situation. The difference between artificial and natural methods is not humanly plausible and morally secondary.

Interviewer: On the other hand the effect on the demographic change ("Pillenknick") in many industrial nations is not to be denied. Likewise, the pill has some hormonal side effects that should not be underestimated. Is there also a moral objection here – far from the question of artificial contraception – to taking?

Goertz: I cannot understand the first part of the question: Is it meant to say that contraception and female emancipation are a moral problem because women then give birth to fewer children?? Or even because then the percentage of Catholics in the population might decrease? In the past, such thoughts have certainly moved the ecclesiastical moral teaching.

But if population policy wins out over sexual ethics, then individual human dignity is lost. Possible side effects of preparations and practices should always be considered. But to determine this is not the task of the moral theologian, but of other sciences. Considerations then have to be made socially and individually. The church has no genuine competence of its own.

Interviewer: The Catholic Church is still struggling today with its doctrine on artificial contraception, which is not uncontroversial even within the church. As a moral theologian, what solution to the conflict could you imagine??

Goertz: The vast majority of Catholics, especially the younger ones, who are most affected by the practical aspects of life, have not been wrestling with this ie for a very long time. They consider the decision about the method of contraception as a matter of their own responsibility, their own educated conscience. In this respect the topic is actually through.

The Magisterium is wrestling with the question of how to relate to a norm that has been presented with very high binding force by a number of popes as an expression of the true Catholic faith. One actually struggles less about the matter than about the question of how to find one's way out of a dead end into which one has maneuvered oneself – without wanting to turn back in the process.

As a moral theologian, I would say that if sexual ethics is formulated from the perspective of the primacy of love – there are approaches to this in the Council and in Pope Francis – it is a matter of arriving at consensual and responsible decisions that take into account the dignity and well-being of the other person(s). There is no need for more than these criteria; everything else is no longer a matter for the Church. Moral theologians have already formulated this in the sixties, for example Franz Bockle in Bonn.

The interview was conducted by Jan Hendrik Stens.

Note from the editor: On 12. October the following volume will be published: Christof Breitsameter/Stephan Goertz, On the Primacy of Love. Zeitenwende fur die katholische Sexualmoral, Verlag Herder/Freiburg 2020, 20 Euro.

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