Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The crucial importance of time, again

I was reading Ralph McInerny's What Went Wrong with Vatican II (Sophia Institute Press, 1998) and came to his narrative about the publication of and response to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical in which Pope Paul VI recommitted the Catholic Church to its traditional teachings against contraception. Fittingly, the chapter is called "The Year the Church Fell Apart." A little while back I wrote on how crucially important time can be in human activity, notably in warfare and in the collisions of Christianity with secular society, and how Christians can succumb to a peculiar form of overconfidence and complacence. In the story of Humanae Vitae we see another disastrous example of good intentions getting completely overwhelmed by the sometimes-fatal results of delay.

Oral contraceptives were becoming widely available in the U.S. and parts of Europe in the early-to-mid-1960's, as Vatican II was taking place. Pope John XXIII knew that the Church would have to grapple with the issues raised by this new technology, but he didn't allow the question to come before the assembled Council. Instead, he reserved it for his own study, in which he would be aided by a commission of scholars. A papal pronouncement would follow when the work was done.

But John XXIII died during the Council, long before he could finish. Paul VI expanded the advisory group and took up the work. Not to come down on poor Pope Paul too hard, but this was when things got out of hand. Months went by after the Council disbanded, then a year, then two, and there was no pronouncement. Some Catholic theologians were weighing in, invited and uninvited, on the side of dropping the longstanding opposition to artificial birth control, and the longer they did so without contradiction from the Vatican, the more it seemed that major changes were, indeed, in the works. Otherwise, why would things be taking so long? Rank-and-file married Catholics were getting conflicting advice from their parish priests, and some priests were getting ambiguous signals from their bishops. Theologians who had argued for a loosening of the traditional opposition felt confident that their voices had been decisive, and looked forward to greeting their anticipated victory over the traditionalists with the easy grace of good sportsmen.

Then Humanae Vitae was published, and it became clear that there were going to be no changes, after all.

The you-know-what really hit the fan then. Some theologians and academics rose in open revolt; some Catholic universities declared that the encyclical wasn't binding upon them. Some of those rank-and-file Catholics who had started using contraception in anticipation of change just quietly gave up on following their Church's teachings. It was the harbinger of much of a similar nature that was to come.

Two things were at work there, which both Popes should have taken into account in gauging the amount of time they had to make a decision.

First, in the case of the academics, it was the natural tendency to assume that the years of study and deliberation could be necessary only if a major change was being defined, and to relish the triumph they anticipated; and the boomerang of bitter disappointment when those confident hopes were dashed.

Second, in the case of ordinary Catholics, it was the natural tendency to hope that their lives would somehow get easier and more "normal" when compared with their non-Catholic neighbors. Sexual mores were in flux, societal props to traditional behavior were falling apart, and temptation was all around them.

Both these tendencies, if we generalize them a little, aren't exclusive to the Catholic Church; they're ordinary things that happen in every human organization. They're known to every executive in every successful corporation.

The simple lesson is that as soon as people know that change to a law or regulation is under active consideration, a clock starts ticking. I don't care that it's the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, against which the gates of Hell will not prevail, etc., etc. Leaders don't have an unlimited time to decide what to do. At some point, whose identification is part of the art of leadership, people are going to start drawing their own conclusions and acting on their own. If you, as a leader, delay beyond that point, you begin to lose control of the situation, and of your organization.

It's bad enough when that results in a failed product or lost jobs. It's much worse when souls are at stake.

What if Humanae Vitae, with its forthright, eminently logical rededication of the Church to its constant teaching, had come out in 1965, and nipped all that doubt and uncertainty and pride in the bud? We'll never know.

Contraception. In vitro fertilization. Sexual misconduct by priests. All of these challenges have been handled badly by the Church because those in charge of making decisions wanted a few more years to study the problem (or, in the latter case, sometimes to move the problem to another parish). And all of them have been disasters. If there has been a benefit to this pattern of delay that outweighs the terrible price it has exacted on the Body of Christ, I sure can't see it.