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The Rubber Meets the Road

Revisiting Cardinal George Pell’s debate on contraceptives, thirty years later.

(Photo by TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

Sometimes, YouTube makes good recommendations. Last week, it directed me to a thirty-year-old debate between the now-late Cardinal George Pell and a Jesuit priest, Father Bill Uren. It was a gripping watch.

Pell, auxiliary bishop of Melbourne at the time, was on the program to defend one of Pope St. John Paul II's recently published encyclicals. In addition to Fr. Uren, Pell faced a hostile moderator named Andrew Olle, and an equally hostile studio audience that included Australian atheist and population-control activist Peter Singer.


The controversy surrounded Veritatis splendor, perhaps the most important papal document published since the Second Vatican Council. Part exegesis and part moral theology, John Paul II reaffirmed the Church's traditional teaching that certain acts are "intrinsically evil" and cannot, under any circumstances, be justified. That was hardly a watershed, but it represented a definitive response to the nominally Catholic theologians who, since the Second Vatican Council, had sought to replace the Church's traditional moral theology with dressed-up versions of proportionalism and consequentialism.

Those dissident theologians claimed their theories were "recoveries" of an earlier Catholic moral theology rooted in "the sources." John Paul II in response went straight back to Scripture, using the story of the rich young ruler to establish the biblical roots of the Church's traditional teaching that violations of natural and divine law can never be justified, regardless of the ends an actor hopes to achieve or the circumstances that condition his actions.

The teaching is exacting in practice but straightforward in theory. The moral law has both positive and negative precepts. The positive precepts, such as that to help the poor, oblige us to do certain things. The negative precepts, such as that not to murder, oblige us not to do other things. Christians are equally obliged to fulfill both the positive and negative precepts of the moral law. But the negative precepts—the "thou shalt nots" of the Decalogue—represent the bare minimum conditions of moral conduct. "The commandment of love of God and neighbour," John Paul II wrote, "does not contain any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken."

John Paul wrote that fulfilling the positive precepts of divine law, such as the duty to honor one's parents, "depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen." You are always obliged to honor your parents, but how you do so depends on your age and station in life. The negative precepts of divine law are not similarly conditioned. Violating the negative precepts, such as the prohibition on murder, "can never, in any situation, be a proper response," since the actions the precepts proscribe "are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person." Every person who does not cheat on his spouse does so the same way: by not cheating on his spouse.

Veritatis splendor had reaffirmed Pope Paul VI's teaching in the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae that use of contraception was contrary to natural law and therefore could "never, in any situation, be a proper response." In Australia, the bishops had issued a document in 1974 saying any Catholic who "reach[es] a position after honest study and prayer that is at variance with papal teaching" on contraception "could be without blame...[if he is] acting in accordance with his conscience." This position was rebuked in Veritatis splendor, which included a quote from Dominum et vivificantem to the effect that individual consciences do not have an "independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil." Any notion to the contrary distorted the authentic role of conscience and the undermined teaching authority of the Church.


Hence the fallout in Australia at the publication of Veritatis splendor. John Paul II had directly shot down the Australian Catholics' workaround, and caused, in the words of moderator Andrew Olle, "torment" to many "ordinary Catholics."

Perhaps that is why ABC tormented then-Bishop Pell, a defender of the encyclical, with a panel and studio audience packed to the gills with liberal critics of the Vatican. One after another, members of the audience offered their thoughts on the encyclical. Most were aging children of the postconciliar revolution, who saw John Paul II as returning the Catholic Church to the hidebound days before the council. In their eyes, the sensus fidelium had definitively rejected Catholic teaching on condoms.

Sister Veronica Brady, an aging nun in street clothes, lamented that the encyclical seemed "out of touch...with contemporary thinking." Sister Anne Hall, also unhabited, said the encyclical revealed that "women's experiences" were "not being listened to." One young woman in the audience spoke up in favor of the encyclical, but an elderly theologian rebuked her, saying the "women who were affected by the Humanae vitae debate are still carrying the scars." Each should have been startled to have been in agreement with the Australian atheist Peter Singer, who said John Paul's encyclical would cause too many people in the third world to reproduce: "It is the height of irresponsibility for any religious leader, particularly a religious leader followed by people in Latin America or other developing countries, to be encouraging people to have large families."

Like Christ, surrounded by scandalized disciples after the rich young man walks away, then-Bishop Pell was asked to respond to the audience's criticisms. These, from the Vatican, were hard sayings. Who could hear them? "What do these Catholic workers, carers, do now when they go out into the field looking after AIDS patients?" asked Andrew Olle. "Are they to tell them, those infected people, not to use contraceptives?"

"We're like the anti-smoking campaign," Pell said. "We say, 'Quit.'"

That was the message of the encyclical: quit. Not just contraception or sexual immorality, not just greed or anger, but everything that separates one from that "truth which sets one free in the face of worldly power and which gives the strength to endure martyrdom." As Pell said, seemingly minor violations of the negative precepts of the natural law undermine the possibility of a virtuous social order:

When Paul VI, the Pope, put out the encyclical Humanae vitae, he said that the widespread use of the pill would bring about a deterioration of moral standards. We've seen that. Increased divorces, increased abortions, increased numbers of homeless children, increased number of one-parent families, the government has got an enormous bill in looking after all this. And this is related to the separation of sex from marriage, it is related to the demand for instant gratification.

That is truer today than it was then, and Veritatis splendor will look more even prescient in a century than it does today. It proposed that Catholics strive after perfection and fall back on God's mercy when they fail, rather calling good evil and evil good. It fulfilled what Pell called the two tasks of Christian religion: "to set norms, ideals" and "to cope with human weakness."

"We're all weak," Pell said. "And while the Church sets out these norms, we also preach the universality of God's forgiveness if we're sorry. No sin erases God's mercy."


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