(photo: Hilary Thomas/flickr)

I have a simple message for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: Remember Vatican II. I do. The documents of the Second Vatican Council, which was held between 1962 and 1965, were the text for my freshman theology class at Notre Dame in 1964, and I think they are still around here somewhere. Vatican II, convened by the Good Pope John XXIII, was a breath of fresh air in an institution frozen in time, controlled by a bunch of old Italian Cardinals.

In a blog post at the New York Review, Contraception’s Con Men, Garry Wills reminds those who have deliberately forgotten those documents that they are not the Church. The Church is the laity, the People of God. The bishops are the servants of the Church, meaning the laity, and the pope is the Servant of the Servants of God, meaning that the Pope is merely a servant with respect to the bishops.

Decisions about morality in everyday life do not come from the top down in the inverted hierarchy created by Vatican II. They come from the lived experience of the People of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Once the people make a decision about morality, the pope and the bishops are irrelevant.

The Good Pope John met an untimely end, and immediately the Italian cardinals began to bury Vatican II with him in the cellar at St. Peter’s Basilica. In 1968, Paul VI, who had participated in the Council, issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which overruled a study conference and restated the ban on contraception. Paul VI flouted the process of theological development described by Vatican II, apparently intending to restore the supremacy of the papacy. He said that every form of contraception was intrinsically disordered, which apparently means necessarily evil. This is section 13 of Humanae Vitae:

It is in fact justly observed that a conjugal act imposed upon one’s partner without regard for his or her condition and lawful desires is not a true act of love, and therefore denies an exigency of right moral order in the relationships between husband and wife. Likewise, if they consider the matter, they must admit that an act of mutual love, which is detrimental to the faculty of propagating life, which God the Creator of all, has implanted in it according to special laws, is in contradiction to both the divine plan, according to whose norm matrimony has been instituted, and the will of the Author of human life. To use this divine gift destroying, even if only partially, its meaning and its purpose is to contradict the nature both of man and of woman and of their most intimate relationship, and therefore it is to contradict also the plan of God and His will. On the other hand, to make use of the gift of conjugal love while respecting the laws of the generative process means to acknowledge oneself not to be the arbiter of the sources of human life, but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. In fact, just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, with particular reason, he has no such dominion over his generative faculties as such, because of their intrinsic ordination towards raising up life, of which God is the principle. “Human life is sacred,” Pope John XXIII recalled; “from its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.”

Paul VI says that rape is immoral, so it follows that sex without risk of pregnancy is immoral, as anyone can see. This is not an interpretation of scripture. It is one man’s view of “special laws”, the purposes of humans, one’s control of one’s body, and the will of the Almighty. It is nothing more than a statement of the views of Paul VI concealed behind flowery words

Catholics are to see themselves as “… minister[s] of the design established by the Creator.” That denies our lived experience, and fails utterly to grasp the problems that we face in living, raising children, and simply trying to survive in an era of turbo-charged capitalism. Practically all Catholics have refused to bow to the old celibates who have climbed to the heights of the Catholic hierarchy, and who have lost touch with the life struggles of the People of God.

The hierarchy has been unable to force adherence to the views of this encyclical. Many of us come from families that have been Catholic for centuries. The arrogance and the foolishness of this imperious demand encouraged millions to examine other teachings, and eventually to leave the faith of our ancestors.