Four hundred years ago, the Church condemned Galileo for insisting that the earth goes around the sun. That condemnation contributed to a gap between religion and science in the Christian world, and resulted in centuries of educated people disassociating themselves from the Catholic community. Then, in the 1980s, Pope Saint John Paul II reversed the condemnation, admitting that the Church was wrong to condemn the man.
We are in the process of repeating the seventeenth century mistake of the Church. The Church in our country, through the leadership of its bishops, is condemning the Galileos of our time. In the process we are escalating conflict in our society and reducing the possibilities for peaceful resolution of those conflicts.
This mistake is occurring in the areas of sexuality and reproduction.
Official Church doctrine, repeated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict, is that human life begins at the moment of conception. This doctrine then leads to official disapproval of almost all forms of contraception, and then to opposition to any agencies that promote those forms of contraception. The issue is off limits to discussion. And here is where the resemblance to the issue of Galileo is most powerful--the refusal to permit discussion.
On what grounds does the Church insist that human life begins at conception? The argument: it has always been held. But has it? One reputable article questions the assumption. The article was published in one of the foremost theological journals of this country, Theological Studies, back in 1990. The authors were Allan Wolter, OFM and Thomas A. Shannon, a former friar then teaching at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Wolter, a member of my Franciscan province, had been president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association back in the 1950s, and had spent his entire career relating scholastic works, especially the writings of the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, to present-day physics and cosmology. Shannon was a nationally-known ethicist. The article was titled "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-embryo."
To delve into the question of "has the Church always held that human life begins at conception?" is to risk condemnation, which has economic consequences if one is working at a Catholic institution. Wolter was retired and Shannon was working at a secular institution.
The issue is made politically explosive by linking it to the issue of abortion. Abortion opponents too easily equate contraception with abortion and abortion with murder. The term "murder" is highly charged emotionally, which leads to intransigence in politics. The intransigency has driven pro-life politicians from the Democratic party, and led to the hardening of that party into adopting an anti-life platform.
What we need to do is to go back to the original issue: how can we talk about when human life begins, and all the associated questions, in a way that is amenable to scientific evidence? The Church now is operating in a science-less environment, which is why I liken the situation to that of Galileo.
How did we get here?
The official Church has arrived at this juncture because of three historical events. The first was the declaration by the First Vatican Council in 1870 that the Pope is infallible. The actual declaration could be interpreted as limited to only two instances: the declaration in 1854 that Mary was conceived immaculate, and the definition in 1950 that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. But infallibility has a tendency to creep into "anything that a pope has said."
Then there was the declaration by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 that the teaching of Thomas Aquinas is the official philosophical and theological basis for Catholic thought.
The third is the unfortunate effect of Sigmund Freud's antipathy to religion.
As a member of the Franciscan Order, I am supported by the refusal of my Franciscan mentors to accept Pope Leo's declaration as binding. We Franciscans have our own philosophical and theological tradition, going back to Scotus, and we see both Aquinas and Scotus as scholars seeking for truth within the limits of their time and intellectual environments. Neither man can be looked at as an infallible guide to how we should approach issues in our day.
One of my Franciscan colleagues used to say that every time Bishop Fulton Sheen went on TV he set psychiatry back five years. Bishop Sheen portrayed psychiatry, with its origins in the writings of Freud, as useless, because mentally distressed Catholics just needed to go to confession. The rejection of Freud has led to a suspicion of all social science, and thereby to the kind of attitudes that gave us Galileo.
An aside: Much of the disastrous reaction of our Church leaders to the abuse of children was based on their rejection of psychiatry and the belief of those leaders that abuse of children is a moral issue that could be healed by repentance. If pedophilia is a moral failing, a repentant abuser could be considered assignable to a different ministry site--transfer was considered an adequate punishment for a repentant priest or religious.
In defense of my Catholic social-science-denying fellow-believers, we are not alone. Much of secular society shares the same denial of social scientific evidence.
But an official denial of scientific evidence by an organization as powerful as the Catholic Church leads to a rejection by scientists of that organization. The refusal of Church authorities to discuss issues of sexuality is the cause of much of the loss of Catholic Church membership in the last decade or so. How could I prove that statement? I could prove it by social-science surveys, but my social-science-denying fellow believers will reject my use of social science methods. We are in the realm of anti-intellectualism not so different from that of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Science and Peace-making
It has always been the hope of scientists that their work would contribute to the well-being of society, and especially to the resolution of conflicts. That hope has been frustrated by the reality that politics always trumps science. No matter what science says, if a politician finds a scientific finding politically damaging, the politician will find reasons to reject the science. Think global warming.
The abortion issue and its related conflicts are on the way to legitimating a new civil war, tearing apart our society. When we reject discussion based on science, we contribute to the likelihood that deadly conflict will occur.
The Church since Galileo has maintained the official position that religion and science are not in conflict. What the Church needs to do is to act on that position, and allow scientific evidence to shape the moral injunctions that flow from the findings of science, including social science. The Church needs to enter into moral discussions of reproductive issues with the attitude of genuine seeking of truth, not of claiming that official Church positions have been held by everyone from all time without evidence that such consensus actually existed.