Denis Bradley’s Alternative History of the Catholic Church: What Does the Contraception Debate of the 1960s Say about the Church Today?

imageDenis Bradley’s column in Friday’s Irish News offers what amounts to an alternative history of how the Catholic Church has gotten where it is today. By alternative, I mean his view is one that the ‘official’ Catholic Church would most likely reject.

Bradley is a former priest well known in Ireland for his position on the Consultative Group for dealing with the past and his role as a former vice chairman for the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Bradley’s alternative history is rooted in the process by which Catholic teaching on contraception was hammered out in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. He summarises it this way:

… in any analysis of when and how the leadership and the authority of the Catholic Church lost its way, this piece of history [the contraception debate] must figure highly on the agenda.

Bradley framed his remarks in the context of the Pope’s recent teaching on condoms. Bradley said that ‘nothing new had been promulgated’ and took his readers back to the aftermath of the Vatican II, when a commission was set up to examine the Church’s teaching on contraception.

Bradley noted that the majority report of this commission:

… called for a reassessment of Catholic teaching to allow for contraceptive intervention in marital intercourse. It recommended that the Church’s opposition to contraceptives should be reversed. While recommending that change, it also argued against a contraceptive mentality that would “egoistically and irrationally” oppose fruitfulness.

The minority report, on the other hand, took the view that contraception is not permissible, based on ‘natural law.’

Bradley said that the majority report was not published till after the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Humanae Vitae rejected the majority report in favour of the view of the minority. For Bradley, this was a decisive moment in the history of the Church, where much of the vitality that had been visible Church since Vatican II began to wither or be suppressed. He writes,

I was in Rome at the time and it was the one and only time in my lifetime that the Catholic Church came close to a proper rebellion. … The rebellion never happened and the supporters of the minority report gained in confidence and power. Within 15 to 20 years the supporters of the traditional teaching on contraceptives were in full control of the leadership of the Church.

Anyone who, in public, questioned the theological basis of Humanae Vitae was banished to the outer darkness or, at least, disbarred from a position of authority. Dissent, debate and divergence were wiped from the ethos. The leadership of the Church was no longer just clerical and male, it was now being chosen only from that section of the Church that viewed difference as a threat rather than a strength.

Bradley sees this as contributing to a process in which ‘undue loyalty and obsequiousness … became further entrenched and promoted.’

For him, the effects of this can be seen today in a clerical culture that was not adequate to deal with the challenges thrown up by the sexual abuse crisis. It is also seen in the practices of a laity who largely ignore, or are not actually aware of, Catholic teachings on contraception.

He concludes,

If renewal is to take any hold within the Church it will be essential that this issue and all its many consequences be faced and resolved. And that the multitude of good Catholics who were caught up and suffered in its wake be acknowledged and asked for forgiveness.

I find Bradley’s alternative history compelling. First, it raises some interesting sociological questions about how hierarchical organisations can control dissent – even when a majority are dissenters.

But it also raises for me some spiritual questions about what Vatican II was actually all about. I am a Protestant Christian, but my third-level education was at Providence College, a Dominican university. We were required to take some modules on theology or Catholic social teaching.

I remember my puzzled classmates asking a professor why Vatican II hadn’t seemed to have had much effect on the church. He answered that many scholars said that it took about 100 years for the teaching of a Vatican Council to disseminate through the Church, so we had awhile to go yet. A realistic answer, perhaps, if not a particularly satisfying one.

But quite apart from the glacial pace of change observed by my professor, critics of the Church today seem to me to be saying that the work of the Holy Spirit that produced Vatican II is systematically being resisted by the hierarchy of the Church itself.

I don’t want to put those exact words in Bradley’s mouth, but his alternative history seems to me to point in that direction. And if that is the case, what are the consequences?

4 thoughts on “Denis Bradley’s Alternative History of the Catholic Church: What Does the Contraception Debate of the 1960s Say about the Church Today?”

  1. I learned only recently that the Commission which advised the Pope that contraception would be a good idea, included members or affiliates of Planned Parenthood. Interesting.
    Anybody who has read Humane vitae can see how prophetic this document was. Who can doubt that all the things that Pope Paul VI predicted have come to pass, from the breakdown of marriage, widespread pre-marital sexual activity, and the pornography industry are all enabled by the contraceptive use.
    A majority of Catholics were led, by their bishops and priests, to rebel against the constant teaching of the Church. Humanae vitae simply restated the constant Church teaching and sought to expound it for the whole Church.
    There is a very popular movement among the young people within the Catholic Church who are enthused by Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It explains in a positive and beautiful way, the life-giving and liberating teachings of the Church on human sexuality. It is this creative minority which our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI, sees as being key to the evangelisation of the Church and the wider culture, by building what John Paul II called ‘A culture of life’. Professor Janet E. Smith advises the Holy See on life ethics and she wrought a good piece entitled ‘Contraception – Why not? It is well worth a read. Google it.

  2. Excellent Martin. Denis Bradley, Hans Kung & co. are like ancient 1960’s hippies, who have never really intellectually matured. They’re essentially stuck in a time-warp. History has shown that the Papal encyclical & not the dissenters were correct. Incidentally Glady’s I can bring you to many Catholic Church buildings & show you the real impact of Vatican 11. Desecrated Church’s in which the soul ( both architecturaly & spiritually ) has been removed. The Reformation iconoclasts were pussy-cats by comparison !.

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