Thursday, February 23, 2012

Galileo and Birth Control,
Another Roman Catholic Crisis of Fact
Colliding with Faith

In looking at the sources for readers coming to this blog, I was intrigued to discover a site with which I had been unfamiliar, RH Reality Check, "Reproductive and Sexual Health and Justice, News, Analysis & Commentary".  On that site, under the nom de plume Anonymous, about whom it said " Anonymous is a practicing Catholic who writes for RH Reality Check on the church and contraception.", I found a fascinating article on the history of the contraception controversy in the Roman Catholic church, "The Pontifical Commission and How Birth Control Became Known as Intrinsically Evil".

His opening paragraph (I'm assuming 'he' absent other information) read:
Half a century ago, the pope appointed a commission to study the morality of birth control. Multiple choice: What do you think their findings were?
A) Birth control is not “intrinsically evil.”
B) Married couples should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to use birth control.
C) Artificial birth control is an extension of methods of natural family planning already accepted by the Catholic Church.
D) All of the above.
You may be as astonished as I was to learn that the answer is "D."
I like fact checking, I like the regular 'reality check' to prevent ideology from creeping in and detaching us from facts, something to which any and all of us may succumb.  And I particularly like history, and improving my knowledge of both history and religion and moral philosophy generally.  So, I found both the article from HR Reality Check and several different topics that related to it from wikipedia (yes, I was lazy, but only a little lazy in researching) to combine for this post into a curious and oddly satisfying if esoteric whole.  That included the 'fact checking' of Anonymous.
So I found the first article particularly interesting, including this charming illustration.  As a person of greater than average curiosity, I tracked down the illustration, finding "Homunculi in sperm as drawn by N. Hartsoecker in 1695" (courtesy of the article on homunculi)

Pre-formed humans depicted in sperm cells, known as "homunculi."

The illustrations reminded me strongly of the medieval illustrations I had seen of the mandrake root, which most readers will primarily recognize from more modern sources like the Harry Potter books and movies.  I have an odd fascination on the other hand with medieval and early renaissance herbals, where I had seen remarkably similar images like these:

There is a copy of the illustration in the Wikipedia section on Homunculus (singular of Homunculi) under the history of  Perforationism, and which follows after the section on Alchemy.  No surprise at the similarity between the illustrations; under Alchemy, it mentions specifically the belief, which passed more or less for science at the time about Mandrake and Homonculi:
"In Islamic alchemy, Takwin (Arabic: تكوين‎) was a goal of certain Muslim alchemists, a notable one being Jabir ibn Hayyan (later known as Geber in Europe). In the alchemical context, Takwin refers to the artificial creation of life in the laboratory, up to and including human life.
There are also variants cited by other alchemists. One such variant involved the use of the mandrake. Popular belief held that this plant grew where semen ejaculated by hanged men (during the last convulsive spasms before death) fell to the ground, and its roots vaguely resemble a human form to varying degrees. The root was to be picked before dawn on a Friday morning by a black dog, then washed and "fed" with milk and honey and, in some prescriptions, blood, whereupon it would fully develop into a miniature human that would guard and protect its owner.[citation needed] Yet a third method, cited by Dr. David Christianus at the University of Giessen during the 18th century, was to take an egg laid by a black hen, poke a tiny hole through the shell, replace a bean-sized portion of the white with human semen, seal the opening with virgin parchment, and bury the egg in dung on the first day of the March lunar cycle. A miniature humanoid would emerge from the egg after thirty days, which would help and protect its creator in return for a steady diet of lavender seeds and earthworms.
The Homunculi illustration was part of the section on Preformationism:
Preformationism, a philosophical theory of heredity, claimed that either the egg or the sperm (exactly which was a contentious issue) contained a complete preformed individual called a homunculus. Development was therefore a matter of enlarging this into a fully formed being.

The term homunculus was later used in the discussion of conception and birth, Nicolas Hartsoeker discovered "animalcules" in the semen of humans and other animals. This was the beginning of spermists' theory, who held the belief that the sperm was in fact a "little man" (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child. This seemed to them to neatly explain many of the mysteries of conception. It was later pointed out that if the sperm was a homunculus, identical in all but size to an adult, then the homunculus may have sperm of its own. This led to a reductio ad absurdum with a chain of homunculi "all the way down". This was not necessarily considered by spermists a fatal objection however, as it neatly explained how it was that "in Adam" all had sinned: the whole of humanity was already contained in his loins. The spermists' theory also failed to explain why children tend to resemble their mothers as well as their fathers, though some spermists believed that the growing homunculus assimilated maternal characteristics from the womb environment in which they grew.[2]
In other words, there was not a reliable understanding of reproductive science at the time the Roman Catholic church was developing their concepts of birth control and religious doctrine.  One of the topics I looked at in examining the subjects raised in the initial article above was this, from  the wikipedia article on the Roman Catholic position paper or encyclical, Humanae Vitae; from that article:
Galileo affair comparisonSee also: Galileo affair
Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, a moderator of the ecumenical council, questioned, "whether moral theology took sufficient account of scientific progress, which can help determine, what is according to nature. I beg you my brothers let us avoid another Galileo affair. One is enough for the Church."[27] In an interview in Informations Catholiques Internationales on 15 May 1969, he criticized the Pope’s decision again as frustrating the collegiality defined by the Council,[28] calling it a non-collegial or even an anti-collegial act.[29] He was supported by Vatican II theologians such as Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, and several bishops, including Christopher Butler, who called it one of the most important contributions to contemporary discussion in the Church.[30]
Equally of interest was this, from the same article:
Open dissent The publication of the encyclical marks the first time in the twentieth century that open dissent from the laity about teachings of the Church was voiced widely and publicly. The teaching has been criticized by development organizations and others who claim that it limits the methods available to fight worldwide population growth and struggle against AIDS. Within two days of the encyclical's release, a group of dissident theologians, led by Rev. Charles Curran, then of The Catholic University of America, issued a statement claiming that Catholics' individual consciences should prevail in such a personal and private issue

Canadian, Dutch, and German bishops Two months later, the controversial "Winnipeg Statement" issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that those who cannot accept the teaching should not be considered shut off from the Catholic Church, and that individuals can in good conscience use contraception as long as they have first made an honest attempt to accept the difficult directives of the encyclical. Dutch and German bishops also stressed the role of the individual conscience in their catechisms
Dutch Catechism The Dutch Catechism of 1966, based on the Dutch bishops' interpretation of the just completed Vatican Council, and the first post-Council comprehensive Catholic catechism, noted the lack of mention of artificial contraception in the Council. "As everyone can ascertain nowadays, there are several methods of regulating births. The Second Vatican Council did not speak of any of these concrete methods… This is a different standpoint than that taken under Pius XI some thirty years which was also maintained by his successor ... we can sense here a clear development in the Church, a development, which is also going on outside the Church."[31]
Poland  Main article: Humanae Vitae and Poland There were significant struggles between the Church and the communist rulers of Poland, who promoted abortion and birth control.
In perusing further the findings of the various commissions which led up to the Humanae Vitae was this from the initial article above by Anonymous:
Let’s fast-forward to the 20th Century, and the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. I have to admit that I was rather astonished to learn that there even was such a thing, and I was simply dumbfounded by its findings. After the advent of the pill, Pope John XXIII appointed six lay people, referred to as the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, to study the morality of birth control and population issues. The pope died that same year, and his successor, Pope Paul VI, expanded the Commission, adding a substantial number of clergy, including Cardinals, bishops, and priests, and appointed an executive committee of 15 bishops to construct the final report. The commission voted overwhelmingly to encourage the Church to rescind its ban on contraception and declared it not “intrinsically evil.” The final votes included “yeas” from 30 of 35 laypeople, 15 of 19 theologians, and 9 of 12 bishops (3 bishops abstained).
Pope Paul VI, however, ignored the recommendation of his own pontifical commission, and released his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which took the polar opposite position. I guess you get to do that when you’re pope.
So now the official position of the Church states that birth control is, in fact, “intrinsically evil.” When I think of that phrase, certain images come to mind, like Adolph Hitler systematically exterminating millions of people. I think of terrorist plots to blow up innocent civilians. I think of clergy victimizing their flock. I don’t think of my wife heading down to CVS to pick up a pack of Ortho Tri-Cyclen.
Maybe it is time for a new pontifical commission to study what is truly “intrinsically evil.” Personally, I wonder if holding up access to health care meets this standard.
What we have here is another 'Galileo Controversy', where antiquated and factually inaccurat science informed religious belief.  What we have here is a clear case of dissent, of anything but a monolithic religious position. So when we have the political right extreme and the religious right combining to try to fabricate a 'war on religion', it is in fact dishonest and disingenuous of them.  They are free to believe as they choose, as their conscience dictates.  But an honest reading of the history and of the science and of the foundation religious sources such as the Bible do not support that these differences of faith and belief from those of the reactionaries rise to the term 'war on religion'.  They are in point of fact, in order to gain political support, attempting to make a battleground of the bodies of women and especially of the poor.

This IS a modern Galileo controversy, only this controversy is based on errors in our understanding of the world from the early microscope instead of the early telescope, from looking at what is small rather than what is large.  And like the original, sooner or later - and it is getting later by the moment - the Roman Catholic church and the religious right and the political right are going to have to walk back from their false and erroneous positions, positions which are not solidly based on fact but on faulty and reactionary ideology.  The longer they delay, the harder that will be for them, and the greater the harm to their credibility.  In the interim, their position serves only to marginalize themselves as separate from mainstream America and the mainstream of the rest of the world.

A somewhat jarring if whimsical recollection intruded on my thoughts as I was reading this material.  It was the Virginia Slims cigarettes motto, a brand of smokes that targeted women, that like the Papal Encyclical the Humanae Vitae, came into existance around 1968.  The original motto was "You've come a long way, baby."

Apparently we have a long way still to go, just  to get to where we thought we were back in 1968, instead of 1695.


  1. “@Arouet_FM: RT @hollycairns: Galileo and Birth Control, Another Roman Catholic Crisis of Fact Colliding with Faith | Outstanding”

  2. Ty for RT. Penigma a fav RT “@Pandorabalks: @hollycairns Excellent!”

  3. “@yagbebi: RT @winterthur: RT @hollycairns: Galileo and Birth Control, Another Roman Catholic Crisis of Fact Colliding with Faith”

  4. It amazes me that when kids grew up to look like their mother that the medievals were so slow to catch on to the problem with the "homunculus" business.

    1. Hi Spot, and welcome to Penigma - thanks for the comment.

      I think the problem was not that they couldn't explain the resemblance to the mother's side of the family; they explained that away as a uterine influence, something that was a sort of genetic osmosis.

      The real problem of course is that the Catholic position took place without an informed understanding of how reproduction really worked, and this was their best guess at trying to reconcile science (or the absence of it) and faith. When they were wrong, they couldn't backtrack easily, or at least they haven't. Instead they double down on the minority unpopular decision, and then have to dress it up in a badly formulated religious position that is broadly rejected by the faithful in practice.

      The smart thing to do would be to admit they are wrong - because they are - and go forward. They did it with Galileo, eventually in fact after it became unavoidable science. They are late enough as it is in correcting their position on contraception. We KNOW now what they didn't know then.

      But ya gotta love the science illustrations of the day; it's just so hard to put yourself in their position of thinking these were what the world in miniature really looks like. Having the awesome power of magnification, it's hard to empathize what life was like without it.

      Unless you're a conservative; they seem to do without science quite nicely, and far too many prefer it. (Climate change deniers, evolution deniers.....)