John Smeaton

John Smeaton

John Smeaton blogs — In my last post I quoted in full the 1996 correspondence between Bishop Vincent Nichols – auxiliary bishop of Westminster for north London, now Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster – and Phyllis Bowman, my predecessor as CEO of SPUC. The subject of the correspondence was the Catholic Church’s position on contraception.

In their correspondence, Bishop Nichols staunchly defended a publication from the Redemptorists which, according to Phyllis Bowman, claimed that the contraceptive pill was allowed by the Catholic Church. She also pointed out that “present day oral contraceptives may act as abortifacients”.

The bishop’s reply assured Phyllis Bowman “that the text contains nothing harmful to faith or morals”.

The publication in question was “How to survive being married to a Catholic” [revised edition March 1994]. On page 43, under the headline “Catholics and the Pill” it states:

Someone told me recently that you can’t be a Catholic if you are on the pill. Is that true?

“No, it is not. Some people, like your informant, think that because the Church teaches that contraception is wrong, Catholics who use artificial methods of birth control put themselves outside the Church. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Church. We have pointed out several times in this book that the Church is not a sort of club for virtuous or religious people. It is made up of ordinary people who are trying to be friends and followers of Jesus Christ but who often fail in all sorts of ways to live up to the Christian ideals. Within the Church they know the forgiveness of Christ is always available to them and that, whatever their sins, they can always make a fresh start. The church, like Christ himself is extremely tolerant of sinners.

“The Church also understands the pressures people may have to contend with in their lives, and therefore takes into account not only what people do but also the circumstances which surround what they do. In other words, the Church recognises that it is possible for someone to do something which, objectively speaking, is wrong but – because of the circumstances – the individual who performs the wrong action may not be personally culpable.

“This principle can be applied in the case of contraception. While no Catholic may reject any part of the Church’s teaching, or say that it does not apply in his or her case, there may well be circumstances in which a Catholic couple may conscientiously decide for unselfish reasons that they cannot further increase their family that the only option open to them is to practise contraception. In their circumstances this decision could be defensible. [My emphasis] …”

Bishop Vincent Nichols, in his reply to Phyllis Bowman, makes no effort to explain the contradictory propositions in the last paragraph above.

Instead, Bishop Nichols, like the authors of “How to survive being married to a Catholic”, turns a blind eye to the intrinsic evil of contraception, an evil clearly spelled out for the world in number 14 of Humanae Vitae, the Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Paul VI on the regulation of birth, 25 July 1968:

“Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it —in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”

Bishop Nichols also turned a blind eye to Phyllis Bowman’s observation that “present-day oral contraceptives may act as abortifacients” – a point to which he makes no reference at all.

Bishop Nichols became chairman of the Catholic Education Service (CES), in 1998, an agency of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW), and held that position until 2009. In 2000 he was appointed Archbishop of Birmingham, Archbishop of Westminster in 2009, when he also became president of the CBCEW. He became a cardinal in 2014.

The simple method of approach adopted by Bishop Nichols in his letter to Phyllis Bowman – turning a blind eye to the evils endangering the faithful – characterises the approach which Bishop Nichols and his successors at the Catholic Education Service, on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW), have taken with regard to the provision of contraception and abortion to children in Catholic schools over the past two decades. They have taken this method of approach so consistently, it’s become clear that the policy of the CBCEW – as distinct from the doctrinal position of the Church – is, effectively, to lend support to access to contraception and abortion, including without parental knowledge or consent, to children in Catholic schools.

The result of the Catholic bishops’ policy is well illustrated in a press release issued by the British government on 18th February 2010, which cited a Catholic school in Bedford as a good example of how faith schools should implement the government’s plans for sex education. The media release says (my emphases in bold):

St Thomas More is a mixed secondary school in Bedford. 60% of students are from a Catholic/Christian background with 40% from a range of ethnic minority groups, including Muslim. It has achieved Healthy Schools Status and has an Outstanding Award for cultural diversity.

St Thomas More delivers SRE [sex and relationships education] through the pastoral programme in conjunction with the RE syllabus. It is led by pastoral tutors, all of whom are well prepared and confident to lead discussion with students across a wide range of SRE issues.

The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.

The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of pro- and anti-choice views on abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school’s values.

I will explain further how this came about in my next post. I will outline the positions adopted by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, through their agency of the Catholic Education Service – positions which might be said to be based on the gospel according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols and his justification of what is said about contraception in the publication “How to survive being married to a Catholic”.

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