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Posted October 7, 2010

Book: Roman Catholicism and Modern Science: A History
Author: Don O’Leary
Continuum Books. New York. 2007. Pp. 356

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

Doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church are not confined to the religious domain but extend beyond it to cognate disciplines in the social and natural sciences. The social teaching of the church, for example, although based on theology, must take account of the economics, sociology, and political science if it is to set out clear and realistic guidelines for the pursuit of social justice — a core element of the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Similarly, the doctrine of creation cannot ignore cosmology, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology without sacrificing credibility. To talk about the handiwork of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator would not be credible. The church is, therefore, bound to pronounce on issues that impinge directly, or indirectly, on the domain of natural science — and it has done so for centuries.

An Excerpt form the Book:

In June 1966 Pope Paul received a report representing the dominant view among the members, advising that it was morally permissible for married couples to use artificial means of contraception. After agonizing over the issue for two years, he decided effectively to reject the advice of his commission by accepting a minority view which advocated an adherence to the traditional position of the church. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office, played a central role in influencing the pope to reach his decision. Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow and the future Pope John Paul II, also played a key role.

Artificial contraception was not accepted as a morally appropriate alternative to the rhythm method. On 25 July 1968 Paul issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae. He wrote about the regulation of the human birth rate against a background of rapid population growth. He noted humanity’s “stupendous progress” in regulating nature, which included the human mind and body. His intention was to speak authoritatively on the Catholic principles governing marriage, sexuality, and reproduction. The Roman Catholic Church was entrusted by Jesus Christ with the task of being guardian and interpreter of the entire moral law, which included not only the law of the gospel but also the “natural law.” Paul asserted that the natural law, illuminated by divine revelation, “declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation.” He did not give any latitude for freedom of conscience when he proclaimed: “Let no Catholic be heard to assert that the interpretation of the natural moral law is outside the competence of the Church’s Magisterium. It is in fact indisputable.”

Catholic doctrine dictated that there was a compelling connection, established by God, between the love-giving (unitive) and life-giving (procreative) aspects of sexual intercourse between husband and wife; that is, there could be no separation between the sexual and reproductive aspects of the marriage act. On the basis of natural law, sexual activity in marriage was not to be subjected to an impairment of its natural potential to procreate human life. Abortion and artificial means of contraception were condemned as immoral methods of birth control. Marital sexual intercourse, when it was “deliberately contraceptive,” was deemed to be “intrinsically wrong.” Catholic couples were, however, permitted to exercise birth control by taking advantage of the infertile days of the menstrual cycle because they could “rightly use a facility provided them by nature,” as distinct from “means which directly exclude conception” and “obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It made no difference that in both cases married couples clearly intended to avoid having children and had good reasons for doing so.

Table of Contents:

1. From Galileo to Darwin

2. Religion and science in Victorian Britain

3. A Church under siege

4. Defensive strategies

5. The suppression of the Mivartian Hypothesis

6. Antimodernism

7. Catholicism and science in the interwar years

8. Pope Pius XII and the new theology

9. Science, faith, and the Second Vatican Council

10. Pope John Paul II’s philosophy of science and faith

11. Bioethics

12. Reflections