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Cardinal Nichols said he had been 'disappointed' at the wording of the final document.Catholic Church of England and Wales website

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May 1, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – In my last blogpost, I said, “The evidence clearly indicates that the policy of the CBCEW (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales) – as distinct from the doctrinal position of the Church – is, effectively, to lend support to access to abortion.” The roots of this policy can be found in the England and Wales ecclesiastical authorities’ position on contraception.

Phyllis Bowman, my predecessor as chief executive of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), wrote to Bishop Vincent Nichols (now Cardinal Nichols and President of the CBCEW) on 6th February 1996, expressing concern about a book titled “How to Survive Being Married to a Catholic,” a Redemptorist publication sold widely through Catholic churches.

Bowman said: 

“I enclose herewith, extracts from ‘How to Survive Being Married to a Catholic,’ a book published by the Redemptorists and which is sold widely through Catholic churches.

“Some of it is good but in sections it is wildly misleading and I would draw attention to the enclosed section on “Catholics and sex.” It claims in effect that the Church allows good Catholics to use the pill and make(s) no reference whatsoever to the fact that present-day oral contraceptives may act as abortifacients which is why I am writing to you. In any case the whole concept totally disregards both Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae … We would be most grateful if you would take action to ensure that it is withdrawn from the churches in your diocese or to ensure that it is amended.

“The book was brought to my attention by one of our young members who is married to a non-Catholic for whom she bought it to help in their pre-marriage preparation. Fortunately, the young man (who is now her husband) had thought through the Church’s teaching on marriage and sex and had come to the conclusion on his own that Humanae Vitae was an enlightened document and explains the basic ‘eternal truths’ regarding our sexual nature (he still describes himself as an agnostic!). However, I am quite sure that the book could be disastrous in many cases giving a completely ‘false witness.’

“I know a number of young Catholics (male and female) who are really seeking to live by the teaching of the Church and I know several who have had great difficulties in sorting out problems with future married partners or, indeed with husband/wives if they are already married. A publication of this nature could place them in the position of having their partners regard them as ‘cranks’ totally out of step with the body of the Church.

“I realise that the book has been in print for about 10 years, but quite recently it seems to have become widely available, which is how I came to hear about it. We would be most grateful if you would take action to ensure that it is withdrawn from the churches in your diocese or to ensure that it is amended.

“I have the honor to be etc …”

 In reply (12th February 1996), Bishop Nichols said (in full):

“Thank you for your letter of 6 February, which I assume you sent to a number of people. In it you say that sections of the publication ‘How to survive Being Married to a Catholic’ are ‘widely (sic) misleading’ and ‘totally disregards both Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae’. These are serious charges.

“Perhaps you are not aware that there is a well established procedure by which materials concerning the faith are examined by the competent ecclesiastical authority prior to publication. This is a requirement of Canon Law. The approval for publication is given by way of a ‘nihil obstat’ and an ‘imprimatur,’ which signifies that the text contains nothing that is harmful to faith or morals.

“Perhaps you have not noticed that this publication carries such an ‘imprimatur’. This means that it has been declared, by the competent Church authority, to be free of harmful material.

“In contrast you seem to have come to the private judgment that this is not the case. In doing so you set yourself up as an alternative competent authority. “It is perfectly true that as a member of the Church you have the right to express personal views. But if you are seriously going to question in this way the proper exercise of ecclesiastical authority, then your arguments must be put with far more precision and rigour so as to demonstrate that you do indeed have sufficient technical ability to make your judgment significant. Vague accusations are not enough. Nor is the absence in a text of a repetition of words from a formal Church document.

“It is the teaching of a text, given its purpose and context, which has to be judged. And in this case such a formal judgment has been made already, and the text not found wanting.

“Could I add that nothing of this letter in any way detracts from my admiration the (sic) work of SPUC and your own wonderful dedication to it.”

Bishop Nichols calls Bowman’s arguments “vague accusations” and lacking in precision. But there is nothing vague or imprecise in what my predecessor as SPUC CEO says, in particular where she writes:

(How to survive being married to a Catholic) claims in effect that the Church allows good Catholics to use the pill and make(s) no reference whatsoever to the fact that present-day oral contraceptives may act as abortifacients which is why I am writing to you. In any case the whole concept totally disregards both Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae …”

As a schoolboy in 1968, at age 17, my classmates and I fully understood, as did the rest of the world, that Humanae Vitae reiterated the church’s teaching entirely prohibiting any use of contraception in the marriage act. Bowman might reasonably have wished not to appear condescending by quoting the text of a papal encyclical to Bishop Nichols and to appear, as it were, to be spelling out to a Catholic bishop what the teaching of the church was on a matter, especially on something which was so universally understood.

But, for the purpose of this blog, and in order to leave no room for doubt on the matter, here’s what Humanae Vitae says:

  “11.  … The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. (12)

“12. This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

“14. Therefore We base Our words on the first principles of a human and Christian doctrine of marriage when We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. (14) Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. (15)

“Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means. (16)

“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.

And on the link between contraception and abortion, a point made perfectly clearly by Bowman, Evangelium Vitae states: 

The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being. (EV 13)

In the paragraph immediately before the above extract from Evangelium Vitae, Saint Pope John Paul II wrote:

But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. 

In his reply to Bowman, my predecessor as SPUC’s chief executive, Bishop Nichols creates a straw man, accusing Phyllis of vagueness and imprecision, in order to avoid answering legitimate claims about a book, approved by the ecclesiastical authorities in England, which falsely presents the Church’s teaching on contraception and leads the faithful into the further temptation of making use of abortifacient birth control.

As I will continue to show in my next post, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, and their policy of effectively lending support to access to abortion, is a fruit of the same tree which denies the Church’s teaching on contraception.

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John Smeaton is the Chief executive officer of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). He has worked fulltime in the pro-life movement for more than four decades. He was educated at Salesian College, London, before going to Oxford where he graduated in English Language and Literature. He qualified as a teacher, becoming head of English at a secondary school. He is married to Josephine. He has a grown-up family and lives in north London.