Wishing for a Church built on sand…

Wishing for a Church built on sand… Michael McDowell
A former Government minister’s take on Humanae Vitae is too simple, writes David Quinn


Pope Benedict XVI once memorably spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism”. Just prior to becoming Pope in 2005 he said: “Today, having a clear Faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

I doubt if our former Justice Minister, Michael McDowell is a relativist per se, but his complaints against the Church are certainly the standard ones listed by its liberal critics, both secular and Catholic.

He doesn’t like its teachings across pretty much the whole gamut of human sexuality, for example, starting with Humanae Vitae.


In an RTÉ documentary he is presenting tonight (Thursday) called Rome v Republic he tells us of the moment he lost faith in the Church. It was the moment when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the age-old Christian teaching against artificial forms of contraception.

McDowell says he was “queuing at a chipper, on a transistor radio. That day in my mind the whole authority of the Catholic Church disappeared in an instant.”

That is a very big statement to make. It wasn’t just that his confidence in the authority of the Church was undermined. No, its “whole authority…disappeared in an instant”.

Well, this being so, what is left to say? If the Catholic Church has no teaching authority, then it cannot be the one founded by Jesus Christ. Very well, what did Jesus found then? This has been a question since the very earliest days of Christianity, and it is largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation. It, too, rejected the authority of the ‘Roman Catholic Church’ (as some Protestants put it).

Nonetheless, Protestants still believe Jesus founded a community of followers, that quickly became known as the Church. What does Michael McDowell believe the authority of this Church, or Churches, rests on? The Bible? I doubt if he has too much faith in that. The consensus of the members of the Church in any given moment? But that is precisely the relativism of which Joseph Ratzinger spoke when he warned against being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”.

So, in rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church, it is not immediately obvious what could be put in its place that would be satisfying to Michael McDowell. Perhaps he means his own authority. But in that case, he is the Pope of himself. Maybe that is as he would want it, but this is radical individualism and it is hard for this philosophy not to fall straight into relativism again.

Humanae Vitae is a hard teaching. There is no question about that. Modern contraception is an excellent (although by no means fail-safe) way of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy.

That said, natural methods of birth control receive an unfairly bad press. They are a lot more effective than is commonly supposed. For example, a new study in the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Healthcare examines the effectiveness of a family planning app (called ‘Dot’) that tracks a woman’s menstrual cycle over time. It tells her when she can and cannot become pregnant.

Researchers found that the app “had a typical-use failure rate of 5% and a perfect-use failure rate of 1%, which makes Dot comparable to family planning methods such as the pill, vaginal ring and other fertility awareness-based methods.”

Remember, the Church is not opposed to family planning per se. What it opposes are methods of family planning that work against the body’s natural cycles.

Someone Michael McDowell ought to read on this topic is one of the greatest English philosophers of the 20th Century, Elizabeth Anscombe, the centenary of whose birth falls this year. She wrote in defence of Humanae Vitae: “All artificial methods of birth control [are] taught to be gravely wrong if, before, after or during intercourse you do something intended to turn that intercourse into an infertile act if it would otherwise have been fertile.”

You can still reject this idea, of course, but let’s at least reject what the Church actually teaches, and let’s also be properly informed about the effectiveness of natural forms of family planning today, and not fall back on lazy ‘Roman Roulette’ stereotypes about their reliability.

Let’s also keep in mind that every Christian Church up until 1930 rejected artificial forms of family planning for the reasons Anscombe outlines. They also knew, as Pope Paul VI strongly emphasised in his encyclical, that artificial contraception would make it far easier for us to separate sex not only from marriage, but from any kind of relationship.


Critics of Humanae Vitae need to contemplate and explain why the number of abortions surged across the Western world at almost exactly the same time that modern forms of artificial contraception became widely available, and especially when they became available to unmarried people. The opposite was supposed to happen. Pope Paul VI was far-sighted enough to see otherwise.

Those same critics also need to explain why Churches that did authorise the use of artificial contraception by married couples, for example, the Anglican Church in 1930, are not flourishing. By Michael McDowell’s reckoning, what they did ought to have buttressed their authority and maintained the confidence of their members. That clearly did not happen.

On the contrary, many people would maintain that Churches which went down that route actually undermined their authority, which is what Michael McDowell maintains the Catholic Church did, but for the opposite reason.

At a minimum, critics of Humanae Vitae should accept that the situation with regard both to the question of authority, and that of the moral licitness and consequences of artificial contraception are far more complex than they allow.