Doctrinally Challenged Steinfels Does It Again

August 8, 2008 09:00 AM
Peter Steinfels has been making incredibly inane comments about Catholic teaching for many years. He is well liked at the New York Times, probably because of his nasty natter about all things Catholic, and his most recent diatribe against Humanae Vitae is just another workday event for him, I am sure. But it is also a source of concern because in his effort to denigrate the Church he is, perhaps unwittingly, misleading many Times readers into thinking that infallible Church teachings are somehow subject to debate and modification based on majority opinion.

He is misguided, of course, but Steinfels never gives up once he starts a rant. His persistence may irritate someone like me, but his free ride at the Times is another matter. I have never seen a response to one of his attacks on the Church, at least not one bearing the weight of a Church leader, but I am convinced that is also by design.

At any rate, examining his recent column "After 40 Years, a Debate Reverberates" may give you a glimpse into the twisted viewpoint of one of America's premier Catholic bashers.

For example, he writes, "Critics of the encyclical predictably point to data showing its overwhelming rejection by Catholics, including regular churchgoers and the young. Critics talk about the 'sense of the faithful'; a crucial measure of any church [sic] teaching, they argue, is whether it is eventually 'received' throughout the church [sic]."

To my mind, it is an extremely dangerous game one plays when he compares a truth, regardless of its source, with current public opinion, even if that opinion is shared by those impacted by that truth at a high level. The fact that "regular churchgoers" and "the young" are not in sync with the teachings of Humanae Vitae is not so much a sign of dissent as one of failure of the shepherds to teach. As I have often experienced during my years as a public speaker on Catholic teachings relating to the human person, too many Catholics do not understand what the Church teaches because they have never heard of such teaching.

If you examine the current crisis in faith among Catholics on questions like birth control and abortion, you will soon find out that never in their lives have they heard, at least for the most part, the precise teaching of the Church, coupled with a total explanation of why the Church teaching is relevant to their lives. And if I take that a step further and tell you that most of these Catholics have no idea that in fact, Catholic teaching on human sexuality is among the most foolproof methods for remaining disease-free and happy, you will perhaps understand my frustration when the likes of Steinfels get a free ride in the pages of the New York Times.

Here is another quote from his latest commentary:

The central point of Humanae Vitae was that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate effort to prevent conception.
It was here that Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of his own papal commission. After extended study and debate, the commission, though heavily weighted with conservative churchmen, concluded that the inseparability of the bonding and procreating aspects of human sexuality had to be respected over the course of a marriage but not necessarily in every instance of sexual intimacy.


Steinfels appears to be totally disengaged from the fullness of what Humanae Vitae teaches and why the Holy Spirit led Pope Paul VI to the conclusion that in fact, his birth control commission was out of sync with the profound message of human procreation. The majority of people on the papal birth control commission wanted to see a change in Church teaching; they wanted to witness a Catholic advocacy of birth control rather than the consistent teaching that had been universal throughout Christianity until 1930. There was a minority view as well, brilliantly represented by Father John Sasaki.

The papal birth control commission majority did not appreciate the Christian ethic of welcoming children as a gift from God, surrendering the procreative marital act to God and trusting in His will or acknowledging that though the couple might not want a child at a given point in their marriage, they would welcome that child, if indeed God so blessed them.

Steinfels doesn't get this message in much the same way the papal birth control commission did not get it. It is at its core a hard message, but a relevant one to this discussion because today, among Catholics and the population at large, sexual satisfaction requires an allegiance to child-free sex regardless of the consequences. And that, my friends, is precisely where the problem resides even now.

Steinfels tells us that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) explained Humanae Vitae as having three objectives:

First, "to insist on the value of the child";
Second, not to "lose sight of the inner connection" between sexuality and procreation that keeps children from becoming "products" rather than the outcome of a relationship;

Third, to resist the illusion that humanity can resolve "great moral problems simply with techniques" rather than "morally, with a lifestyle."

Steinfels insists that the papal birth control commission had the same objectives, which is not, of course, precisely correct, for if it were, the Holy Father would have adopted their recommendations wholeheartedly. Steinfels is, at his best, clever. His writing is designed to appeal to the middle ground rather than appealing to the heart of the matter which is, I repeat, surrender to the will of God within the sanctity of marriage.

I suppose you could give him an "A" for effort, but by the same token Steinfels deserves an "F" for accuracy.
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