Vatican analyst Sandro Magister highlighted a recent book that shows a link between the widespread usage of contraception among Catholics in the early 20th century and the silence of clergy in presenting Church teachings on the subject.
In a Sept. 8 article in the Chiesa section of the Italian newspaper L'Espresso, Magister discussed the 2010 book from author Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna, a professor of demography at the University of Padua. The book, explained Magister, “analyzes and thoroughly explains for the first time – with documents never studied before – why the Church did not stop the spread of contraception" in the early 20th century.
Magister began his piece by stating that a “divergence” has existed between the teachings of the Church and individual Catholic practice long before contraceptives were even on the market. The Vatican analyst then discussed how the book cites a case study involving a model Catholic area in Italy during the first half of the 1900s.
“Rural Veneto was at the time the most Catholic region in Italy, with an extremely solid, grassroots presence of the Church,” Magister explained. “But even in Veneto in the first half of the twentieth century – where almost everyone went to Mass on Sundays and to confession at least once a year – the birth rate was cut in half in the span of one generation.”
“It went from 5 children per woman in 1921 to 2.5 children per woman in 1951 because of generalized recourse to contraceptive practices, the most widespread of which was coitus interruptus.”
Magister said that the author attributes these numbers to silence on the part of the Catholic clergy at the time, who were employing the “theory of good faith” taught by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.
“According to this theory,” said Magister, “in the presence of a penitent who is suspected of committing contraceptive actions but appears unaware of the gravity of the sin and in practice incapable of correcting his behavior, it is best to respect his silence and take his good faith into account, absolving him without posing any further questions.”
However, Magister wrote that “a change took place in 1931” with the publication by Pius XI's encyclical "Casti Connubii."
“From then on, at the behest of the hierarchy, conjugal morality became a bigger part of preaching. And therefore the room for inculpable ignorance was reduced,” Magister noted. “A few priests wrote about this: once it has been said in public what is good and what is evil between spouses, 'good faith can no longer be admitted.'”
“But decades of silence, interpreted by most of the faithful as consent to their contraceptive practice, had left its mark,” the Vatican analyst stressed. “In their answers to the question about birth control – a dozen years after 'Casti Connubii' – some priests recognized that their preaching on this matter made no impression.”
“In the meantime, in Catholic Veneto the birth rate had fallen to levels near zero growth,” he added. “But the distance between Church teaching and the use of contraceptives continues to be perceived by most of the population as neither a sin nor a rebellion.”
“Even afterward – and this brings us up to today – the condemnation of contraceptives would be the subject of papal documents, but already at the level of the bishops it would hardly appear in preaching.”
“The clergy, for their part, would be almost completely silent on it. And would continue to be very understanding and indulgent in the confessional,” Magister concluded.