Gregory Baum, Michael Novak & Humanae Vitae

Gregory Baum does not know when to stop writing books. It would have been better if the man, at 93, had carried his secrets with him to the grave.

Baum’s forthcoming autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry: the Story of My Theological Pathway is an old man’s tell-all. Part confession, part boast, the book serves as an end-of-life apologia for Baum’s career as an influential theologian among the periti at Vatican II. Its sexual disclosures testify to the craving of the tell-tale heart to unburden itself while it is still beating.

A laicized priest married to an ex-nun for 30 years, ex-Fr. Baum reveals—drum roll—he kept up an energetic affaire de coeur with a younger gay priest at the same time. The wife, he tells us, minded not a bit. The farcical element in this quasi-bigamy calls to mind The Captain’s Paradise.



What interests me, though, is not the shambles of a disordered life, or the pathos of a man’s need to expose it. What draws attention is the use made of Baum’s admissions in some circles of the Catholic press. (Not to mention the virulence of reader responses in comment boxes.) Baum’s homosexuality grants license to the commentariat to dismiss en toto Baum’s dissent on Humanae Vitae. Behind the titterings and the I-told-you-sos is the sanctimonious fallacy that only capricious, delinquent, self-willed, or deluded Catholics found the encyclical wanting.

Here is Phil Lawler writing in Catholic Culture on February 17:

. . . eventually we learn that the theologian isn’t willing or able to control his own sexual impulses. So he has a vested interest in changing Church teaching; that teaching is an indictment of his behavior.

That is true only as it applies to Baum’s unacknowledged motivation in defending the ethical status of homosexuality. It does not apply—and ought not be brought to bear—against the logic of his dissent from Humanae Vitae. That is an entirely different matter and requires a counter-argument on the merits.  His judgment was shared in the late 1960’s by a massive number of conscientious, prayerful Catholics, Michael Novak among them. Looking back at the writing of those years, Baum’s dissent is far milder than Novak’s.

Baum’s 1968 essay, “The Right to Dissent,” appeared with Novak’s “Frequent, Even Daily Communion” in The Catholic Case for Contraception, edited by Daniel Callahan in 1969. The book argued for the morality of non-abortive contraception only. Essays were primarily concerned with the crisis of conscience faced by married laity. Open to parenthood and committed to family life, they wanted to respect papal authority but found the encyclical unconvincing.


Maurice Denis. Birth Scene in a Violet Room (early 20th C).

In his essay, then-Fr. Baum delivered a polite dissent within the bounds of orthodoxy. There is nothing duplicitous or antagonistic here, no note of bad faith:

The papal position on birth control is not an article of faith. It is not infallible. Papal infallibility has to do with teaching divine revelation. . . . But the evaluation of birth control has to do with human wisdom. Many moral issues treated by the Church belong to this area of human and rational wisdom. (e.g. private property, the principle of subsidiarity) . . . In this area the Church has the authority to teach, but here her teaching is non-infallible and changeable. . . . In the language of the school books, the religious assent given to authoritative, non-infallible teaching is not absolute but conditional.

Those words only appear heterodox if you read back into them his sexual confusions. Hindsight bias, then, becomes a distorting mirror that releases us from obligation to attend an argument on its own ground. Sections of Fr. Baum’s argument overlap with Novak’s, but without the layman’s spirited combativeness:

By what argument does Pope Paul establish his position? The argument, we note, is not drawn from divine revelation. It is based on rational reflection: It belongs to the order of reason.

And reason distinguishes between individual marital acts and the totality of a marriage. Both Novak and Baum held that it is an affront to reason to confuse man’s biological structure with his human nature, and the entirety of a marriage with the sum of individual marital acts. As Louis Dupré argued at the time, to do so is to collapse morality into biologism.


Birth. Giovanni Battista Sandri. Medical model (18th C).

Michael Novak wrote with greater heat:

How is that Pope Paul VI and the writers of Humanae Vitae showed themselves incapable of understanding marital love? . . . The Pope’s word is but one of the words to be heard. It is not on its merits, a very perceptive or illuminating word.

That reference to daily communion in Novak’s essay refers to love-making—not a clinical marital undertaking but a humane act of play:

Animals have babies but they do no make love. Human beings create an art of playfulness and make love not when they need to, but when they wish. It is those who make love only in order to have children who mechanize and dehumanize the act of intercourse.

. . . It is good to eat and drink. It is good to make love. Why not eat, drink, and make love daily?

Removing the placenta. Giovanni Battista Sandri. (18th C).


He gets warmer:

Those who think contraception [again, non-abortive] is evil seem to have an inexperienced and lamentable deficient image of the uses of intercourse. . . . The root of the difficulty is that the Pope and his advisors assume that theirs is the moral view of intercourse; whereas it seems that their view is gravely inadequate, and even immoral. . . . When they speak of marital intercourse, they try to speak of a beautiful ideal; but their ideal is in fact out of touch and, in the end, morally ugly.

Morally ugly. Baum’s essay brought no such indictment. Neither did it accuse the pope of having permitted fear for the image of the Church to infect papal decision. It was Novak who cast his eye on the sin of institutional pride:

It is my temptation to think they [the pope and advisors] are more concerned about the authority of the Church and about ecclesiastical consistency than about living human beings and the gospel of Christ. It is their temptation to think that those who oppose them are infected with secularism, subjectivism, or hedonism.

Novak took aim at the encyclical’s rhetorical use of the word “natural” as a way to distinguish one form of conception-avoidance from another. Time, after all, is as much a dimension of creation—of nature—as space:

Why is it “unnatural” to block the flow of sperm so that it does not fertilize an ovum—to block it by diaphragm or condom—and yet not “unnatural” to time the placement of sperm so that it does not fertilize an ovum. In either case, human intelligence is directing the process so that the ovum will not be fertilized. . . . I do not understand why spatial objects are blameworthy, while temporal gaps are not. Both are equally “natural” (or “unnatural”). . . . In either case, human intelligence is directing the process so that the ovum will not be fertilized.

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After coming under the sway of John Paul II, Novak eventually reversed himself. But the question remains: How much of that reversal was prompted by deep affection and reverence for a man with whom he had both an intellectual and personal relationship?

There was pressure—emotional and professional—to be aligned with John Paul not only on the economics of Centesimus Annus but also on claims made for Theology of the Body. Similar pressure, generous in spirit, circulated throughout the body of the faithful.


Fetus in the Womb. Giovanni Battista Sandri (18th C.)


It is not my intention here to debate the encyclical. What matters to us now, and matters greatly, is the correspondence between that crisis of conscience and authority some half century ago and the one we face now. Today, any demurral from Paul VI’s Humane Vitae is considered heretical. At the same time, dissent from Francis’ Laudato Sí and Amoris Laetitia is vigorous and acceptable. In the matter of consent owed to statements that are not infallible, Catholics cannot have it both ways, however aggressively we try to.

Something crucial is forfeited in the disjunction between the by-now obligatory acceptance of one fallible-but-authoritative encyclical and unapologetic resistance to the imperfections of two recent ones. That precious thing lost is trust in the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics at a time the culture hurtles deeper into sexual wilderness.

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Efforts to use the snarl and shambles of Baum’s life to invalidate his arguments are themselves disreputable. Deplore his hypocrisies, his abandonment of celibacy, his adultery, if that suits. But pointing with glee to the man’s sexual morass is no more than a way to avoid honest argument by resorting to an extended ad hominem. It continues to avert attention from those aspects of Humanae Vitae that called for a revisit, not a doubling down.

Had they been addressed rather than buried under the poetry of John Paul’s theology of sex, the Church might have extricated itself from what George Weigel once termed “a pastoral and catechetical failure.”

•     •     •     •

More bothersome, this half century gone, are Baum’s smiling contributions—so marked by the biases of their era—to discussion of Liberation Theology and his sympathy for the thinking of Islamic superstar Tariq Ramadan. Baum’s homosexuality is not to blame for either, certainly not the latter.

•     •     •     •

N.B. In discussions of contraception, it has become commonplace to note that the Islamic world is out-producing us in births. Quite so. And, yes, a matter of concern. But that does not change the truth that sociological factors are not sufficient to decide a moral issue.

However significant the demographic data, numerical imbalance exists in tandem with the reality of spreading weapons technology. When the missiles land, a family of ten incinerates as easily as a family of three.


Edvard Munch. Inheritance (early 20th C).