Even if the condemnation of contraception is no longer a live issue for many Catholics, it is carved in granite for many bishops. No matter the testimony of Catholics, no matter the destructive consequences for the life of the church, no matter remaining questions for third-world poverty or combatting AIDS. There are simply too many in the ranks of the hierarchy, it is felt, including perhaps Pope Francis himself, who just cannot contemplate any return to the question. At least some accommodation can be made on Communion for the divorced and remarried or on pastoral attitudes toward cohabiting or same-sex couples. About contraception, biting one’s tongue is the better part of valor. If this is the situation, it is a very strange one indeed. All the former issues raise considerations much more radical than those raised by contraception: the indissolubility of marriage and the morality of sexual relationships outside of it. Is it the case that so many bishops have been appointed precisely because of their support for Humanae vitae that they are capable of flexibility on any other matter but that one? For them, is it thinkable to entertain questions about applying Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage in Scripture itself but not about Paul VI’s words on contraception in a 1968 encyclical?
At this point, it is essential to recall exactly what this debate is—and is not—about.
It is not about the “contraceptive mentality,” not about “openness to life,” not about hostility to children or a refusal to have any. “Contraceptive mentality,” so roundly denounced by everyone, is an ill-defined term. It has been used to cover everything from acceptance of marital infidelity, degradation of women, a selfish refusal of the sacrifices incumbent upon having and raising children, and even resort to abortion. If [the Synod on Marriage and the Family] wants to condemn such conduct, fine. But that is not what caused the rejection of the church’s teaching by millions of Catholics who were palpably open to life, who were already parents doing their loving, sacrificial best to raise children, or who were young people looking forward to doing so.
Nor is the debate about Humanae vitae in its entirety, with its many insights and warnings. When I taught courses at Georgetown University on “Change and Conflict in Twentieth-Century Catholicism,” Humanae vitae was required reading. Inevitably, a good number of students were impressed by the encyclical’s sentiments about love, marriage, and sex. (I hope that the growth of the so-called hook-up culture in the past fifteen years would not make their successors more cynical.) They were also impressed with the encyclical’s warnings about potential misuses of humanity’s new powers over sexuality, although I personally believe that the document was far less “prophetic” than its advocates like to stress: it came, after all, when the Sexual Revolution was well on its way, and plenty of others, not necessarily opposed to contraception, had earlier voiced concerns about the morally disruptive consequences of separating sexuality from reproduction. But none of this triggered the massive turmoil surrounding the encyclical. That turmoil centered on several passages that condemned as “intrinsically evil” any act or means “specifically intended to prevent procreation” in any instance whatsoever of sexual intercourse (“each and every marital act”)—even “to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family, or of society,” even “when the reasons...appear to be upright and serious.”
The debate is not about Natural Family Planning. (I use the capital letters to circumvent the argument that for human beings the use of pharmaceuticals or mechanical devices is just as “natural” as the use of thermometers and calendars.) Humanae vitae and Familiaris consortio go to great lengths (critics would say contortions) to distinguish forbidden contraception from Natural Family Planning and to praise the latter. In some circles, Natural Family Planning has been proselytized as an eighth wonder of the world, if not a kind of eighth sacrament. NFP is celebrated as highly reliable not only in spacing births but also in fostering marital communication and sexual sensitivity. The enthusiasm, frequently bordering on exaltation, is easy to parody, but I don’t doubt that NFP works for many couples and that its regimen and periodic abstinence can be spiritually meaningful and maritally enriching. This may also be true for Orthodox Jewish couples who observe the complicated restrictions of sexual conduct surrounding menstruation and other circumstances. It may be true of many couples whose occupations impose regular rhythms or extended periods of abstinence. […]
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