Perhaps the most important moment of last October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family occurred at its very beginning—when Pope Francis insisted that “speaking honestly” was the bishops’ basic responsibility: No topics or viewpoints should be out of bounds. “It is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.” 

I doubt that everyone present was able to live up to that plea. For not a few bishops, self-censorship has become second nature, especially when speaking publicly with other bishops, and infinitely so when in the earshot of the pope. 

Fortunately, that was not true in many cases, or the synod would not have made headlines with the several highly controversial topics served up and batted back and forth: reception of Communion by the divorced-and-remarried, cohabitation, even same-sex relationships. But could engrained inhibition have accounted for the glaring gap in the synod’s work? I refer to the apparent lack of attention to the question of contraception. Why did the synod appear to treat so perfunctorily the issue that was, and is, the starting point for the unraveling of Catholic confidence in the church’s sexual ethics and even its credibility about marriage? To which, of course, one could add further questions about this baffling silence: Does it even matter? And if it does matter, are there grounds for hoping that the bishops who will be gathering in Rome next fall to complete the synod’s work can do better?

A lot rests on the answers to these questions. A synod that grabs headlines about remarried or cohabiting or same-sex Catholic couples but says nothing fresh about the spectacularly obvious rift between official teaching and actual behavior in Catholic married life is an invitation to cynicism. It could prove to be a crucial test of Pope Francis's papacy.

[Video: Peter Steinfels explains what prompted him to write "Contraception & Honesty" and talks more about the issues he raises in it.]


The interim report of last October’s synod was startling in its candor about matters commonly considered beyond discussion, yet that controversial report’s extensive description of “socio-cultural context” and “pastoral challenges” regarding the family made no reference whatsoever to contraception. The subject was belatedly and perfunctorily addressed, almost as an afterthought to all the more controversial issues: “Realistic language” and “listening to people,” the synod fathers had reportedly proposed, are needed for “acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life” and for “an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods of human reproduction, which allow a couple to live in a harmonious and conscious manner the communication between husband and wife, in all its aspects, along with their responsibility at procreating life. In this regard, we should return to the message of the encyclical Humanae vitae of Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of regulating births.”

This language, sandwiched between concerns about declining birthrates and “affectivity” in marriage, echoed the pre-synod lineamenta, almost phrase-by-phrase. And with an added reference to adoption, it was echoed in turn by the final synod report. From start to finish, these documents gave little evidence of any discussion. Nor did the press conferences indicate any lively attention to contraception, taken up as they were by the headline-grabbing topics. The only exception to this neglect seemed to be the testimony to the synod of a well-chosen Brazilian couple, Arturo and Hermalinde As Zamberline, married forty-one years with three children, and active in a movement devoted to the spirituality of marriage. The couple stressed that even within their movement many religiously serious Catholic couples rejected Humanae vitae, as do, they added, “the vast majority” of Catholic married people generally. This unpalatable news was sweetened by the couple’s own endorsement of the encyclical and fervent advocacy of Natural Family Planning.

It is also hard to reconcile Pope Francis’s insistence on “speaking honestly” with the code language used throughout these documents. There are numerous references to “openness to life,” “unconditional openness to life,” “openness to the gift of children,” “respect” for “the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births,” the “very act of opening itself to the generation of life,” and so on. The sexual meaning is clear and yet the phrases can be stretched to encompass all sorts of generous giving of oneself quite beyond the sexual. The result is a terminology at once edifying and obfuscating.

To their credit, the Zamberlines diverged just enough from this vague, exalted language. First, they gave some glimpse of the concrete importance of sexuality in married life, and, second, they identified the specific issue at stake. Quoting John Paul II’s statement in Familiaris consortio that “the fundamental task of matrimony and the family is to be at the service of life,” the couple continued with a reference to Humanae vitae, “and, therefore, ‘every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life.’” It is precisely in that “therefore” that the whole debate lies.

The Zamberlines did not point that out, of course. Generally, they trod a fine line, professing complete fidelity to Humanae vitae and to Natural Family Planning, yet delivering the hard news that this teaching was not likely to be accepted without some great “pastoral adopt and observe the [encyclical’s] principles” and “an easy and safe orientation, which responds to the needs of the present-day world, without wounding what is essential of Catholic morality.” What exactly would be that pedagogy, those principles, that easy and safe orientation responding to present reality without wounding essential Catholic morality? The couple did not attempt to say; nor, it seems, did the synod.

One other attempt to raise the question of contraception at least somewhat straightforwardly appeared in the “Report Prior to Discussion” prepared by Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary. (As the synod’s relator general, he was the official author of the controversial mid-synod report.) Presented on the opening day, this initial report was intended to summarize responses to the preparatory documents. In a sub-section, “Topics Relating to Humanae vitae,” Cardinal Erdő proposed that to surface its “positive message,” the encyclical “needs to be reread” using “a suitable historical hermeneutic, which knows how to grasp historical factors and concerns underlying its writing by Paul VI.” From Pope Paul’s poignant statement at a July 31, 1968, audience recounting the anguishing labor and prayer that lay behind the encyclical, Cardinal Erdő quoted a few sentences that seemed to downplay the document’s moral prohibition, acknowledge the encyclical’s incompleteness, and put it in the context of the “law of gradualness” later noted in John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio.

Other preparatory material for the synod accurately reported Catholics’ massive rejection of Humanae vitae and the natural-law reasoning it reflected. Ascribing this to “secularization” and lack of education, the instrumentum laboris, for example, avoided any hint that the pastoral challenge posed by this testimony from both laity and clergy might be to reexamine the teaching. Inevitably the pastoral challenge was framed as one of educating and guiding the faithful. In other words, exactly what has been called for time and again for almost half a century.



Why this complacency, especially in contrast to the boldness of the discussion on other topics? Perhaps many of the synod fathers considered the whole controversy a dead letter: Why revive it? If Humanae vitae might have been the leading reason for the sharp decline in Mass attendance in the 1970s, as Andrew Greeley concluded for the United States, that was perhaps a one-time event. The decline eased, even though it never stopped. More than twenty years ago, interviewing young Catholics for a New York Times story on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Humanae vitae, I found that most knew virtually nothing about it. They took the morality of contraception for granted. Most of their parents had reached the same conclusion, perhaps with some conscientious wrestling. One of the findings about contraception that seemed to distress those preparing the synod was not merely that Catholics massively rejected Humanae vitae’s condemnation of contraception but that they did so with such good conscience, neither seeking absolution nor staying away from Communion.

It might have been tempting, then, to think that battles over contraception were done and over with, the whole question fated to disappear. Yes, Pope John Paul II appeared to double down on Paul VI’s condemnation. Yes, an outspoken minority saw it as the litmus test separating the sheep (“faithful Catholics”) from the goats (“dissenters”), some even arguing that it was an infallible teaching. Meanwhile the vast majority of Catholics so steadily went their own way that to make much of a fuss about contraception came to seem, well, a bit embarrassing. That topic again? Oh, please! The less said about it, the better. Especially at a synod. And especially because much of the world seems to have moved on—to treating premarital sex as routine, legalizing same-sex relationships, and celebrating sexual transgression in the arts and entertainment.

That temptation should be resisted. Humanae vitae itself and the theological civil war once surrounding it may now be as unfamiliar to most Catholics as Pope Innocent III’s 1215 condemnation of the Magna Carta as “shameful and demeaning” or the nineteenth-century demands for restoration of the papal states. Yet bitter and sometimes tragic stories of mothers torn between risking death by additional pregnancy and unyielding talk of hell by confessors are still told. Timothy Egan’s powerful New York Times column about his own mother last January was one example. And one way or the other Catholics learn, often in distorted versions, that the church is “against” birth control (“Catholics believe that the only purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation”). This may no longer drive people from the pews; but if they find such notions unintelligible, it inserts a wedge into their relationship with Catholicism, a wedge that then extends to all manner of other teachings about sexuality, and sometimes more broadly to teachings on marriage and abortion. If priests, especially fresh and inexperienced ones, denounce contraception from the pulpit, skepticism can turn into anger. If priests pass over the teaching in silence, whether in the pulpit or the confessional, gratitude is nonetheless tinged with a corrosive suspicion that the church is duplicitous.

This hemorrhaging of confidence in the integrity of Catholic moral teaching is only one cost of the sweeping condemnation stated in paragraphs 11 and 14 of Humanae vitae. That condemnation remains a source of anguish for many confessors, a source of tension for many moral theologians, and a source of disqualification for otherwise promising candidates for church leadership. Avery Dulles, SJ, a papal loyalist whose theological centrism would later earn him a cardinal’s hat, said all these things to the bishops back in 1993. The gap between insistence on the condemnation and its widespread rejection has introduced a serious element of dissembling at all levels of the church.

Not unreasonably, the 2014 synod addressing “the challenge of the family in the context of evangelization” repeatedly recognized that the primary evangelizers of Catholic teaching on the family would be Catholic families themselves. What went unacknowledged was how unlikely Humanae vitae’s condemnation of contraception made this. Harboring serious doubts about the church’s understanding of sexuality hardly prepares parents to wholeheartedly “evangelize” their own children, let alone their culture, about the tradition’s larger wisdom regarding love, desire, marriage, and family. A Catholic church divided against itself over contraception has been effectively sidelined from the high-stakes debates about sexuality roiling many societies. So much for all the talk of the church’s stance as “prophetic.”

There is a sobering analogy from the age of the Enlightenment. One astute historian of that period, Dale K. Van Kley, has written that from the perspective of Paris, “the reputed capital of the Enlightenment, the eighteenth century may be as plausibly christened the century of Unigenitus as of lumières.” Unigenitus? Hardly any contemporary Catholics can identify this 1713 papal pronouncement on the “heresies” of Jansenists in their battles with Jesuits. Those battles were not theologically trivial. But to think that the ecclesiastical, social, and political conflicts surrounding this papal bull were more preoccupying and internally divisive than the assault on the church and faith mounted by Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and the Encyclopedistes is mind-boggling. Will some future historian conclude that in the age of globalization, economic disruption, boom and bust, religious violence, ecological danger, and mass migration and displacement, Catholic energy and authority pivoted around Humanae vitae? Indeed, in regard to sexuality itself, now contested on every continent in one dimension or another, from battling rape and abuse to yearning for the Dionysian, will that future historian marvel that all that the church could have said had to begin with this one encyclical’s judgment on contraception?

These are the consequences that should be contemplated by any synod fathers who imagine that the issue of contraception no longer matters. Of course, some synod fathers may be influenced by another impression—namely, that 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’s 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 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 not only works for many couples but 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.

I have my skepticism about these matters. Last year a book titled The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by Simcha Fisher (Our Sunday Visitor) came my way. The author, a blogger and contributor to the National Catholic Register, writes in the Erma Bombeck mode, self-deprecating and hyperbolic. I liked her. I trusted her. Yet amid the wit and common sense and apologetics about NFP, more than a few glimpses of genuine marital and spiritual ugliness poke through. One learns from her book and other NFP sources that the method is no guard against the specter of “contraceptive mentality”—and worse. And this says nothing about the workability of NFP in those billions of impoverished and burdened households that Pope Francis won’t let us forget.

But set all that aside. Assume the best about NFP. Commend and encourage all who find it valuable and beneficial. It remains the case that the reasoning underlying Humanae vitae’s exceptionless condemnation of contraception does not rest on the effectiveness of NFP or its potential for spiritual growth and moral harmony. The key argument made in Humanae vitae about each and every act of sexual intimacy would be just as true—or just as false—if the only alternatives to constant or dangerous pregnancies were separate bedrooms or old-fashioned “Vatican roulette” or not even that.

The debate is not about birthrates, aging populations, exploding populations, Malthusianism, or neo-colonialism. These are all legitimate concerns with moral significance. But again the argument of Humanae vitae either stands or falls quite independently of them. The church may very well want to encourage larger families or discourage “breeding like rabbits”; the church may call for material, educational, familial, or communal resources allowing mothers and fathers to raise more children or plan for fewer. Those are different matters than the judgment that all resort to contraception is intrinsically evil. They should not be pretexts or rhetorical distractions for not examining that judgment.

Two ways of deflecting that responsibility are very much in the air breathed by the synod fathers. One stems from the fact that part of the context for Pope John XXIII’s establishment of a Pontifical Commission for the Study of Population, Family, and Births in March 1963 was a wave of alarm over global population growth. Some of the more dire predictions, like the original Malthus’s, proved wildly off the mark, a development seized upon by outspoken defenders of Humanae vitae as vindication of the encyclical’s wisdom. This triumphalism verges on hypocrisy. If population growth now appears more manageable (not that associated problems have disappeared), it is hardly because the world has observed Humanae vitae or adopted Natural Family Planning. What has succeeded is not the encyclical but its disregard: the steady acceptance of contraception in many cultures plus the draconian and morally disgraceful one-child population in China.

The second, more understandable diversion from the difficult issue of contraception is the resentment by many church leaders in the developing world of Western (especially U.S.-led) efforts, in conjunction with local family-planning advocates, to make contraceptives legally and practically available. This is easily viewed as a form of neocolonialism, lumped together with a host of other economic and cultural pressures disrupting vulnerable societies. Humanae vitae is seen less in terms of its specific contested argument than as part of a defensive barrier to protect vulnerable societies against intrusions by the powerful and destructive West. Unfortunately, this kind of opposition is indiscriminate and too often allied with oppressive values (e.g., patriarchy) and myopic about who pays the price of the local status quo (e.g., women). It is also probably fated to go the way of Pius IX’s indiscriminate denunciation of “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization”—and with similar cost to the faith.



Once the real issue is acknowledged, what can the upcoming synod do about it? How can the synod fathers, in a two-week session, realistically address a problem that has been festering since 1968?

They should begin, as Pope Francis pleaded, by speaking honestly. The synod fathers should recognize the absurdity of taking on profoundly challenging issues, issues touching on ancient understandings of marriage, while averting their eyes from a teaching that, despite links to other moral questions, is relatively modern and narrow—and yet has had vast pastoral consequences, dividing the church, eroding faith, and destroying confidence in the tradition’s moral wisdom, especially about conduct at the heart of marriage and family life. Drop the code language. Allow other voices to be heard alongside those ardent about Natural Family Planning. Stop treating all rejection of Humanae vitae as merely a problem to be solved rather than testimony to be taken seriously.

If the synod fathers find it incumbent to reiterate the standing teaching, they should do so straightforwardly, not tucking its absolute condemnation into an appeal for better means of “acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life.” The fathers ought to say clearly that all couples employing contraception, regardless of their reasons or circumstances, “degrade” human sexuality, themselves, and their spouses (Familiaris consortio). Traditionally, this was gravely sinful conduct barring couples from receiving Communion in the absence of confession and absolution. The synod should clarify whether that remains the church’s position.

But in the process of reaching this or any revised conclusion, the synod fathers should not let their courage suddenly collapse in the face of papal statements. If at all versed in church history, they know that many papal texts from the past two centuries, even the past century or less, indeed even positions affirmed by successive pontiffs, have been corrected or reread to lift up certain points and discard others in light of subsequent experience and theological reflection. I am confident that the synod would not endorse much of the wording of Casti connubii, the ur-condemnation of birth control, today. Yet that encyclical was issued only a long lifetime ago; Benedict XVI was three when it appeared.

When Pope Francis insisted that the synod fathers feel free to speak “without polite deference,” there is no sign that he was excepting deference to himself. That is all the more important because, in his blessedly refreshing spontaneous manner, he has said all sorts of things possibly pertinent to contraception, praising Paul VI and Humanae vitae, warning against irresponsible breeding “like rabbits,” lauding large families, and so on. On the eve of the synod, he will travel to the United States and stop in Philadelphia following the World Meeting of Families, an occasion likely to elicit more such utterances. All of them deserve attention. But the synod should focus on freely addressing the question rather than merely adjusting their views to Francis’s.

Finally, what if the synod fathers decide that simply reaffirming the blanket condemnation contained in Humanae vitae is inadequate to the seriousness of the problem? What can they realistically do in the course of a two-week synod, no matter how extensively prepared? A problem forty-seven years in the making cannot be undone in a dozen days. They could begin, however, with two steps, at once modest and bold, that would help immensely to restore trust in magisterial teaching.

Again, the synod fathers need to demonstrate the virtue Pope Francis asked them to embody: honesty. Their first step would be to acknowledge candidly the pain and division that have wracked the church for decades now over contraception. True, the rejection of an official teaching by so many practicing Catholics is not necessarily determinative—as always, the church doesn’t decide doctrine by polls. But this “non-reception” should be recognized as a theologically significant fact, ground for further discernment and not to be filed away as merely the bad fruit of secularization, the media, or insufficient education. The synod might very well praise the loyalty, motivation, and sacrifice of Catholics who heeded papal recommendations of Natural Family Planning, at the same time conceding the moral seriousness of the many devout, churchgoing couples whose informed consciences about moral responsibility and openness to life put them at odds with the papal conclusion about “each and every marital act.” The synod fathers might also acknowledge the difficult, sometimes anguishing position that division over contraception has created for many priests. Merely to state these things would be a major step toward restoring the credibility of the church’s teaching authority.

The second step would be a pledge of further action. The synod’s time is short, after all, and its agenda long. My suggestion is that it urge a renewed study of church teaching on marriage and sexuality, perhaps to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae in 2018. One starting point might be Cardinal Erdő’s proposal for a rereading of that encyclical like our standard rereadings of nineteenth-century papal pronouncements on church and state. As he suggested, a rereading would underline the encyclical’s historical context—presumably as an immediate response to novel contraception techniques like the Pill or increasingly popular intrauterine devices and to the startlingly rapid breakdown of social disapproval of premarital sex.

Another starting point could be the kind of thinking expressed by Benedict XVI when he headed the Holy Office and was interviewed in the mid-1990s by Peter Seewald (Salt of the Earth). His defense of church teaching focused on openness to children as blessings, refusal of the kind of drastic separation of sexuality from procreation one finds in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and recognition that moral problems cannot be resolved by technique or technological manipulation. None of these “major objectives” of church teaching, as he put it, are incompatible with using contraception under some circumstances and to some extent. Certainly they do not imply the absolutism of Humanae vitae.

But the study would have to reach well beyond the encyclical and contraception in scope. It would have to address sexuality in general. And it would have to welcome the testimony of a full range of morally informed witnesses, theologians and non-theologians, men and women, married and single, vowed, ordained, and lay, stretching across all the continents. Undoubtedly any such study would attend to the loveless, desperate, and so often abusive features of today’s sexual landscape, especially for women. It would also confess that the anti-sexual strands in the church’s own tradition have harmed its ability to speak convincingly to this confusion and chaos. “Openness to life,” it might be argued, includes openness to whatever contemporary insights into sexuality can increase Catholicism’s potential for offering wisdom and healing. Openness might also mean that such a study, although not eschewing all clear judgments, could propose questions for additional exploration rather than pretend to some exhaustive moral codification.

Any pledge of further study and reflection faces an immediate objection. Wasn’t it precisely the prolonged work of the papal commission under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI—followed by the fifteen months between the April 1967 leak of a majority report supporting change and the July 1968 encyclical ruling change out—that led Catholics to decide the matter for themselves without regard to Rome? Wouldn’t the proposal for a renewed study simply repeat this dynamic?

As a practical matter, no. For a great many Catholics in the mid-1960s, the default position was either to spurn contraception or to use it (as birthrates indicate many had been doing) with a guilty conscience. Today the default position is the reverse. What is primarily at stake is no longer changing behavior or conviction, for contraception or against, but articulating a coherent and persuasive stance on sexuality, marriage, and family, drawing on Scripture, tradition, and human reasoning, embracing openness to life while placing moral responsibility in conceiving children firmly within that larger framework rather than as an isolated decision driving everything else.

The Catholic world—and not only the Catholic world—has placed great hope in the Synod on the Family. That great hope deserves an equal degree of honesty, insight, courage, and creativity.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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