Did Pope Francis’s unrehearsed comments on the morality of using contraception in the context of the Zika virus constitute a change in church teaching?  I leave to others the fine arts of papal exegesis and applying the principle of double effect and lesser evil.  For anyone a little less papal centric, what the recent Synod on the Family had to say—or, better, not say—about contraception may be as noteworthy.   

The precedents cited to render Francis’s statement consistent with standing teaching strike me as a stretch.  Despite the pope’s own fleeting allusion to what is in fact a historically obscure episode involving nuns threatened by sexual assault in the Congo in the early Sixties, Francis was not talking about an apparently proactive prevention of forced conception from rapes that may or may not occur.  He was not talking about prevention of transmitting a virus, parallel to HIV, from one marital partner to another.  He was talking about the prevention of pregnancy. 

And Humanae Vitae condemns any use whatsoever of contraception to prevent pregnancy—even as a “lesser evil … even for the gravest of reasons … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.” Nor, according to the encyclical, can “a whole married life of otherwise normal relations” justify such a single or temporary use.

My wager is that Pope Francis just doesn’t believe that.  He respects it.  He admires its author.  He looks for the truth in it.  But he doesn’t buy it. 

But that’s pure guess on my part.  The inability of church leaders, including the Holy Father, to speak straightforwardly about contraception has been a great disappointment.   

In Commonweal last June 1, I set out a carefully argued (i.e., very long) article regretting the 2014 Synod on the Family’s baffling avoidance of the topic, which more than anything else has undermined the church’s effectiveness in teaching about family and sexual morality. The gap between the official condemnation and (by the Vatican’s own admission) its massive rejection by faithful Catholics has injected a dangerous degree of dishonesty at all levels of Catholic life. 

I argued very carefully (i.e., at length) that the pivotal issue was not “openness to life” or rejection of children or any such sweeping concern but the very narrow question whether each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate prevention of procreation, as Humanae Vitae declared.  I suggested how the follow-up 2015 Synod, despite its brief span, might open further discussion of this point.  To my great amazement, my suggestions were not taken.

But something did happen—or happened by not happening.  In October, the Synod on the Family sent Pope Francis 94 paragraphs of conclusions about the church and the family in the contemporary world.  Each paragraph was voted on, and all but a handful were approved overwhelmingly.  Naturally the press was only interested in the handful that were not: those dealing with Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexuality, cohabitation, and women. These few were quickly translated in the media.  It took the Vatican almost two months to publish an English translation of the whole report, a minor scandal in itself. 

So there was really no way for it to be widely known that although the Synod had plenty of opportunities to do so, it never repeated the pivotal teaching of Humanae Vitae.  

The encyclical itself is mentioned just three times, none of them spelling out the “each and every act of sexual intercourse” provision.  Para. 43 refers to “the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life” highlighted in the encyclical but places this bond in the context of responsible parenthood.  Para. 50 similarly if clumsily refers to “the act of generation, showing the 'inseparable connection' between the unitive and procreative aspects — as highlighted by Blessed Paul VI”; but again the context is parental responsibility for raising children and care of all family members.  Para. 63 begins by citing Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II.  In being “open to life,” the Synod said, spouses should “thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting, they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself.”  

The note of “openness to life” is sounded several times here. Humanae Vitae as well as John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio “ought to be taken up anew so as to awaken in people an openness to life in contrast to a mentality which is often hostile to life.”  The paragraph contains a welcome call for family planning to be based on “a consensual dialogue between the spouses.”  The reference here is to the use of NFP, however; such methods—and again Humanae Vitae is cited—“are to be encouraged.”  In sum, while some may assume that the “intrinsic bond” between conjugal love and procreation or the “inseparable connection” between the unitive and the procreative or “openness to life” must apply to each and every instance of sexual intercourse rather than a larger pattern of marital behavior, nowhere do the Synod fathers spell out that conclusion.  The bishops were surely aware that this is the nub of the contraception controversy. Yet not only in these paragraphs but in many others, they refused to repeat the linchpin of the official teaching.    

All these paragraphs do refer (in parentheses) to the numbers of passages in Paul’s encyclical and John Paul’s apostolic exhortation that contain absolute condemnations of contraception to prevent procreation in any and every individual case regardless of reasons.  What does it mean that the Synod never makes that condemnation explicit, instead stressing other, less negative, more contextual aspects of those same passages?   Does simply referring to those sections affirm the standing papal condemnation?  Or does avoiding the condemnation modify the possible way those passages should now be read? 

Everyone is looking forward to Pope Francis’s response to the Synod’s conclusions. Again attention will be given to the issues that received banner billing during the two synods.  What Francis will say about contraception, if anything, is anyone’s guess.  I hope but doubt that it will be the straightforward treatment needed in my opinion to restore the church’s credibility.  But if he follows the 2015 Synod’s lead, the teaching on contraception is well on its way to quiet modification.    

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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