What does Pope Francis say in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia about birth control? Observers predicted that this issue would arouse as much debate as that of divorced and remarried couples, especially as the Church’s position on contraception has never ceased to be misunderstood, most recently in connection with the Zika virus. In this context, no one is oblivious to the fact that Pope Francis, taking small steps, has relativized the most doctrinaire positions on the subject: for example, concerning the ideal number of children per family, or by mentioning that Pope Paul VI allowed nuns to take birth control pills to prevent them from conceiving in the event of rape.
Right from the beginning of Laetitia Amoris, Pope Francis reveals, in essence, the spirit that inspires these small “jabs”:
We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation (36).
And the Holy Father adds:
Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”. (49).
First, we should get back to a fair appreciation of the importance of this issue
The first impression we get from reading the Apostolic Exhortation is that the Holy Father did not want to give too much importance to the subject of birth control. This fact may well be a first lesson: bring the faithful and the pastors to a fair appreciation of the significance to be given to this question. In this respect, a strong message from Amoris Laetitia is conveyed by the fact that its fifth chapter, entitled Love made fruitful, does not say a single word about birth control! Perhaps, to some extent, this illustrates the Pope’s warning:
I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.(3)
In fact, in Amoris Laetitia, teaching on fertility control comes up here and there in the course of the general outline the Pope follows, but is not a central thread. What interests the Holy Father is building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan(6), homes based on love as described by the Gospel. In this case, the question of the choice of birth control methods does not deserve the controversial importance it is often given. Isn’t this why Pope Francis is pleased that his exhortation is published during the year of Mercy?
[The year of Mercy]offers us a framework and a setting which help us avoid a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with more sensitive issues. Instead, it sets us in the context of a pastoral discernment filled with merciful love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate.(312)
A faithful but “creative” reminder of traditional teaching
From the outset, Francis positions his teaching as part of a “hermeneutic of continuity”:
In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur.(307)
Starting with the final document of the Synod, which refers to the main texts of the Magisterium, the Pope devotes the third chapter of his exhortation to a reminder of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and family. He does it with some creativity, not hesitating, first by the selection of texts quoted, then by adding small but meaningful personal touches, to open up this teaching in new directions.
To put these texts in their proper setting, we must first say a quick word about Church doctrine on the “Purposes” of marriage. Basically, we must remember that traditionally speaking, the primary purpose of marriage is the generation and nurturing of offspring; the second purpose is the mutual help of spouses, and the third is the remedy for concupiscence.
We can see why, within the strict framework of this doctrine, any dissociation between the conjugal act and procreation was barely conceivable. The Second Vatican Council and in its wake the Catechism of the Catholic Church then enriched this doctrine, particularly by giving a prominent place to a new concept (new to doctrine, not to married couples!), that of “conjugal love”, without however making it a “purpose” of marriage. Once this brief reminder made, here then are the Pope’s key remarks regarding fertility and family planning:
Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love” which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”. […]Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”. (80)
Of note is the word “firstly” which the Pope added to the Council’s quote. Sexuality is firstly ordered to conjugal love, which is hence placed above, or beyond, the “purposes” of marriage. Procreation, the primary purpose of marriage, is relative to conjugal love, as is expressed by the fact that it comes in second place and because of the adverb “nonetheless”. Then, quoting Humanae Vitae, Pope Francis emphasizes that the sexual act is ordained to procreation :
“Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning“, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.(80)
The last part of the sentence is written by Francis himself, who declares furthermore that:
The Synod Fathers stated that “the growth of a mentality that would reduce the generation of human life to one variable of an individual’s or a couple’s plans is clearly evident”. (82)
Previously the importance of Humanae Vitae had been mentioned, always in reference to conjugal love:
“Blessed Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, further developed the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. In a particular way, with the Encyclical Humanae Vitae he brought out the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life [a quotation from No. 10 HV follows]“. (68)
The spouses’ duty to evaluate the morality of different birth control methods is confirmed, but the only criterion mentioned is respect for the dignity of persons:
The Church’s teaching is meant to “help couples to experience in a complete, harmonious and conscious way their communion as husband and wife, together with their responsibility for procreating life. We need to return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods of regulating birth…“(82)
Finally, quoting Saint John Paul II, Francis places the primary responsibility of spouses in managing their fertility:
Responsible parenthood does not mean “unlimited procreation or lack of awareness of what is involved in rearing children, but rather the empowerment of couples to use their inviolable liberty wisely and responsibly, taking into account social and demographic realities, as well as their own situation and legitimate desires”. (167, note to theLetter to the Secretary General of the international Conference of the United Nations on population and developmentof18 March 1994 : Insegnamenti17/1 (1994), pp 750-751)..
Thus, in recalling the Church’s teaching on birth control, the Holy Father makes a synthesis which is both Catholic and totally open to new developments. In fact, this synthesis induces a unique perspective on the moral judgment to bear on all birth control methods. On the pastoral level at least, this will lead to a change of perspective. This is made even clearer by the fact that a number of assertions follow this same trend, for example:
Indeed, the grace of the sacrament of marriage is intended before all else “to perfect the couple’s love”.(89)
To the point that the “amorous” and even “erotic” element of sexual relations is highlighted several times:
Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”.(150 )
The erotic dimension of love [is] a gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and happy”. (152)
In Chapter Five, on love made fruitful, as we have said, the Holy Father does not address the subject of birth control directly. However, in a more personal vein, he offers a beautiful meditation on the acceptance of life, with a special warning against the concept of the “wanted child” which, when made an absolute, can lead to consider a child not as a gift from God who is always welcome, but as an unwanted object.
The choice to become parents presupposes the formation of conscience
After these reminders of the Magisterium, Pope Francis responds to the invitation of the Synod to seek new pastoral methods(199). He then devotes one page (out of the book’s two hundred and sixty!) to the question of birth control. In this page (which we quote almost in full), he first takes the traditional route so as to better open a new pastoral perspective. He begins with the final document of the Synod:
The pastoral care of newly married couples must also involve encouraging them to be generous in bestowing life. “In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner. In this sense, the teaching of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (cf. 1014) and 169 the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. 14; 2835) ought to be taken up anew, in order to counter a mentality that is often hostile to life… Decisions involving responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of conscience, which is ‘the most secret core and sanctuary of a person. There each one is alone with God, whose voice echoes in the depths of the heart’ (Gaudium et Spes, 16). The more the couple tries to listen in conscience to God and his commandments (cf. Rom 2:15), and is accompanied spiritually, the more their decision will be profoundly free of subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores”. (222)
Then the Pontiff seeks to give full force to the teaching of Vatican II:
The clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council still holds: “[The couple] will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them 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 parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God”. (222)
It is therefore reiterated that in accordance with the Creator’s plan, the teaching on the “domination” of their fertility (cf. Gn 1: 28) belongs ultimately to the spouses together as a couple and, in the New Covenant, as ministers of the sacrament of marriage. This implies that pastors certainly have to inform the judgment of the spouses, but that they should in no way try to replace it with their directives.
The choice of methods to be used
By introducing the question of the choice of methods with the expression “moreover” and addressing it in a total of only six lines, the Holy Father makes it a secondary issue. The answer to this question that has sparked so much debate is simple: the decision made by the couple must be enlightened by pastoral “encouragement” to use “natural” methods:
Moreover, “the use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favour the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370). (222)
For our part, we understand that this pastoral “encouragement” in favor of “natural” methods is of a nature as high as the encouragement that the Lord gave to the rich young man: “If thou wilt be perfect …” (Lk 19, 21). But maybe we are making the text imply too much.
So, is contraception permitted or prohibited?
As we have seen, the Exhortation makes a real promotion of “natural methods” of family planning. And more generally, it refers at least five times to Humanae Vitae. However, when we analyze the texts and their contexts, we find that this promotion and these references are always made with a specific slant. And the terms “allowed” or “forbidden” are never used. In any case, neither in the doctrinal part nor in the pastoral part, does the Exhortation present “natural methods” as the only “authorized” methods. And, moreover, it carefully selects the criteria which must lead to privilege one method over another. Furthermore, we find in the Exhortation no warning, condemnation or prohibition of methods other than the “natural” ones. This certainly can not be an oversight. And even less a shift towards any moral relativism, a position that Pope Francis specifically condemns:
It is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible. (34)
No, the Holy Father does not in any way support the slogan “it is forbidden to forbid.” For proof, just read the condemnation of abortion (and abortive contraceptive methods), which is as moving as it is firm. Francis knows how to dot the “i”s, how to not compromise, but to condemn and prohibit, when necessary:
So great is the value of a human life, and so inalienable the right to life of an innocent child growing in the mother’s womb, that no alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life, which is an end in itself and which can never be considered the “property” of another human being. .. Consequently, “those who work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection. ” (83)
Note the strong reminder of the moral obligation to conscientious objection. There is no question of this as far as contraception is concerned.
We can also notice that even on ‘difficult’ subjects, where the media were waiting to pounce, the Pope did not hesitate, while at the same time advocating for more openness in pastoral care, to confirm the substance of the firm positions of the Church. Here are a few examples, briefly mentioned, to which we can refer. On mixed marriages: […] Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case according to the stated norms. On homosexual unions: […]” there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter…
On divorce: “Divorce is an evil,”etc. On the death penalty: “The Church firmly rejects the death penalty”, etc.
If the Holy Father wished to formally condemn or simply advise against the use of contraception, he would have. But he did not. On the other hand, he has not formally said that the use of contraception is no longer prohibited. But it is easy to understand why, on this issue, Francis clearly refuses to be trapped in the logic of “permitted” and “forbidden”. Thomists will say rightly that Pope Francis clearly wants to substitute the “moral law” with “moral virtue”, the growth of grace.
Therefore, in all intellectual honesty founded on faith, it seems legitimate to conclude this brief critical review by saying that the Apostolic ExhortationAmoris Laetitia marks, not the repeal, but the elimination, implicit but real, of the absolute prohibition of contraception for Catholic couples.
Understanding what is at stake
To discern the scope but also the limits of what is, when you get to the bottom of it, a change in a spirit of continuity,
we should take into account the fact that Amoris Laetitia is primarily intended for pastors. The Holy Father gives them guidelines and directives. And he very often uses “we” when he says what should be done or not done. On birth control his pastoral guidelines are as brief as they are clear: birth control is not an issue in itself: couples should be accompanied, while respecting and favoring the unity of their lives so that they can “build sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan“(6). As part of this mission with married couples, pastors must not “derive undue conclusions from particular theological considerations“ (2) and should never forget that ultimately it is up to the spouses, together, to make their choices and make them before God with regard, first, to the good of their community of life and love. This last point is new and essential: it implies that, in certain circumstances, it is legitimate that the good of the community of life and love takes precedence over excessive theological conclusions that put an almost exclusive emphasis on the duty of procreation. (36)
And in this manner, the exhortation warns against the offsets due to clericalism:
“We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.“(37)
In short, when in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis addresses the issue of birth control, it is never in terms of “permitted” or “forbidden”, but in terms of encouragement,judgment in conscienceand, if necessary, of a path to follow, “firmly grounded in reality” toward evangelical perfection by means of “conjugal love”:
All these factors can inspire a positive and welcoming pastoral approach capable of helping couples to grow in appreciation of the demands of the Gospel. (38)
Bold teaching that leads prophetically towards ecumenism
About Humanae Vitae, the Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I, friend of Paul VI, said he fully understood and approved the profound intention of the encyclical but found “details and recipes” unnecessarily invasive in the sacred intimacy of spouses. Indeed, as regards birth control, Oriental churches are overwhelmingly content to remind their followers of the meaning of true love, its natural and supernatural fecundity, but leaves the choice of methods (not abortion, of course) to the consensus of the spouses. To illustrate this healthy pastoral reserve, a traditional adage is recalled in the formation of priests: “When the couple retires to the bridal chamber, all that they do there out of mutual respect and love is holy, and is no business of the clerics.”
Throughout his Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Francis rejoices that his theological and pastoral reflections on marriage and the family will promote a real reconciliation with our separated brethren of the Oriental churches (eg. 75, 202) and certainly, it is vital that in this fundamental matter where teaching is smothered by the spirit of the world, the Church breathes with both lungs. We can say that this is now the case and it is fortunate that the prayer of Jesus Christ “Ut unum sint!” be answered on an important point of marriage doctrine. Christians of good will can only rejoice.
And rejoicing we are! To conclude on this question of responsible procreation, the Apostolic Exhortation highlights the pastoral priority of not being a killjoy! For the fruitfulness of love is not a problem, it is a grace and an opportunity! That is why:
Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that children are a wonderful gift from God and a joy for parents and the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world. (222)
“This is to ensure that people experience the Gospel of the family as a joy that fills hearts and lives.”(200, quote fromEvangelii gaudium)