Amoris Laetitia quotes Humanae Vitae, but this writer questions whether it frames the question of birth control in terms of “permitted” and “forbidden”
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.
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