…no papal teaching document has ever caused such an earthquake in the Church as the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae.’ – Catholic theologian, Fr Bernard Haring
The feature of the 2014 Family Synod that most surprised me, was the near absence of any discussion about contraception – except for repeated confirmation of support for “Humanae Vitae”. As Peter Steinfels puts it at the Washington Post,
At last October’sExtraordinary Synod on the Family, bishops grabbed headlines by debating controversial topics such as admitting remarried Catholics to Communion and acknowledging the upsides of same-sex relationships. But the discussion of contraception was perfunctory. The bishops simply called on the church to do a better job of propagating “the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae.” In other words, the widespread rejection of the birth-control ban is simply a messaging problem.
That’s not true. The church’s unwillingness to grapple with a deep and highly visible gap between official teaching and actual practice undermines Catholic vigor and unity at every level. It encourages Catholics to disregard all manner of other teachings, including those on marriage and abortion. If the church wants to restore its moral authority, it must address this gnawing question.
This reluctance to engage properly with the subject is simply astonishing.As Steinfels points out, the Synod fathers may have reaffirmed their belief that Humanae Vitae’s prohibition on “artificial” contraception, but that most certainly does not apply to the rest of the Church. It’s well known that in Europe and the USA, the overwhelming majority of Catholics simply disregard the teaching. It’s also true, but less widely known, that the same applies across most of the world. The only continent where a slim majority of Catholics appear to disapprove of contraception is Africa. Even there though, it’s not particularly because they are Catholics – it’s because African in general are against. Statistics show that country by country, African Catholics use of contraception does not differ too much from that of the general population. Nor is this known only from secular research. In the run up to the synod, bishops around the world were asked to consult the faithful for their views on marriage and family. From those countries where results were made public, many drew attention to the widespread rejection of official doctrine.
This is not a trivial matter, that did not need discussion. The key point in HV is that every single sexual expression must be open to procreation – and therefore, must be within the framework of marriage. This core belief underpins just about every other element of Church sexual doctrine, on masturbation, on sex before marriage, and on same – sex relationships. Only the rules on divorce do not depend on it – and the prohibition on divorce alone has clear scriptural backing. remove the insistence on Humanae Vitae, and the entire edifice of Vatican sexual ideology is undermined.
No wonder the entirely unjustified insistence on procreation has destroyed Catholic belief in Vatican authority. No wonder that the bishops do not want to discuss it – but discuss it, we must. (Remember that this widespread rejection seriously calls into question, whether the doctrine has in fact been “received” by the faithful, as a whole, whether it truly has the “sensus fideii”, and if not – then in terms of entirely standard church doctrine, it is not actually valid “teaching” at all. If Humanae Vitae is not, therefore, valid teaching – how much of the sexual doctrines are? For they all rest on that core assumption, that every sexual act must be open to procreation.
If Synod 2014 avoided this important discussion, there is at least a possibility that could be different, this time. At least one of the delagates to this year’s synod has gone on the record, as calling for a reappraisal.
In a sweeping critique of Catholic teaching, Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny, who will participate in the Ordinary Synod on the Family next month, has attacked not only the Church’s teaching against contraception but even the very notion of the natural law.
In a contribution for the recent German book, Zerreißprobe Ehe, published by Herder Verlag, the bishop of Antwerp makes a strong critique of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae and questions the Church’s understanding of sexuality. He also criticizes the natural law as a moral foundation because it describes certain acts as good or bad independently of one’s personal life history and biography
Let us pray, that he is heard.