In the complex house of cards that is Vatican sexual doctrine, a key element at the base is that on artificial contraception. Remove that, or even just weaken it, and the entire edifice above teeters and collapses.
That is because it rests on the dubious claim that every sexual act must be open to procreation. As Peter Steinfels points out in an important article at Commonweal, that “every” is unambiguous, admitting of no exceptions whatever:
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.
Yet both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have admitted some limited exceptions, and both sessions of the Bishops’ Synod assemblies on marriage and family carefully avoided reaffirming HV’s core insistence – that every sexual act must be open to procreation.
This is the way Church teaching has always evolved over the centuries – one small step, one minor adjustment, at a time – until the substance has changed so substantially that it becomes possible (according to temperament) either that change has come – or that teaching has “always” been thus. Herein lies substantial hope for LGBT Catholics. Once the umbilical cord tying every sexual act to procreation has been broken, it becomes possible to fully recognize the unitive value of sexual love between two people where procreation is simply not possible – and that includes the case where the couple are of the same sex.
So, let’s take a closer look at these cracks in the wall.
First, recall that some years ago, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that in the case of a (male) prostitute who used condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, this could represent a degree of responsible moral judgement. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but nevertheless, a crack in the wall.
Much more recently, Pope Francis has said that under the threat of the Vika virus, contraception might be justified, reminding us of the approval of contraception for nuns threatened with rape in the Congo. Again, not a ringing endorsement, but in direct conflict with the substance of Humanae Vitae, as Steinfels spells out:
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.
Leading up to the first Bishops’ Synod assembly on marriage and family, I was confident that there would be significant attention paid to Humanae Vitae, and the entire question of contraception. The evidence from the global consultation with lay Catholics was overwhelming – worldwide, the formal doctrine is simply not supported by people with real-life experience of marriage and family. I was surprised then, when that discussion simply did not happen. (So was Peter Steinfels, he notes).
For the second assembly, it was a little different – there were a few references to HV, but only in its support, which on a cursory reading I found disappointing. Steinfels sees it differently, noting that what is important is not so much what was said, but also what was not said. In this case, what was not said was any repetition of the irrevocable link between every sexual act and procreation. And what was said, included a new emphasis on the importance of “responsible” parenthood and family planning. To be sure, that was assumed to be by means of “natural” as opposed to “artificial” family planning, but that distinction is itself an artificial one, which in the long run, surely cannot stand the close scrutiny that is becoming inevitable.
Writing about the references to HV in the final document approved by synod fathers for Pope Francis’ consideration, Steinfels notes the crucial feature:
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.
This is remarkable, especially in the context of something else that did get serious attention from Pope Francis, before during and after the synod assemblies: renewed emphasis on the importance of the sensus fidelium, on the “interior forum” in moral judgements, and on the primacy of conscience.
This was highlighted further much more recently, with the formal announcement of a new dicastery on laity and .family life, and a recent Vatican seminar on the assembly, in which bishops recommended much greater involvement of laity in the planning and conduct of future synods.
Step by step, inch by gradual inch, the voice of the people will increasing be heard on contraception – and that voice, the sensus fidelium, clearly does not support the core message of Humanae Vitae. Certainly, Catholics in general are overwhelmingly “pro-life” (including those already alive as well as the unborn), but that does not imply that this is applicable to every sexual act, nor does it negate the importance of personal conscience in decision taking.
Steinfels concludes his piece:
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.