What can be said about church teaching on contraception?

I want to continue exploring the fine discussion on contraception contained in a Commonweal series of articles.

I would just like to make a couple of comments on the second article, written by Marian Crowe.

Crowe makes the point that Catholics simply don't believe contraception is an immoral act. She also notes, however, that she felt there were some negative physical effects from her own use of contraception and suggests that sexuality, like all good things, needs to operate within limits. Crowe now believes that natural family planning may well be the ideal method for couples seeking to avoid pregnancy. Yet while NFP might be a good thing in general, Crowe still believes it is the blanket condemnation of contraception that most Catholics find unacceptable.

Lisa Fullam in the final article of the series goes even further.

She cites a 2012 survey in which 85 percent of self-identified Catholics said they find birth control acceptable. Catholic women seeking to avoid pregnancy said they use contraception in 68 percent of cases, while only 3 percent said they use NFP.

While Catholic teaching focuses on contraception being artificial or unnatural, Fullam sees the teaching itself as unnatural. Humanae Vitae makes no distinction between animals and humans in their sexual behavior. While sex in the animal kingdom seems focused on procreation, it is more about forging ties of intimacy in humans.

Fullam believes there is a need to focus on the whole person. If marriage is sacred, then reducing the discussion to a physical act seems to ignore the language of Pope Paul VI himself in describing the relationship between the two who are married. Humanae Vitae almost inexplicably ignores the intention of the act and focuses only on its physical structure. The fact that the intention is the same whether using "artificial" contraception or NFP winds up being considered irrelevant by Paul VI.

There is considerable irony in the publishing of Humanae Vitae. Those who were supportive of this approach feared that failure to be consistent in church teaching would undermine church authority. Yet it was the publication of the encyclical that began the eroding of church authority, further exacerbated by the sex abuse scandal. Catholics made up their own minds on the matter, stopped confessing it as sinful, and ultimately stopped the practice of confession altogether.

Fullam describes a church dangerously divided. Pope John Paul II decided to make acceptance of church teaching on contraception his litmus test for advancement in clerical circles. He has been successful. The hierarchy is committed to the teaching of Humanae Vitae even as the flock they are to serve opposes the teaching and simply finds both the teaching and the bishops who promote it irrelevant.

How can this divide be bridged? According to Fullam, the teaching requires a new look. The primacy of love and justice, respect for conscience, and a much better understanding of human sexuality needs to undergird this new look. Fullam notes that women, who have been largely excluded from such discussions, need to be at the table and their values and life experiences need to be included in any revision of the teaching.

The whole idea of doubling down on a doctrine with such an unnatural view of sex would only exacerbate the divide, according to Fullam. Today's Catholics know better. The teaching does not reflect the experience of Catholics. They also don't buy the notion that intention is sinful in one case but not sinful in another.

Will anything happen? Can the synod at least broach this subject in a serious fashion? Could they at a minimum appoint a commission to include women and secular experts on the subject to study the issue? I think it is doubtful. Sadly, I believe the present cadre of bishops has so ingrained this teaching into their idea of Catholic identity that they will not consider change. They will continue to demand adherence to the teaching and even insist that laws in our country conform to their view of how this doctrine needs to be put in practice in hospitals, universities, etc. They seem determined to remain blind to the disconnect that exists between them and the people. Meanwhile, everyday Catholics will go about their business, ignoring the dictates of their bishops and following their consciences.

Is there any way out of this impasse? As we prepare to celebrate the great Christian feast of the Resurrection, I fear the Holy Spirit will have to work overtime to move the church on this issue.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here

Advertisement