By most every measure, Pope Francis' trip to Asia was a remarkable event.
In war-traumatized Sri Lanka -- where Catholics who feared that rival politicians would use the trip for political advantage had urged Francis not to come -- he deftly maneuvered through competing agendas to deliver forceful messages about justice and reconciliation, embracing diversity, and continuing interreligious dialogue. Sri Lankans were buoyed by his presence and reanimated to continue their work of rebuilding their society.
In the Philippines, Francis the pastor shone through brightly in every appearance. Who could not be moved by his embrace of 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, the former street girl who asked him why God lets children suffer? His answer was his embrace, and all who watched the exchange felt it.
Equally moving was Francis' insistence on visiting typhoon-devastated Tacloban, even as another tropical storm bore down on the area. He moved with the instincts of a pastor who wanted to be with his people. Once there, dressed in a translucent yellow raincoat over his Mass vestments, one could see desperation in his face as he explained slowly in English that he was setting aside his prepared text, would speak in Spanish and use a translator. He felt he needed to speak in his mother tongue to adequately express the depths of his heart. His message here, too, was an embrace, an embrace of the thousands who had lost loved ones and the millions who had lost homes: "I'm here to be with you."
Francis, the pope of the periphery, embodied the message he preaches. He was the servant pastor working in the "field hospital," his favored description of church. Francis speaks and writes often of creating a culture of encounter. "The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another," he said.
However, inserted into this pastoral journey of encounter was a muddled message that begs for explanation. Francis twice praised Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld the church's moral ban of artificial contraception. Francis called Paul's issuing of Humanae Vitae "courageous." He termed the pope "a prophet" and "a good pastor." Paul "had the strength to defend openness to life," Francis said.
But Francis also immediately interjected two caveats: There were "particular cases" where the contraception ban may not apply and "responsible parenthood" (a term Paul used also) might require the limiting of births.
Taken at face value, Francis' endorsement of Humanae Vitae seems in continuity with the views of his predecessors. Yet the forcefulness of his insistence that pastors be attuned to "particular cases" and his clear emphasis on responsible parenthood (Catholics don't have to be like rabbits, in the colorful language of Francis) suggested to some that he wants to move the church beyond a rigid interpretation of Humanae Vitae.
This idea was reinforced when he invited couples to explore responsible parenthood "with dialogue," saying, "That is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors."
But then Francis returns to rigidity, adding, "God gives you methods to be responsible. ... I know so many, many licit ways that have helped this."
Francis needs to re-examine his statements. While the contraception issue has been largely settled in the West, where repeated surveys reveal Catholic birth control practices hardly differ from that of others, in developing countries such as the Philippines, reproductive health care is widely denied to the populace because of the strength and lobbying of the Catholic hierarchy.
Our hope is that Francis is taking the first steps to untie official church teachings from the idea that "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." This teaching represents the narrowest of understandings of love, intimacy and fidelity within a marriage.
This is not the place to offer a full rebuttal of the official church teachings on birth control. As noted above, the Catholic faithful have answered this issue long ago.
A recent and accessible study of this issue can be found in Sexual Ethics: A Theological Introduction by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler. They outline an approach based on papal teaching, from Pius XI's Casti Connubii* through the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes and including the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law that builds a moral case for maintaining an openness to human life (which Humanae Vitae strives for) but would not prohibit the use of artificial contraception.
The encounter we want Francis to have is with theologians, parish priests and Catholic couples who will speak the truth to him. Humanae Vitae has been a serious impediment to Catholic authority. It has created a disabling chasm between the prelates and priests, between the hierarchy and the faithful.
Very shortly after the encyclical's promulgation, sociologists, like Fr. Andrew Greeley, began to document its contributing effect to a decline of episcopal credibility, Mass attendance and donations, and even vocations, as priests who couldn't in good conscience defend the encyclical left ministry.
Paul VI pointed rightly to dangers to married life and human dignity, and, fearing a change in teaching would erode church credibility, prescribed the wrong medicine. It's well past time for Francis and the church hierarchy to rejoin the faithful on a human journey that very much needs them as companions. If Francis wants the church to be a credible witness, if he wants to be the pastor we think he can be, he needs take us beyond the Humanae Vitae impasse.
*An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly attributed the encyclical Casti Connubi to Pope Pius XII.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here