Many people in the United States would be surprised to learn that their healthcare in a 21st century secular society is affected by a controversial Catholic encyclical handed down half a century ago. And they would be just as surprised to learn that Humanae Vitae was promulgated for political reasons, not for reasons of Catholic theology. They would also be disheartened to learn that women in the poorest communities globally cannot access much needed modern contraceptives that could give them and their children longer, healthier lives because of this dusty piece of dogma.
It is clear that the Catholic church cannot move forward until it honestly confronts the paradox of Humanae Vitae: that most Catholics use modern contraceptives, believe it is a moral choice to do so and still consider themselves Catholics in good standing.
It is clear that the Catholic church cannot move forward until it honestly confronts the paradox of Humanae Vitae: that most Catholics use modern contraceptives, believe it is a moral choice to do so and still consider themselves Catholics in good standing. Yet the Catholic hierarchy denies this reality, forcing silence on this and most other issues related to sexuality.
There are sound reasons for the pope to reconsider the ban on contraception. From a theological perspective, the Papal Birth Control Commission determined 50 years ago that contraception is not “intrinsically evil” and that the teaching can be changed. Numerous bishops’ conferences have confirmed that a couple’s consciences are the final arbiter of the contraceptive decision and that the church recognizes the legitimacy of such a decision. Pope Francis said in 2016 that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and that there were situations in which using contraceptives could be a moral choice, such as avoiding pregnancy in the face of the Zika virus.[i] Could the same logic not be applied to a host of reasons for women to avoid pregnancy, from health concerns to financial limitations to the overall well-being of the family?
Pope Francis confirmed that Catholics have no obligation to “be like rabbits” and serially reproduce. But while he lauded “responsible parenthood” and said he thought a three-child family was about the right size, he offered Catholics no realistic path to achieve this goal.[ii] Like other members of the hierarchy, Pope Francis has spoken favorably about natural family planning, even though the high failure rate and low uptake among women show why this method is unsuitable and how little the Vatican understands about what modern couples need.
On the issue of HIV&AIDS, bishops and theologians have stated that the principle of the “lesser evil” makes condom use to prevent the spread of a deadly virus acceptable and that condom use would actually be a life-affirming action, a rationale echoed by Pope Benedict himself.
Despite the emphasis the hierarchy has put on the importance of continuity in its teachings on contraception, this is not sufficient reason to maintain the ban. The Vatican has changed its positions on issues of much greater significance, including the necessity of baptism for infants who die and the concept of limbo. Besides a challenge to its authority, at the heart of the Vatican’s reluctance to change the teaching of Humanae Vitae is its inability to craft a more modern sexual ethic that recognizes a role for sexuality beyond procreation and a role for women beyond motherhood or one that offers women full equality within the church.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, argues that the fact that “the institutional church invests so much energy in trying to promote laws and policy that affect the supply and availability of contraceptives speaks volumes about the obsessive mindset of conservatives who control and direct the Vatican’s worldview. Some openly question if any of this really matters. Most Catholics, regardless of the ban, simply ignore it. However, having lost the battle for the hearts and minds of lay Catholics, the hierarchy seeks to use its power and influence over national and local laws to legislate adherence to their position.”
After 50 years, the damage that Humanae Vitae has done to the lives of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, as well as to the Catholic church itself, is clear. The long reach of the encyclical continues to be felt globally and in the United States. Yet Catholics use and approve of contraceptives in growing numbers, furthering the divide between rhetoric and reality in the church. Only by confronting the most fundamental of the hierarchy’s errors can the Catholic church move forward and the shadow of Humanae Vitae be erased.
[i] Michelle Boorstein, “Pope Francis Suggests Contraception Could Be Permissible in Zika Fight,” Washington Post, February 18, 2016.
[ii] David Gibson, “Don’t Breed ‘Like Rabbits’: Was Pope Francis Breaking New Ground on Birth Control?” Religion News Service, January 21, 2015.