Has Pope Francis changed church teaching on birth control?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Friday 05, April 2019 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
Church teaching on birth control
Current teaching permits natural family planning (a form of birth control) and affirms martial sex as a vital part of the marriage bond as well as a means of procreation.

You might revisit the QCA essays from October 2016, “How can I understand and explain the church’s position on contraception?” 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, garnering more attention on how/if the church’s position on birth control is evolving.

What’s lost in the debate is how church teaching is always evolving. Saint Augustine took the position that sexual activity was a negative expression only redeemed by procreation. Medieval theologians allowed that sex had other positive values, including health, pleasure, and the deepening of marital love. Pope Leo XIII chose to write a major encyclical on marriage (1880) that never addressed contraception at all. Pope Pius XI (1930) maintained that any sexual act not open to procreation was sinful. Yet Pope Pius XII (1951) sanctioned the rhythm method, suggesting that it wasn’t birth control but artificial contraception that was contrary to church teaching. Current teaching permits natural family planning (a form of birth control) and affirms martial sex as a vital part of the marriage bond as well as a means of procreation.

Pope Francis builds on what previous modern popes have written. When the Zika virus threatened unborn children in Latin America, Francis noted that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and that mothers in affected areas might do so. “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” Francis noted. Under threat of harm, procreative sex is not an absolute good.

In 2015, Pope Francis clarified that church teaching does not insist Christian parents “must make children in series." Paul VI had also recommended "responsible parenthood" in Humanae Vitae (1968), citing "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions" involved in creating a family. While still a Cardinal, the future Pope Benedict ventured that couples with several children must not be reproached for not having more. He declared family size a personal pastoral matter that "can't be projected into the abstract."

In preparation for the international Bishops’ Synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family” (2015), theologians considered “natural methods for responsible procreation” and also “the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births.” They reflected: “The choice of adoption or foster parenting expresses a particular fruitfulness of married life, not simply in the case of sterility.” They also noted that conscience trains us to listen to God’s voice, to avoid both selfish choices and also insupportable burdens. These recommendations place responsible family planning in the hands of parents, where in fact such discernment ultimately resides.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-24; Tobit 8:6-8

Books: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World: Instrumentum LaborisSynod of Bishops, XIV Ordinary General Assembly (Vatican City, 2015)

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis (Vatican City, 2016)

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