On my last article, I have tried to prove how Pope Francis, far from being an enemy of Humanae Vitae (HV), was actually a faithful disciple of Paul VI’s polemical encyclical on birth regulation. In this article, I wish to further illustrate the continuity between both pontiffs by showing how HV actually paved the way for Francis’ pontificate. By doing so, I also will show how those who dissent from Francis are actually not being faithful to the letter of the document, nor to Paul VI’s manifest will, but are trying to impose their own personal and non-authoritative interpretation of HV on the whole Church.

The arguments wielded by Francis’ critics to advance the idea that His Holiness is trying to overthrow HV can be, in my experience, summarized in two patterns, since the Pope has not said anything clearly contradictory with HV:

  1. The Pope said “Catholics should not be like rabbits
  2. The Pope’s emphasis on “mercy” and “discernment” of individual cases is meant to water down HV, if not in theory, at least in practice.

I’ll try to address these charges.


1. The “Catholics should not be like rabbits” comment

When returning from his visit to the Philippines, Pope Francis was asked on a plane interview what he would say to families who had more children than they could afford because of the Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception. The Holy Father invoked the case of one woman he had met who had seven children by C-section and was expecting her eighth child because she “trusted in God“. Here is what the Pope replied:

“Some people think that – excuse my expression here – than in order to be good Catholic we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. That is clear.”

These words raised an uproar in conservative sectors: the Pope had just insulted all the couples who had generously heeded the Church’s teaching on openness to life by forming a numerous family! More importantly, this was proof (so they claimed), that Francis was hostile to HV’s teaching against artificial contraception.

However, someone who has read HV in its entirety knows that Francis was actually being faithful to the encyclical. The problem lies on a common misconception that equivocates “openness to life” with “big families.” That is an understandable confusion, but it is not an accurate reading of HV. Rather, it is a non-authoritative (no matter how widespread) interpretation that, over the years, has been imposed on the document. Yes, it is true that the generosity of a couple with numerous children should not be despised, nor its personal sacrifices underestimated… but there is nothing in the encyclical mandating numerous families.

Then what does HV mandate? The answer lies precisely in a part of Pope Francis’ reply that seems to have been gotten lost in the middle of all the outrage: “No. Responsible Parenthood. That is clear.”

And yes. It is indeed clear. Crystal clear. HV uses the term “responsible parenthood” no less than 9 times throughout the document, and always approvingly (provided that this term is properly understood.) In fact, HV has a chapter fully devoted to the topic of “responsible parenthood.” It is aptly named “Responsible Parenthood.” It starts thus:

“Married love, therefore, requires of husband and wife the full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood.”

— HV #10

Paul VI goes on, then, defining “responsible parenthood” with regard to biological processes, to man’s innate drives and emotions, and the objective moral order. But what interests us more for the present article is how this concept is defined with regards to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions (emphasis mine):

“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time

— HV #10

I reiterate: responsible parenthood is not exercised only by those who “decide to have more children” but also by those who, obeying the precepts of the Church, “decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” In other words, HV doesn’t require us to “be like rabbits“, but urges us to exercise “responsible parenthood.” Pope Francis has given us an accurate interpretation of HV and those who attacked him for it show an incredible ignorance of the document they pretend to defend.

Also on the chapter about “Responsible Parenthood“, we can see an anticipation of Francis’ emphasis on conscience:

“Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter.”

— HV #10

A final word about the “rabbits” comment… when Francis alluded to the case of the woman who had more children than her health could bear, because she said she “trusted in God“, Francis responded by saying: “But God gave us the means to be responsible.” This thinking, again, can be found in HV:

“The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator”

— HV #16

Also, in #24, Paul VI urges scientists and medical professionals to develop new methods of natural family planning that may be effective as well as in keeping with the Church’s teaching.


2. Emphasis on mercy and discernment

Anti-Francis critics assume that the Pope’s emphasis on “mercy” and “discernment” is meant to water down the teachings of HV. However, an attentive reading of HV shows that “mercy” and “discernment” are not only present in the document, but they are an important and inextricable part of it, so that it could be said that people who take issue with Francis’ approach are the ones dissenting from HV.

For too long, HV’s ban on artificial contraception has been used by Catholics who adhere to it as a means to judge and look down on Catholics who find it difficult to observe such teachings. However, this is a serious misreading of HV, clearly contradicted by a full chapter named “Pastoral Directives.

“Our words would not be an adequate expression of the thought and solicitude of the Church, Mother and Teacher of all peoples, if, after having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, they did not also support mankind in the honest regulation of birth amid the difficult conditions which today afflict families and peoples. The Church, in fact, cannot act differently toward men than did the Redeemer. She knows their weaknesses, she has compassion on the multitude, she welcomes sinners.”

— HV #19

And also:

“We have no wish at all to pass over in silence the difficulties, at times very great, which beset the lives of Christian married couples. For them, as indeed for every one of us, “the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life”

— HV #25

The tone of the pontiff is not triumphalistic or judgmental. He knows perfectly well the seriousness of this teaching and the difficulties it presents to many people. Those factors notoriously weigh heavily on the Holy Father throughout the document, so we really can’t use HV as a stick with which to beat around others (emphasis mine).

“Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

— HV #29

So, if HV’s teaching is so difficult to observe, what is the solution Paul VI proposes? None other than another hallmark of Francis’ pontificate: a complete trust in the grace of God to help us through:

“The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself. And yet there is no doubt that to many it will appear not merely difficult but even impossible to observe (…) Indeed it cannot be observed unless God comes to their help with the grace by which the goodwill of men is sustained and strengthened.”

— HV #20

And this grace is attained through an assiduous attendance of the Sacraments, namely Eucharist and Penance. In other words, as Francis says in Amoris Laetitia, the Sacraments are to be viewed as “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the sick” not as a “prize for the perfect“:

“For this reason husbands and wives should take up the burden appointed to them, willingly, in the strength of faith and of that hope which “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” Then let them implore the help of God with unremitting prayer and, most of all, let them draw grace and charity from that unfailing fount which is the Eucharist. If, however, sin still exercises its hold over them, they are not to lose heart. Rather must they, humble and persevering, have recourse to the mercy of God, abundantly bestowed in the Sacrament of Penance. In this way, for sure, they will be able to reach that perfection of married life”

— HV #25

Now, please note how the above quote seems to hint at a subtle gradualism. Paul VI admits that sin may “exercise its hold over the couple” and that they may fall time and time again. The Pope tells them “not to lose heart” and to “persevere“, so that they may be able to reach the “perfection of married life.” Not for now, but eventually in the future they may succeed.

However, HV doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Magisterium does not become stale when a document is released, but builds upon it, especially if the implementation of said document is met with obstacles and problems. In 1989, Pope St. John Paul II issued his “The moral norms of Humanae Vitae and pastoral duty“, which states:

“The same Christian moral tradition just referred to, has also always maintained the distinction – not the separation and still less an opposition – between objective disorder and subjective guilt. Accordingly, when it is a matter of judging subjective moral behaviour without ever setting aside the norm which prohibits the intrinsic disorder of contraception, it is entirely licit to take into due consideration the various factors and aspects of the person’s concrete action, not only the person’s intentions and motivations, but also the diverse circumstances of life, in the first place all those causes which may affect the person’s knowledge and free will. This subjective situation, while it can never change into something ordered that which is intrinsically disordered, may to a greater or lesser extent modify the responsibility of the person who is acting. As is well known, this is a general principle, applicable to every moral disorder, even if intrinsic, it is accordingly applicable also to contraception. In this line, the concept of the “law of gradualness” has been rightly developed, not only in moral and pastoral theology, but also on the level of pronouncements of the Magisterium itself.”

Later on, the same document would foreshadow Francis’ calls for accompaniment of the sinners that find themselves in the clutches of these sins:

“To everyone, but especially to priests who are pastors of souls, is entrusted the task of accompanying couples with a patient and courageous love of helping them to form a conscience which judges according to the truth and of developing an ever more intense spiritual life as is needed to understand the law of God and meet its demands, within a social and cultural context which often provides little or no support. Moral theologians, then, if they do not wish to contradict the professional obligations of one who studies and teaches the moral doctrine of the Church, should not create obstacles for the moral conscience of spouses in the journey towards the truth of their love”

Also in the context of Humanae Vitae, John Paul II published a “Vademecum for Confessors concerning some aspects of the morality of conjugal life” (VC), in which we can find many of the teachings Francis has appropriated in Amoris Laetitia for another intrinsically evil act: remarriage after divorce. We can find the notion that it is “preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance” whenever it is “foreseen that the penitent (…) would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin” (VC, section 3, #8). We can find the idea that confessors should not “exact humanly impossible absolute guarantees of an irreproachable future conduct” (VC, 3, #11). We can find the quote about the “pastoral law of gradualness” (VC, 3, #9). And finally, we can see a particular case where it is licit for someone to cooperate with the spouse’s intrinsically evil act, provided that some conditions are met, thereby showing that it is possible to have mitigating circumstances for an intrinsically evil act (VC, 3, #13).

This is not a novelty. HV’s predecessor, Casti connubii, written by Pius XI prior to the Second Vatican Council, already describes a situation where the intrinsically evil act of contraception could have its guilt mitigated to such a degree that there would be no sin.

“Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin”

— Casti connubii, #59

In short, it is not true that AL can be used to undermine or overthrow HV. Rather, AL heavily inspires itself on HV (and, in fact, on a Church tradition regarding mitigating circumstances that predates HV). AL uses the precedent set on the topic contraception to build an adequate pastoral for another sin affecting the conjugal relation: the remarriage of someone who is a divorcee (I have written more extensively on that here.) Once more, Francis shows himself an attentive and faithful disciple of HV, while those who misuse HV to attack him show they have not understood the text at all.


3. Faithfulness to the Magisterium

But there is another way through which AL dissenters are unfaithful to HV. When he penned HV, Paul VI knew the turmoil and widespread rejection his text would nurture among the Church. So, he appealed to his authority as the Successor of Peter, in order to try to curb in the hearts of his faithful the temptation of dissent. Of course, this plea also extends to Francis, who is a Pope just like Paul:

“[Relatively to priests] In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church (…) you are bound to such obedience. Nor will it escape you that if men’s peace of soul and the unity of the Christian people are to be preserved, then it is of the utmost importance that in moral as well as in dogmatic theology all should obey the magisterium of the Church and should speak as with one voice”

— HV #28

And also:

 “And this We do relying on the unshakable teaching of the Church, which teaching Peter’s successor together with his brothers in the Catholic episcopate faithfully guards and interprets “

— HV #29

How different is this from the often heard cries of “papolatry” and “ultramontanism” coming from the quarters of those who seek to dissent from AL! They claim to be faithful to HV, and yet disregard such fundamental parts of it…

Just like they focused all their attention on a twisted reading of AL’s Chapter 8, while ignoring everything else in such a rich document, they seem to have focused all their attention on HV’s prohibition of artificial contraception (and a twisted reading of such prohibition at that) while ignoring everything else, namely the chapters on “Responsible Parenthood” and “Pastoral Directives“. Just like they ignored every other pastoral document that followed and flowed from HV.

But for those who have read HV in its entirety and with an open-mind, the hermeneutic of continuity between HV and AL is notorious. This is why I would like to finish by quoting an HV excerpt that summarizes everything I said, and could as well have been written by Pope Francis himself:

“So speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness “

— HV #29

Pedro Gabriel

Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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