One of the most prevailing fears (and one of the most often evoked) by Francis critics is that the Holy Father wishes to overturn Humanae Vitae (HV). The now 50 year old encyclical is currently disregarded by a vast number of Catholics worldwide (or at least, in the developed world.) This has led to an understandable, but sometimes disproportionate reaction on the part of more orthodox sectors of the Church, so that HV has become a way for them to gauge each person’s Catholicity. Furthermore, the teaching inscribed in HV about the naturally procreative end of sexuality within marriage is perceived (not incorrectly, in my opinion) as the cornerstone where every other single sexual teaching of the Church hinges, so that if HV would be overturned, the whole corpus of Catholic sexual ethics would be up for grabs.
So, it is certainly comprehensible that, if Francis critics view the pope as a liberal, they would be very nervous whenever His Holiness would as so much come near HV. So, when Francis said that Catholics do not need to breed “like rabbits“, the anti-Francis community reacted with outrage. When Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL), loosening up the pastoral restraints imposed on the divorced and remarried, dissenters would say that this logic could also be used to undermine HV. And they found validation for these fears when they learned, to their dismay, that the Pope was taking the opportunity of the encyclical’s 50th anniversary to set up a commission to study HV.
The question is: are these concerns rooted in reality? After all, the commission that was supposedly going to overturn HV finished its work by concluding that “Humanae Vitae needs no update.” However, we would never hear from it in the dissenter community, which has not assimilated this blunder in their predictions with a modicum of humility. They didn’t take the time to breathe in relief and say to themselves: “maybe we misjudged the Pope, I wonder if we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Without learning any lesson at all, they will just go haywire whenever Francis even hints at doing or talking about anything related to sexuality. “This is it, this time is it!” – they will cry.
However, my contention is that these conservative dissenters would not see the abrogation of HV as an impending danger looming on the horizon if they just listened to the Pope and took his teachings at face value, instead of being constantly suspicious of His Holiness’ intentions.
(The same can be said, by the way, of progressive dissenters who see Francis as one of their own and who long for the day HV will be overturned by him.)
So what is Francis’ opinion on HV, or about the Church’s ban on artificial contraception? In an interview to the Corriere de la Serra, Pope Francis answered that question thus:
“Interviewer: At half a century from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, can the Church take up again the theme of birth control? Cardinal Martini, your confrere, thought that the moment had come.
Francis: All of this depends on how Humanae Vitae is interpreted. Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations. But his genius was prophetic, he had the courage to place himself against the majority, defending the moral discipline, exercising a culture brake, opposing present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral (ministry) take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do. Also of this we will speak in the path of the synod.”
For many of the dissenters, “mercy” and “pastoral ministry” are codewords for a watering down of the Church’s teaching, not on a theoretical level, but on a practical one. I’ll address those charges as related to HV in a later article (published here). However, apart from that, we can see that Francis claims that Paul VI was “prophetic” in issuing HV, and that he “had the courage to place himself against the majority, defending the moral discipline, exercising a culture brake, opposing present and future neo-Malthusianism.” These do not seem to be the words of a pontiff with an axe to grind against HV. And, if any doubts lingered, the Pope clearly says that it is not a question of “changing the doctrine“, but of making the doctrine more pastoral. This can hardly surprise anyone… if HV has been utterly rejected by a great swathe of Catholics, there is no other solution left but to try to present the teaching in a different way, conducive to a greater receptiveness. This was, in fact, Pope St. John Paul II’s intention when he issued his Theology of the Body catecheses.
The same theme is echoed in another intervention by Pope Francis, during his 2015 Apostolic Visitation to the Philipines (emphasis mine):
“I think of Blessed Paul VI. At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his Encyclical he was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children. Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming. From his place in heaven, may he bless this evening!”
Once again, we have Francis’ typical emphasis on mercy and discernment of individual cases (which, as my later article will discuss, is in consonance with HV)… but also a recognition that Paul VI was “courageous” to “defend openness to life in families“. Those who try to lead the flock away from this path are compared to a “flock of wolves“, and they seem to be the ones who embody the “threat of families being destroyed for lack of children.”
In the aftermath of this Apostolic Visitation, the Pope reportedly called children a “gift from God” according to the National Catholic Register (a source which is not friendly with the Pope, nor of liberal ideologies).
So, if the Pope says, at the same time, that Catholics should not breed like rabbits and that children are a gift from God, we have two choices: either we submit to an ideological narrative according to which the Holy Father is inconsistent and tries to doubletalk his way into pleasing everyone (a narrative that doesn’t hold up, since the Pope never seemed to have been deterred from doing what he thinks needs to be done because he might not please some sectors of the Church)… or we give him the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that both statements are not mutually exclusive. Again, I’ll address this in my next article.
However (and as paradoxical as it might be) Pope Francis’ greatest support for HV comes through the document that allegedly would serve to overthrow HV: Amoris Laetitia. For in AL, HV is quoted none other than six times, always in a favorable light. In this much maligned document, Pope Francis explicitly says that “we need to return to the message of HV” (AL #82) and that the teaching of HV “should be taken anew” (AL #222). The most importante quotes are as follows:
“Blessed Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, further developed the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. In a particular way, with the Encyclical Humanae Vitae he brought out the intrinsic bond between conjugal love and the generation of life: ‘Married love 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 must be rightly understood… The exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties towards God, themselves, their families and human society’ (No. 10).”
— AL #68
Later on, Pope Francis lays out a very forceful and clear condemnation of completely separating sexuality from its procreative intention (emphasis mine):
“Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love” which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman” (…) Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”. The child who is born “does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment”. He or she does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life“
— AL #80
“Moreover, “the use of methods based on the ‘laws of nature and the incidence of fertility’ (Humanae Vitae, 11) are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them and favour the education of an authentic freedom’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2370). Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that children are a wonderful gift from God and a joy for parents and the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world”
— AL #222
Maybe a more attentive reading of the whole text instead of an excessive focus on Chapter 8 coupled with a pseudo-psychographic reading of the Pope’s alleged intentions would have saved a lot of headaches, both on the side of those who have been fostering criticism against the Holy Father and also on the side of the apologists that have to respond to their charges to defend the integrity of the Church.
Finally, Pope Francis mirrors his two immediate predecessors in condemning the State’s insistence of promoting contraception as a way to curb population growth and, in that way, fight against poverty and environmental hazards. Again, this happens in none other than AL:
“Furthermore, “the decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future. The development of bio-technology has also had a major impact on the birth rate”. Added to this are other factors such as “industrialization, the sexual revolution, the fear of overpopulation and economic problems (…) ”. The upright consciences of spouses who have been generous in transmitting life may lead them, for sufficiently serious reasons, to limit the number of their children, yet precisely “for the sake of this dignity of conscience, the Church strongly rejects the forced State intervention in favour of contraception, sterilization and even abortion”. Such measures are unacceptable even in places with high birth rates, yet also in countries with disturbingly low birth rates we see politicians encouraging them. As the bishops of Korea have said, this is “to act in a way that is self-contradictory and to neglect one’s duty”.”
— AL #42
This call is repeated in another papal document, also maligned as an alleged instrument for advancing a liberal, progressive agenda: the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si:
“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
— Laudato Si, #50
In conclusion, if one reads the Pope’s actual words instead of the spin from sources hostile to him, we can rest assured that His Holiness is a faithful disciple of HV. Far from being an aggressor, Francis is, in fact, a protector of HV. In this, just like in the pro-life cause, the dissenters’ blind contempt for the pontiff leads them to shoot down a precious ally to their cause.
But then, what about the Pope’s remark that Catholics should not breed like rabbits? What if the Pope’s emphasis on “mercy” and “discernment” (in other words, reading HV through the lens of AL) is meant to water down the teaching from HV? Well, it is my firm belief that those “problems“, far from showing a hidden hostility to HV on the part of Pope Francis, are actually a way to correct some wrong interpretations on HV that many so-called orthodox apologists and theologians have been spreading along the years.
So, in my next article, I will focus on how HV actually paved the way for Francis’ pontificate, so that both are actually in continuity with one another, even if some non-authoritative interpreters of HV see discontinuity.
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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.