A stern message on birth control at the Synod of Bishops

A stern message on birth control at the Synod of Bishops

Delivering a stern pastoral message against contraception at the Synod of Bishops, a French cardinal lamented that Catholic couples who use birth control often fail to recognize that it’s a grave sin that needs to be confessed before they take Communion.

Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris made the remarks in introducing the theme of “knowledge and acceptance of the Magisterium on the openness to life,” a focus of the synod’s fourth day of deliberations.

Many Catholics fail to distinguish between contraception and methods of natural fertility regulation, the cardinal told the synod. He said the cause was to be found in the clash between the Christian understanding of anthropology and that of the “dominant mentality.”

“All this has consequences for the sacramental practice of couples who often do not think their use of contraceptive methods is a sin, and therefore tend not to make it a matter of confession and, in fact, receive communion without problems,” he said.

He said the church should use new language and collaborate with the academic world in promoting “a mentality that is open to life and that opposes the contraceptive mentality.” He said the spread of an individualistic anthropological model” was resulting in lower birth rates and other social consequences.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois was introducing testimony from a Brazilian married couple, Arturo and Hermelinda As Zamberline, who spoke to the synod on the same theme. The couple, who head a marital spirituality movement in Brazil, emphasized that the sexual act should be seen as “willed and blessed by God” as an expression of love in marriage, and that a “healthy eroticism” was part of this language of love.

They added that “‘the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life’ and therefore ‘every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.’” The second part of that line quoted from Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that declared contraceptive birth control was “absolutely excluded.”

The couple acknowledged that, in their experience, most Catholic couples do not feel bound by the church’s teaching against contraception, and the couples are generally not questioned about their practice by priests. They said part of the problem was “contradictory advice” given by the church, and they urged clear pastoral programs for priests and lay Catholics, to help couples implement the teachings of Humanae Vitae.

The Brazilians told the synod that natural family planning methods of birth spacing, which are allowed by the church, are “theoretically” good, but seem impractical for many modern couples, mainly because they require time for training. When superficially explained and misused, these methods gain a reputation as unreliable, and most Catholic couples don’t use them, they said.

4 comments (Add your own)

1. pacang wrote:
Artificial, non-abortifacient Contraception should be allowed by the RCC.

NFP (Billings, Sympto-thermal, Creighton, etc) is highly unreliable and drives a physical and emotional wedge between married couples (personal experience). By allowing only NFP, the Church sets its married laity up for failure in their attempts to regulate the number of their children.

I agree -- a "contraceptive mentality" that results in extremely low birth rates is bad. Just as bad though is the Church's ban on contraceptives that results in scenarios I see a lot here in the Philippines: young, homeless couples (mid 30's) with no viable livelihood trying to support six, eight or even ten starving children in the most squalid conditions imaginable.

What is needed here is not extremism towards either side (too little kids or too many), but moderation; a middle ground where married couples are allowed more reliable methods of controlling the number of their kids while being able to be intimate.

To those who say NFP can achieve this, I disagree. How many NFP practitioners are there who are regularly intimate and have a reasonable number of kids? Yes, there are some. But for every successful NFP practitioner, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of NFP couples who have failed and have either:

1. Opted out and are now using contraceptives after having one "surprise" too many;
2. Chosen to continue to use NFP with the consequence of having more kids that they can handle;
3. Decided to live in sexless marriages

Pro-NFP people pass a lot of judgment on us who fail at it: control your urges; it's just a few nights; you're a sex maniac, that's the problem; you don't respect your wife.

Really? It's that simple? Just a few nights? Maybe if the wife has regular cycles and clear signs, it would be. But what if that isn't the case? Here's my personal experience:

My wife's cycles can be as short as 7 days and as long as 38. Her signs are mixed up all the time, and she ovulates twice in one cycle once every four or five months. It's so mixed up that even our OB can't make sense of it. I brought it up with my spiritual adviser and he told me we should live a sexless marriage.

A sexless marriage? I can't do it. Neither can my wife. Some people can do it, of course. Couples who are estranged. Couples who fight more than talk. Couples who spend date nights staring down at their respective Ipad's the entire night. Not us. I love her very much, and she me. We are that annoying PDA couple everybody hates seeing -- we talk and laugh the whole day; we walk holding hands or with our arms wrapped around each others' shoulders; we steal kisses when we think nobody is looking. Yes, we are THAT couple. I am proud of it though. I am proud of it because we are not puppy-love-struck teenagers. No. We've been married ten years and have four very young children, one of whom has autism. To be able to remain this romantic and affectionate with a partner after ten years and four kids is a terrific achievement, in my opinion.

So, as affectionate as we are to each other and as irregular as my wife's cycles are, what do you think happens in our bedroom? By and large, it's neurotic effort not to get aroused that causes a lot of anxiety and trepidation. Other nights, after weeks of abstinence, it's a resigned acceptance that we can no longer resist the temptation and we go ahead and "risk it". The way we're going, baby number 5 is probably just around the corner. I'm just 34 and she's just 33. How many kids can we end up with before her menopause? Considering autism's link to genetics, how many more autistic kids could we possibly have?

The way I see it, the only possible way we can stay true to Church teachings and keep the number of our kids steady at the four that we already have is to do a St. Isidore the Laborer, i.e., me moving out of our home and limiting social and physical contact with my wife. See, I have no problems with sexual temptations as long as I'm not alone in the bedroom with her. This would definitely work for us as far as the sexual abstinence goes.

But what about our family? What about our kids? What kind of family would we be if Mommy and Daddy lived in separate houses (assuming we could even financially afford to do so) and barely talked to each other? What about the marital romance between me and my wife? What we have is what millions of other couples can only dream of, and we should throw it away because the one and only way the Onan seed-spilling incident can be interpreted is condoms are immoral?

If an unmarried couple want to sleep in the same room (even adamantly promising: we won't have sex, honest!), what would a priest say? "No, my son. No, my daughter. That is an occasion of sin of lust. In the cold, cozy night, between the sheets with your bodies pressed together, you won't be able to control yourselves. You will end up having sex, I'm 100% sure."

But if a married couple who have trouble with NFP (and there are plenty of us) were to approach a priest for help, what does the priest usually say? "Live a chaste marriage, my son. Pray for spiritual stamina so you may live the next 15 reproductive years of your marriage in chastity."

Really? How can we succeed where the unmarried couple would "surely 100% fail"? It's the same premise, the same situation. How can the results be different?

See -- setting us up to fail; asking for the impossible. That's what it is.

Thu, October 9, 2014 @ 10:26 PM

2. William LeMaire wrote:
I am weighing in here as a catholic obstetrician and gynecologist on the issue of family planning.

On an almost daily basis I deal with the dilemma of "following the teachings of the church" thereby denying patients safe and effective methods of family planning, versus following my conscience by prescribing, inserting, operating , and advising so that my patients can benefit from these reliable and safe methods of family planning, including sterilization ( I am purposely omitting abortion from this discussion)

The Catholic Church allows so called natural methods of family planning, While under ideal circumstances and practiced to the letter, these methods may be effective and certainly safe, research has clearly shown that in practice these methods are not very reliable and associated with an unacceptable rate of failure.

It is also clear from numerous surveys that a large number of catholics around the world are ignoring the teachings of the church in this regard and are resorting to effective methods for planning their families. And quite obviously, also many catholic health providers, not only doctors but also nurses, health aides, and physician assistants are providing their clients with these effective methods.

By calling this synod Pope Francis has clearly indicated that he is willing to listen. It is hoped by me and undoubtedly millions of other catholics that the synod will result in clearing up the ambiguity and take away the dilemma that many of us, both at the giving and at the receiving end face in our daily lives, and allow us to follow our conscience and do whatever we feel is right for a particular situation.

I wonder if the voice of the caregiver (doctors, nurses, etc) is being heard at the synod.

Sat, October 11, 2014 @ 8:47 AM

3. Catholic Husband, Father, Engineer and Farmer wrote:
What is wonderful about the Synod is that it appears the Fathers and "husbands" of the Church are finally listening to their "wives and children" -- the laity and faithful who are struggling and trying to live Church teaching. As a practical husband and farmer/engineer who has lived and struggled with the Church's teaching on life -- no artificial contraception and embracing life, I also know that it is not easy. The "law of gradualness" that Pope Francis and the Synod leaders keep mentioning is essential for applying the challenging teachings of the Gospel with real people who have real pains.

A note of caution about saying to quickly that NFP doesn't work, or that a couple should live a sexless marriage as suggested above. Both can be viewpoints on the outer edges of Truth, and can miss the joy and healing that can come from at least attempting to live the Church teaching on life. As I have learned many times even the struggle is holy, and the Truth is often in the middle of the controversy. BTW -- My wife has very similar issues with her cycles, and I have heard the standard line that using artificial birth control is a grave sin. Insights from caring pastors and my own personal prayer suggest that if my heart is broken and focused on loving my wife that it is probably not a grave sin. This is where the "law of gradualness' worked out in confidence with a caring Catholic pastor applies. At the same time the law of gradualness should not be misinterpreted as a gradualness of the law. JP II. These are really matters of conscience that are best worked out slowly and carefully and albeit painfully over time.

It is also interesting to note that we discovered the cause of inconsistent cycles is often due to thyroid issues that are a common reaction in women from chemicals in most processed food, and using some artificial birth control medications. At the same time there is good chance that dealing with the challenges like autism, too many children, mental and physical illness can and should be considered "grave" circumstances where conscience demands that some artificial contraception methods or possibly surgical method would be highly appropriate.

All good practical and caring discussions that are happening within our Church. I am just very glad that the Fathers of the Church are taking time to really listen to the reality of life and the pains of their wife and children -- the laity. Pax Christi

Mon, October 13, 2014 @ 11:05 PM

4. John O'Leary wrote:
Thanks for the article, and two very interesting comments.

I think that not enough attention is given to the question of whether the principle that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" can be justified either logically or theologically. It makes theological and logical sense to say that every marriage must remain open to the transmission of life. This is trite in canon law and theology and indeed in the secular jurisprudence of many states. To go one step further and say that every marriage ACT must remain open to the transmission of life seems to me to be neither logically nor theologically justifiable. It is not logical because it is not possible. Acts of intercourse in infertile periods and post-menopause are simply not open to the transmission of life. Theologically I am not sure that there is any source in scripture or tradition which justifies teaching a theological principle which is founded on an impossibility. The sensus fidei of the laity in almost universally refusing to receive this aspect of Humane Vitae is, or should be, a clear indicator that the church risks losing what little credibility it has left in the field of sexual ethics if it does not remove the word ACT from the teaching that "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life."

Tue, November 18, 2014 @ 8:10 AM

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