The question of birth control, sometimes described as the “elephant in the room” at the Synod of Bishops on the Family, was the focus of a bluntly worded talk by a lay auditor at the Vatican assembly.
The auditor, Sharron Cole from New Zealand, told the synod that the teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae has been largely ignored by Catholic couples. This has led to a “paralyzed” pastoral situation that requires a fresh discussion — not by clergy alone, who have shown inadequate understanding of sexuality and psychology in the way they have dealt with clerical sexual abuse, she said.
“The time is now for this synod to propose that the Church re-examine its teaching on marriage and sexuality, and its understanding of responsible parenthood, in a dialogue of laity and bishops together,” Cole said.
Cole was one of few people to talk at the synod about Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that declared it immoral for married couples to use artificial birth control. The encyclical allowed for natural methods of spacing births, and Cole said that as a former board member of a natural family planning organization, she found that this method worked for motivated couples.
But for many couples, she added, the natural method is not practicable. The teaching that artificial contraception is intrinsically wrong has provoked “massive dissent,” she noted, with Catholics essentially making their own decision in conscience.
“The response of the Church to this unsatisfactory situation has been for better catechesis or to ignore the dissent. This ‘paralyzed status quo’ cannot continue,” Cole said.
“The matter must be discussed afresh but lay people will not be content to leave it to clergy alone. Too many in authority responded to clergy sexual abuse in a way which demonstrated that they lacked the expertise in sexuality and psychology to make good decisions, with the result they became complicit in perpetuating enormous harm, harm done to lay people,” she said.
“It will take not more catechesis but rather listening with deep empathy to restore the credibility of the Church in matters of sexual ethics,” she said.