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  • John Thavis

A stern message on birth control at the Synod of Bishops

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

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.

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