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  • John Thavis

The synod and birth control

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

In recent months, I’ve often been asked whether the October Synod of Bishops on the family will be looking at the issue of birth control.

There are so many other important questions on the synod’s agenda, including the real-life struggles of families that face separation, poverty and violence, that one hesitates to focus on a doctrinal issue like contraception.

Yet it’s a logical question. Birth control is arguably the biggest and best example of the disconnect that exists between the Catholic Church’s official teaching on marriage and actual practice by Catholic couples.

The church teaching, proclaimed in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, says the use of contraceptive methods is intrinsically evil. Yet surveys in many countries, including the United States, show that the vast majority of Catholics have used contraceptive birth control and believe it to be morally acceptable.

Synod planners have declared that ignorance or rejection of church teaching on marriage and the family represents a major challenge to pastors, one that needs to be discussed at the October assembly in Rome.

But don’t look for birth control to be a big part of that discussion.

The synod’s working document, which will be the basis for discussion when the synod opens Oct. 5, frames the issue in the traditional Vatican perspective: If only people understood our arguments, they could accept our teachings. Many of the Catholic faithful, the document states, have no knowledge of the relevant church documents or a poor understanding of the “Christian anthropology” that underlies the teaching on birth control.

If the working document sets the tone, we can expect to hear much during this synod about the need for better catechesis, better preaching, better training of priests and a renewal of language that makes concepts like “natural law” more comprehensible to the average Catholic.

What we won’t hear, I think, is any suggestion that the church should revisit the teaching against contraception. Nor is there likely to be much clamor for a closer look at a related, crucial issue: the exercise of papal teaching authority, which, as seen in Humanae Vitae and subsequent declarations, has become increasingly authoritarian and less collegial.

The synod, in other words, does not appear eager to probe too deeply into why most Catholic couples reject this fundamental teaching, and whether the experience of these Catholics might offer fresh insight into the church’s understanding of natural moral law. This is surely one of the elephants in the room: the relationship between the magisterium, the church’s teaching authority, and the sensus fidelium, the instinct that enables the faithful to recognize authentic Christian doctrine and reject what is false.

In reviewing pre-synod survey results from dioceses, the synod’s working document was forced to acknowledge that “for many Catholics, the concept of ‘responsible parenthood’ encompasses the shared responsibility in conscience to choose the most appropriate method of birth control.” In response, the document says the church should make Humanae Vitae better known, explain natural family planning more effectively, and offer better pre-marriage preparation and “instructional courses on love in general.”

Pope Francis, while calling the teaching on birth control “prophetic,” has indicated some space for discussion when it comes to pastoral practice. Francis pointed out in an interview last spring that even Pope Paul VI, who wrote Humanae Vitae, recommended to confessors “much mercy and attention to concrete situations.”

“The issue is not changing the doctrine, but going deeper and making sure that pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do. This, too, will be discussed in the synod,” Pope Francis said.

Given the outcry from doctrinal conservatives every time “freedom of conscience” is invoked on unpopular church teachings, it’s hard to imagine this kind of discussion gaining much traction in Rome. Maybe the synod will surprise us.

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