The pope has arrived — and should feel right at home. He is, after all, an American. South American, but still American, and we New Worlders need to support one another.
I’m a big fan of Francis I, just as I was a big fan of John XXIII. For a while, I was also a fan of John’s successor, Paul VI — until 1968 when he made the fateful decision to reaffirm, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Church’s opposition to contraception.
The ban, contrary to what most Catholics may think, had only been Church doctrine for 38 years at that point — a relatively recent development.
It was instituted by Pius XI in 1930 in response to two societal developments:
Advancements in technology made condoms more reliable and easily accessible, and
Protestant denominations embraced the freedom this afforded people who wanted to practice what we now call “birth control.”
The Catholic Church never embraced anything that Protestants embraced because they were still miffed about the Reformation several hundred years earlier, when the Roman Catholic Church lost its religious monopoly in Europe. The Catholic hierarchy never forgave the Protestants for having the audacity to reform a terribly corrupt Church, and the hierarchs continue to resist reform even today, in particular the ban on contraception.
To be fair, they don’t oppose contraception only because of the Protestants (or, as they call themselves, Christians). Their opposition is also grounded in theology.
Using a few imaginatively interpreted Bible passages, the male hierarchy concluded that all sexual activity must be open to the possibility of procreation, which, they say, is what makes sex sacred. Deliberately attempting to prevent conception, therefore, is “unnatural” and offensive to God.
This peculiar notion that certain select people can “read God’s mind” is called “natural law,” which leads to bad theology because it inevitably projects our own deep-seated hang-ups onto God.
Traditionalists would argue that it is the Church’s teaching, nonetheless, and cannot be changed.
Not true. The Church, for instance, once taught that the entire universe revolved around the Earth and branded Galileo a heretic for suggesting (actually proving) otherwise. Several centuries later, Pope John Paul II finally got around to admitting that Galileo was right.
So if the Church could change its teaching about the structure of the entire universe, it can certainly change its teaching about contraception.
In fact, a commission in the 1960s, established by the pope himself, recommended, by a wide margin, precisely that: overturning the ban. But those resistant to change convinced Paul VI that such a move would undermine papal authority. So he upheld the ban, which had the ironic consequence of … undermining papal authority. Most American Catholics, then and now, disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception and widely disobey the ban.
Traditionalists say, “We can’t just change our teaching to keep up with every whim and trend in an ever-changing society!”
That’s true. The Church, however, can change its teaching based on better theology.
Refinements and elaborations can be filled in by the professional theologians, but here is the outline of a theological argument in favor of birth control:
Procreation is not the only thing that makes sex sacred. First and foremost, sexual intercourse is an expression of love between committed partners. New life can be a beautiful (and sacred) outcome of that expression, but that is not its only purpose. After all, just as sex without love falls short of the sacred, so does procreation without love.
Our highest priority, therefore, should be emphasizing the importance of sex with love and commitment.
So if authentic expression of love is what makes sex holy, then we must be more than mere procreating machines. We need to be responsible partners, deciding (insofar as technology allows) if and when we will bring children into the world. This reflects an evolving and more mature relationship with the divine — moving at long last beyond our outdated, childish model.
Bringing life into the world intentionally, then, becomes a sacred act, whereas bringing life into the world randomly and accidentally is, well, less.
When two committed lovers exert a measure of control over when they take this important step, they are showing great respect for the sacredness of life, not disrespect. Contraception allows for this kind of thoughtful intentionality, and it should be encouraged, not discouraged.
Bringing fewer unwanted children into the world is a good thing. Bringing wanted children into the world is a great thing. Contraception provides a valuable tool to achieve both, so it should be supported theologically.
Pope Francis can begin to reverse the loss of papal authority by encouraging theologians to provide a solid basis for transcending the Church’s wrong-headed opposition to contraception.
He can also encourage development of a strong theological foundation for ordaining women deacons (and eventually priests), making celibacy optional for clergy, and, eventually, affirming same-sex marriage.
Getting this long-derailed Church back on track is a formidable task, to be sure, but if anyone can do it, Francis can.
I have faith in him.