Almost without meaning to, Francis has shot ‘Humanae Vitae’ dead
[Methinks he doth such deliberately]
Posted on April 15, 2016
From Clifford Longley in THE TABLET [of London], 14 April 2016, via 188.8.131.52/holynamejesmond.co.uk/uncategorized/almost-without-meaning-to-francis-has-shot-humanae-vitae-dead/
In 2009 the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission proposed a fundamental change to the way the Church regarded natural law. It could not be presented “as an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject”, it said. Instead, “it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions”.
This raised some eyebrows, not least because of the way natural law had consistently been imposed a priori by moral theologians to explain and justify Catholic teaching regarding sex. The most obvious example was the way natural law was invoked as the basis of the case against contraception, for instance in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.
But that redefinition of the role of natural law was just the opinion of a select group of theologians. Or at least it was until last Friday. That was when Pope Francis gave it the authority of his office when he adopted it as his own, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. At the start of the process of consultation that led up to Amoris Laetitia, including two international synods, a questionnaire had been circulated asking to what extent ordinary Catholics understood natural law. A summary of the responses strongly suggested they did not.
But there is a wider picture. There is a growing feeling in various parts of the Church – of satisfaction among liberals and dismay among conservatives – that under this Pope, Humanae Vitae itself has been falling apart at the seams. His undermining of the traditional way of using natural law followed his remarks, about the Zika virus in Brazil – that intervening to prevent pregnancy could in such cases be “the lesser of two evils”.
This clearly allied him with those Catholic leaders who have suggested that the use of condoms to prevent infection from the HIV virus could be acceptable. The reason conservative Catholic leaders have resisted this is not because they want people to die of Aids, but because one exception is enough to drive a coach and horses through the whole thing.
Humanae Vitae was quite explicit. Artificial intervention to prevent pregnancy was against natural law. It was always wrong, always gravely sinful. That was the logic of it. There could be no relaxation for hard cases, no matter how dire the consequences. A married woman who had been warned by doctors that another pregnancy could be fatal, could either rely on the “safe” period, based on her menstrual cycle, or, if that was not safe enough, avoid sexual intercourse altogether. Or conceive, and possibly die. There was no question of “a deeply personal process of making decisions” because there was no other way.
Behind the phrase “the lesser of two evils” is, of course, the implication that one of those two choices is subjectively no evil at all. Very probably – to protect health and life, for instance – it is actually a moral good. In other words, if your reasons are sound enough, you may choose to use contraception.
If Humanae Vitae had said that in 1968, even with stern warnings against developing a “contraceptive mentality” and so on, things would have been very different. Tens of millions of Catholic women, and many men too, would not have turned their backs on the Church and would have stayed to listen to the positive and important things it had to say about personal relationships, such as the many wise words of Pope Francis on the subject.
So tenuous was the natural law basis for the 1968 decision that St Pope John Paul II saw the need to back it up with better arguments. He was urged to do so by the synod he convened in 1980. In a key passage in his post-synod exhortation Familiaris Consortio of 1981, he produced a developed form of the natural law argument, an appeal to anthropology.
He declared that the difference between using contraception and relying on the safe period “is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality”. He goes on to assert his compassion for those who find the teaching difficult, but offers them no other choice, no lesser evil. He could not. He knew that to do so would undermine the entire edifice.
And now Pope Francis has done precisely that. Almost without meaning to, he has shot Humanae Vitae dead. And I have to say, it will not be missed. The Church will be better without it. Few papal texts have caused so much misery, or driven so many away.