Robert McClory recently wrote an article for the National Catholic* Reporter, opining that Pope Francis should revisit the question of the morality of birth control. As per usual for the Reporter, this dissent from Church teaching contains many problems.
Problem #1: Terminology. This is a widespread problem, so I can\’t really fault McClory, but his terminology is problematic. The Church does not, in fact, teach that “birth control,” when used to refer to spacing pregnancies, is intrinsically immoral. In fact, the words “birth control” do not appear in the Catechism. The closest term is “regulation of births,” about which the CCC states, “The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).”
In other words, it is not intrinsically immoral to use “birth control” to space pregnancies, provided that the method of birth control used is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. The Church teaches that there are only two such methods: periodic abstinence or complete abstinence (see CCC 2370).
Contraception, however, is a form of birth control that is intrinsically immoral and is not permitted under any circumstances. As Humanae Vitae states, contraception is “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.”
McClory is specifically speaking about the Church’s teachings regarding the intrinsic evil of contraception when he refers to birth control. He also states that the Church “forbids any form of artificial contraception” (emphasis mine), implying that moral methods of birth regulation are some sort of natural contraception, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Problem #2: Too Many of Them, Just Enough of Him. McClory begins his article citing Pope Francis’ general audience on June 5, in which the Holy Father laments the plight of children who are starving and encourages Catholics to do what they can to remedy that issue.
McClory’s solution is not to feed the children, or donate food, money, or other resources toward that end, or work toward reforming corrupt governments that hinder adequate food distribution. No, his solution is… wait for it… contraception!
Frankly speaking, this attitude is one of eugenics smothered with a thin veneer of false compassion. “We must think of the children!” is camouflage for this sentiment: “The hungry of the world are the poor, unfit, unwashed masses, so of course there should be less of them. We wouldn\’t those undesirables to breed, would we?”
If McClory did his research, he\’d know that the World Food Programme – the world\’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide – states that “There is enough food in the world today for everyone to have the nourishment necessary for a healthy and productive life.“ The problem is access, and throwing contraception at people who\’d much prefer to have nutritious food is not going to solve that issue. (Incidentally, a search for the term “contraception” on WFP\’s site yields no results; obviously, unlike McClory, they don\’t believe it\’s the magical panacea for solving world hunger.)
Problem #3: The Holy Spirit Got It Wrong. McClory claims that he\’s “not suggesting the pope announce he is rescinding the church\’s position as dictated by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.” No, not at all! He just wants Pope Francis to re-examine Responsible Parenthood, which was issued by the Vatican\’s Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth in 1966. This document encouraged Paul VI to amend the Church\’s current position on contraception, arguing that the Pill should be an “exception” to the contraception ban since it didn\’t alter the physical aspects of the marital act (unlike condoms, which placed a barrier between man and wife).
Interestingly, it was Paul\’s VI intention that this document was for his eyes only, but unfortunately a copy was leaked to the press and its contents became available for public dissemination. The document caused many Catholics to believe that a change in teaching regarding contraception was imminent, as it was portrayed as the “majority opinion” of the Commission. The fact that, to quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “Truth is not determined by majority vote” was a concept apparently lost to many Catholics at that time (and is a concept still lost to many Catholics today, including the entire staff of the National Catholic Reporter).
Paul VI, however, knew that the Commission was largely composed of pro-contraception advocates from its inception. According to Dr. Germain Grisez, emeritus Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University, “Paul VI was aware of the ideological leanings of those he had appointed to the Commission, and had composed the Commission in this way in order to give their argument a fair hearing.”
Their arguments did not convince Paul VI, however, and two years later he issued Humanae Vitae, restating the Church\’s constant, unchanging teaching on artificial birth control and making several dire predictions about the negative changes that would come to pass if contraception became accepted and widespread among the populace – predictions that have all come true.
You\’d think that the fact that these predictions have come true is simply evidence that Paul VI was correct in his decision, and that his words and actions in continuing to uphold the Church\’s ban on contraception were inspired by the Holy Spirit, wouldn\’t you?
Not so, says McClory\’s article. He believes that the Commission was “ahead of its time,” and his implication is that Paul VI went against the \”correct\” teaching and instead taught error as doctrine. Moreover, using this logic, the Church has continued teaching error as doctrine – the ban on contraception is reiterated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which is, according to Pope John Paul II, “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion“), and JPII also reaffirmed the evil of contraception in his encyclical Evengelium Vitae.
In short, McClory believes that the Holy Spirit got it wrong when He inspired the Church to reaffirm the ban against contraception, which means that the gates of Hell have prevailed against the Church and Jesus was a liar. Therefore, Catholicism is a false religion. Given this logic, why does McClory bother to remain in a Church that he firmly believes teaches error as doctrine and has proven itself, by his own reasoning, to be a false church? How can he trust any of the teachings of the Church if he knows that She has taught error on one important aspect of doctrine (and if he\’s in favor of women\’s ordination, as are most of the NCR staff, that\’s another crucial area of doctrine the Church has allegedly gotten wrong)?
Problem #4: Pope Francis is Going to Change Church Teaching. McClory “couldn\’t help noting how the language of the document [Responsible Parenthood] so resembled the calm, non-argumentative, pastoral style of the current pope.”
I can\’t think of a single papal document issued in the last forty years or so that could be described as angry, argumentative, or non-pastoral, but his implication is that Francis\’ style is markedly different than that of Paul VI or JPII or Benedict XVI – yet reading any of the documents issued by any of these popes shows that they were all (or are still, in Pope Benedict\’s case) thoughtful, reasonable, pastoral shepherds of our Church.
I think McClory is projecting his own feelings of anger and dissent on the writings of the popes with whom he disagrees, and he\’s hoping that Pope Francis, whom he sees as more \”liberal,\” will change all that by also changing Church teaching – because to accept the recommendations of Responsible Parenthood would be to do just that.
So no, Mr. McClory, Pope Francis will not “take on birth control,” because the teaching that contraception is an intrinsic evil is a teaching of the magisterium and is part of the Deposit of Faith. Pope Francis has neither the authority nor the desire to change this doctrine, and his pontificate so far has only served to emphasize that fact.
Stop fantasizing about what you hope Pope Francis will say and start listening to what he has actually said, such as in Lumen Fidei:
As a service to the unity of faith and its integral transmission, the Lord gave his Church the gift of apostolic succession. Through this means, the continuity of the Church’s memory is ensured and certain access can be had to the wellspring from which faith flows. The assurance of continuity with the origins is thus given by living persons, in a way consonant with the living faith which the Church is called to transmit. She depends on the fidelity of witnesses chosen by the Lord for this task. For this reason, the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds. In Saint Paul’s farewell discourse to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, which Saint Luke recounts for us in the Acts of the Apostles, he testifies that he had carried out the task which the Lord had entrusted to him of \”declaring the whole counsel of God\” (Acts 20:27). Thanks to the Church’s magisterium, this counsel can come to us in its integrity, and with it the joy of being able to follow it fully.”
*While this publication still identifies itself as Catholic, they were requested to remove that identifier from their name as early as 1968 – and the current bishop, Robert W. Finn, has also identified them as a problematic media source when it comes to authentic Catholic reporting.