The Elephant at the Synod: Contraception

At the Extraordinary Synod held at the Vatican in October, several Catholic married couples were invited as “non-voting” auditors to offer some experiences “from the ground up” for consideration by the synod fathers.

A Brazilian couple, Arturo and Hermelinda As Zamberline, were exceptional in focusing on contraception as the larger context in which the various problems concerning marriage should be understood. Their experience certainly coincides with the facts of Catholic existence in other parts of the world. As they put it:

We must admit without fear that many Catholic couples, even those who seek to live their marriage seriously, do not feel obligated to use only the natural methods [NFP]. . . .We must add that generally they are not questioned by their confessors [on the subject]. . . .In general, they do not consider [this] a moral problem.

The Zamberlines appealed to the pope and the Synod to clarify and propagate the teachings of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae vitae. One synod father, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, supported them, indicating that we have a new “paradigm” (a new “normal”?) for Catholic married couples: “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.”

The final Synod Report makes a brief mention (§58) of contraception, recommending “natural methods of human reproduction.” But the final sentence, translated into English, led to some ambiguous interpretations. The Italian reads, Va riscoperto il messaggio dell’Enciclica Humanae Vitae di Paolo VI, che sottolinea il bisogno di rispettare la dignità della persona nella valutazione morale dei metodi di regolazione della natalità, and the official English translation renders this as “we should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births.”

The synod fathers are of course referring to Paul VI’s insistence in Humanae vitae that the method for regulating births should respect personal dignity – e.g., §17, which says, “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

At the end of the Extraordinary Synod, Nicole Winfield, an AP reporter, offered a variant interpretation: “In their final synod document, bishops restated doctrine, but they also said the church must respect couples in their moral evaluation of contraception methods.” [emphasis added] In other words, she interprets the bishops as saying that we need to respect the dignity of the person in the act of evaluating which method to use in regulating births – it is a matter of individual conscience. If you or your confessor thinks the Pill is OK, then we respect your decision.

Arturo and Hermelinda As Zamberline
Arturo and Hermelinda As Zamberline

As it happens, this misinterpretation may coincide with the general opinion of Catholic couples (and their confessors), and why the vast majority seem to have no objection to contraception. If so, many of the marital/familial issues discussed at the Synod have as their “common denominator” contraceptive practices taken for granted. And this has, or should have, an effect on the Synod deliberations.

Some examples:

  • If a divorced couple never intended to be open to children, their marriage is invalid according to Canon Law; so an annulment almost seems superfluous.
  • If a partner in a valid marriage decides to use contraceptives to avoid having any children, and the spouse is unwilling, shouldn’t this be sufficient grounds for annulment for the spouse who did not consent to this arrangement?
  • If contracepting couples are practicing anti-procreative sex, how can they consistently judge gays who are similarly practicing non-procreative sex, and even prohibit the right of gays to marry?
  • If a cohabiting couple is contracepting, should this be an impediment to sacramental marriage?
  • When talking about admitting a divorcee to communion, shouldn’t the factor of contraception be taken into account? Or is this no longer relevant?

At the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod in October, our pastor expressed surprise in his Sunday homily that reception of Communion by those who have divorced and remarried should be considered a major theological conundrum, since as a matter of fact he and many of his fellow priests frequently, without any special consultation with a tribunal, grant this privilege to many who seek it.

This practice (called praxis in foro interno, i.e. related to the “internal forum” of conscience) was approved in 1973 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but was restricted by Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio, in 1981.

In a 2007 Apostolic Exhortation, Pope Benedict XVI (who had expressed some support for the practice as a theologian in 1972), stated that “[The 2005 Synod on the Eucharist] confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist.”

But apparently the forum internum is still frequently utilized by confessors not only to allow remarried divorcees to receive Communion, but also to use contraceptives.

It is noteworthy that the synod fathers who favored admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion did not broach the issue of contraception, which would be an additional impediment. Perhaps they were assuming that most divorced and remarried, unlike many fellow Catholics, would be avoiding contraception.

The 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family and Evangelization will have another chance to tackle these questions, which the Church – as the Zamberlines rightly noted – needs to address clearly and directly.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Chris in Maryland

    A man once quipped: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”

    Catholic people who obey Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio might borrow from the decontructionist tool bag and apply “the hermeneutic of suspicion” with regard to what flows in and out of the Synod on the “Family,” and ponder why some in The Church chose to so hastily canonize John Paul II, and tee up Paul VI immediately after that. What does this signal?

    An article by Ryan Sayre Patrico (First Things, June 2009) seems worth a read: “What’s so bad about Hypocrisy?”

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigal calls it, when the Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington should lift canonical penalties against those priests whom he had disciplined for their public dissent from Humanae Vitæ and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

    In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive.

    In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question. In the Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

    The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.” Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it. There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718). As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

    Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?

  • mortimer zilch

    this Synod-thing is shaping up very much like the Council of Nicea where, when first convened, a plurality of bishops were found holding Arian views regarding the Divinity of Jesus. St. Athanasius, a deacon then, managed to get the Council adjourned. He regarded the problem as a demonic one (to a large extent), and went to St. Anthony the Hermit to ask for help in “binding Satan”. NOW IS THE TIME for sacrificial souls to enter into direct combat against Satan – using the power of the priesthood of Christ given to every Baptized and Confirmed Catholic, and the power of the sacramental priesthood whenever possible. “Begone Satan.” Also, of course, educational efforts should be aimed at education the episcopacy about the modern breakthrough that is Natural Family Planning – how it empowers women especially, and binds the man in closest physical intimacy. The Billings Method is the simplest, and best in most cases, being totally organic and needing no special additions. ALSO, the problem of over-population due to irresponsible breeding will be overcome once women especially, but ideally, women and their men (does that sound kosher? – it’s meant to!) will know when they are fertile, and when not fertile. Hey, if the stove is hot – don’t touch it! The virtue of Abstinence being a major player in the population problem, the artificial contraception problem, the marriage problem, and the problem of consecrated life in imitation of Jesus. Hallelujah!

  • RosaryVictory

    If a divorced couple never intended to be open to children, their
    marriage is invalid according to Canon Law; so an annulment almost seems

    An Annulment is public statement that a Sacramental marriage in
    the Church never existed

    If a partner in a valid marriage decides to use contraceptives to
    avoid having any children, and the spouse is unwilling, shouldn’t this be
    sufficient grounds for annulment for the spouse who did not consent to this

    If the Sacrament of Marriage was valid when received, the Sacrament
    of Marriage remains, the spouse goes to hell.

    If contracepting couples are practicing anti-procreative sex, how
    can they consistently judge gays who are similarly practicing non-procreative
    sex, and even prohibit the right of gays to marry?

    Marriage consists in a Sacrament of the Catholic Church, informed consent
    to the covenant with God and the conjugal act. Gays cannot perform the marital
    act and contracepting couples must attain sexual and spiritual maturity.
    Immaturity is an impediment to the Sacrament of Matrimony.

    If a cohabiting couple is contracepting, should this be an
    impediment to sacramental marriage? What would be different?

    When talking about admitting a divorcee to communion, shouldn’t
    the factor of contraception be taken into account? Or is this no longer
    Communion with whom? Contraception shuts out a third person and the
    person of God to their communion. If she is a divorcee with whom is she

    • kainzh

      As I mentioned to “Elijah fan” above, I, like the synod fathers, was referring just to remarried divorcees.

  • Elijah fan

    Howard, you have amazing hopes for the 2015 Synod…or I’m blind to tongue in cheek endings.

    • kainzh

      Hmm, that might have been added by my editor, who is of an optimistic temperament.

  • 1ray1

    When will the Bishops begin fulfilling their prime responsibility? Seems like I remember being taught that the prime responsibility of a Bishop is to “Teach” the faith. This essay’s topic while relevant to our Church today proves they are more than a little ineffective. The longer this pontificate goes forward the more it seems confusion reigns supreme.

  • ABBonnet

    @Dr. Kainz

    There’s no need to fear! Pope Bergoglio is here!

    Backed by his Team Bergoglio, all doctrinal issues melt like wax before his blank stare. With Cardinals Murphy-O’Conner (Captain Emeritus), Kasper (the Mighty Bore), Daneels (Lyin’ Man), and other supernumeraries, there is no dogma they can’t destroy! Even the Words of Christ can be twisted, bent and tossed aside when they flex their hubris!

    Mere elephants, be they even a herd, stand no chance!

  • This is all very interesting. I would like to offer one clarification. In your final bullet point, you mentioned, “admitting a divorcee to communion.” I don’t mean to be splitting hairs here, but talking about these people and communion, I think it’s important always to qualify these statements in this way:

    “…admitting a divorced and remarried person to communion.”

    Somebody who is divorced but not engaged in any sexual activity is not the issue here–such a person can receive communion (assuming they are otherwise in a state of grace). “Divorced,” and “divorced and remarried,” are two separate things in regards to receiving communion.

    • kainzh

      Yes, I meant “divorced and remarried” — which was the situation discussed by the synod fathers.

    • Karl

      Only a monstrous evil would allow a person who abandoned their marriage to receive communion because they went to confession and some jerk heretic priest granted them absolution without requiring they undo what they have done and to prove it, legally, to that priest BEFORE granting absolution, after the marriage has been restored!!

      Without repentance and restitution justice does not exist. Without justice, mercy does not exist. Without mercy nothing of salvific value exists. The priest who forgives without justice is sending himself, the penitent and their victims to hell!


      • The Church does not recognize civil divorce. The couple is still married in the eyes of the Church. That’s why a divorced yet chaste person may receive communion.

        • Karl

          Believe what you want to. I have written the truth, clearly.

          When you face your creator, you will understand the value of what I have written. I can do no more to help you to understand.

          • Howard Kainz

            Karl, you are writing with strokes that are too broad. Let’s say, for instance, that a woman gets a civil divorce from her husband, to protect her children who have been molested; and maybe a restraining order to protect the family. Getting a civil divorce is not ipso facto a grevious sin.

          • Karl

            Why, Mr. Kainz, would one use an exception to justify one’s position? Such as your responses make the problems worse.

            An abandoner, to reasonable thought, would not include the cirumstance you describe, which tends to the extreme; I certainly hope?

            Getting an unjust divorce via convincing yourself over time, with intentional incremental lies that it is “necessary” and justified, is certainly extremely gave error and, very likely, mortal sin. This happens ALL THE TIME and is encouraged by priests in order to seek nullity. This is EXACTLY how the HIERARCHY are working to destroy the faith. I have seen it up close and personal and know numerous others who have as well. It is a dirty little secret.

          • Hegesippus

            It is not a sin to be divorced by another (passive). There is also room for divorcing someone (active) in certain circumstances such as protecting children and having basic means of living.

          • Karl

            Who, of reasonable thought would ever consider a person who was abandoned, guilty of divorce? Again, another unreasonable presumption. Do you not see the harm you are doing with such a comment? It cuts like a switchblade!

            I was abandoned by a wife who manipulated reality but others, especially our five children who she forced her, still unrepentant adultery upon, and their godparents saw it as well. I ceased attending Mass when my wife was given communion, while sitting with her lover, at our son’s wedding.
            I walked out, quietly, of his wedding. I know, exactly, what I am speaking of. The Catholic Church long ago began its intentional undermining of marriage. Finally, Francis has taken it “out of the closet” and is working to “mainstream” it.

            The benefit of the doubt must always rest upon the marriage.

            This is no longer the case nor has it been so for decades.

            The Catholic Church practices the uncoupling of the complimentarity of mercy and justice and has, regarding marriage, for my entire adult life. I am 60. This has destroyed an authentic understanding of mercy. It has done the same with repentance and forgiveness.

            These are facts in practice.

            When Catholics BEGIN to understand that ALL DIVORCE does grave harm. Then they might BEGIN to learn something of what is going on. Because vircumstances may be so radical that separating becomes the “better” option, DOES NOT MAKE IT GOOD OR EQUAL TO GOOD. IT IS STILL GRAVELY WRONG.

            Sin, is another thing altogether though related.

            This was the ENTIRE and is the ENTIRE POINT of the “SIN ODD”: to undermine teaching with the perversion of practice, more than it already has. ALL THIS DOES IS UNDERMINE NOT ONLY MARRIAGE; IT UNDERMINES ALL TEACHING.

            This is so obvious that it is beyond belief that it can be missed.

          • Hegesippus

            Of course is does grave harm, Karl. But when greater grave harm continues because of no civil divorce…

            But as always the understanding of these matters is poor to non-existent today in the vast majority of our pews.

          • Karl, what you said is not what the Church teaches. If you think the Church needs to begin teaching what you’ve said, then that is one thing–and perhaps you are correct. Maybe the Church SHOULD do what you say. But what you wrote is your opinion, not what the Church actually teaches. There is already too much confusion about what the Church teaches, so we must be clear and not add to it.

          • Karl

            All of this is someone’s opinion, as is the article which lead to these comments.

            If you cannot see that confusion is the INTENTION of the Catholic Church over the last 40 years at least, then you are lost. The smoke of Satan, indeed, fills and is suffocating what used to be the faith.

            I want to clear the air.

          • “Confusion is the INTENTION of the Catholic Church?” No, Karl, I cannot accept this, and neither should you. Confusion is from the Devil. Matthew 16:18: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

      • Hegesippus

        A ‘jerk heretic priest’ is still a priest. It is not appropriate to use the first wod of the three with the other two. Pray for them instead.

  • ssoldie

    The word ‘ambiguous’ keeps popping up, for the last 50 years, I believe we should go back to Casti Cannubei Pope St. Pius XI 1930 encyclical and do some comparing to Humane Vitae Pope Paul VI 1968, Compare hem side by side, you will see the big difference, and how modernism has crept in deceptively.

  • BobRN

    Not only do pastors welcome the divorced and remarried (or otherwise married outside the Church) to communion, but they have no inhibitions about allowing them to positions of leadership in the parish: parish council, youth ministers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, even Grand Knight of the parish Council of the Knights of Columbus. It makes it difficult to look to your children and encourage them in the faith of the Church on marriage.

  • Paul Vander Voort


    Many RC I know can’t see a difference between NFP and artificial birth control that prevents conception. Is this a major part of the problem?

    • Howard Kainz

      Yes, precisely. I wrote about this in a previous article: “Other contraceptive methods—condoms, IUDs,
      diaphragms, spermicides, etc.—were unmistakably gross methods for
      blocking conception. But the Pill, which can even be used legitimately
      to control certain female irregularities, takes on the aspect of a mere
      healthy ‘tweaking’ of hormones for birth control or birth prevention (in
      spite of the unhealthy side effects which are occasionally reported in
      medical studies).”

      • Hegesippus

        ‘occasionally reported’? That often?

      • Micha Elyi

        The name “the Pill” represents not a particular drug’s chemistry but one of its uses. Thus, the Pill never “can even be used legitimately”. However, the synthetic female hormones estrogen and progesterone can “be used legitimately to control certain female irregularities”.

        “Words mean things,” Rush Limbaugh, radio professor of semantics.

  • LAM

    The planned ambiguity of the Synod’s statement on contraception is another manifestation of the attempt to deny the severe damage that the contraceptive mentality has wrecked upon the sacrament of marriage, Catholic family life and the priesthood over the past 45 years.

    This damages include the clear relationship between the onset of the contraceptive mentality in Catholic marriage and the divorce plague, the retreat from marriage, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, the explosion of cohabitation and out of wedlock births and ultimately same sex unions.

    Their failure to teach the truth about Humanae Vitae has paralyzed our Bishops and priests in regard to their vocation as spiritual fathers to proclaim the Good News about the sacrament of marriage and Catholic family life and to protect the flock.

    At the next Synod a request for forgiveness from Catholic families for failing to teach the truth about sexuality in marriage and about the nature of Catholic marriage, as did the Philippine conference of Bishops, is indicated.

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Well said. Thanks.

  • John H.

    In my time in Marriage Preparation Ministry it has often struck me that the couples are only asked for three vows:1) to love, honor, cherish till death do part; 2)forswearing all others; 3) to be open to new life. I would usually take the opportunity to point out that if the couple is already planning to delay new life through contraception they are taking vow #3 with full intention of violating it. I would usually point out to the women that they are helping set a bad precedent for their husband. Men, being very consistent creatures when seeking justification for misdeeds, are being told, with their wife’s consent, that these vows are not binding. Small wonder then, that she awakes to find he has little regard for vow #2.

    • KarenJo12

      Charming. It’s the wife’s fault when the husband is unfaithful. I assume you consider the husband at fault when the wife strays?

      • Hegesippus

        This is not a matter for agenda-driven politics! Two to tango. If you are suggesting that women can act with impunity and men never take a cue from what they perceive (or v.v.) then the whole concept of relationships can be fulfilled with a full-length mirror. The first people we affect in anything that we do are those closest.

      • Thomas Sharpe

        If a couple do not contracept and truely give themselves to each other without reservation, he will not stray. Men are wired that way.

  • Tony

    The Italian text, if you have a sense of Italian sentences, is not ambiguous. In English, we would put a comma before the phrase “nella valutazione,” signaling that the phrase is to be construed as adverbial, modifying the previous verb, and not adjectival, modifying the nearer noun. In any case, the reporter’s failure to find out what the sentence means is typical of the lazy journalists we have …

    • guest

      Make that “lazy agenda-driven journalists”

    • LAM

      Please give what you view as the proper translation of the Italian text that would support your claim that the Synod statement on contraception is not an example of planned ambiguity.

  • Thomas Sharpe

    Great article on contraception, it’s effects and the Synod.

    It’s has seemed very odd to me for the recent Synod to not address that when married couple mutually masturbate (contracept) they’re not “becoming one”, be it in a fertile or infertile time.

    No wonder there is so much divorce!

    • guest

      Whoa!!! What an unfortunate attitude! Wash your mind and your mouth out with soap. Disgusting!!! Shame on you!!! They don’t become one——really??? You know not what of you speak. Moreover, divorce has been around a lot longer than contraception.

      • Hegesippus

        Need to read Humanae Vitae! And explore the idea of full giving of oneself. Only then do two become one properly.

      • Mark Chance

        Contraception has been around for centuries. It’s not a modern invention. That aside, what were divorce rates in the U.S. before Griswold v. Connecticut? Before the Sexual Revolution and the Pill? Before Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton?

      • Fulton J. Waterloo

        Dear Guest: you have got to be a “woman” (of either gender). You admonish Thomas Stone without addressing his claim. So, I have three questions for you. First, when a couple uses a condom, and there is LITERALLY no physical contact between the man and woman, do they “become one?” Second, if a sexual act that is closed to life is an expression of “oneness,” does this permit (2) oral sex; does it permit (3) heterosexual sodomy? You need to wash your mind out with soap:not because of any uncleanliness; you just need to unblock the “drain clog” in your intellect! SMILE; and do not be a preaching female! 🙂

  • Bob One

    There is dogma and there is reality! We all know the dogma. We, most of us, also know the reality of nearly 90% of Catholics of child bearing age use contraception, mostly the pill. We also know that 99% of them don’t consider it a sin. In most of the United States and Europe at least family planning is considered a good thing by most of the population; have the children when your life is ready for them, space them out, and stop when you have had enough to be able to manage well. That is what the parish priest faces every day; sort of. Actually, nobody talks about it any more. Young people who don’t use contraception are considered a little crazy by the mass culture. That is the reality. Parishes are so large these days that a parish priest doesn’t know who is married and who is divorced. That is the reality. The question is not about changing dogma so much as it is with how to deal with it.

    • Hegesippus

      Catechesis is the answer.

      • William Beckman

        Yes, catechesis is the answer, but only if it is preceded and accompanied by evangelization. Without a bold proclamation of the kerygma and a direct invitation to repent and believe, catechesis is seldom effective. We live in a pagan environment. Disciples do not spontaneously generate. The Pontifical Council for the Family published “Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage” in 1996. It would be good for dioceses and parishes everywhere to implement it fully. It makes clear that most couples come to marriage preparation with little if any consciousness of their baptismal identity in Christ. It must be awakened, and for this something in the nature of a catechumenate is necessary. Once they are awakened and begin to believe, they’re ready to hear catechesis on living marriage fruitfully with openness to life.

        • Hegesippus

          Catechesis can begin right now with those ready, the others following through the points you make. But right now is the answer for it to begin before more ground is lost!

          • William Beckman

            Nothing I wrote suggested otherwise, but rather than presume readiness in the typical marriage prep setting, the Pontifical Council urges us to awaken the graces of Baptism which lie dormant in so many people. A kerygmatic approach is never wasted on anyone because it revives, renews and refreshes — even those advanced in the spiritual life, and sometimes, especially the advanced.

          • Hegesippus

            Fully agree that on one level everyone needs a somewhat regular boost. However, too often we have obscure and rarely-accessible advance courses such as MAs in theology or enthusiastic blasts to begin us all again.

            It is that middle ground, Paul’s ‘meat’, that is never served with anything that is consistent and solid. It is that catechesis, whether in a homily (even a few mentions, Father!) or in catechetical courses more advanced than Alpha-level, which is sadly lacking. The common excuse is that ‘only two or three will turn up’ but it is those two or three who grow and bring more next time the course is run.

            Maybe it is the lot of this generation that we turn to the online resources available, hunting continually for solid content, hoping for orthodox sources and wishing for more face-to-face opportunities for our growth in the faith at a local level.

            I do wonder how many of the Sower’s third type of seed has been crowded out through lack of opportunity to develop in faith. God bless them and those who could do more for them.