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, 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.