Will the 2015 Synod Bury Church Teaching on Contraception?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the new Questions Aimed at a Response to and an In-Depth Examination of the Relatio Synodi – the Vatican’s solicitation for opinions in preparation for next October’s Synod – is not what questions are included, but the surprising absence of a question one might have expected in such a document. Among the forty-six questions, not one has anything directly to do with contraception.

Stunning. How can a Synod dealing with the pastoral treatment of marriage and the family today totally exclude any question having to do specifically with an issue that has been central to those matters for fifty years?

This omission simply cannot be by chance. Contraception has undeniably had a serious impact on the institution of marriage. Some may argue a positive impact, but surely no one can reasonably say it’s a marginal concern. And yet here we have a document that never directly mentions it. It has some general questions about encouraging generosity toward life and the essential relation between marriage and openness to life. And that’s all to the good. But it never touches the obvious relationship between contraception and the fact that many marriages are closed to both.

The document mentions demographic “change,” and asks “are people aware of [its] grave consequences,” it steers clear of stating what this change really is, and thus avoids more serious descriptions such as “demographic suicide” or “demographic winter,” the latter term used by St. John Paul II himself.

In Humanae Vitae, this “change” was understood to be tremendous population growth, but that is not the case today. How important can this issue be if it merits a single sentence in question 43? The countries of Europe are in a demographic free fall, and the document has one vague sentence and no mention of contraception here or elsewhere?

But it is not just a demographic crisis that merits at least some mention of contraception and the contraceptive mentality. Surely, it was a central insight of Blessed Paul VI and especially of St. John Paul II that the practice of contraception within marriage is destructive not only of the procreative meaning and purpose of marriage, but also of its unitive dimension.

Yet the seeming unconcern related to contraception clearly implies that the crisis of marital instability and family breakdown has little or no relation to the fact that vast majorities even of Catholic couples use contraception.

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Moreover, there’s palpable obtuseness in not understanding the failure of catechesis and marriage preparation throughout the world on the moral evil of contraception. And yet while the document has questions related to catechesis and marriage preparation, for instance on the indissolubility of marriage, there’s no question related to the proper catechesis and marriage preparation when it comes to contraception – unless you believes that referring to “openness to life” covers it, which is absurd.

So what is going on here? For a half-century, large segments of the Church’s leadership, priests and bishops alike, have gone silent, to put it mildly, when it comes to contraception and marriage preparation. And ditto for the confessional. It’s been a quiet revolution. They couldn’t change the doctrine, so they just ignored the teaching.

Does this explain the silence of the Synod document? This teaching cannot be changed, and Pope Francis has confirmed that fact clearly. And yet it seems clear that many Church leaders continue to be blind to the truth of the teaching of two great popes, that contraception is a poison pill for marriage and for society as a whole.

So what is the solution? You do what many have been doing for decades now; just bury the issue in silence. You talk vaguely about “openness to life” and “generosity” in marriage, but don’t specify that contraception causes people to be either closed to life or selfish about having children. It’s comparable to a medical panel speaking about AIDS, without mentioning that promiscuous sex has a lot to do with its transmission.

The old “European Alliance,” which was so powerful at least in the early stages of Vatican II, may be back in power in this Synod. The central advocates of contraception at Vatican II were mainly European theologians and bishops who were part of the European Alliance so well depicted in The Rhine Flows into the Tiber.

Names have changed, but the basic rejection of the Church’s teaching on contraception remains. Pastoral “sensitivity” demands that if the people want contraception, then they must have it. That’s certainly not the aim of the Synod, but it’s an issue that won’t go away. If the Synod remains silent on this issue, it will almost certainly be taken to mean that the Church has abandoned this issue on the “pastoral” level.

The tragedy is that this Synod could have a very positive impact, not only for the renewal of marriage, but for the rescue of a European continent bent on self-destruction. If contraception is not dealt with, up front and in a positive way, the coming Synod will have little ultimate impact on the renewal and stability of marriage, and Europe along with America and much of the rest of the world, will continue on its way to demographic suicide, not through weapons of mass destruction, but by tiny, yet powerful, pills.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.