Contraception & Honesty | Commonweal Magazine
by Peter Steinfels
Perhaps the most important moment of last October’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family occurred at its very beginning—when Pope Francis insisted that “speaking honestly” was the bishops’ basic responsibility: No topics or viewpoints should be out of bounds. “It is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.”
I doubt that everyone present was able to live up to that plea. For not a few bishops, self-censorship has become second nature, especially when speaking publicly with other bishops, and infinitely so when in the earshot of the pope.
Fortunately, that was not true in many cases, or the synod would not have made headlines with the several highly controversial topics served up and batted back and forth: reception of Communion by the divorced-and-remarried, cohabitation, even same-sex relationships. But could engrained inhibition have accounted for the glaring gap in the synod’s work? I refer to the apparent lack of attention to the question of contraception. Why did the synod appear to treat so perfunctorily the issue that was, and is, the starting point for the unraveling of Catholic confidence in the church’s sexual ethics and even its credibility about marriage? To which, of course, one could add further questions about this baffling silence: Does it even matter? And if it does matter, are there grounds for hoping that the bishops who will be gathering in Rome next fall to complete the synod’s work can do better?
A lot rests on the answers to these questions. A synod that grabs headlines about remarried or cohabiting or same-sex Catholic couples but says nothing fresh about the spectacularly obvious rift between official teaching and actual behavior in Catholic married life is an invitation to cynicism. It could prove to be a crucial test of Pope Francis's papacy.
[Video: Peter Steinfels explains what prompted him to write "Contraception & Honesty" and talks more about the issues he raises in it.]
The interim report of last October’s synod was startling in its candor about matters commonly considered beyond discussion, yet that controversial report’s extensive description of “socio-cultural context” and “pastoral challenges” regarding the family made no reference whatsoever to contraception. The subject was belatedly and perfunctorily addressed, almost as an afterthought to all the more controversial issues: “Realistic language” and “listening to people,” the synod fathers had reportedly proposed, are needed for “acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional openness to life” and for “an appropriate teaching regarding the natural methods of human reproduction, which allow a couple to live in a harmonious and conscious manner the communication between husband and wife, in all its aspects, along with their responsibility at procreating life. In this regard, we should return to the message of the encyclical Humanae vitae of Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of regulating births.”