Francis offers challenging new take on birth control teaching

FrancisOne can almost hear the headline-writers chortling as they label the latest he-said-what?!? Francis story: “Pope tells Catholics not to breed like rabbits”, is today’s firm favourite, taking a line from his press conference (transcript here) on the plane back from Manila, following a final Mass attended by an estimated 6.5m people — the largest crowd in human history.

As ever, Francis made the headlines by his disarmingly straightforward articulation of the Church’s position — in this case, affirming the Blessed Paul VI’s opposition to artificial contraception, while making clear that this does not mean parents should not limit the number of children in ways appropriate to their circumstances. He illustrated this, typically, by focussing on a situation of human suffering, mentioning the case of a Filipino woman whom he had admonished because she was on her eighth pregnancy, having had seven Caesareans. “But do you want to leave seven orphans?  That is to tempt God!” he told her.

Paul VI, he added, “speaks of responsible parenthood” — a teaching contained in Gaudium et Spes in its paragraph 50, which speaks of the importance of generosity and openness to life, but also of responsibility in deciding how many children to have:

Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfil their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.

As Francis, and of course the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, make clear, there are many “licit” — that is, natural and organic — methods for restricting numbers of pregnancies. Later in the press conference, Francis says:

God gives you methods to be responsible. Some think that, excuse me if I use that word, that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood! This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can seek and I know so many, many ways out that are licit and that have helped this.

But while Francis was here restating church teaching, the main emphasis of his remarks on this question — ignored in many reports — was to stress the importance of poor people resisting pressures placed on the developing world to have fewer children, often as a condition of receiving aid (an issue memorably raised by one of the African cardinals at October’s synod); or, just as insidiously, to impose gender ideology as a condition of building schools.

It is in this context that Pope Francis re-articulates Paul VI’s opposition to contraception — as a bravely prophetic stance on behalf of the poor of the world against the powers of the age, driven by neo-Malthusian and eugenic assumptions that the “problem” of development is that there are too many poor people in the world.

This language will surprise those in Europe and America who have long seen the contraception question through the lens of personal autonomy. For liberal Catholics, it has also been an iconic issue of an abuse of papal authority (which is how many saw the decision of Paul VI choosing to ignore the findings of the commission the Pope set up to look at the question), and the editorial stances of some publications have been shaped by this lens.

But the developing world doesn’t see it in the same way. The foundational document agreed by the Latin-American bishops (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968 — which was opened by Paul VI, and was very influential on the young Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio — saw Humanae vitae as a way of resisting both the rich-world-funded development strategies that started with birth control, as well as the “eroticism of bourgeois civilization”.

Medellín reaffirmed the encyclical’s exclusion of “artificial methods to voluntarily render infertile the conjugal act” while going on to quote Paul VI’s own words to the conference, in which he stated that “this norm does not constitute a blind rush to over-population; it diminishes neither the freedom nor the responsibility of couples, who are not prevented from exercising an honest and reasonable limitation on the number of children they have; nor does it forbid legitimate therapeutic applications nor the progress of scientific research”.

Pope Francis, in his remarks on the papal plane, articulates precisely this anti-colonial, anti-Malthusian view of birth control, seeing it in terms of the freedom of the poor from self-interested, alien ideologies.

The ideological colonization. I’ll only give you an example of what I saw 20 years ago, in ’95. A Minister of Public Education had asked for a big loan to build schools for the poor, public schools. They gave the loan on condition that in the schools there would be a school book for children of a certain level, no? It was a well prepared book, where the theory of gender was taught … This is ideological colonization … [T]his is not new, the dictators of the last century did the same. They came with their own doctrine. Think of the Balilla (the Fascist youth cadres under Mussolini), think of the Hitler youth. They colonized the people, but they wanted to do it. But how much suffering.  Peoples must not lose their freedom. A people has its culture, its history. Every people has its own culture.

But when conditions are imposed by the colonizing empires they seek to make peoples forget their own identity and make them (all) equal. This is the globalization of the sphere — all the points are equidistant from the center. But the true globalization – and I like to say this – is not the sphere. It is important to globalize but not like the sphere, but like the polyhedron. Namely that every people, every part, conserves its own identity without being ideologically colonized. These are the ideological colonizations.

Francis then mentions a 1907 book that he has often referred to, The Lord of the World, by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, a Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University at the time, who, Francis says, foresaw “this drama of ideological colonization”. The book describes the abolition of culture and religion by a uniform humanist thought, and in which the Anti-Christ appears as a peace-loving, tolerance-preaching politician blindly followed by the crowds. According to Joseph Pearce in his book Literary Giants, Literary Catholics, whereas the dystopias foreseen by Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have had their day, “Benson’s novel-nightmare … is coming true before our very eyes”. This seems to be Francis’s view too.

Francis’s warnings about an “ideological colonization”, therefore, is also about a creeping social conformity to a bourgeois-humanist ideology which has increasingly come to dominate thinking, one that puts the sovereign individual in the driving seat.

Far from being the imposition of an authoritarian religion, in other words, the resistance to artificial birth control is the affirmation of human freedom and responsibility — the noble right to cooperate with God, against the demands to conform to the zeitgeist under the flag of personal autonomy.

In this sense, Francis may have added nothing to church teaching on contraception. But he has articulated it in a challenging new way — and indirectly framing those Catholics who have resisted Humane vitae as neo-colonial bourgeois conformists.

[Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, published in the U.S. by Henry Holt and in the U.K. and Ireland by Allen & Unwin).

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