Pope Francis, Infallible Nudger
Upon returning from the Philippines, where he met former street children abandoned by indigent parents, Pope Francis has added another quote to a growing number of surprisingly liberal statements. "Some people think," he said, "That -- excuse my expression here -- that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No. Parenthood is about being responsible. That is clear."
This, of course, falls short of endorsing artificial contraception, which would be a revolution in the Catholic attitude -- like the one the Anglican church effected in 1958, deciding that "the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children has been laid by God upon the consciences of parents everywhere" and that therefore it was up to the parents to decide on how to plan procreation. Pope Francis, however, cannot make such momentous decisions unilaterally. Perhaps he doesn't even want to impose such tectonic change on the church as a whole. Instead, he is nudging the Church towards greater acceptance of modern realities, even if it contradicts a rigid interpretation of its canon.
Ostensibly, the Pope's remarks are just a reminder of Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which contains the church's current position statement on family planning:
It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.
It is, however, more than that. The "rabbits" quote is a direct attack on the stereotype of Catholic sexual behavior described in the immortal Monty Python song: "Every sperm is sacred, /Every sperm is great. /If a sperm is wasted, /God gets quite irate." The expectation is that Catholics will have many kids, even at the expense of being able to care for them according to contemporary norms. That stereotype only exists in the heads of many priests and lay Catholics, not in written doctrine, which makes it even harder to beat. But that is exactly what Pope Francis and his allies in the church are trying to do.
Last October, an Extraordinary Synod on the Family heard a report by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo and his assistant, the liberal theologian Bruno Forte, calling on priests to go softer on issues like same- and opposite-sex cohabitation, divorce and remarriage. It calls for "constructiveness," "patience" and "delicacy" in dealing with situations that lie outside the Church's mainstream thinking. The idea is that no one seeking to be part of the Church should be rejected, even if he or she doesn't live up to the Catholic ideal. Divorcees should be treated as members of "wounded families" and nurtured, those living together "experimentally" should not be turned into pariahs because they may have important reasons not to marry right now, and gays "have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community" which should not be rejected.
On contraception, the report says the Church "should go back to the message of the Encyclical 'Humanae Vitae' of Paul VI, which underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control." Human dignity is thus deemed more important than dogma. The report appears to reflect Pope Francis's own views. He said in an interview last year:
Avoid just scratching the surface of a subject. The temptation to solve problems by casuistry is a mistake, a simplification of deep things. This is what the Pharisees did with their very superficial theology.
The Pope's approach is to act on the spirit, not the letter of Catholic doctrine. In his own words from the same interview, that means making sure priests "consider the situation of each person and what that person can do."
That is arguably a bigger revolution than making a few doctrinal changes would have been. If Pope Francis pressed for those, he would be accused by conservatives in the Church hierarchy of being a cynical politician reacting to polls that show most Catholics disagree with rigid rules preventing divorced people from taking communion, banning contraception and abortions. An openly populist approach of that sort would risk splitting the Church.
As it is, Francis is arguing for a mere change of attitude among the existing clergy, a shift of focus from excoriating sin to soothing and healing the spirit. The Church doesn't have to change its teachings to become closer to its modern flock -- it just needs a more humble, more humane, more down-to-earth approach to people and the problems they face.
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