The headlines are optimistic:
“Pope Francis adviser hints at rethink on contraception ban” (The Telegraph)
“Pope in battle to win acceptance for contraception, divorcees, and annulments” (Irish Central)
“Vatican might OK contraception” (Joe. My. God)
Dig a little deeper into the story, though, and the truth is a lot less exciting. As is often the case, a well-known Vatican official says something off-the-cuff and the media, not always able to provide context, reads into it more than is actually there.
In an interview with The Tablet, Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany acknowledged that he had no solution to the problem of birth control, a question he hoped would be taken up at the upcoming synod on the family (slated to start October 5). He went on to say:
To promote a sense that to have children is a good thing, that is the primary thing. Then how to do it and how not to do it, that is a secondary question. Of course the parents have to decide how many children are possible. This cannot be decided by the Church or a bishop, this is the responsibility of the parents.
This is nothing new. When placed in context, it’s certainly not a hint that the Church is about to drop its long-standing fight against contraception, a battle that’s led the Church to protest health care coverage for birth control and underpinned their objections to marriage equality.
The Catholic Church has always used this kind of slippery language around contraception, abortion, and other issues that trouble many people’s consciences. It’s right there in Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that gave us our modern ban on contraceptive methods like the Pill.
With regard to physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
It’s easy to see how that looks like a green light for contraception. After all, how can you make prudent decisions about how many children you will have except by using birth control, right? Yet there it is, in black and white:
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means.
That pretty much covers every kind of contraceptive I know.
So how are you supposed to exercise this parental responsibility?
Humanae Vitae tells us:
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births… the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.
If this isn’t what Cardinal Kasper means, I’ll eat my hat. Kasper acknowledges that the Church cannot produce a one-size-fits-all guideline governing how many children a family can responsibly raise, sure, but that is not inconsistent with insisting that the only licit method for limiting births is Natural Family Planning.
NFP in its modern form isn’t exactly identical to the calendar-counting rhythm method, also known as Vatican Roulette; it’s gotten more scientific over time. But the Church still envisions it as working in an idealized framework where women’s bodies all work in simple, predictable ways; where women are available to contribute a wildly disproportionate amount of effort to the project of avoiding conception; where their husbands, not so deeply involved in the project, are nonetheless respectful partners and good communicators; and the consequences of unplanned pregnancy, if it happens, will not be devastating.
Most of us, Catholic or not, don’t live in the Church’s ideal world.
Now, Kasper does note that there’s an artificial element to NFP, which is mighty realistic of him. That realism is refreshing. And maybe that’s why he has no solution to the birth control problem: because he’s willing to acknowledge that NFP isn’t perfectly consistent, nor quite as “natural” as he’d like, and because responsible parenthood is one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie values nobody ever speaks against. That backs him into a corner where there’s no answer — the same corner that started this Friendly Atheist out of the Catholic Church for good.
But for Kasper, an elderly celibate male, it’s an academic question. He doesn’t need to come up with an answer. However, his job likely depends on defending the status quo. For that reason alone, I don’t expect to hear him say anything Humanae Vitae wouldn’t agree with.