Could the Roman Catholic Church be ready to reconsider its prohibition of the use of contraception? The fact that prominent Catholic conservatives have felt the need to speak out against such a possibility gives some grounds for thinking that, within the Church itself, and under the protection of Pope Francis, a movement for change is underway.
Theologians going back to Thomas Aquinas have said that interfering with sexual intercourse to prevent procreation is a misuse of the human genital organs, and therefore wrong. Earlier popes had also opposed contraception.
Nevertheless, the development and release of oral contraceptives in 1960, and subsequent evidence that many Catholic couples were using contraception, triggered calls within the Church for a reconsideration of the prohibition. In response, Pope John XXIII set up a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, but did not live to see it complete its work. Instead, the commission sent his successor, Pope Paul VI, a report noting that the Church was already allowing couples to calculate the days of a woman's cycle when she cannot conceive a child and restrict sex to those days.
To most Catholics, therefore, it was a surprise when, in 1968, just two years after receiving the commission's report, Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), stating that any "action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation" is "absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children."
The very existence of Humanae Vitae, and its survival without any liberalising modifications, depended on untimely papal deaths. John XXIII was a reforming pope, who had convened the Second Vatican Council in order to reconsider a number of Church practices. Had he lived longer, he might well have accepted the view of the overwhelming majority of the commission he had established.
Catholic conservatives believe that Humanae Vitae has permanently settled the question of the use of contraception to avoid pregnancy, notwithstanding the contingencies that affected its promulgation and survival. If you are willing to believe that God conveys the truth to popes, you may also believe that God works in strange ways.
Doubts about the permanence of the Church's doctrine were raised last year, however, when the Pontifical Academy for Life released Etica Teologica della Vita ("Theological Ethics of Life"), a volume of more than 500 pages that brings together papers from a seminar along with the text that served as the basis for discussion. Some of the senior Catholic theologians contributing to the discussion suggest that the use of contraceptives in some circumstances may not be wrong.
Conservative Catholics gathered at a conference in Rome last December to respond to the publication. John Finnis, an emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy at the University of Oxford and a leading exponent of the natural-law approach to ethics, gave a talk entitled "The Infallibility of the Church's Teaching on Contraception", in which he defended that it is "an inseparable and on the evidence irreversible element in adhering to the Catholic faith as true". In other words, one ceases to adhere to the Catholic faith if one allows the doctrine even to be questioned.
Where does that leave Pope Francis? When asked by a journalist whether he was open to a reevaluation of Church doctrine regarding contraceptives, he replied that the question was "very timely". And Pope Francis implied that it would be wrong to forbid theologians from discussing any topic, because "you cannot do theology with a 'no' in front of it".
According to Mr Finnis, the pope, it seems, is not Catholic. Nor are many others. According to a 2014 poll, over 90% of Catholics in countries including France, Brazil, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia favour the use of birth control, and a 2016 Pew Research Center survey indicates that even among Catholics who attend mass weekly, only 13% say that contraception is morally wrong.
Majority opinion does not determine right and wrong, but in this case, there are good grounds for thinking that the majority of those who consider themselves Catholics are right. A break with a view of sex and procreation rooted in medieval ideas of natural law is long overdue. ©2023 Project Syndicate
Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is Founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His books include 'Practical Ethics', 'Rethinking Life and Death', 'The Life You Can Save', 'The Most Good You Can Do', and 'Ethics in the Real World'.