Pope Francis has caused a little controversy with his statement that Catholics do not need to breed like rabbits. Many inside and outside the church assume that this position is what the church advocates explicitly or, because of its opposition to contraception, implicitly. So, one has the New York Times op/ed piece “Be Fruitful, Not Bananas” describing the church’s position on contraception as “in opposition to modernity, practicality and prudence” and clearly revealing “the church’s chauvinism.”
There has to be something between animalist breeding and the glorification of contraception.
The church’s resistance to contraception is partly based on the affirmation of the goodness of life. Children should not be evaluated based on the economic, social, and personal challenges they present. Moreover, sex between humans should be rooted in mutual love and care and not degenerate into the callous using of others for one’s own pleasure.
While I don’t think the church’s position needs to change, I do think it needs to develop. Development is a long accepted theological principle. Perhaps its best expression is found in John Henry Cardinal Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. While all that goes into the development of church teaching is complex, the basic idea, according to Newman, is . . .
that the increase and expansion of the Christian Creed and Ritual, and the variations which have attended the process in the case of individual writers and Churches, are the necessary attendants on any philosophy or polity which takes possession of the intellect and heart, and has had any wide or extended dominion; that, from the nature of the human mind, time is necessary for the full comprehension and perfection of great ideas.
For the norms governing marital life, I am not sure how they need to develop but it seems clear that they need to do so. Instrumentum Laboris, the church’s own compilation of pastoral issues facing the family that was composed in preparation for the 2014 meeting of the Synod of Bishops, noted the following areas of concern:
- Difficulty in communication that disrupts relationships
- The frequent breakdown of families
- The high levels of violence and abuse in marriages
- The corrosive effects of the media
- The impact contemporary work has on the family
- The effects of migration on families, a movement often occasioned by war or extreme poverty
- Consumerism’s economic and value challenges to family life
- The exaggerate sense of the individual in opposition to relationships
- The norm of cohabitation
- The challenge facing teenage parents
- The recognition of civil unions
- The acceptance of same sex union
Just to connect these challenges to the context of the United States,
- Only half of first marriages make it to their 20th anniversary.
- 30% of women and 10% of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner. Intimate Partner Violence resulted in 2,340 deaths in 2007—accounting for 14% of all homicides. (Understanding Intimate Partner Violence: Fact Sheet, 2014.)
- The average cost of a wedding is around $30,000, raising a child to age 18 is $245,000, and paying for college is $120,000. (“The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families,”)
- The best estimates indicate that 77% of Americans view pornography at least once a month.
- 90% of people have sex before marriage (See Young Catholic America, 225-226).
- 20% of people are unfaithful to their spouses
- 72% of Catholic, married couples use contraception
At least statistically, the church’s teachings fail to address the needs and challenges of almost everyone in the church. How do we live out the procreative and pro-life basis of church teaching on sex and marriage in the contemporary world? We, as the church, do not seem to have figured it out. Some development of the church’s teaching, one that leads to its “full comprehension and perfection”, is greatly needed.
I am not quite sure the direction this development needs to take. I have read a bunch of people who, I believe, have suggested promising ways forward:
- Saint John Paul II’s theology of the body that indicates self-gift as central to marriage
- Julie Hanlon Rubio’s focus on practices that shape familial relationships
- David Matzko McCarthy’s work on the economic factors pressuring family
- Florence Caffrey Bourg’s understanding of the family as a domestic church
- Dana Dillon’s thoughts trying to think charitably on same sex marriages and church teachings
- Kari-Shane Davis-Zimmerman’s analysis of hookup culture and the possibilities of relationships
- John Grabowski’s exploration of how sex shapes one’s character
- Margaret Farley’s insistence that justice is essential in marital relationships
- Perspectives of younger Catholic moral theologians on practicing the faith in the contemporary world
I am sure that there are countless others. Whatever direction genuine development takes, we need it so that the church’s teaching can effectively serve life in the contemporary world and play its small part in fostering the gospel’s fullness of life.
 I realize that this statistics comes from the Guttmacher Institute. Although it is controversial for Catholics because of its advocacy of and origin in Planned Parenthood, these statistics on religion and contraception use are one of the few available. In addition, most consider these numbers fairly accurate because: a) Catholics seem to use contraception at the same rates as everyone else, and b) these are the rates for everyone else.
Why I don’t want to be compared to a rabbit? It’s such a nice, fluffy animal. Perhaps being compared to a rabbit offends me, because rabbits do not use reason, the act instinctively. But it is the way many people do in the realm of sexuality. Sometimes the reason turns on only to think how to avoid “unwanted consequences”. Our civilization does a lot to prevent them, from many kind of pills to justification of abortion. However, a rabbit using contraception remains a rabbit. I agree with the author, that there is a need for further development of christian marital ethics but I’d add, that one way should be to make it more understandable for an ordinary reader. For me a good starting point is Karol Wojtyła’s “Love and responsibility”, first published in 1960. The book is too difficult for an ordinary reader, but ideas present there appear to be worth popularization. Understanding relation between love and responsibility is, in this book, a way to defend human dignity, a way to not allow to be reduced to a rabbit.