A few days ago I was talking with my father in law about Pope Francis. While the pope had been much more open and enthusiastic than Benedict XVI, he hasn’t changed or updated any church teachings. My father in law wondered aloud of he would give a new look to the Church’s current understanding of artificial birth control.
Most Christian Churches opposed artificial birth control until 1930. In 1931 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical titled Casti Connubii reaffirming the Church’s opposition to birth control. After the reforms of Vatican II many Catholics thought the Church would update its teachings. To this end Blessed John XXIII appointed a commission to explore this issue. Pope Paul VI expanded this commission and in 1966 they advised Paul VI to explore updating Catholic teaching. Instead he published Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the ban.
This was a cause of great pain for couples of child bearing age (including my father in law). While some couples lived with this, many chose to ignore the teaching. The teaching has had a smaller and smaller place in the lives of most Catholics, and by the time I was ordained in 1994 the subject virtually never came up. Polls show that Catholics couples use birth control at the same rate as non Catholics in the United States.
So this has gotten me to wonder: what would happen if Francis updated the teaching? There is certainly a small but vocal minority who would go crazy. Perhaps this would give some couples the permission they’ve sought, but statistics show that this is a small number.
I suspect that since most Catholics of child bearing age were born after 1968 (if we think of child bearing until age 50), it wouldn’t make much of a difference. In that sense perhaps the Church should let this teaching just fade away. In a sense that’s what we did with Galileo; he was denounced in 1615 for claiming the earth revolved around the sun and the Church didn’t officially change that until 1992.
On the other hand it I think it would be a strong statement that would be of great benefit to the Church’s image. In a sense it would probably be seen as throwing Paul VI under the bus, but that may not be a bad thing. I have nothing against Paul VI, but I suspect that he didn’t update the teaching out of concern of throwing Pius XI under the bus. Some pope, some day, should have the courage to do what the overwhelming number of us think he should do. I’d like to this it’s Francis.