Pope Francis the cool pope is cool with Catholic women having small families, but he’s not cool with letting them use birth control to do it.
Francis told reporters on Monday that Catholics don’t need to “be like rabbits” when it comes to sex, instead urging what he called “responsible parenthood.” He went on to talk about a woman he had met who was pregnant with her eighth child after having seven Caesarean sections. "That is an irresponsibility," he said. “God gives you methods to be responsible.”
This isn’t exactly new for the church. Pope John Paul II, whom no one called the cool pope, said essentially the same thing back in 1994 (as have other not cool popes before him). “In deciding whether or not to have a child, [parents] must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child,” he said more than 20 years ago.
“Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary,” he continued. “However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to advantage, but they cannot be 'violated' by artificial interference.”
So here is the method that “God gives” Catholics, as described by the Mayo Clinic:
To use the rhythm method, you track your menstrual history to predict when you'll ovulate. This helps you determine when you're most likely to conceive. If you're hoping to get pregnant, you can use the rhythm method to determine the best days to have sex. Similarly, if you're hoping to avoid pregnancy, you can use the rhythm method to determine which days to avoid unprotected sex. [...]
[T]he risk of unintended pregnancy with the rhythm method is higher than with some other methods of birth control. Although effectiveness varies, in the first year of typical use an estimated 13 out of 100 women practicing the rhythm method for birth control will get pregnant.
That is the only method that the Catholic Church, and Pope Francis, supports as it chastises women for having too many children. And church teaching doesn’t just prohibit hormonal (and non-hormonal, like the copper IUD) birth control, it bans everything else a person could possibly use to avoid pregnancy, including condoms (with exceptions for disease prevention) and other barrier methods and the (newly chic) pull-out method.
Now here’s the thing about cool pope. He is kind of cool, for a pope. He has gone H.A.M. on capitalist greed, global poverty, climate change and power-hungry members of the clergy. He has made some lukewarm comments about the dignity of LGBTQ people (but is still fine with denying them basic rights and claiming that equal marriage is a threat to "God's plan for creation"). He was apparently instrumental in negotiating a change in relations between the United States and Cuba. He rides the bus. He lets little kids hug his legs in a really cute way. I get it.
But given how central the issues of poverty and economic justice are to his papacy, his hard line on birth control is a hard one to understand. The United Nations considers access to contraception a universal human right, and has released a number of reports detailing the economic and social benefits of access to contraception, both in the United States and globally.
And for those who think it’s pointless to want the church to embrace birth control as if it’s one of those things about Catholicism that can’t change, may I direct your attention to a 1963 papal commission on marriage that opened a debate in the church over birth control. That commission concluded -- wait for it -- that the church should lift its prohibition on birth control. This was in 1965.
From a report on the commission from the reproductive rights group Catholics for Choice:
In the end, the commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend that the church rescind its ban on artificial contraception, saying that it was not “intrinsically evil” nor the popes’ previous teachings on it infallible. But to the Vatican, it was impossible that the teaching on birth control could change because this would acknowledge that the hierarchy had been wrong on an issue it had elevated over the years to a central tenet of its teachings. [...]
The official report of the commission said the teaching on birth control was not infallible; that the traditional basis for the prohibition on contraception -- the biblical story of Onan and his spilled seed -- had been interpreted incorrectly in the past; that the regulation of fertility was necessary for responsible parenthood and could properly be accomplished by intervening with natural processes; and, finally, that the morality of marriage was not based on“the direct fecundity of each and every particular act,” but on mutual love within the totality of marriage.
As the report from Catholics for Choice noted, “30 of the 35 commission’s lay members, 15 of the 19 theologians and 9 of 12 bishops [voted] that the teaching be changed.” Despite this, the minority opinion prevailed and the church’s position remained the same. Not because of the findings of the commission, but because the church was concerned it would look bad if it reversed course.
So Pope Paul VI ignored the commission’s findings -- as well as the contraceptive choices that many Catholics were already making -- and held his hard line on birth control. Which is exactly what Pope Francis is doing right now. Despite what most Catholics want, and at the expense of the lives, health and livelihoods of millions of women across the globe.
Not cool, cool pope.
Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salo
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