Where does Pope Francis really stand on contraception?

The circumstances surrounding the resignation of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and the appointment of a “papal delegate” to assist in the “renewal” of the order, raises further questions about the extent to which Pope Francis assents to the teaching of the Catholic Church on questions of sexual ethics. In this article we will revisit previous concerns regarding Pope Francis’s position on contraception, in the light of recent events.

At the heart of the crisis in the Order of Malta is the distribution of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs, over a number of years, by Malteser International (MI), the humanitarian arm of the order. Edward Pentin has provided details of MI’s programmes in his comprehensive article on the subject. An investigation by the Lepanto Institute provides further information about MI’s work promoting  condoms and abortifacient drugs worldwide. Amongst their findings the following facts stand out:

  • MI distributed 52, 190 condoms in Burma (Myanmar) in 2005 and 59,675 in 2006.
  • A World Health Organisation report from 2006, entitled Reproductive Health Stakeholder Analysis in Myanmar 2006 includes “family planning” among MI’s “areas of expertise”, “contraception” amongst its “activities” and “birth spacing” amongst its “future plans”. The report also reveals that MI provided oral contraceptives to 2,500 women in one Burmese township.
  • In 2007 MI received a four year grant of $1.7 million from the Three Disease Fund, for whom they distributed over 300,000 condoms in Burma.
  • In 2012 MI entered a partnership with Save the Children to carry out a joint project, for which they received $2.1 million from the Global Fund, to distribute yet more condoms in Burma during the period from 2013-2016.

Malteser International was headed throughout this period by Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager. An internal investigation by the Order of Malta found that von Boeselager was ultimately responsible for the programmes that involved the distribution of condoms and abortifacient drugs.  His role at MI was one of the major factors that resulted in his dismissal from the role of Grand Chancellor by the Grand Master, Fra Matthew Festing, on 6 December 2016, after he twice refused to resign. Von Boeselager appealed to the Vatican. A commission was appointed to investigate his dismissal. Edward Pentin has provided extensive, and disturbing information, about the make-up of this commission, which seems to have consisted largely of von Boeselager’s friends and associates. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is a sovereign entity, refused to accept the legitimacy of this interference into their internal affairs.

On 24 January 2017 Fra Matthew Festing was asked to resign by Pope Francis and acceded to this request. The following day Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, stated that Pope Francis was declaring null and void all Fra Festing’s acts since 6 December, thus nullifying the dismissal of von Boeselager. Fra Festing’s resignation was accepted by the Sovereign Council of the Order of Malta on 28 January and it was announced that von Boeselager was restored to his position as Grand Chancellor of the order.

In short, Pope Francis has restored to office a man ultimately responsible for the distribution of condoms and abortifacient drugs, while removing from the office the man who tried to ensure that Malteser International remained faithful to Catholic teaching.

In the light of this, and of his decision not to confirm that he accepts Catholic teaching on the existence of intrinsically evil acts, it is reasonable to review other concerns regarding Pope Francis’s position on the morality of using contraceptive methods. The list below draws readers’ attention to important incidents of which we are aware; it is not intended to be exhaustive.

5 March 2014Pope Francis is interviewed by Corriere della Sera. He is asked “At half a century from Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, can the Church take up again the theme of birth control? Cardinal Martini, your confrere, thought that the moment had come.” In his reply Pope Francis stresses that “Paul VI himself, at the end, recommended to confessors much mercy, and attention to concrete situations”. The pope also stated that “the question is not that of changing the doctrine but of going deeper and making pastoral (ministry) take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do. Also of this we will speak in the path of the synod.” The full implications of these words will become clearer during the two year synodal process.

13 October 2014 The heterodox relatio post disceptationem of the Extraordinary Synod is published, after having received the personal approval of Pope Francis. This document adopts an ambiguous approach towards contraception, and an approach to conscience and the natural law of a kind that will inevitably undermine the Church’s moral teachings. The alternation between orthodox restatements of Catholic doctrine and ambiguous and erroneous statements will be followed in all succeeding synodal documents.

19 October 2014 – The final report of the Extraordinary Synod makes the approach of the above relatio its own. The treatment of contraception and the natural law are examined in more detail in Voice of the Family’s analysis of the document.

16 January 2015 Pope Francis makes reference to Humanae Vitae in an address to families in the Phillipines, once more laying emphasis not on the central doctrine of the encyclical but on his contention that Paul VI “was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision: he looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children.” The implication of this passage, especially in light of the comments of 19 January below, is that contraception might be tolerated in particular cases, and that the Church’s teaching is a “broader vision” or ideal. This would reflect the “gradualism” adopted in the synod documents and in Amoris Laetitia.

19 January 2015 – Pope Francis, during a press conference on his return flight from Manila, tells journalists that the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, was not about “personal problems, for which he then told confessors to be merciful and understand the situation and forgive, to be understanding and merciful” but rather about “the universal Neo-Malthusianism that was in progress”. Thus he frames Humanae Vitae not as being principally about a universally binding norm but rather as a political response to an ideological movement. During the same press conference he criticises a mother who had eight children by Caeserean section and accuses her of being guilty of tempting God. He goes on to say that Catholics should practice “responsible parenthood” and shouldn’t “breed like rabbits”.

17 June 2015 – Pope Francis appoints climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber to the Pontifical Academy of Science. Schellnhuber believes that there is a “population problem” and has previously stated that the “carrying capacity of the planet” is “below 1 billion people”. Schellhuber’s positions have been analysed in more detail by Voice of the Family in this article.

18 June 2015Pope Francis promulgates the encyclical letter Laudato Si endorsing the theory of climate change and the environmentalist agenda. The encyclical makes no direct reference to contraception despite the close interrelationship between the environmental and population control movements. This connection is exemplified by the Vatican’s selection of Hans Schellnhuber and Carolyn Woo, then President and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, an American organisation that has funded groups that promote abortion and contraception, to present the document at its launch.

23 June 2015 – The Instrumentum Laboris of the Ordinary Synod is published. This document, which was approved by Pope Francis prior to its release, gravely undermines the Church’s teaching on contraception, and her moral teachings in general. This is explained in detail in Voice of the Family’s analysis of the document. 

10 September 201565 academics appeal to the fathers of the upcoming Ordinary Synod to reject “the distortion of Catholic teaching implicit in paragraph 137” of the Instrumentum Laboris. They write: “Paragraph 137 addresses a key document of the modern Magisterium, Humanae Vitae, in a way that both calls the force of that teaching into question and proposes a method of moral discernment that is decidedly not Catholic. This approach to discernment contradicts what has hitherto been taught by the Magisterium of the Church about moral norms, conscience, and moral judgment, by suggesting that a well-formed conscience may be in conflict with objective moral norms.”

24 October 2015 – The final report of the Ordinary Synod continues to adopt a gravely problematic approach to the moral law, and to the issue of contraception in particular.

30 November 2015 Pope Francis asserts, in the context of a question regarding the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV, that there could be a conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments. A German journalist asked:

“Is it not time for the Church to change it’s position on the matter? To allow the use of condoms to prevent more infections?”

In his response Pope Francis stated:

“Yes, it’s one of the methods. The moral of the Church on this point is found here faced with a perplexity: the fifth or sixth commandment? Defend life, or that sexual relations are open to life?”

In fact there can never be any conflict between the commandments of the decalogue. Pope Francis further implies that the Church’s teaching on this matter is not a priority:

“this question makes me think of one they once asked Jesus: ‘Tell me, teacher, is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Is it obligatory to heal?’ This question, ‘is doing this lawful,’ … but malnutrition, the development of the person, slave labor, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems. Let’s not talk about if one can use this type of patch or that for a small wound, the serious wound is social injustice, environmental injustice, injustice that…I don’t like to go down to reflections on such case studies when people die due to a lack of water, hunger, environment…when all are cured, when there aren’t these illnesses, tragedies, that man makes, whether for social injustice or to earn more money, I think of the trafficking of arms, when these problems are no longer there, I think we can ask the question ‘is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'”

10 December 2015 Cardinal Turkson suggests that the world might be overpopulated and states that “this has been talked about, and the Holy Father on his trip back from the Philippines also invited people to some form of birth control, because the church has never been against birth control and people spacing out births and all of that.” He later stated that he should have used the term “responsible parenthood” rather than “birth control.”

18 February 2016Pope Francis seems to suggest that condoms are a “lesser of two evils” that can be used to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus and again makes the erroneous assertion that there can be “conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments” of the decalogue. He also seems to suggest the question of contraception is a “religious problem” rather than a “human problem”. This incoherent approach to the moral law was already predicted by Voice of the Family, in our analyses of the synodal documents.

19 February 2016 – The Vatican press office confirms that Pope Francis intended to approve the use of condoms in certain cases in his remarks of the previous day.

8 April 2016The Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia is promulgated. This document builds on the erroneous approach adopted in the synodal documents towards conscience and the natural law and pursues false approaches to moral theology, including gradualism, situation ethics and fundamental option.

1 September 2016 Pope Francis states that he is “gratified” by the adoption of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include “universal access to sexual and reproductive health”. These terms are understood to include contraception and abortion by UN agencies, national governments and international agencies. Archbishop Mupendwatu, of the Pontifical Council for Healthcare Workers, had earlier told the World Health Assembly in Geneva that the Holy See welcomed the SDGs unreservedly and that Goal 3, on the two goals that calls for “universal access to sexual and reproductive health” was the key to achieving all the other goals. The pope’s assertion that he is “gratified” by goals that will lead to further killing of unborn children threatens to destroy the credibility of the strong statements that he has made in opposition to abortion during his pontificate.

19 September 2016 – Four cardinals write to Pope Francis asking him to resolve five dubia they have about the doctrine of Amoris Laetitia. These dubia, which raise questions regarding the nature of conscience and the existence of intrinsic moral evils, are of great relevance to the Church’s teaching on contraception.

24 October 2016 – Pope Francis praises Bernard Häring, a moral theologian and influential dissenter from Humanae Vitae.  He told the 36th general Congregation that Häring was the “first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology to flourish again” and that “in our day moral theology has made much progress in its reflections and in its maturity”.

14 November 2016 – The four cardinals make the text of the dubia public after Pope Francis informs them that he does not intend to give an answer. The pope’s decision not to explain clearly the meaning of his own text strengthens the common perception that his teaching is deliberately ambiguous and intended to undermine the Catholic faith.

The examples listed above demonstrate the extent to which the pontificate of Pope Francis has caused widespread doubt and confusion concerning the teaching of the Church on questions, such as contraception, relating to moral law. In this hour of great crisis for the Church we must turn to God, with ever greater confidence, offering prayer and penance that he will soon manifest His almighty power and bring deliverance to His Church.