The Vatican is the Magic 8-Ball of “Family Life”

When I was a kid, I had a Magic 8 Ball. It was a maddening and fundamentally useless toy because while it supposedly had 20 answers, in reality it had only three: yes, no, and maybe.

At this point, the Vatican is the Magic 8 ball of questions about “family life,” i.e., sex. It pretends to engage in difficult contemporary questions about contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage, but in really it just gives the same answer over and over again.

Case in point, the Vatican’s newly released preparatory document for this fall’s family life summit. After much fanfare, including a much-ballyhooed survey of Catholic dioceses around the world, the Vatican has concluded that the real problem with its teachings is, wait for it, people just don’t know about them:

The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting, though a certain knowledge of them is clearly evident in those working in the field of theology. The documents, however, do not seem to have taken a foothold in the faithful’s mentality. Some responses clearly state that the faithful have no knowledge of these documents, while others mention that they are viewed, especially by lay people with no prior preparation, as rather “exclusive” or “limited to a few” and require some effort to take them up and study them. Oftentimes, people without due preparation find difficulty reading these documents. Nevertheless, the responses see a need to show the essential character of the truth affirmed in these documents.

Now, with crystalline language like that, I can’t see how anyone could have trouble understanding the Vatican. Of especial perplexity is why the faithful don’t grasp the beauty of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that says you can use family planning, you just have to use a really ineffective form of it that leaves you open to unplanned pregnancy:

When treating a couple’s openness to life and their knowledge of the Church’s teaching, with particular reference to Humanae Vitae, the responses clearly admit that, in the vast majority of cases, the positive aspects are unknown…

[Catholics] struggle to understand the distinction among the natural methods of regulating fertility and contraception….Consequently, it is understandable why people mistakenly think that such a distinction is a pretext.

So the problem is, according to the humans with no uteruses, that women don’t understand the “beauty” of a teaching that says yes, you have some 30 years of fertility management in your lifetime but you can’t use any modern, scientific means to achieve it. It’s like telling someone that they should take a horse and buggy to the mall instead of a car. Sure, it takes forever to get the horse harnessed up and it may throw a shoe on the way or spook at something and take off like a demon with you in tow, or the buggy’s wheel may come lose and wreck the whole thing, and God help you if the weather turns bad, but hey, eventually you probably will get to the mall. Or you could just drive.

Instead, it turns out that for many silly Catholics, according to the Vatican: “the concept of ‘responsible parenthood’ encompasses the shared responsibility in conscience to choose the most appropriate method of birth control, according to a set of criteria ranging from effectiveness to physical tolerance and passing to a real ability to be practiced.”

Wow, that is crazy.

So the answer it seems, is to JUST SAY IT LOUDER:

From the pastoral point of view, the responses, in very many cases, see the need to make better known what was stated in Humanae Vitae and to propose a coherent anthropological vision in revitalized language, not only in pre-marriage preparation but also in instructional courses on love in general.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the Vatican does seem to be genuinely grappling with how it can show some level of compassion and welcomeness to gay people, while at the same time making it crystal clear that it will never recognize civil same-sex marriage or the right of LGBT people to live in relationships where their sexuality is open. Instead, it suggests making a distinction between the “good” gays who hide their sexual identity and the “bad” gays who insist on living as God made them. Oh yeah, and don’t use the word “homosexual,” it’s like “Beetlejuice” and makes the gays appear:

When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people, a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behavior promotes and actively—often aggressively—calls attention to it. Many conferences emphasize that, due to the fact that these unions are a relatively recent phenomenon, no pastoral programs exist in their regard. Others admit a certain unease at the challenge of accepting these people with a merciful spirit and, at the same time, holding to the moral teaching of the Church, all the while attempting to provide appropriate pastoral care which takes every aspect of the person into consideration. Some responses recommend not using phrases such as “gay,” “lesbian” or “homosexual” to define a person’s identity.

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Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.