R.I.P. Pope John Paul’s “Contraceptive Mentality”: 1979–2014

The biggest news to come out of the bishops’ synod in Rome so far is the acknowledgement that when it comes to talking about issues of family and sexuality, language matters.

Among the examples of “harsh” rhetoric that bishops discussed as doing more harm than good in terms of “invit[ing] people to draw closer to the church” were “living in sin” for cohabitating couples, as well as calling homosexuality “intrinsically disordered” and references to a “contraceptive mentality.”

The rejection of this last phrase is especially significant because it’s not merely an outdated expression like “living in sin”—it was Pope John Paul II’s seminal contribution to the church’s theology of women and reproduction over the last 35 years.

John Paul’s “contraceptive mentality” conflated abortion and contraception, laying the groundwork for much of the anti-contraception mentality that exists on the right today, while his other great rhetorical sleight-of-hand was to place both abortion and contraception under what he labeled a “culture of death” that valued expediency and personal fulfillment.

“[C]ontraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree,” he wrote in Evangelium Vitae, saying, “such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment.”

The suggestion that women who used contraception were selfish, rejecting the will of God that they be mothers and instead pursuing their own pleasure and self-fulfillment, helped alienate a generation (or two) of Catholic women from the church.

Not only were women who used contraception selfish harlots, but the very use of contraception was leading them to have abortions:

It may be that many people use contraception with a view to excluding the subsequent temptation of abortion. But the negative values inherent in the “contraceptive mentality”… are such that they in fact strengthen this temptation when an unwanted life is conceived. … The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.

This is the thinking about women and contraception that has guided the Catholic Church since Ronald Reagan was in office and explains much of the bishops’ irrational hostility to contraception—John Paul taught that it was “abortion lite.”

It stands in sharp contrast to the attitude toward contraception taken by the American bishops in the decade after Humanae Vitae, when they urged the church to take a graduated approach toward contraception that maintained the teaching that it was wrong but adopted a pastoral approach that was more in keeping with the real-life experiences of Catholics. Following the tumultuous release of Humane Vitae in 1968, they told Catholics that if they tried to follow the teaching in good faith and found they couldn’t, “they may reasonably decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible.”

At the 1980 bishops’ synod, the last time the church officially grappled with “family” issues, Archbishop John Quinn, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, urged a more nuanced approach to the contraception teaching that emphasized “greater pastoral insights” but was rebuked by John Paul.

Now, it appears that “graduality” is back in, as is the idea of using pastoral practices to soften the real-world application of doctrine. The bishops are talking about the need to meet Catholics where they are and guide them toward a vision of “perfect” practice that they may or may not reach. Pope Francis already demonstrated this by marrying couples who were “living in sin”—welcoming them to grow into the church’s vision of the marriage ideal rather than turning them away for not having met it as a precondition of a church marriage.

This approach, however, may have more doctrinal significance than it appears. It may be a matter of the pastoral cart leading the doctrinal horse, as Thomas Reese notes:

[T]he only way the synod is going to change anything is for the bishops to first convince themselves that they are not changing doctrine, only the way they are expressing it. … Perhaps bishops, guided by the Spirit, should just discern better pastoral practices and then leave it to the theologians to explain why they are OK.

If this is the case, then the Francis revolution will be less a revolution and more an evolution, which may be the only way to change a church that can’t bring itself to admit it needs to change.