On Jan. 21, when asked about birth control and family planning for Catholic families, Pope Francis’ answer proved to greatly disappoint many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. While it is understandable that it is impossible to cater to the varied interests of more than one billion Catholic followers, two weeks ago Pope Francis deliberately and surprisingly decided to please the orthodox side. The disappointment was probably heightened by the fact that his election in March 2013, as a successor to the much more conservative Pope Benedict XVI, created great hope among liberals that there would be a shift in ideology. There was a general sense of hope that Pope Francis would undertake radical reforms of the Catholic Church that would tackle controversial issues such as gay rights and recognition of divorce, and would foster a more open and sensible discussion regarding contraception.
What actually happened recently was a harsh return to doctrinal purity. Pope Francis made clear that the Catholic Church was still against birth control, claiming that there are “church-approved” ways to be a responsible parent, and that Catholics therefore had no excuse to “breed like rabbits,” as he put it. While little attention should be given to the perhaps crude expression used, what should be addressed is the apparent conservatism and orthodoxy behind this message.
Perhaps the wind of reform and liberalism that Pope Francis seemed to bring with him carried people away, and expectations were too high. Already, in October 2014, the reformists were disappointed by the failure of the bishop gathering. While Pope Francis pushed for family reforms, including marriage for the divorced and greater acceptance of homosexuality, the final document drafted at the gathering was watered down, and eventually completely rejected. There seemed to be a growing division among Church ranks between the doctrinal purity supporters and the reformists—for whom things did not go “far enough.”
Pope Francis’ comments on birth control may have been a way of reassuring the more orthodox segments of his followers, showing that he is still committed to the core values of the Catholic Church. It also reminds us that Pope Francis is an egalitarian who initially clamoured for more social equity and promised to fight poverty. This is a clear example of how the public may have been naïve and confused Pope Francis’ apparent egalitarianism with a strong will for general reforms, including a new stance on contraception.
However, this positioning makes one wonder if a reform of the Church is possible at all without threatening its core values, and hence without endangering its very existence. Pope Francis holds that the Church needs “to find a new balance.” But not “breeding like rabbits” proves to be both a very dissatisfying balance and a very small step towards individual sexual responsibility. Actually, this “new balance” between no contraception and sexual restraint puts greater pressure on Catholics, who are left with no choice but to have a restricted approach to sexuality. It is indeed insensitive to blame people for being “irresponsible,” as Pope Francis did during an interview, when the Church-approved methods of family planning only include abstinence, or at least abstinence when women are most “fertile.” Finally, Pope Francis consciously ignores the issue that contraception is not only about family planning, but also about general health and avoiding sexually transmitted infections. As Emily Rahaula stated in a TIME Magazine article, it is a matter of both public health and human rights. One can wonder if drawing a line between contraception and responsibility is itself the responsible thing to do.