The Pope's Exhortation: The Dogma that Didn't Bark

After convening two assemblies, or synods, of bishops to re-examine the challenges facing modern families, Pope Francis has released a 256-page apostolic exhortation called "Amoris Laetitia," or "The Joy of Love." I suspect that the long-awaited document will be remembered for what it did not say, not for what it said. Silence and equivocation, on occasion, speak volumes. This, I think, is one such time.

Those who had expected Pope Francis to make a clear and definitive break with past doctrine on issues related to gay marriage, divorce, and contraception are understandably disappointed. I am not. I harbored the hope of a definitive change, but not the expectation.The Catholic Church is a deeply conservative institution with a well-deserved reputation for intransigence. It abhors revolutionary change. The best we can expect from such an institution is an evolutionary shift. And that shift, I believe, is now underway.

Deciphering the Pope's declaration--which is truly a rhetorical maze--requires Sherlockian insight. I will leave it to others to determine what the Holy See actually said with respect to gay marriage and the status of divorce within the Church, but with respect to contraception, I believe--and hope--that something has changed.

In seeking to determine what that change is and what it means, I am reminded of "Silver Blaze," a short story about Sherlock Holmes and his investigation into the disappearance of a racehorse and the murder of the horse's trainer the night before a race. He only solved the case when he suddenly realized that none of the witnesses had heard the watchdog bark the night of the murder.

"Amoris Laetitia" may be a case of the dogma that did not bark. In his lengthy exhortation, Francis never refers to contraception as "sinful" or "unlawful." Rather, he appears to suggest, albeit obliquely, that it is a matter of personal conscience. Couples, he suggest, need to decide for themselves how many children to have. He cites, with seeming approval, Relatio Finalis, a declaration issued by bishops last year which declared:

In accord with the personal and fully human character of conjugal love, family planning fittingly takes place as the result a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for times and consideration of the dignity of the partner. Decisions involving responsible parenthood presupposes the formation of conscience.

While the Pope's declaration says that natural family matters should be promoted by the Church, he refrains from condemning the use of a modern method of contraception, and he endorses "sex education," though he stops short of endorsing 'safe sex'.

Does this represent a shift in the Church's thinking on contraception? Maybe not. Is it a distinction without a discernible difference? Perhaps. But as one who fervently hopes that the Church is changing its position, I think we should embrace it as change. It does, I suspect, no good to blast it as "not enough" or "no change." Instead, we should applaud the Pope's courage in backing away from the Church's long-standing hostility to contraception and cite, at the same time, the important benefits that flow from giving women the power to space or limit their pregnancies.

With respect to the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy, the Pope did not articulate any shift. He did not display any weakening in the Church's position on abortion. That is regrettable, but entirely expected.

But as for the Church's position on contraception, I think we should pronounce that there has been a shift... at least until it is publicly repudiated.

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