Pope Benedict, on Divorce, Contraception

Pope Benedict’s views on condoms and HIV/AIDS prevention as expressed in “Light of the World” have been widely quoted, misquoted, celebrated and condemned. However, they form only a few line in a wider discussion on sexuality. This broader context is also relevant for its suggestion of some welcome flexibility in his thinking, which is important for a proper perspective on hos views of homosexuality. In an earlier post, I have quoted verbatim the relevant specific questions that Peter Seewald put to him on homosexuality and on the priesthood, and his responses.In this posting, I do the same with his responses on divorce and contraception. The questions are lightly edited, to remove some of Seewald’s less relevant remarks, or those which are specific to Germany. Benedict’s responses I have quoted in full.  (My own reflection on these responses will follow shortly).

What he said:

On divorce:

Seewald: Catholics who remarry after divorce are barred from receiving communion. You once remarked that this regulation would require “more intense reflection”.


Of course that is required. On the one hand there is the certainty that the Lord tells us that a marriage contracted in faith is indissoluble. These are words we cannot manipulate. We have to let them stand as they are – even when they contradict the forms of life that are dominant today.  There were epochs in which what was Christian prevailed to such an extent that the indissolubility of marriage was the norm, but in many civilizations it is not the norm.  Bishops from the Third World countries tell me time and again that “the sacrament of marriage is the hardest one”.  Or else, “In our country it is still not popular”. To bring traditional forms of cohabitation into alignment with the sacrament of matrimony is a process that is bound up with the whole of existence, and it si a struggle whose outcome cannot be coerced.   In this sense, what we are experiencing in the midst of the gradual disintegration of Western society is not the only crisis in question. But that is not the only reason to give up monogamous marriage or to cease struggling to preserve this form. That would contradict the Gospel.

Seewald: Jesus  tells us that the Creator made human beings male and female and that what God has joined, no man may put asunder. but the first disciples already murmured at this commandment.


Yes. One thing we can do is inquire more precisely into the question of the validity of marriages.  Up to now, canon law has taken it for granted that someone who contracts a marriage knows what a marriage is. Assuming the existence of this knowledge, the marriage is then valid and indissoluble.  But in  the present confusion of opinions, in today’s completely new situation, what people “know” is rather that divorce is supposedly normal.  So we have to deal with the question of how to recognize validity and where healing is possible.  This will always remain a struggle.  But that is no reason not to maintain the standard or to capitulate.  That would not raise the moral level of society.  Preserving this difficult teaching as a standard by which people can continue to measure themselves is a necessary task to prevent further disasters.

There is, then, a certain tension in the thing itself. Pastoral care, for its part, has to seek ways of staying close to individuals and of helping them, even in, shall we say, their irregular situation,to believe in Christ as the savior, to believe in his goodness, because hs is always there for them, even though they cannot receive communion. And of helping them to remain in the Church, even though their situation is canonically irregular.  Pastoral care has to help them accept that, yes, I do not live up to what I should be as a Christian, to be loved by Christ, and the more I remain in the Church, the more I am sustained by him.


On Contraception

Seewald: Paul VI made the topic of contraception the theme of his famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. At that time, he pointed out that man’s attempt to manipulate the natural order leads to fatal consequences. Life, Pope Paul said, is too great, too much for us to meddle in it. It is as if to say: If we do not respect the lives of children, our own lives and the life of our society, our world, will be lost.  Perhaps people at the time were not yet able to understand this vision. Today we are witnessing not only the enormously injurious consequences of the contraceptive pill on human health and on the environment, but we are also watching our social systems collapse because we have become a childless society that is losing its foundations. Nevertheless, it has become almost impossible for the Catholic Church even to make her sexual ethics understandable.  A supermodel from Brazil recently said, as if to prove her point, that nowadays no woman enters marriage as a virgin.  A retired auxiliary bishop has criticized the Church for answering the questions pertaining to premarital sexuality in such a way that “practically no one can live them and doubtless people live them quite differently”.


This is a huge question. Given the present framework, we cannot enter into the many layers of the problems or to examine the issues in detail. It is correct that there is much in this area that need to be pondered and expressed in new ways.  On the other hand, I would also disagree with the supermodel, and many others would as well, and I would insist that statistics do not suffice as a criterion for morality.  It is bad enough when public opinion polls become the criterion of political decisions and when politicians are more preoccupied with “How do I get more votes?” than with “What is right?”  By the same token, the results of surveys about what people do or how they live is no in and of itself the measure of what is true and right.

Paul VI has been proved prophetically right.  He was convinced that society robs itself of its greatest hopes when it kills human beings through abortion.  How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?  We need to stop and think about the great human capacity that is being destroyed here – even quite apart from the fact that unborn children are human persons whose dignity and right to life we have to respect.

Seewald: The contraceptive pill is another problem in its own right.


Yes. What Paul VI wanted to say, and what is still correct as a main vision, is that if we separate sexuality and fecundity from each other in principle, which is what the use of the pill does, then sexuality becomes arbitrary. Logically, every form of sexuality is of equal value. This approach to fecundity as something apart from sexuality, so far apart that we may even try to produce children rationally and no longer see them as a natural gift, was after all, quickly followed by the ascription of equal value to homosexuality.

The basic lines of Humanae Vitae are still correct. Finding ways to enable people to live the teaching, on the other hand, is a further question.  I think that  there will always be core groups of people who are really open to being interiorly convinced  and fulfilled by the teaching and who then carry everyone else. We are sinners. But we should not take this failure to live up to this high moral standard as an authoritative objection to the truth.  We should try to do as much good as we can and to support and put up with each other.  We should also try to express the teaching pastorally, theologically and intellectually in the context of today’s studies of sexuality and anthropology so as to create the conditions for understanding so that people can realize that this is a great task on which work is being done and on which even more work need to be done.

Seewald: You can count on support from at least one former Hollywood star and sex symbol Raquel Welch, who now says that the introduction of the contraceptive pill  fifty years ago has led to sex without responsibility.  She added that it weakens marriage and family and leads to “situations of chaos”.  But does the Catholic Church in point of fact refuse any regulation of contraception whatsoever?


No. After all, everyone knows that the Church affirms natural regulation of contraception, which is not just a method, but also a way of life.  Because it presupposes the that couples take time for each other .  And that is something fundamentally different from when I take the pill without binding myself interiorly to another person, so that I can jump into bed with random acquaintance.









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