There are two ways of interpreting the character of Pope Francis. One is to imagine that he is the sort of person who loves talking off the cuff and thinking aloud. The other is to realise that he is someone who speaks in a seemingly spontaneous manner, turning out well-crafted and well-aimed sentences to get people thinking, designed to restructure the way people think and speak about various controversial topics.
It is the second interpretation that I incline towards. Take that famous “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” on the aeroplane back from Rio. It seemed so artless, but through this one sentence the Pope has reframed the debate about homosexuality. He has placed the homosexual condition within the larger framework of the human condition, as one of many challenges people might encounter in their search to get closer to God. At a stroke he has demolished the world’s idea that this question is the question of all questions, showing that this question is, in fact, relative, like every other question, to the real ultimate question – how to grow in holiness. The Pope’s seemingly casual pronouncement was revolutionary: getting people to look at the homosexual condition through the prism of seeking God and having good will.
Now the Pope has done something similar once more, touching on the question of Humanae Vitae. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, the Pope is reported as saying the following:
Asked whether it might perhaps be time to take up once again the question of artificial means of birth control, Pope Francis praised his predecessor, Paul VI, who authored the encyclical Humanae vitae, saying, “His genius proved prophetic: he had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise ‘brake’ on the culture, to oppose [both] present and future neo-Malthusianism. The Holy Father went on to explain, “The question is not that of changing doctrine, but of going into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account people’s situations, and that, which it is possible for people to do.”
What does this mean? The Pope is not proposing changing the doctrine of Humanae Vitae, but rather deepening or developing it, and above all developing a workable pastoral application of the doctrine. The reference to “[what] it is possible for people to do” perhaps points towards the old moral principle “lex impossibilis non tenet”, that is, a law that is impossible to keep is not binding.
In practice there is no chance wheatever of Pope Francis abandoning or contradicting the teaching of Pope Paul (and not only Pope Paul, but the popes before him too.) But there is a chance, nay a certainty, that Pope Francis is going to develop the doctrine in some way. This is something that we should all welcome, because growth is a sign of life and the doctrines of the Church are not to be throught of as fossilised.
What form might this growth take? In his comments above the Pope speaks warmly of Humanae Vitae, and it is clear that he has paragraph 17 in mind, which predicts, correctly as it turns out, what the proliferation of contraception will bring in its wake. He also is referring, perhaps, to paragraph 29, with its reference to recourse to confession. He makes no mention of paragraph 14 (nor should he be expected to in this very brief discussion), but it is there, in the last sentence of the paragraph, that one might well find room for development. I mean by this a return to the idea of what was called ‘the principle of totality’, without, of course, ever admitting the pernicious idea that the end justifies the means. Whether this is something that will exercise the papal mind, and the minds of our pastors, only time will tell. But further study of Humanae Vitae, and a deepening of its doctrine, at the highest level too, is something I would love to see. If Francis wants to write another encyclical this is the subject I would love to see him choose.