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Pope Francis speaking to journalists on his return flight from CanadaVatican News screenshot

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VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — During his return flight from Canada on Saturday Pope Francis replied to a question regarding the Catholic Church’s prohibition on contraceptives, saying that dogma and morality are “always on a path of development.”

Speaking to selected reporters, Francis responded to questions regarding his health, possible retirement, Germany’s Synodal Way and international politics. 

While many headlines addressed his comments hinting at a possible retirement, his remarks on contraception passed relatively un-noticed. “Many Catholics, but also many theologians, think that development is needed in the Church’s doctrine regarding contraceptives,” said Claire Giangrave of Religion News Service.

“Are you open, in short, to a reevaluation in this regard?,” she asked, “or does the possibility exist for a couple to consider contraceptives?”

Pope Francis called the question “very timely,” adding that “dogma, morality, is always on a path of development, but always developing in the same direction.” 

In a lengthy response, Francis alluded to the 5th century theologian St. Vincent of Lerins, whose famous Canon has been increasingly used as the basis for modern arguments proposing “development” in doctrine.

For the theological development of a moral or dogmatic issue,” Francis said St. Vincent “says that true doctrine, in order to go forward, to develop, must not be quiet, it develops ut annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate.” 

This “true doctrine…”expands and consolidates, and becomes always more solid, but always progressing,” he said. The “duty of theologians is research, theological reflection,” he said. 

You cannot do theology with a ‘no’ in front of it. Then it is up to the Magisterium to say no, you’ve gone too far, come back, but theological development must be open, that’s what theologians are for. And the Magisterium must help to understand the limits. 

Francis also referenced the Pontifical Academy for Life’s (PAV) new book which proposes both contraception and artificial insemination as morally acceptable. Recently published by the Vatican’s publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the book is a collection of essays taken from a three-day interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by the PAV in 2021.

READ: Vatican-approved journal suggests Pope Francis might soon contradict Church’s birth control ban

The pontiff said:

On the issue of contraception, I know there is a publication out on this and other marital issues: these are the acts of a congress, and in a congress, there are hypotheses, then they discuss among themselves and make proposals.

Francis defended the work, and the seminar which prompted the book, saying the theologians involved “did their duty” by seeking to “move forward in doctrine…in an ecclesial sense”: 

We have to be clear: those who participated in this congress did their duty, because they have sought to move forward in doctrine, but in an ecclesial sense, not out of it, as I said with that rule of St. Vincent of Lerins. 

The answers to the questions posed by the PAV now lie with the “Magisterium,” who “will say, yes it is good or it is not good,” he added. “Many things fall under this.”

Fuelling speculation about new encyclical 

In light of the PAV’s new book, speculation has arisen regarding a potential new encyclical from the Pope contradicting the Church’s prohibition on contraception. A theologian adviser to the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), recently published an article in the Vatican reviewed La Civilta Cattolica, asking if Francis would write “a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics” in line with the PAV’s book. 

The PAV welcomed Francis’ in-flight comments, using them as another opportunity to promote the book at the center of current controversy.

When posing her question to the Pope, Giangrave referenced Pope John Paul I’s reported opposition to the Church’s ban on contraception as a basis for allowing “development” of doctrine to permit the practice. 

Giangrave is not alone in paying particular attention to John Paul I’s views on the subject. In the build up to his September beatification, Vatican News, the Vatican’s in-house news outlet, is currently focussing heavily on John Paul I’s short reign in a new podcast, led by Andrea Tornielli – the editorial director of the Dicastery for Communications. Both Tornielli and the vice postulator of the pontiff’s sainthood cause, Stefania Falasca, have recently written on John Paul I’s position on contraception in the Vatican’s paper and the paper of the Italian bishops’ conference. 

Tradition a ‘dead faith’ which needs updating

Defending his position on the “development” of morals, Francis continued by attacking those attached to “tradition.” 

“I think this is very clear: a Church that does not develop its thinking in an ecclesial sense, is a Church that is going backward,” he said, describing it as “today’s problem, and of many who call themselves traditional.” 

Such “people looking to the past, going backward, without roots” are sinning, he said, as “looking backward is a sin because it does not progress with the Church.”

Employing now familiar phraseology, Francis slated adherents of tradition for clinging to a “dead faith.”

Tradition is the living faith of those who have died. Instead, for those people who are looking backward, who call themselves traditionalists, it is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is truly the root, the inspiration by which to go forward in the Church, and this is always vertical.

Consequently, he defended the proposed “development” of morals, stating that “thinking and carrying forward faith and morals, as long as it is going in the direction of the roots, of the sap [of the tree], that’s ok. With these three rules of Vincent of Lerins that I mentioned.”

Catholic teaching on contraception

Writing in 1930, Pope Pius XI encylical Casti Connubi stated that “every use of the faculty given by God for the procreation of new life is the right and the privilege of the married state alone, by the law of God and of nature, and must be confined absolutely within the sacred limits of that state.”

He also condemned birth control, ordering that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

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