Some commentators have suggested that there is a tension or contradiction between the position Pope Francis takes in Laudato Si, on the one hand, and the Church’s traditional teaching against the use of artificial contraception, on the other. After all, the pope is concerned to protect the environment. But, say the critics, overpopulation stresses the environment, and the Church’s opposition to birth control invites overpopulation.
I will leave it to others who know more about population growth to deal with that argument. However, it is worth noting that there is a harmony between Francis’s deepest moral argument in Laudato Si and the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception–particularly as it is stated in Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Simply put, both popes emphasize the wrongness of a certain kind of subjection of nature to human power through technology. Francis makes the point in general, and Paul VI makes in specifically in relation to the natural procreative powers of husband and wife.
The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled (section 11).
The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality (section 75).
In view of passages like these, and other ones as well, it seems to me that the basic philosophic or moral concern that Francis has is a modern attitude toward nature that says that we humans have a right to manipulate it however we want through technology and science. Paul VI makes a very similar point in Humanae Vitae, only specifically with reference to the natural procreative powers of human beings. Consider these passages:
But the most remarkable [new] development of all is to be seen in man’s stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature to the point that he is endeavoring to extend this control over every aspect of his own life–over his body, over his mind and emotions, over his social life, and even over the laws that regulate the transmission of life (section 2).
Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions–limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions . . . (section 17).
Sometimes what appear to be contradictions in the Church’s teaching appear that way because people are viewing it from the outside, in light of their own moral concerns. But it is consistent if one views it from within.
By the way, everybody knows that those who dislike the Church’s teaching on contraception hold that it is one of the teachings that makes the Church irrelevant to modern people. On their view, the Church should get with the times. Paul VI was very much aware of this objection and dealt with it as follows:
It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’ She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical” (section 18).