Q and A: ‘Will I go to hell if I use contraceptives?’

Paterno Esmaquel II
Q and A: ‘Will I go to hell if I use contraceptives?’
The head of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines explains the Pope's statements on family planning while he was in the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – In the Philippines, Pope Francis made one of his strongest statements on birth control: He denounced a “lack of openness to life” then praised his predecessor who solidified the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. 

During his meeting with families at the Mall of Asia Arena on January 16, Francis hailed the late pope Paul VI as “courageous” for writing the papal document titled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).

Published on July 25, 1968, Humanae Vitae prohibits Catholics from using artificial contraceptives in favor of natural family planning. Critics of the Philippines’ Reproductive Health law, which funds contraceptives, often cite this document. (READ: Confirmed: Pope ‘much updated’ on RH law)

Francis, on the one hand, said Paul VI “had the courage to defend openness to life in families.” He later beatified Paul VI and gave him the title “blessed” – which puts the former pope a step away from sainthood. 

On the other hand, the current Pope told Filipinos, Paul VI “was very merciful towards particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases.”

What did Francis mean?

Rappler sat down with the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas, to help us understand the Pope’s statements. We asked him about the “particular cases” that Francis mentioned, as well as his words’ implications.

What do these statements mean for the ordinary Catholic? Given this framework, will a person go to hell, for instance, if he or she uses contraceptives? How should priests deal with couples that use artificial birth control? Is morality, in the end, between a person and the Lord?

Below, you may read excerpts from the interview. You may also watch the video.

RAPPLER: What did the Pope mean when he mentioned particular cases brought up by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae?

VILLEGAS: First, you must remember, he beatified Pope Paul VI. Second, for all the critique that Humanae Vitae received, Pope Francis says there is a prophetic message in Humanae Vitae that we cannot ignore. And then he praised Blessed Paul VI for his courage in enduring the opposition, the ridicule that he received even from his fellow pastors. When he made a prophetic position, Paul VI also suffered because of that prophetic position. And Pope Francis praised him for that courage.

But at the same time, while praising Pope Paul VI for Humanae Vitae, he also said that the best contribution that we can offer the world right now is what he calls a pastoral accompaniment, that we should have a pastor’s heart. The doctrine remains the same, the dogma will not change, the teachings of Jesus will not change, but we should be pastorally sensitive, and mercy and compassion is the call of the times.

RAPPLER: Can we ask for your help in visualizing this or thinking of concrete examples? Like for example, if I am a person who uses contraceptives, given this paradigm, will I go to hell?

VILLEGAS: You know, the matter of going to hell or going to heaven is really God’s power.

First, let’s have a concrete situation. A mother, at a moment of great fear because of her pregnancy, because she has no husband, decides to abort her baby. And then it is known in the community. You know, if the community is merciful and compassionate, that community will reach out to the mother, because the mother is also a victim of abortion. It is not only the baby who is a victim of abortion, because the mother also inflicts upon herself damnation, death, doom. So that person, that mother, needs help. More than judgment, more than being considered an outcast, that mother needs accompaniment.

It is not to say what she did is correct. Rather, it is to say to her, “What you did is wrong, but God is rich in mercy, and this is an invitation for you to rise up from where you have fallen, and then return to the mercy of God, and be a brand new person again, and for example, be an advocate against abortion from now on” – rather than judging.

For example, your question: You have a couple engaged in contraception, and they approach their pastor and say, “Father, we are confused. We know the teachings of the Church. But we have difficulty accepting this, because this is our realistic situation.”

You know, as a pastor, it would not diminish me as a priest if I listen to them, if I gave them time, because for all you know, these people are struggling themselves, and they have consciences that need to be formed. That is why in the Church, we speak of the law of graduality – meaning to say, you are a struggling sinner but you are on the way to accepting the Lord. But on the way to accepting the Lord, there is that distance between being a sinner, converting, and living fully in the grace of God. So you are journeying step by step, closer to the Lord. 

That this person is still far from the grace of God should not make us judge the person. Rather, look at where he has journeyed. Say, “You are already 3 steps away from your sin, and therefore I count that as a blessing. Come closer, come closer, come closer.” Like a child, a one-year-old child, who’s learning how to walk. If a child is learning how to walk, you don’t say to the child, “You are still 8 steps away from me!” Rather you say to the child, “Oh, you have made two big steps already! Come on, come on, come on!” That is accompaniment.

RAPPLER: There are good priests who do that, but of course there are priests who also don’t do that.

VILLEGAS: Well, we are all human beings, and we are all prone to original sin, including pride, including judgment of one another. But I’d like to believe that there are still more priests who choose the path of mercy and compassion.

RAPPLER: What do you say to priests who do not choose the path of mercy and compassion as much?

VILLEGAS: “You know, in the confessional, the priest is a father, not a judge. The priest is a judge in the tribunal. But in the confessional, the priest is a friend, a father, and a fellow sinner who understands another fellow sinner.”

'MERCY, COMPASSION.' Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas says married couples, whether using contraceptives or not, should know that 'God loves you.' File photo by Noli Yamsuan/Archdiocese of Manila

RAPPLER: That’s what you would say to priests.

VILLEGAS: Because if God wanted forgiveness for everybody, and he wanted to make it easy, he would’ve given the power to angels. But God did not give the power to forgive to angels, because the angels would not understand what human beings are going through. So God gave the power to sinners, like priests, because the priest, as a human being, knows what it is to be human, and therefore, he can be more compassionate with a fellow human being who is struggling like him.

RAPPLER: Pope Francis said something like that: The confessional is not a torture chamber.

VILLEGAS: Yes, the penitent is already asking for God’s mercy. And the proper posture is like the father in the Prodigal Son, to literally run to meet your son. You remember the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? When he saw the son coming from a distance, he did not wait. He did not wait. He ran to meet the son, embraced him, and kissed him. That is how we should be. We should be very eager to share the mercy and compassion of God, because we ourselves as priests have been beneficiaries of that.

RAPPLER: I love your example of the confused couple. You said you would listen as a pastor. But once that confused couple would leave your office or your room, what would be your parting words for them? What would be the resolution after your meeting?

VILLEGAS: “God loves you.” I think that covers everything. I might not be able to give everything that they want. For example, I might not be able to assure them that everything is all right. I might not be able to assure them, “Don’t worry about anything anymore.” But I can assure them, “Inspite of everything, God loves you. And God sees your struggle, God sees your effort. God does not look at what you have not done, but God looks at the goodness of your heart.”

RAPPLER: Is it right for me to say that morality in the end is between me and God?

VILLEGAS: No, no. That’s not quite accurate because morality has certain standards. And the standards were set by God himself. Because while morality pertains to conscience, as a person, as a Christian, you have a duty to form your conscience according to the mind of Christ. It’s like this – if you will say, “Morality is between God and me,” then never mind the Ten Commandments. But the Ten Commandments are revealed by God himself. So my duty is to form my conscience according to the Ten Commandments laid by God.

RAPPLER: That are kept by the Church.

VILLEGAS: That are kept by the Church, that are taught by the Church and explained by the Church. In music, there should be syntony. There should be the same tune between conscience, objective morality, and God. It’s a triad.

So we listen to the voice of God, the Holy Spirit guiding us. We listen to the teachings of God as enunciated by the Church. And I open my conscience so that God and his teachings form me. Because we are not born with good conscience.

Actually when we are born, we are amoral. We don’t care. And then you start to see that people behave this way and people act this way, and then you start to conform yourselves to what people are doing. Simple matters like, when you’re born and you’re starting to walk, you prefer to walk barefoot. And then, you are taught to wear slippers, to wear shoes. But the shoes can be uncomfortable. So your parents tell you, “Don’t walk without shoes, because the worms can enter your nails and so on, and then you can get sick.” It’s very uncomfortable, but inspite of the discomfort, you accept the discipline your parents tell you. Now at your age, if I told you now, “Isn’t it nice to walk barefoot?” You’re going to say, “No, I cannot do away with my shoes.” Why? Because your feet have been trained for shoes and slippers.

It’s the same with conscience. When you start to teach what is right and wrong, the child in you will say, “No.” When you start to teach what is right and wrong, the child in you will say, “I want to do it my way.” And then you start to realize, “If I start doing it my way, then I will be in trouble with society.” For example, the law says “keep right” when you drive. And then you say, “No, I want to go wherever I want to go.” So you go to the left, you go to the right, whatever. Will that help you? It’s not going to help you. Why? Because you’re not following the rules.

So being a good citizen is not just about being a person who follows what I want. There are laws to follow in order to guide you for good citizenship. And it is the same with conscience. – Rappler.com

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.