From ............. REUTER

March 2, 1997

Vatican urges compassion on contraception

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY, March 2 (Reuter) - The Vatican has told priests to be more understanding towards married Roman Catholic couples who use contraception and to absolve them readily of the sin during confession if they repent and recognise their error.

A Vatican document, a guide on how priests should handle sins regarding family issues, clearly reaffirmed the Church's total opposition to artificial birth control.

Issued at the weekend, the 20-page document marked the first time the Church has told its priests in a directive to be compassionate in the confessional box with couples who sometimes practice contraception.

While Vatican officials stressed that the document did not signal a change in the Church position, the Italian media called it a crack in the door of one of the most controversial issues affecting tens of millions of Catholics around the world.

``The Vatican closes an eye towards the pill,'' headlined the La Repubblica newspaper on Sunday.

The Church bans all artificial birth control methods, saying they block the transmission of life. It urges Catholics to use natural family planning, such as the rhythm method in which couples abstain from sex during a woman's fertile period.

The document implicitly acknowledged that many Catholics disregard the ban, recognising that ``the problem of responsible procreation represents a particularly delicate point in Catholic moral teaching....''

But it said that this does not preclude the same forgiveness Catholics would receive in the confessional box for other sins.

``Sacramental absolution (forgiveness of sins) is not to be denied to those who, repentant after having gravely sinned against conjugal chastity, demonstrate the desire to strive to abstain from sinning again,'' it said.

``Frequent relapse into sins of contraception does not in itself constitute a motive for denying absolution,'' it said, adding, however, that absolution cannot be granted unless the Catholic is sufficiently repentant.

The document broke no new ground on the sacrament of confession, in which Catholics confess sins -- however grave -- to a priest and receive God's forgiveness if they repent.

It was apparently directed at priests who may have interpreted the firm ban on contraception to mean that forgiveness should be less readily dispensed in such cases.

Priests had to keep in mind that confession was instituted for sinners and they should assume that those confessing the sin of contraception had ``the good will to be reconciled with the merciful God,'' its said.

Called ``Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life,'' it reaffirms the ``intrinsic evil of contraception.''

It said the ban enshrined by Pope Paul VI in his controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) was ``definitive and irreformable.''

Priests hearing confessions were urged to use prudence and discretion and not to ask direct or specific questions regarding the method of family planning used by a couple.

The new directive was prepared by the Vatican's Council for the Family and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which keeps watch on Catholic dogma and doctrine.