There is no guarantee from God that each and every Pope in succession will be a conservative. Although some conservative Catholics speak as if Catholics with more liberal theological opinions are necessarily heretics or apostates, such is not the case. Catholicism is not conservatism. The correct theological answer to any question on faith or morals is not necessarily the most conservative answer. Sometimes the correct answer is liberal, sometimes moderate, sometimes conservative. So while the very next Pope might be conservative, there will eventually be a valid Pope in the Church who is not conservative, but liberal.
Will the next Pope, or any subsequent Pope, loosen the ban on contraception, or “clarify” the teaching of the Church so as to permit contraception in some cases?
This question will inevitably be raised by the mass media and by various online Catholic commentators as soon as the next Papal election is imminent. In fact, in some ways that next election is already imminent.
Pope Benedict is one of the oldest Popes in Church history (in terms of those Popes whose ages we know). He recently appointed 6 additional Cardinals, deliberately bringing the total number of voting Cardinals (i.e. Cardinals under 80 years of age) to the maximum of 120 set by Pope John Paul II. Of course, any Pope has the authority to change that maximum and to change the voting age limit, but Pope Benedict has chosen to continue those rules.
Will a future Pope permit contraception in some cases? I’m certain that many Catholics think the answer is “Yes”, because many Catholics already make the false claim that the Church permits married couples to use contraception, with a good intention or purpose (e.g. a medical purpose) or in a difficult circumstance. They claim that the use of contraception is not intrinsically evil, or that it is only intrinsically evil in marriage. Some even hold the self-contradictory view that contraception can be intrinsically evil, and yet become moral with a good intention or in certain circumstances. They await a future Pope whom they think will confirm their own foolish opinion on this question.
For example, Jimmy Akin, says this about contraception: “I am sympathetic to the desire to find in recent Magisterial statements a ban on contraception regardless of the circumstances. Indeed, I used to hold that this is what the documents said….” (The Meaning of “Marital Intercourse”). His position is that the circumstances affect whether or not the use of contraception is moral. His position contradicts the teaching of the Church:
Contraception is intrinsically evil, and intrinsically evil acts are never justified by intention or circumstances.
There is even a Cardinal at the present time, who is considered “papabile” (pope-able; a possible candidate for the office of Pope), who claims that contraception can be moral in some circumstances.
Cardinal Peter Turkson has a clearly erroneous opinion on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of disease (particularly AIDS). He does not see the use of condoms between a married couple, for the purpose of preventing disease transmission, as intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Instead, he sees it as merely impractical, because the condoms are not effective enough. (CatholicNews.com). But what if a new type of condom were invented that was effective enough? Would he approve of married couples using contraception for this purpose?
I’m certain that, once Pope Benedict XVI dies and the election of a new Pope is at hand, the secular mass media and various online Catholic commentators will proclaim that Cardinal Turkson is a top candidate to be the next Pope. They are convinced that the Church’s teaching on contraception is wrong, needs to change, and will eventually change. They will be happy to promote any possible candidate for the papacy who might move the Church in that direction.
There are some reasons why Cardinal Turkson is papabile. As the President of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, he is a member of the Vatican curia. The Cardinals are more likely to elect someone as Pope who has some administrative experience in the Church. The election for Pope is not based solely on holiness or scholarly credentials.
In the present time, many Cardinals are said to prefer a non-European Pope, because the Church is a worldwide institution. In particular, some Cardinals would like to see a Pope from the developing world, such as South America or Africa. The Church has a particular concern for the poor, and so a Pope from a developing region is fitting. Additionally, some Cardinals would like to see the next Pope be other than of white European descent, again because the Church is universal, encompassing all ethnicities and nations.
Cardinal Turkson is from Africa, and is black. As a non-European non-white Cardinal, with experience in the Curia, he will be on the minds of the other Cardinals as a possible candidate.
However, in my opinion, the Cardinals will not be willing to elect him as Pope, because his views on contraception are irreconcilable with Catholic teaching. The ordinary and universal Magisterium infallibly teaches that the use of contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and that intrinsically evil acts are never justified by a good intention or purpose, such as to prevent disease transmission, nor by a dire circumstance.
Many commentators speak as if the magisterial teaching against contraception is merely a rule, not an immutable part of the eternal moral law. They call that teaching against contraception “the Church’s ban” on contraception, speaking as if this mere rule could be changed, just as any rule can be changed. The eternal moral law is the set of unchanging and unchangeable truths that pertain to morality. The rules of the Church are discipline, not dogma. The dogmatic teachings of the Church are unchanging and unchangeable.
So my answer to the question is that no Pope and no Ecumenical Council can change the teaching of the Church that the use of contraception is intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. That doctrine is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium; it is therefore an infallible dogma. No Pope or Council has the authority or the ability to change dogma.