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The Catholic Church has been opposed to contraception for as far back as one can historically trace. Many early Catholic Church Fathers made statements condemning the use of contraception including John Chrysostom, Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Augustine of Hippo and various others. Among the condemnations is one by Jerome which refers to an apparent oral form of contraception: “Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies that all sex acts must be both unitive and procreative. In addition to condemning use of artificial birth control as intrinsically evil, non-procreative sex acts such as mutual masturbation and anal sex are ruled out as ways to avoid pregnancy.
Natural Family Planning
For much of its existence, the Church heavily emphasized procreation as the primary purpose of sex— some Catholics even believed that intercourse at times where pregnancy was not a possible result (such as current pregnancy and menopause) was sinful, although this was never official Catholic doctrine. Pope Pius XI‘s 1930 encyclical entitled Casti Connubii was written in response to the Anglican Communion‘s Seventh Lambeth Conference, which approved contraceptive use in limited circumstances. Casti Connubii confirmed the Church’s position opposing birth control:
- Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, … in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, … proclaims anew: 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.
However, this encyclical acknowledged for the first time a secondary, unitive, purpose of intercourse. Because of this secondary purpose, married couples have a right to engage in intercourse even when pregnancy is not a possible result:
- Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.
Some interpreted this statement as not only permitting sex between married couples during pregnancy and menopause, but also during the infertile times of the menstrual cycle. The mathematical formula for the rhythm method had been formalized in 1930, and in 1932 a Catholic physician published a book titled The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women promoting the method to Catholics. The 1930s also saw the first U.S. Rhythm Clinic (founded by John Rock) to teach the method to Catholic couples. However, use of the Rhythm Method in certain circumstances was not formally accepted until 1951, in two speeches by Pope Pius XII.
The Catholic Church’s position on contraception was formally explained and expressed by Pope Paul VI‘s Humanae Vitae in 1968. Artificial contraception is considered intrinsically evil, but methods of natural family planning are morally permissible in some circumstances, as they do not usurp the natural way of conception.
In justification of this position, Pope Paul VI said
“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
In issuing Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI relied on the Minority Papal Commission Report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. The Minority report argued that:
“One can find no period of history, no document of the church, no theological school, scarcely one Catholic theologian, who ever denied that contraception was always seriously evil. The teaching of the Church in this matter is absolutely constant. Until the present century this teaching was peacefully possessed by all other Christians, whether Orthodox or Anglican or Protestant. The Orthodox retain this as common teaching today.”
Unfortunately, Catholic thought is often misunderstood … as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future. But one need only study the pronouncements of the Magisterium to know that this is not so. Truly, in begetting life the spouses fulfill one of the highest dimensions of their calling: they are God’s co-workers. Precisely for this reason they must have an extremely responsible attitude. In deciding whether or not to have a child, they must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child. Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary. However, there remains the duty of carrying it out with criteria and methods that respect the total truth of the marital act in its unitive and procreative dimension, as wisely regulated by nature itself in its biological rhythms. One can comply with them and use them to advantage, but they cannot be “violated” by artificial interference.
In 1997, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family stated:
“The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity; it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life.”
A summary of the Scriptural support used by Catholics against contraception can be found in Rome Sweet Home, an autobiography by the Catholic apologetics Scott and Kimberly Hahn, both of whom are converts to the Catholic Church from Protestantism. They illustrate the results of the research on contraception conducted by Kimberly Hahn as having a pivotal effect on their lives, notably the fact that the Catholic Church is one of the last few Christian groups to take a clear stance on the issue. Among the Scripture included in the book are the following lines from Psalm 127:
“Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the gate.”
The Catholic scholar Cormac Burke has written an anthropological (non-religious) evaluation of the effect of contraception on marital love: “Married Love and Contraception.”
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI asserted that handing out condoms is not the solution to combating AIDS and might make the problem worse. Some senior Catholic authorities, such as Belgian Cardinal Emeritus Godfried Danneels, believe the Catholic Church should support condoms used to prevent serious diseases such as AIDS, because non-use is tantamount to murder.
“She [the Catholic Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
Benedict cited the example of the use of condoms by male prostitutes as “a first step towards moralisation”, even though condoms are “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection”. Reaffirming that the Church considered prostitution “gravely immoral”, the statement continued:
“However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity.”
Many Western Catholics have voiced significant disagreement with the Church’s stance on contraception. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued what many interpreted as a dissenting document, the Winnipeg Statement. In it, the bishops recognized that many Catholics found it “either extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own all elements of this doctrine” (that of Humanae Vitae). Additionally, they reasserted the Catholic principle of primacy of conscience, a principle that they said should be properly interpreted, since they insisted that “a Catholic Christian is not free to form his conscience without consideration of the teaching of the magisterium, in the particular instance exercised by the Holy Father in an encyclical letter”. Theologians such as Charles Curran also criticized the stance of Humanae Vitae on artificial birth control.
Catholics for Choice stated in 1998 that 96% of U.S. Catholic women had used contraceptives at some point in their lives and that 72% of Catholics believed that one could be a good Catholic without obeying the Church’s teaching on birth control. According to a nationwide poll of 2,242 U.S. adults surveyed online in September 2005 by Harris Interactive (they stated that the magnitude of errors cannot be estimated due to sampling errors, non-response,etc.), 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control/contraceptives.
Use of natural family planning methods among United States Catholics purportedly is low, although the number cannot be known with certainty. In 2002, 24% of the U.S. population identified as Catholic. But of sexually active Americans avoiding pregnancy, only 1.5% were using NFP.
Family planning proponent Stephen D. Mumford has argued that the primary motivation behind the Church’s continued opposition to contraceptive use is the Church’s fear of losing papal authority if the pope were to contradict the dogma of papal infallibility. Mumford gives as an example the citation made by August Bernhard Hasler of a comment by Pope John Paul II prior to his papacy:
If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubii was promulgated), in 1951 (Pius XII’s address to the midwives), and in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died). It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved.
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