Written by Andrew Murphy
The Catholic Church’s enduring prohibition of contraception undoubtedly appears absurd to the outsider. In fact, numerous polls show that it even appears absurd to the majority of those who still identify as Catholics.  As a result many simply ignore the Church’s teachings in this area.
This is not a new problem. When Pope Paul VI released his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 it was met with outright rejection by a large number of Catholics around the world, including many bishops. It marked the first real instance of public dissent by members of the Church. Ultimately the rejection of this teaching stems from a failure to grasp what it truly means to be human and this is part of a greater struggle which has been going on since The Fall.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife He pointed them back to Genesis: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
And, when asked why Moses allowed a certificate of divorce, He said: “For your hardness of heart…but from the beginning it was not so.”
Christ was drawing attention to the fact that sin has clouded humanity’s understanding of how married life should be lived out. When He entered history, He reminded humanity of God’s original plan for marriage and raised it to the level of a Sacrament. However, the modern world has once again rejected Him, and as a result, become hopelessly confused about human nature and sexuality. As the Second Vatican Council expressed in Gaudium et Spes: “When God is forgotten…the creature itself grows unintelligible.”
Without a truly Biblical anthropology, the Church’s teachings in the area of sexual morality, particularly the ban on contraception, can seem like a list of arbitrary rules and regulations. That is why it is unfair to insist on this Biblical morality while failing to evangelise and present the full life-giving picture of God’s perfect plan for His creatures who He created male and female.
Ever since Christ elevated marriage to the level of a Sacrament, it has been the duty of the Church to safeguard it against corruption. Long before Humanae Vitae, Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) released an encyclical entitled Arcanum Divinae (1880) in which he defended marriage against interference from the state, particularly with regards to the threat of divorce, which was becoming more common as the world drifted further from Christianity. The letter includes a brief history of marriage as it was corrupted down through the ages, before it was restored by Christ. The pontiff issued a strong warning against the “great evils that flow from divorce” which included the risk of women being abandoned “after having ministered to the pleasures of men”, as well as the break up of homes and the harm it does to the wellbeing and education of children.
“Since…nothing has such power to lay waste families and destroy the mainstay of kingdoms as the corruption of morals, it is easily seen that divorces are in the highest degree hostile to the prosperity of families and States, springing as they do from the depraved morals of the people, and, as experience shows us, opening out a way to every kind of evil-doing in public and in private life.”
He urged rulers who were “anxious for the good of their people” to work to “keep the holy laws of marriage intact” and “make use of the proffered aid of the Church for securing the safety of morals and the happiness of families”. In other words, he was firmly stating that the health of a society depends on the protection of marriage and the family. While one of Pope Leo XIII’s main concerns was the threat of divorce, a new challenge would soon emerge as the birth control movement took hold of society.
Only fifty years later, at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Church became the first Christian denomination to permit couples to use contraception. Resolution 15 on “The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex” stated that:
“Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”
The Anglican Bishop Charles Gore lamented this “disastrous” decision. He feared the resolution would weaken the consciences of the faithful and warned that many who advocated for birth control would inevitably end up advocating for abortion because none of the available methods of contraception were 100 per cent effective. He also argued that the “overpopulation scare” which had driven much of the birth control movement was turning out to be unfounded.
The concession made by the Lambeth Conference opened the floodgates and it was not long before most Christian churches had declared that couples should follow their own consciences when it came to deciding whether contraception was permissible. Later that same year, Pope Pius XI released Castii Conubi, the Church’s Magna Carta on marriage. In this encyclical, which can be viewed as a response to the actions of the Lambeth Conference, he defended marriage and affirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on contraception.
“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 offence against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”
While contraception was strongly condemned in Castii Conubi, the approval of the first oral contraceptive pill by the American Food and Drug Administration in 1960 led to a reexamination of the question. The pill was less invasive than barrier methods and was hailed as a very different type of contraception. In 1963 Pope John XXIII set up the Papal Commission on Population, the Family, and Birth Control to study how this new drug worked but he died before it completed its investigation. Pope Paul VI expanded the commission’s membership from 6 to 72 members, which included the addition of married couples. The majority report which was drawn up by the commission after four years of meetings recommended that married couples should be free to make use of contraception. By this point in time many Catholics were already practicing contraception after being advised the Church’s prohibition was “doubtful” and therefore they could follow their own conscience. However, when it became evident the Pope was not going to endorse the views of the commission, the report was leaked to the media.
Pope Paul VI courageously stood up against the spirit of the age and with the proclamation of Humanae Vitae, once again proved that the Church is the defender of marriage. Yet his letter did not simply reaffirm the Church’s position on contraception. He addressed his message not only to Catholics, but to “all men of good will” and beautifully presented God’s design for married life to a world in the midst of a sexual revolution.
The Pope pointed out that contraception is wrong because it changes the nature of the sexual act and closes it off from the possibility of generating new life. It is a rejection of God’s design for the most intimate union of human persons.
“This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
“The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason.”
Pope Paul VI also issued a number of prophetic warnings about how the widespread use of contraception would weaken society. He warned it would:
• Lead to an increase in marital infidelity.
• Result in a “general lowering of moral standards”.
• Cause men to “forget the reverence due to a woman” and end up reducing her to 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.”
• Lead to governments imposing contraceptive methods on their people to solve societal problems such as so-called overpopulation.
Fifty-four years after Humanae Vitae was published, all these things have come to pass. The widespread use of contraception has normalised the idea of casual sex without consequences and in the cases when it does fail, abortion is offered as a quick solution, just as the Anglican Bishop Charles Gore had feared. As a result, the world is becoming increasingly lost in a jungle of confusion over gender identity and expressions of sexuality to the point where many can’t even define what a woman is. Yet in the midst of this confusion, the Church remains as a guardian of the truth about God’s plan for human love and sexuality. As Christ pointed men back to God’s original design when they had lost their way, so does the Church, His mystical body in the world.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1: 27-28)