The Catholic Church and contraception

With continued global population growth, contraception and conscious planning for children remain critical moral issues facing today’s families, no matter where they are living. Different religions have different views on birth control, and their official teachings influence millions of people’s fertility decisions. Below we take a closer look at the evolution of the Catholic viewpoint on family planning methods, discuss the motivation of the church’s general ban of birth control by modern contraceptives, and consider the consequences for people and the environment.

By Patrícia Andresz-Dérer

There is no sentence in the Bible that explicitly prohibits contraception, yet the Catholic Church does not support any methods of birth control but periodical abstinence.[1] There is a commandment though, to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the Earth and subdue it” that humans apparently have fulfilled with great success. Considering the ecological overshoot we are experiencing, apparently with too much success.

Cathollic Church and contraception
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt

Knowledge and use of contraception is older than Christianity.[2] For centuries, people undoubtedly practiced the methods that we today know as traditional contraceptives. However, the Catholic Church didn’t prioritize the topic for many centuries, in fact, it did little or nothing to explicitly prohibit birth control or teach against it. Early opposition to contraception was often a reaction to the threat of heretical groups,[3] whereas the first and most conservative stance in history equated it to homicide (papal bull by Pope Sixtus V in 1588). Luckily, this order was never enforced, and by the mid 17th century some church leaders were suggesting that couples might have legitimate reasons to limit family size in order to better provide for the children they already had.[1] Contraception became a visible priority only in the 20th century, as a consequence of the increasing availability and use of modern contraceptives, like the oral pill, by Catholics. Pope Pius XI was the first to declare, in 1930, that birth control was inherently evil and that any spouse practicing any act of contraception “violates the law of God and nature” and was “stained by a great and mortal flaw.” Since then only the (periodic) abstinence method has been seen as acceptable.[2]

After the appearance of the first oral pills in the early 60’s, the leaders of the Church expressed a variety of viewpoints, and dissenters within the church argued for a reconsideration of church positions. In order to create the Church’s official position on modern methods, Pope John the XXIII established The Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963. Despite the vast majority of the committee approving modern birth control, the next pope, Paul VI, explicitly rejected his commission’s recommendations. In 1968 he wrote the papal document Humanae Vitae banning all forms of “artificial” family planning. Only methods of natural family planning may be used, it says, as artificial methods “obstruct the natural development of the generative process.” (Actually, much of the text was written by the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla, the future pope John Paul II, and Paul VI later came to regret the text, according to Robert Calderisi [6]).

We asked Carl Wahren, a family planning and population expert, who has worked on population topics over 50 years (at IPPF, OECD and the UN), about the attitudes of subsequent popes. Being involved in family planning programs since their beginnings in several parts of the world, Carl has strong opinions on the role of the Catholic Church in population-related topics. In an interview in 2019, he said: “John Paul II made absolutely sure that not a single Catholic person, layman or priest ever should hand out a condom even if AIDS struck Africa like a torrent, and the same thing with other contraception….and then pope Benedict XVI followed… These two popes, the one after the other, made life miserable and put all these nuns and priests in an agonizing fight with their own consciousness, since they had to stop handing out contraception to poor women with eight kids, or to people with HIV.

pope_condom
Condom with the picture of Pope Benedict XVI

During the papacy of John Paul II, in 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family released the document Vademecum for Confessors that strengthened the impact of Humanae Vitae and called modern contraceptives evil.

What makes contraception evil?

According to recent papal documents, modern contraception is morally impermissible and unchristian since it is “unnatural.” It is unnatural since it involves a man-made barrier (condoms) or an artificial device (IUD) or hormones (pills). When the pill appeared, some Catholic doctors argued that the new method was just a more precise way of following the otherwise allowed rhythm method, since it contains the same hormones already present naturally in every woman’s reproductive system.[4] Others argued that abstinence is also not natural, and un-naturality does not necessarily mean evil in Christianity anyway.[4] Think about it: should the Church consider any human medical intervention un-natural, and hence forbidden, including therapy for diabetes, hypothyroidism and other diseases easily treated by artificial hormones?

Another reason for opposing modern contraception is its assumed abortive nature. Just a reminder from your sexual education class: contraception either blocks ovulation (the pill), or disables the penetration of sperm into the uterus (barrier methods), or both (e.g. IUD), thus preventing fertilization, not disrupting existing pregnancies. The exception is the “morning after” emergency pill that can prevent implantation of a developing zygote. Luckily, those pro-life Catholics who do not want to use this method have plenty of others to chose from. And they do choose: polling has shown that 98% of professed Catholics in the USA have used artificial contraception at some point in their sexual life and only 2% of all Catholic women at risk of unintended pregnancy (that is, who are sexually active and are able to become pregnant but want to avoid pregnancy) use natural family planning (and 1% of all women).[5],[6]

BirthControl-Catholocism
Graphic by Todd Wiseman / Esther Groen

Influencing millions of people’s fertility decisions through teachings on Sundays is not the only way the Catholic Church impacts global fertility. It opposes family planning not only on the individual level, but on the governmental level, too. In the Philippines, for example, Catholic bishops spent 15 years in the courts blocking the passage and implementation of a reproductive health care bill, even though 72 percent of Filipinos believe the government should provide free or affordable access to the poor who wish to engage in family planning.[6]

On the intergovernmental level, namely at the last  International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo, the Catholic Church mounted a spirited attack on the draft proposals for several months, castigating the discussions of birth control and abortion as immoral.[7],[8] The conference’s final document, the Programme of Action, eventually supported access to reproductive and sexual health services including family planning, among other aims, such as reducing child and maternal mortality and providing universal education, and so generally accelerating the empowerment of women. Mobilizing political will and financial commitments for these seemingly unquestionably positive goals was the purpose of the recent Nairobi summit, on the 25th anniversary of the Cairo conference. The Catholic Church did not attend, because, it said, the summit focused on “so-called ‘sexual and reproductive health and rights’ and ‘comprehensive sexuality education.’”[9] Furthermore, some African bishops said: “We find such a conference not good for us, (and) destroying the agenda for life…(the summit’s agenda) is unacceptable according to our teaching of the Catholic Church.”[7]

Hope for a turning point?

With 7.8 billion people on Earth, growing by about 83 million a year, and nearly 40% of conceptions being unintended, periodical abstinence is still the only contraceptive method accepted by the Catholic Church. This was most recently confirmed in 2016, in the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) released by Pope Francis. Francis, who is often called the “Great Reformer” and who certainly has some advanced views on environmental issues such as climate change, is failing in making the turning point on sex topics. He has praised Humanae Vitae, saying that Pope Paul “had the courage to side against the majority, defend moral discipline, put a brake on the culture, [and] oppose Neo-Malthusianism, present and future.” [10]

In the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which was widely applauded by environmentalists, Pope Francis stated that “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” This ignores how population growth amplifies the environmental impacts of overconsumption, and how it is a fundamental driver of environmental destruction that needs to be addressed in all countries with population increase. In the same year as Laudato Si’, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a symposium on Biological Extinction (Biological extinction. How to save the natural world on which we depend). While its final document mentioned the role of rapid population growth in the past, limiting future growth through contraception and family planning was not discussed.

A demonstrator in St. Peter’s Square during a 2009 protest over condoms. Photo Alessandra TarantinoAssociated Press
A demonstrator in St. Peter’s Square during a protest for reforming obsolete views on sex. Photo Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press

Unwanted pregnancies fueling population growth will drive further environmental degradation and climate change in tandem with overconsumption. If we want to tackle these problem seriously and with success, we need to address all the factors in the equation. One reason for the Church’s continuing obtuseness concerning contraception may be its view that it is opposing “a mentality opposed to life.” In my view, the opposite holds true: not providing safe contraception to those in need of it expresses a mentality opposed to life, both human life and wildlife. About 56 million unintended pregnancies worldwide end in abortions, 45% of which risk the life of the mother, too, since they are done unsafely. We should not forget that family planning is a fundamental human right that was affirmed in 1994 at the Cairo conference, and a cornerstone in the global effort for female equality. This human right is violated every day in many parts of the world, leading to the suffering of many women and children, and of nature, too.

 

To learn more, you can find some of the best recent writings on religion and population here. Particularly useful is John McKeown’s book “God’s Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America”. “This book argues that natalism is inappropriate as a Christian application of Scripture, especially since rich populations’ total footprints are detrimental to biodiversity and to human welfare. It explores the ancient cultural context of the Bible verses quoted by natalists. Challenging the assumption that religion normally promotes fecundity, the book finds surprising exceptions among early Christians (with a special focus on Saint Augustine) since they advocated spiritual fecundity in preference to biological fecundity. Finally the book uses a hermeneutic lens derived from Genesis 1, and prioritising the modern problem of biodiversity, to provide ecological interpretations of the Bible’s “fruitful” verses.

References:

[1] Robert McClory: ‘Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church’ (New York: Crossroad, 1997)

[2] John T. Noonan Jr.: Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (1965)

[3] Daniel C. Maguire (Editor): Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World religions (2003)

[4] Gregus, Jan. Catholicism and Contraception. Česká gynekologie, 2019, vol. 2019, No 6, p. 468-474. ISSN 1803-6597

[5] https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2012/02/guttmacher-statistic-catholic-womens-contraceptive-use

[6] Robert Calderisi: Earthly mission: The catholic church and world development. Yale University Press, 2013.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/15/world/vatican-fights-un-draft-on-women-s-rights.html

[8] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-08-31-mn-33192-story.html

[9] https://angelusnews.com/news/world/holy-see-wont-participate-in-nairobi-summit/

[10] https://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2014/pope-in-interview-suggests-church-could-tolerate-some-civil-unions.cfm

 

 

12 thoughts on “The Catholic Church and contraception

  1. Religion is so outdated in the age of scientific knowledge PLUS it’s a moral barbarianism too.

    Scientific knowledge OR religious faith – nothing in between.

    Example of Russia where Putin is using reactionary religous believes in order to keep his power is showing how science suffers when religion is getting stronger.

  2. https://unherd.com/2020/02/has-our-decadent-society-ground-to-a-halt/

    While not directly pertinent, the article linked above reviews, amongst other topics, the notion of ‘sterility’- falling birthrates in Europe and their likely causes.

    That this decline is seen as a problem, and not a solution, to the mounting crises facing us, is emblematic of the pronatalism now increasingly promoted by our movers and shakers.

    Pope Francis’ recent pronouncements on the need to tackle climate change, coupled with his promotion of mass migration into Europe and his refusal to sanction birth control, reveals the ‘flat earth’ mind set so prevalent today.

    That environmentalists are supporting this backward, deluded thinking shows up humanity’s stubborn refusal to face facts.

    A family member, successful, well educated and very intelligent, is also a devout catholic, who cannot listen to my warnings about the consequences of human population pressure and the likely outcomes.

  3. Thanks for this good article.
    Re: commenter saying religion “outdated”. Among the world’s population 16% was unaffiliated to a religion in 2015. But the percentage unaffiliated is projected to fall to 12.5% by 2060 (Pew Research, Global Religious Landscape) due to higher birth rates, especially among religious fundamentalists. Therefore it is good that efforts to encourage lower population should engage with religious ideas, many of which are temporary interpretations of Scriptures. Religious cultures’ practices can and do change, and the History of Interpretation shows that religious ideas and practices on many topics have changed over time. So there is hope!

    1. These projections are completely false. China is more than 70% atheistic, as well as Japan, most of EU is about 50-80% non-religious. Young US citizens are about 35% consider themselves be non-believers.

      So-called “Scriptures” are just a part of many religions that exist, some without god. One god is a part of a community of more than 400 gods, and they don’t agree among themselves.

      By the way, many who say to be a part of a “religion” never go to a temple, and MOST don’t respect basic religion principles. And it’s very good – at least, they use contraception.

      1. Those projections are not false at all. Population is not going to grow in Europe, US or Japan (where it’s indeed declining), but in the most religious regions of the world: Africa and some countries in Asia, e.g. India and Pakistan. Religious is not outdated unfortunately. Especially Islam is projected to grow very much, surpassing Christianity in a short time.

      2. I agree that the above projections used by John McKeon are not true. As pointed out, just above, much of the world is not affiliated. And especially, not affiliated with an autocratic biblical religion, This group of biblical religions are promoting and causing some of the most harmful human population conditions on the planet.

        One problem with counts and percentages is this: A church like the Catholic Church counts everybody who has ever been even close the Church as being Catholic. For instance, I was born Catholic but left the church before I was 25. But I am still undoubtedly being counted by the Catholic Church as one of their flock.

      3. Sorry I forgot to include a link to Pew study: https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/ Pew say the “projections attempt to take religious switching (in all directions) into account”.

        I agree that “affiliation” is a weak measure. It raises a question: among those still affiliated is attendance (or observance/piety) trending over recent decades to rise or fall or be roughly the same? There are more granular surveys trying to answer that for particular denominations (but most such studies are geographically limited to USA or a European country).

      4. Stephen McKevitt >> problem with counts … left the church … But I am still undoubtedly being counted by the Catholic Church as one of their flock.

        OK, but those researchers do not naively accept the numbers produced by religious organisations. Instead, independent sampling surveys are used, for example the General Social Survey https://gss.norc.org/ and the Religious Landscape survey in USA, the European Social Survey, and in UK the Social Attitudes surveys
        https://www.ukdataservice.ac.uk/media/263004/discover_sqb_religion_mcandrew_voas.pdf

        as Lucia commented, the big numbers for religious demographic change are in Africa and parts of Asia, and for many countries they rely on Global Values Survey.

        Pew projection extrapolates from recent switching trends, but who knows what will happen in the future? Religions likely to remain substantial.

  4. Back in the 1950s, a typical inhabitant of France or Canada was going to church, priests and nuns were respected and were an important part of social landscape. But since the 1960s their role declined manifold, now up to 80% are non-religious in these countries.

    We can hope the same will happen in developing countries… and it’s happening. Percentage of young people abandoning their religion – often Islam – grew from almost zero to 30-40% in some countries just in 15-20 years.

  5. There is a cynical explanation of Catholic teachings: since most Catholics are born and not converted, it makes more members (and more contributions) for the Vatican.
    Another cynical view: to get promotion within the church, a priest has to be holier than thou in opposing family planning. This explains why the current Pope, although good on the environment, has deeply entrenched views on this one. The question is: why is this doctrine put above practically all others, such as a bit of Christian charity and humility?
    Incidentally, who knew that two Catholic saints (both called Antoninus) publicly called for abortion?That was before the late 19th-century switch to a newly infallible Pope with crazy views on women, sex and child-bearing.
    It is important to consider how the Vatican/ Holy See is imposing its dogmas. Since most church members, where they can, are ignoring the teachings on this and going for much smaller families – see the crash in population numbers in heavily – Catholic Italy and Spain – the hierarchy is using its formidable “diplomatic” force and conservative bishops to try and impose the teachings on everybody, throughout the world. They claim to be a State (they are not – see the Montevideo Convention) and having special access to UN proceedings (for which there is no legal basis – yet another fix). They have then trashed many of the international meetings on population issues, and even opposed women’s rights moves on the grounds that this might promote contraception and abortion.
    I cover these issues in my book “A Matter of Life and Death”. Contact me for a review copy.

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