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. 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.
Knowledge and use of contraception is older than Christianity. 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, 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. 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.
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 ).
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.”
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. Others argued that abstinence is also not natural, and un-naturality does not necessarily mean evil in Christianity anyway. 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).,
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.
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., 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.’” 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.”
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.” 
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.
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.
 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)
 John T. Noonan Jr.: Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (1965)
 Daniel C. Maguire (Editor): Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World religions (2003)
 Gregus, Jan. Catholicism and Contraception. Česká gynekologie, 2019, vol. 2019, No 6, p. 468-474. ISSN 1803-6597
 Robert Calderisi: Earthly mission: The catholic church and world development. Yale University Press, 2013.