I am still reading through the magnificent and inspiring Encyclical Laudato Si’. I urge all to study this ground-breaking letter to the world.
A Missing Piece
As others have noted, from a logical standpoint, there is a missing piece to the Encyclical: lifting the complete ban on artificial contraception. I would like to address that question today.
Understandably for a Roman Pontiff, he states: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some,” he writes, “is one way of refusing to face the issues.” We in the developed world must indeed tread very carefully, since encouraging birth control in poor countries can sound like Paternalism and Neo-Colonialism. I don’t think it actually is, but as they say in Politics, “the Optics are bad.” I do agree that we need a world change in life-style, and not to rely on technological solutions alone.
First of all, Pope Francis is not a Liberal. He is simply a very humble and enlightened man who is really expressing what the Christian Tradition teaches about the Environment. Secondly, from a strategic standpoint, he certainly knows how to choose his battles. By not changing Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae teachings (and I have no idea what his views on those are), he enables Conservative Catholics to fully embrace the Encyclical.
In this Post, I would like to examine the teaching about artificial contraception in the Church, and its ramifications for two important issues, population and abortion. I should say up-front that I do not believe that a judicious and informed use of artificial contraception as a personal choice is morally wrong. I must also state that I am speaking only about those methods which prevent conception from occurring. Abortifacients are a separate question.
The Teaching about Artificial Contraception
The Biblical basis for opposing artificial contraception is sometimes presumed to be the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed on the sand rather than doing his duty to his dead brother’s wife and giving her children as the Jewish custom of the time demanded. He did this so that he would inherit, instead of his brother’s children. The 1951 Encyclical Casti Connubii used this text to oppose contraception. Biblical scholars know that Onan’s sin was un-charity, greed, and not fulfilling family obligations. Nothing about sex at all.
Generally, the Ancient Church, both East and West, opposed artificial means of preventing conception. That is completely understandable given their times and circumstances. The world needed populating, and Christianity needed to grow. For farmers and others, children were the work force, and provided security for parents in their old age. It is still true today in the developing world. It is also consistent with the Neo-Platonic approach that sex was only for procreation. It’s pleasure was animalistic and below human reason. While I do not agree with that, Neo-Platonism was “in the air they breathed.”
This same approach continued in most Christian Churches into the 20th Century. The Anglican Communion was one of the first to modify its teachings on contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference. Many Protestant Churches also began to change in the mid-to-late 20th Century, and Orthodoxy changed its approach in the 1970s.
Generally the Orthodox view is that artificial contraception is acceptable if:
1) The means of contraception is not abortifacient
2) It is used with the blessing of one’s spiritual father or mother as is true of most things in an Orthodox Christian’s spirituality
3) Children are not completely excluded from the marriage
While there is not complete agreement, that is the general consensus.
The Papal Commission
In 1963, Pope St. John XXIII established a Commission of six European non-Theologians to study contraception and population. Blessed Pope Paul VI then expanded the Commission to 72 members from five continents, including 16 theologians, 13 physicians and five women without medical credentials, with an executive committee of 16 bishops, including seven cardinals without medical credentials.
I refer to Paul VI, whose hand I shook back in 1972, as Blessed because he was beatified on October, 19, 2014. I think it is well deserved, as he bore the sufferings of the world.
The Commission produced a report in 1966. Here was its conclusion:
The acceptance of a lawful application of the calculated sterile periods of the woman–that the application is legitimate presupposes right motives–makes a separation between the sexual act which is explicitly intended and its reproductive effect which is intentionally excluded. The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention. For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature. The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values.
The commission therefore approved the judicious and wise use of artificial methods of contraception if a person chooses to do so.
Unfortunately there were dissenters on the Commission. Four theologian-priests, one cardinal and two bishops voted that contraception was intrinsically inhonestum. An American Jesuit John Ford and American theologian Germain Grisez wrote the dissent. Jesuits are not always right:
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 Casti connubii was promulgated] and in 1951.
It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a 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.
It is important to note that the dissent has nothing at all to do with the question at hand. It is a CYA: We can’t admit that we were wrong and didn’t listen to the Spirit. We can’t admit that the Holy Spirit works outside the Roman Catholic Church. It would make us look bad!
And even more unfortunately, two very influential men, Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission’s president and Bishop Colombo, the papal theologian, were among the dissenters. Blessed Paul VI was persuaded to accept the minority report.
Some observers have called this decision one of the worst in the 20th Century history of the Church, since it was telling good Catholics something they knew was not true: that a wise and prudent use of artificial contraception was unlike the wise and prudent use of other medicines and techniques: it was a Mortal Sin.
A change is warranted in Church teaching for three reasons:
1. It’s the right thing to do.
2. It is one of the tools to assist with the environmental crisis. The world has changed since ancient times. I also caution that this does not relieve us of the obligation to equalize the wealth and resources that much of the world is deprived of.
3. It would be a good tool in the effort to reduce the number of abortions to as few as possible, which I support. I do not believe that the legal route (overturning the availability of safe abortions and the right of a woman to make the choice for herself) is the best, or even a possible, path. It is not going to happen. But we know that good education and the use of non-abortifacient birth control are very good ways to reduce the number of abortions. It is a realistic and positive ally. As another benefit, condoms are–while not 100% effective–a tool to prevent the transmission of disease. While abstinence is fine if a person wants to abstain, we need a backup plan when people choose otherwise, as they have consistently throughout history.
I therefore support the Orthodox position stated above.
I thank you all for reading, and certainly welcome civil comments, pro or con.
Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant