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article • Humanae Vitae at 50

Birth Control is Nothing New

We tend to think the issue of contraception started with the Pill, but it's been with us since time immemorial—and the Church's teaching on it has been consistent.

Jimmy Akin

Humanae Vitae is the most famous and most controversial encyclical of modern times, but it deals with an issue that has been with us throughout history.

We sometimes think of birth control as a uniquely modern issue and imagine our ancestors as having very large families, with the number of children left completely up to divine providence. There is some justification for this view. Today, medical technology has created new and more effective forms of birth control, and just a hundred years ago, families were much larger. My grandmother was one of a dozen children.

Yet the idea that birth control is a fairly new thing is incorrect, as is the idea that ancient families were always large. You can see this by imagining what would happen if the average couple had four children who grew up to reproduce. The world population would have grown far more rapidly than it actually has (see first sidebar).

Large families with eight or more children have never been the historical norm. A more reasonable estimate is that the average family had four or five children total, with only a little more than two of those going on to reproduce. But four or five children is far fewer than a couple can have in their fertile time together, which means that average families historically were doing things to regulate the number of children they had.

What were these things?

Regulating family size

Nature has certain rhythms that control when pregnancy can occur.

Obviously, while a woman is pregnant she can’t get pregnant again, and this has the effect of ensuring at least nine or ten months between conceptions.

Once she’s had a baby, a woman isn’t likely to get pregnant immediately, and this period tends to be extended by the practice of breastfeeding. The fact ancient mothers breastfed their children thus tended to space out births, with new children being conceived after the previous one was weaned.

Ancient couples had other means of delaying pregnancy when they decided it was not a good time to have another child. One means was not having sexual intercourse. Some in the ancient world saw sex as exclusively for procreation and were willing not to have sex if they did not want to reproduce. These philosophies were always minority views, but even people who didn’t subscribe to them could decide—in conjunction with their spouse or individually—to regulate how often they had sex as a way of spacing births.

What options were available if they didn’t want to refrain from having sex? One of the earliest methods of birth control on record is coitus interruptus, as when Onan “spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother” (Gen. 38:9). Also, men could be sterilized (cf. Deut. 23:1). But usually birth control—especially of a non-permanent kind—was something the woman undertook.

In the ancient world, magic and medicine often were not clearly delineated, and some means employed to prevent pregnancy were magical in nature (e.g., spells, amulets) and therefore ineffective. Other means had various degrees of efficacy, and they included barrier methods, spermicides, and drugs to induce sterility.

When these failed, there were techniques for abortion, including pharmaceutical abortions. Abortion was difficult and dangerous, since it involved trying to kill the child without killing the mother.

If all else failed, some cultures used infanticide passively by exposing the child after birth or actively by killing it or sacrificing it to a deity.

From its beginning, Christianity opposed these methods. One of the earliest Christian documents—the Didache, which dates from the same period as the New Testament—states: “You shall not kill an unborn child or murder a newborn infant” (2:2).

Other early Christian writings prohibited other methods of contraception, and some early Christians believed that sexual activity was exclusively for procreation. Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the late second century, wrote that “to indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature” (Christ the Educator of Little Ones 2:10:95[3]). Later Christian theology did not hold to this rigorist view and acknowledged the legitimacy of sexual relations without the intent of conception.

Various historians have proposed the anti-contraception, pro-child teachings of Christianity as an important factor in its spread as a global religion. Because of their pro-family stance, the population of Christians grew faster than other groups.

Throughout its history, Christian teaching remained opposed to contraceptive practices. In 1566 the Roman Catechism stated, “Married persons, who by medicine either prevent conception, or procure abortion, are guilty of a most heinous crime” (2:8:13). This view was normal among Christians of all stripes, but this began to change.

The modern era

In 1798, the Anglican scholar and priest Thomas Malthus published a book titled An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he predicted that the population would grow faster than the means needed to support it unless measures were taken. Without action, the result would be famine, war, and disease.

Malthus himself opposed contraception, favoring other means of population control, such as delayed marriage. But his book sparked a debate in Britain that grew in the 1800s and 1900s, and this led to movements that promoted contraception. Women such as Annie Besant and Marie Stopes in England and Margaret Sanger in the United States led these movements.

Their goals were interwoven with those of early feminist movements that advocated for greater legal rights for women, including the right to vote. However, the movements were not identical. Some early feminists opposed contraception and abortion, while others supported one or both practices.

Early advocates of contraception and abortion also took part in the eugenics movement, which was pioneered by the British statesman Sir Francis Galton. It sought to improve the quality of the population through selective breeding and by preventing those with “undesirable” traits from having children.

As debates on these subjects escalated in Britain, pressure was put on the Church of England to formulate a response. The Anglican church’s seventh Lambeth Conference, in July 1930, approved the proposition that “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” (resolution 15).

It thus approved contraception, though it also went on to express “abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion” (resolution 16).
In the 1950s, Margaret Sanger’s organization, Planned Parenthood, began funding research into hormonal contraceptives, which in 1960 resulted in the approval of the first birth control pill in the United States.

Early Catholic responses

The debate on contraception had an impact in Catholic circles. The same year as the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Conubii, which reaffirmed traditional Christian teaching on marriage. In addition to condemning eugenics and abortion, it also rejected contraception, stating: “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” (56).

However, the encyclical acknowledged that it was legitimate for married couples to have sex without intending for conception to occur, for “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” (59).

In 1951, Pius XII made a specific application of this principle, acknowledging that married couples could legitimately regulate when they had children by having sex only during those times that the wife is naturally infertile. He stated that various reasons “may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt [of having a child] for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful” (Address to Italian Midwives, Oct. 29, 1951).

This reflects the fact that, by God’s design, women ovulate only periodically but, unlike females in many species, they remain sexually receptive during the infertile periods. Spouses may thus cooperate with God’s plan by using the gift of reason to determine whether it is appropriate for them to have a child and plan their lovemaking accordingly.

This led to a question regarding the birth control pill.

A key question

If, as Pius XII acknowledged, married couples can have recourse to the wife’s infertile periods as a way of regulating births, could they use the Pill to prevent ovulation and simply extend the infertile periods?

Some Catholic thinkers held that they could, that this would be a means of working within God’s plan. One was John Rock, one of the key developers of the Pill. As early as the 1930s, he had been teaching the rhythm method, and in 1963 he published a book titled The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control.

That same year, Pope John XXIII established a commission to study the question of birth control (see “The Real Story of the Church’s Commission on Birth Control”). After John XXIII’s death, his successor, Pope Paul VI, greatly expanded it.

The fact that the commission was studying the question while the Second Vatican Council was in session explains why the council addressed the question only with reserve. In 1965, the council acknowledged that married couples often “find themselves in circumstances where at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.” But the council did not go into the question of contraception in detail, saying only, “Sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church” (Gaudium et Spes 51).

A footnote explained, “Certain questions which need further and more careful investigation have been handed over, at the command of the supreme pontiff, to a commission for the study of population, family, and births, in order that, after it fulfills its function, the supreme pontiff may pass judgment. With the doctrine of the Magisterium in this state, this holy synod does not intend to propose immediately concrete solutions.”

In 1966, the commission produced a majority report that favored artificial contraception and a minority report that did not.
These reports were not authorized for publication, but, to put pressure on Paul VI, they were leaked to the press in 1967 and published in the U.S. by the National Catholic Reporter.

Humanae Vitae

The attempt to pressure Paul VI into endorsing new means of contraception such as the Pill did not work. In 1968, he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Latin, “of human life”) in which he reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching.

The document opens with a discussion of the recent questions regarding contraception and the competence of the Church’s Magisterium to deal with them. Answering critics who might object that modern means of contraception are not mentioned in the Bible or the Church Fathers, Paul VI observed that “no member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law” because “the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation” (4).

He begins exploring the relevant doctrinal principles, acknowledging that in marriage sex has more than one purpose. One of these is undoubtedly procreative, while the other—which he refers to as its “unitive” purpose—unites the spouses and promotes their mutual love and good. By God’s design, these two purposes are meant to go together, and so the connection between them is not to be broken. While married couples can use the gift of reason to decide whether it is appropriate for them to have a child, the means they use to achieve this must be in harmony with God’s plan.

Consequently, means like abortion and sterilization are not permissible. Neither is “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after marital intercourse [Latin, coniugale commercium], is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means” (14, literal translation). Obviously, this excludes artificial means of birth control, such as the use of the Pill.

Paul VI then discusses lawful means, including having recourse to infertile periods, and the consequences that would ensue from violating God’s plan, including the objectification of women. Finally, he discusses various pastoral matters, making appeals to Christian couples, scientists, doctors and nurses, clergymen, and those who work in family apostolates, asking that they find ways to help people work within God’s plan, which he said will ultimately result in greater human happiness.


Although Humanae Vitae is a measured, charitable document, the reaction to it was heated and swift. Immediately after its release, American theologian Fr. Charles Curran drafted a response dissenting from the Church’s position that was signed eventually by more than 600 scholars. Two months later, the Canadian bishops issued their own dissenting response, known as the Winnipeg Statement.

The cultural climate was hostile, and the pope was pilloried in the press. This was, after all, in the midst of the free love movement of the 1960s, and the year after the so-called “Summer of Love.”

The effect on Paul VI seems to have been significant. Although he issued seven encyclicals in the first four years of his pontificate, after Humanae Vitae he continued to teach in other forms, but he issued no more encyclicals in the last ten years of his reign, which ended in 1978.

Even after the free-love movement began to recede, contraception continued to expand globally, with laws against it being repealed and various international aid organizations spreading it globally.

Dissent within the Church continued and was especially intense in the 1970s and ’80s. It began to recede during the reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), who provided a passionate voice in favor of the Church’s teaching, most notably in his “theology of the body” audiences. Both his successors, Benedict XVI and Francis, have maintained the Church’s historic position.

However, there is still much work to be done. Even though much of the heat has gone out of the debate, opinion polls indicate that as much as 80 percent of Catholics worldwide dissent from Church teaching on this point.

Sidebar 1

Population Growth in History

In a family that doubled every generation, each couple would have an average of four children who survived to reproduce. The first generation would have two members (the initial couple), the next generation four members, the one after that eight, then sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. By the twenty-sixth generation, the family would have almost 7 billion members, which is the approximate size of the present world population.

How long would it take for that to happen? Assuming forty-year generations, only 1,040 years. Needless to say, the present world population is not part of a single family that began with a single couple living in the tenth century A.D. From this we can conclude that the average couple in world history did not have four children that survived to reproduce.

What would be a more reasonable estimate of the average number of reproducing children? It must be at least two, since without two children to replace the parents, the population would decline rather than grow. So if two is the lower end of our estimate, what is the higher end?

Archaeology shows that writing existed by 3200 B.C., which would be 130 generations ago. For a family beginning in that year to grow to the size of the present world population, the average couple would need only 2.37 reproducing children.

But there was more than one couple alive in 3200 B.C.—when the Mesopotamian civilization invented writing—and our origins go back further than this. The true average number of reproducing children per family is thus somewhere between 2 and 2.37.

Of course, not every child survived or reproduced. Some died in infancy. Others died as young adults—by war, famine, or illness. Some didn’t find mates or chose not to have them. But surviving and having children is and always has been the historical norm. So even if we double the number of children per couple to take account of those who did not reproduce, it would still turn out that the average couple in history had no more than four or five children total.

Sidebar 2

Working in Concert with God’s Plan

It is important to note that Christian opposition to contraception did not mean that couples were expected to ignore whether it was prudent for them to have more children. Reason is a gift from God, and God expects us to use it. Unlike other creatures, we are able to make a rational judgment about whether it is appropriate to have a child at a particular time. If reason tells us that it’s not appropriate, then we should not have one.

The question is what means are appropriate to the end of limiting family size or spacing births. Means that worked with God’s plan—such as lengthening the period of breastfeeding or reducing the frequency of sex—were seen as appropriate. Means that worked against God’s plan—such as contraception—were not.

Sidebar 3

The Authority of the Encyclical

Dissenters from Humanae Vitae have argued that it is not infallible and thus its teaching on contraception can be ignored. This is not true, because, as Vatican II stressed, even non-infallible Church teachings are binding (Lumen Gentium 25).

Some defenders of Humanae Vitae have argued that the document itself is infallible. But this claim is hard to substantiate, because the encyclical does not contain the standard language used to make an infallible definition. (I.e., “I declare and define…” is the traditional language used in definitions such as that of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary).

However, even if Humanae Vitae itself didn’t infallibly define the Church’s teaching on contraception, that doesn’t mean it’s not infallible. As Vatican I and II also acknowledged, the bishops of the world can infallibly define matters through their ordinary teaching. If the bishops, teaching in union with the pope, ever achieve moral unanimity that a particular point must be believed definitively by the faithful, then this point becomes defined by the “ordinary and universal Magisterium” of the Church.

Given the firmness of the Church’s historic teaching, it is very easy to see this as having been infallibly defined in this way, and a 1997 Vatican document acknowledged that the teaching on contraception “is to be held as definitive and irreformable” (Vademecum for Confessors 2:4).


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