Since I became a Catholic, I can pretty much predict the questions I will be asked by curious Evangelical friends. The first is usually “What’s the big deal about Mary?” The second is “What’s wrong with using contraceptives?”
I’m not surprised when I get asked these questions, since they are questions I asked as well. The first question is one I love tackling, but the second is fraught with moral and theological landmines. Many people outside the Catholic Church think it is clinging to outdated, oppressive beliefs that appear to keep women in the Dark Ages. And I’ve discovered, sadly, that many Catholics disagree with the teachings of the Church on the issue of contraceptives.
Looking back, I don’t remember any teaching on the subject from my religious leaders during my Evangelical years. Early in our marriage, any concerns that my husband and I had about contraceptives had more to do with the health risks than the moral implications. Along with most of our Evangelical friends, we probably would have argued that not to use contraceptives to plan the size of your family is irresponsible. As far as I knew, all of our married friends used artificial birth control in some form or another. It was a decision left up to each couple, and our Evangelical pastors never even broached the subject.
So, as a new Catholic, my curiosity was sparked. What exactly are the Catholic Church’s arguments against the use of contraceptives? About a year after joining the Catholic Church, I heard about a Catholic educational program for women called Endow. It was about to launch a local study group into an exploration of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which put forth the Church’s teachings on the regulation of birth. I signed up.
I found out that the use of contraceptives is not a new controversy. Christian leaders were unanimous in speaking out against artificial birth control for almost 2,000 years. In fact, all Christians were united in their position that contraception is a violation of God’s will until the twentieth century. As late as 1920, the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church stated its uncompromising rejection of all forms of artificial birth control.
But at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, a groundbreaking resolution was passed that allowed the use of contraception. Soon after, other Protestant communities followed suit, and now almost all have no objection to using contraception within marriage.
The Catholic Church stood apart. Just a few months after the 1930 Lambeth Conference, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage), which speaks of the holiness and dignity of marriage and clearly spells out the Church’s teachings against the use of artificial birth control. It did, however, affirm the morality of “making recourse to the infertile times of the woman’s menstrual cycle.”
Later popes echoed this teaching—in Humanae Vitae; in Pope John Paul II’s book Love and Responsibility (published in 1960 when he was Karol Wojtyla, bishop of Krakow); in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, 1981); and, of course, in “Theology of the Body,” his general audiences from 1979 to 1984.
After reading, talking to friends, and much self-reflection, I narrowed it down to four main points put forth by many Evangelicals in defending the use of contraceptives in marriage. Let’s look at each one and answer them.
It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that artificial birth control is prohibited.
Catholics often cite the story of Onan in Genesis as an example of God’s disapproval of birth control. Onan, son of Judah, was commanded by his father to fulfill his duty according to ancient Jewish law to father children for his dead brother. Onan knew that the offspring would not be considered his own, so he “spilled the semen on the ground” (Gen. 38:9) each time he slept with his brother’s wife. “What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him” (v. 10).
Protestants might argue that God was simply angry with Onan for failing to honor a commandment to produce a child with his dead brother’s wife. But if one looks at Deuteronomy 25:9-10, it is clear that the penalty for this failure is public humiliation, not death (the widow “shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face . . . and the name of his house shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his sandal pulled off”).
Onan’s actions evoked a much more serious response. Early Jewish and Christian commentators believed that by spilling his semen, Onan had violated God’s natural law, the design he built into the human race, which led them to condemn the practice of birth control as being against God’s law.
Use of contraceptives (and resulting smaller family sizes) leads to improved marriages and happier, more successful children.
Being a faithful Catholic couple does not mean you must have an unlimited number of children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows that there are times when spouses “may wish to space the births of their children” using “a method of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods” (2368, 2370).
When I became a Catholic, I didn’t know anything about this method, often called natural family planning. I found out that modern methods of NFP are highly effective at avoiding children when followed correctly—equally as effective as the contraceptive pill, according to a 2007 report published in Europe’s leading reproductive medical journal, Human Reproduction. And they are easier to use than ever due to modern developments such as a small handheld device that detects changes in temperature, urine, or saliva to help determine times of fertility.
As for artificial birth control improving marriages, a number of women I talked to who have recently started using NFP instead of the Pill enthused about how their marriages have become much more of a loving partnership. Yes, using NFP requires self-discipline, commitment, and open communication from a couple, but don’t those sound like the very qualities that would be helpful in a mature, loving relationship?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that couples using NFP have a dramatically low divorce rate—less than one percent (“National Survey of Family Growth” by Dr. Robert Lerner, University of Chicago, 2000). In society at large, the divorce rate has skyrocketed since the 1960s, which flies in the face of the assertion that the use of artificial birth control has been a boon to marriages.
It has been postulated in a few studies that our high divorce rates are partly because couples now are able to delay parenthood and have fewer children. The experience of parenthood generally has a maturing effect and strengthens marriages. Besides being a unifying source of love and pride for couples, it causes them to become more responsible and less focused on their own needs.
Does having more siblings than the average family “handicap” children? Studies have shown, in fact, that due to the increased sibling connection, children from large families have better social skills (Journal of Marriage and Family, Ohio State University, May 2004), do better at school (Family Composition and Children’s Educational Outcomes, Institute for Social and Economic Research, 2001) and grow up feeling more emotionally supported (Sibling Relationships Across the Lifespan, University of Utah, 1982). These studies and others have shown that children in large families naturally develop skills to negotiate and accommodate, are more independent and self-sufficient as young adults, and are more resilient in coping with life’s stresses.
Use of contraceptives reduces the number of unwanted children (thus reducing abortions).
At my Endow study group, we looked at the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, when the Pill first became widely available. At the time, many married couples, Catholics included, bought in to the idea that using contraceptives was the only way to take the anxiety about pregnancy out of their sex lives. This soon led people to realize that they could also take the anxiety about pregnancy out of fornication—and the Sexual Revolution was born. We are now suffering the results.
Besides “freeing up” our sexuality, the Pill was seen as a development that would reduce abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies. Pope Paul VI gave a number of warnings in Humanae Vitae regarding the negative consequences of the widespread use of contraceptives. His stance, seen as old-fashioned, was met with widespread dispute. It’s hard to argue now that his warnings were not only wise, but prophetic.
In 1973, the year abortion was legalized in the U.S. and statistics were first gathered, there were approximately 615,000 abortions performed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Abortion Surveillance statistics). That annual number then increased substantially, reaching 1.4 million in 1990. Why is this? With easier access to contraceptives, shouldn’t there be fewer unplanned pregnancies and therefore fewer abortions?
The answers are complex. The number of men and women who, from their teen years, became sexually active outside marriage increased dramatically since the early 1960s. Pregnancy became seen as something under our control because of the availability of contraceptives, and there was a subtle shift in how children were viewed—not so much as “gifts from God,” but as either inconveniences or, conversely, trophies. Nowadays, if an unplanned pregnancy occurs when contraceptives are not used correctly or not used at all, the first reaction for many is to terminate the “problem.” Attitudes toward the sacredness of life are much more cavalier, and abortion is now seen by many as merely another option in a range of reproductive rights.
Use of contraceptives helps women gain increased freedom, prosperity, and control over their lives.
Another of Paul VI’s predictions was that the widespread use of contraceptives would lead to a general disregard for the physical and psychological well-being of females. Here again his words have proven to be prophetic. One could say that the Sexual Revolution has done more for men than women. Males have much easier access to sex compared to days gone by, when the price of sex for young men was to get married, act responsibly, and stick around.
The ascendancy of pornography, which is filtering into mainstream media, is an assault on the well-being of women. From a very young age, girls are subjected to the pressure of conforming to the “norm” of no-strings sex and promiscuous behavior as projected in the movies, TV shows, and magazines all around them. All this has helped to solidify the image of women as sex objects. The huge numbers of young females being forced into prostitution around the world, and the high rates of sexual abuse of girls and women even in our own country, cast a dark shadow on the hoped-for benefits of sexual liberation kindled by the accessibility of contraceptives.
Current statistics on the number of single mothers living in poverty contradict the belief that women’s lives would improve substantially with the advent of artificial birth control. From 1960 to 2000, the proportion of children in single-parent families headed by females more than tripled in Europe and North America, and many studies have shown that coming from single-parent families plays a major role in the persistence of poverty. Even though more women are in the workforce than ever before, government statistics show that poverty rates among women are increasing.
At first blush, the unchanging teachings of the Catholic Church, as history rumbles by, are not always easy to follow or understand. As we know, many of Christ’s own followers were dumbfounded by some of his exhortations and teachings. But as the Church calls us to put our trust in God and uphold timeless virtues such as fidelity and self-control, we will find both great wisdom and great love waiting to be rediscovered.