Catholics and Artificial Birth Control

Ever since Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae in 1967, the official position of the Catholic Church has been that artificial birth control goes against the natural law and is intrinsically evil.

In 1987 John Paul II reiterated that “this teaching of the Church has been written by the creative hand of God in the nature of the human person”. Disputing the doctrine, he said, is “equal to refusing to God himself the obedience of our intelligence.”

1. Catholic theologians now almost universally reject the Vatican view, because the marriage act has more purposes than just procreation.

Read here a good formulation of the reasons for allowing contraceptives based on pastoral practice.

If I may be permitted a personal note . . .
When Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae came out, I was teaching in India. The papal ruling hit especially many of the poorer people in developing countries such as India. As a theologian I publicly expressed my disagreement as long ago as 1972/1973 . I advocated that Catholics should feel free to follow their own conscience. It was a response paralleled by that of theologians, priests and lay people throughout the world.

2. The Vatican view is now rejected by the vast majority of committed Catholics in the western world.

  • In the USA, 73% of Catholics maintain one can be a good Catholic while using contraceptives. 61% believe the Church should not interfere in this: it should be left to one’s own conscience. Even among weekly Mass-goers, only 21% say this is a matter for Church leaders to determine, nearly half (45%) consider it a matter for one’s own conscience.
  • In Australia only 2% of students accept the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception; 89% indicate it is a personal issue for the couple involved.

If the Church’s teaching on birth control is almost universally ignored by the laity in developed countries, the important question is: why?

Has Rome’s stand been rejected by a lack of self discipline, by a surrender to convenience, by moral degeneracy? Though such factors may always play a part, the decisive element is the fact that people have begun to reason things out for themselves. They judge matters differently from the Pope and base decisions on their own conscience rather than on his guidance. This can be proved in two ways:

i) Catholics dissent from Rome’s teaching also on other questions of sexual ethics, but to varying degrees. To stay with the US statistics, two-thirds of Catholics condone remarriage without an annulment or a marriage without Church sanction. But in the complex question of abortion, opinions are more divided. 53% state one can be a good Catholic while practising abortion. The same percentage would agree to abortion being made legal in all circumstances, 33% only in rare circumstances. 41% believe abortion can often be a morally acceptable choice, 41% rarely, 13% never. In other words, people are thinking about the issues and attempting to decide them on their own merit. In all these matters of sexual ethics, however, including abortion, not more than 20% of Catholics hold that it is the Church hierarchy that has the final say as to what is right and wrong.

ii) The same is clear from extensive records of people’s personal testimonies. They have reasons for rejecting the Church’s official stance:

  • “I think that the Church’s ways of thinking are absolutely ridiculous, especially that contraceptives are sin . . . . In the 90s AIDS and unwanted pregnancy are very common. People being told that contraception is a sin are probably more likely to contract a disease.” (student)
  • Humanae Vitae is a beautiful document except for the few pages about artificial contraception that don’t make sense. The rest is beautiful. They almost have it. The Church teaches beautiful things about sex and marriage and I use it so much in my life. And it is very useful when I try to explain sex to my children. But then they negate what they are saying by adding, ‘But we still believe that men and women should not practice artificial contraception’. And I reply, ‘But you just spent 20 pages telling me why we should!’ ” (mother of two children)

The sociologist Andrew Greeley maintains that since the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Vatican has lost its credibility as a teacher of sexual ethics. “Many have left the Church. No one takes it seriously on sexual matters anymore, not even its own members, not even devout ones.” By its wooden and conservative views, Rome has undermined its own credibility.

The theologian, John Mahoney S.J., researched The Impact of Humanae Vitae (1981-1982)
It is a study of the impact of, or the events brought about in the Church and in moral theology by, Humanae Vitae. After a brief narrative of events leading to the issuing of the encyclical, it offers an analysis of the impact of the letter and some theological reflections on the whole phenomenon.

Read also: New Directions in Sexual Ethics, Kevin Kelly, 1998.

Read also: A Guide to forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries edited by Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben.

Personal testimonies on contraception in response to Pope Francis’ invitation to share experinces. Click here.

John Wijngaards

For a vision of how the Church structures could work in the future, so that this important issue can be discussed, have a look at the website “Church Authority