The issue of contraception has been an extremely controversial and debated one in the Catholic Church. The Catholic religion declares that the three requirements for healthy sexual expression include a mutual physical drive for pleasure, intimacy and committed love between the couple, and the openness to procreation and parenting children. This last aspect is the subject of much disagreement between people both inside and outside the church community. The authoritative voice of the church, the Magisterium, holds that artificial contraception is a sin and only accepts the form of contraception called Natural Family Planning. This method involves avoiding sexual intercourse during certain times of the month and will be explained in more detail shortly. There are situations which are argued should be exceptions, such as rape, a family who already has children and can afford no more, and the overall health of the couple involved in the sexual relationship. The viewpoint of the Church is an old one, but the Magisterium claims that it will not change anytime soon.
There are many different types of contraception available. Type one classified contraception includes barrier methods such as condoms, diaphragms, the cervical cap, and spermicides. Type two classified contraception is hormonal methods, such as birth control pills, emergency contraception or the “morning after pill,” IUD’s and Norplant. Type three contraception is Natural Family Planning, the only type approved by the Church. Natural Family Planning is sometimes confused with the rhythm method, but it actually more effective than rhythm. NFP is a method that involves careful regulation of a woman’s menstrual cycle to determine when her fertile period falls begins. The day of ovulation and a few days before is considered a woman’s “fertile period” and by either avoiding or participating in intercourse during these days, a woman can decrease or increase her chances of pregnancy respectively. The signs that a woman is close to ovulation are an increase in basal temperature, changes in vaginal secretions, an opening of the cervical os, physical symptoms such as cramps or moodiness, and an increase in sexual desire. It is important to carefully monitor all these aspects to ensure proper prevention of pregnancy. This practice is accepted by the Catholic Church because they defend that the integration of intimacy between partners and the receptivity to procreation are not obstructed.
It is important to observe how we ended up at the teaching the church now holds dealing with contraception and sexuality. Throughout the centuries, many different decisions from the church have influenced the view that is now held. In 306, the Council of Elvira found that a priest who was sexually intimate with their wife the night before a mass would lose his job. At the Council of Nicea in 325, the rule that priests could not marry after being ordained was created, and in 385, they could no longer sleep with their wives. The first chastity rules were then being formed for religious people.
St. Augustine had a profound impact on sexual teachings. He lived from 354-430 as a philosopher and theologian, recently converted from a sinful life. It is believed that St. Augustine developed the first codified teachings of sexuality. He deeply believed the philosophy of Manichaeism, which states that “matter is evil opposed to spirit.” His teachings were very specific and strict. Stoic philosophy influenced St. Augustine to require that procreation be the primary focus of sexual intercourse and marriage. This teaching was held in the church all the way until Vatican II. St. Augustine was the first to condemn abstinence during the fertile period and “coitus interruptus.” He did not believe that the pleasure involved with sex should in any way be the motivation, but was acceptable as a necessary “side effect.” St. Augustine did not view sex in terms of love or expression, but simply as a procreative act necessary for life.
The Second Council of Tours in 567 excommunicated any religious person found in bed with their wife. In 580, the church leader was Pope Pelagius II who had a rather casual outlook on sexual matters. He did not want to bother the clergy and rather looked the other way from the corruption going on. Pope Gregory the Great served from 590-604 and stated that all sexual desire in any form was wrong. Throughout the world, sexuality was a key issue. Seventh century France found most priests to be married. Germany, in the eighth century, reported through St. Boniface that hardly any bishops were following their call to celibacy. The Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 836 found that abortions and killing of infants were being practiced in convents and monasteries to conceal uncelibate activities of the religious staff. St. Ulrich “fixed” this problem by allowing priests to marry.
St. Thomas Aquinas was a key religious figure of the Scholastic Period. He was the first to publicly discuss the goodness of sexuality with reason. He stressed the use of one’s conscience to determine what is right and wrong. He, as well, agreed that sexuality and marriage should have its main purpose as procreation. Although Aquinas held the beliefs of many former theologians, there was more leniency towards sexual pleasure. Pope Boniface IX resigned the papacy in order to marry in 1045. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII made it necessary for anyone being ordained to take an oath of celibacy. The extremity of this was seen in 1095 when Pope Urban II sold the wives of priests into slavery and left all children of them abandoned. The First Lateran Council took place in 1123, where Pope Calistus II found all clerical marriages to be officially invalid. This council was supported in the Second Lateran Council. The Renaissance was quickly approaching and literature and art were beginning to stress procreation in relationships. The Council of Trent, from 1543-1563, declared that celibacy and virginity were superior to marriage. St. Alphonsus Ligouri, a doctor of the church, was one of the first to state that an important part of marriage was a means for sexual expression.
The Twentieth Century brought with it many of the most significant documents and meetings influencing today’s stance on sexuality and contraception. The Lambeth Conference took place in 1930 and decided that couples could make decisions about contraception themselves, but that contraceptives were not approved by the Church in any way. Pope Pius XI wrote his encyclical, Castii Conubii, in 1940, stating that procreation should be the primary end for sexual intercourse in a marriage. He stated “…any use of marriage whatever, in the exercise of which the act is deprived of its natural power of procreating life, violates the law of God and nature, and those who commit anything of this kind are marked with the stain of grave sin.” (Pope Pius XI). In his Address to Midwives in 1951, Pope Pius XII condemned artificial contraceptives and declared that this ruling could not be changed. Pope Pius XII did, however, condone Natural Family Planning and the rhythm method and became the first time to allow sex apart from procreation. In 1965, Vatican Council II: Constitution on the Church in the Modern World took place. Pope Paul VI delayed making a decision on the proposition to have human nature and his acts as the governing principle in sexuality at this conference. He was awaiting the presentation by Pope John XXIII of the decisions made at the Meetings of the Birth Control Commission, which took place from 1963-1966. Theologians, cardinals, bishops, priests, and laypeople met to discuss sexual issues, including that of contraception. The decision reached was that the previous teachings of the church were not infallible, that artificial contraception was not evil, and that Catholic families should have freedom to decide their method of family planning. These decisions, however, were overturned by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Pope Paul VI upheld the previous teachings and dismissed what the council had found, claiming that he knew more about the issue than all the religious and 3,000 couples surveyed about the decision. His opinion is reinforced by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls who stated, “A permissive attitude to sexuality ruins the family, weakens the responsibility of parents, goes against the good of children, and has a highly destabilizing effect on society as a whole.” (Ribadeneira B2). Pope Paul VI’s decision was based on his involvement with Pope Pius XII because he did not want to dispute Pope Pius’ previous teachings. Pope Paul VI relied on natural law and the teaching that sexuality must always be open to new life. This decision has been the root of constant disagreement, a loss of respect for teachings in the Church today, and the loss of many faithful supporters. Familiaris Consortio was written in 1981 by Pope John Paul II and introduced sex as the “language of love.” The encyclical states that artificial contraception is contradictory to this language. Pope John Paul II, in detail, says in his document about the difference between artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning, “It is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality. The choice of the natural rhythms involves accepting the cycle of the person.. which means to recognize both the spiritual and corporal character of conjugal communion and to live personal love with its requirement of fidelity.” (Pope John Paul II #32). Most recently, Veritatis Splendor written by Pope John Paul II spoke about the existence of moral absolutes and reaffirmed the teaching of artificial contraception being intrinsically evil.
As previously mentioned, natural law plays a significant role in forming the opinions of the church. Natural law is defined as what human reason can determine about human nature and its moral duties that are separate from divine revelation. Natural law originates in human reason, ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, secular sciences, and common sense. The Dictionary of Theology explains it rather well in saying “The sum of the rights and duties which of themselves follow directly from the nature of man, as a being endowed with reason and free will, is…. called natural law in Catholic ethics; the mutability or immutability of the law and the possibility of knowing it are important themes in Greek and Christian philosophy.” (Rahner 329). The Magisterium claims the power to interpret natural law and incorporate its interpretation into Church teachings. The faithful observance of these teachings of God’s will are taught to be necessary for salvation and entrance into Heaven. The natural law, with respect to sexuality, teaches that sexual intercourse must be both unitive and procreative and must contain both aspects. However, many argue that Natural Family Planning does not prove to be both unitive and procreative, and this has led to great dispute within the Church. Although the Magisterium upholds all these beliefs, the gravity of artificial contraception as a sin must be a decision made from one’s conscience and may only be judged by God.
Artificial contraception and Natural Family Planning are both forms of contraception, and even though the Church considers one acceptable and the other as extreme as a mortal sin, they share many similarities in essence. Despite the differences in processes, neither method supports the procreative side of sexual intercourse. Artificial contraception is doing something to prevent pregnancy, while Natural Family Planning is NOT doing something to prevent pregnancy. The only argument the Church gives for the difference is that NFP makes use of nature instead of artificial means in order to control a situation. They argue that artificial contraception hinders a natural process that is meant to happen. In America magazine, a speaker from the Humanae Vitae Conference in Omaha, Nebraska was quoted as saying “Whether Norplant or the pill, contraception communicates a certain disdain for one’s natural fertility. (America 37). This says a lot for how insignificant many people feel is the difference between NFP and artificial contraception.
After all this information about the background of contraception and the controversial stance of the Church, the reader may be wondering what will happen in the future. There has been great opposition to the current adamant position the Church holds about the serious sinfulness of artificial contraception. Father Philip Sumner sums up how many Catholic families feel by saying, “The Church can make statements about contraception, but nobody cares about it. Many people have given up looking to the Church in terms of contraception.” (Ward T002). Many people see hope in reform in the near future despite the insistence by the Church that these decisions are final. One nun has even made headlines by resigning her sisterhood and devotion to God because of her disagreement with the way Church has dealt with these issues. Sr. Lavinia Byrne explains her position by stating “I am resigning because of the pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith… the burden has become intolerable. They are using techniques that seem to belong to mother age and are behaving like the Inquisition. I feel bullied. (Malcolm 8). There are several reasons why the present teaching can be changed however. Firstly, the teaching of Humanae Vitae is not infallible, but is only a part of Catholic tradition. Natural law determines a large portion of teachings throughout time and as the way society works changes, the teachings of the Church move with it. There is no “pure nature” and there is always room for change and this could lead to a change of teaching. Also, the Church, in the past, followed many practices that seem ridiculous today such as slavery, indulgences, and persecution of women. The culture that these practices were in changed, and thus, so did the stance of the Church. This has set a precedent that is expected to be followed. Contraception has been termed a mortal sin, but this would require a grave matter, full knowledge of seriousness of what you are doing, and sound consent of mind and will. The questionable aspect is the gravity of the sin. The faithful members of the Church community have, for the most part, rejected the current teaching. Even those Catholics who are extremely religious use contraceptives, and usually for very good reason. An alarmingly high percentage of Catholics use artificial birth control, and very few agree with the Church on the evil involved with contraception.
Natural Law was named as one of the factors involved in the temporary status of the current teaching. There are many differences in how sexuality is incorporated into our society today, compared to the time period when this teaching was created. Rahner, as well, states that “The Church is making authentic pronouncements which are promulgated by the Magisterium, which are, for their arguments, dependent on justifications and proofs taken from the secular sciences and universal human reason.” (Rahner 33). The differences today that could influence some kind of change include several important aspects of society. First, females are becoming much more independent and appreciated in these days. A woman’s experiences of wifehood, motherhood, and sex are taken into account and not looked down upon. Probably the most important change is continuing education. Marriages are delayed until mid-twenties and early thirties on average because of people’s desire to go to college and graduate schools. This leads to longer (and probably more) relationships and a different maturity about sex. Artificial contraception is more strongly needed in cases such as these. Other people these days are just not opting to marry or are homosexual. Procreation is not in anyway a focus anymore, but is more of an unwanted incident that is possible.
Contraception, whether artificial or natural, is obviously not favored by the Church, but the latter is allowed as a compromise it sometimes seems. The teachings and advisements are rather blatant, but it has been shown that couples are still turning away from the Church on this matter. Many religious teachers, because of the strong opposition both within and outside the Church, instruct their followers to go with what their conscience feels is right and to use the Church’s teaching as an advisement. To this day though, if one was to strictly follow the teachings of the Magisterium, artificial contraception would be out of the question and to regulate pregnancy, Natural Family Planning would be the right choice.
Cahill, Lisa Sowle. “Can We Get Real About Sex?” Commonweal 14 Sept. 1990: 497-503.
Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II. Familiaris Consortio. Boston: Daughters of St. Paul; 1981.
Catholic Church: Pope Paul VI. Humanae Vitae. Catholic Mind. Sept. 1968: 54-55.
Harris, Peter. On Human Life: An Examination of Humanae Vitae. London: Burns & Oates; 1968.
“International Humanae Vitae Conference.” America 25 Sept. 1993.
Kaufman, Philip, ODB. Why You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic. New York: Crossroads Publ.; 1988.
Malcolm, Teresa. “’Bullied’ By Vatican, Nun to Leave Order” National Catholic Reporter 21 Jan. 2000: 8-9.
Rahner, Karl and Herbert Vorgrimler. Dictionary of Theology. New York; Crossroads Publ,; 1981.
Ribadeneira, Diego. “Vatican Sets the Record Straight: Its Views on Sex Are Unchanged.” Boston Globe 2 Oct. 1999: B2.
Ward, Stephen. “Society: Birth Control: Baby Faith Good Catholics Could Not Use Contraception, Said the Priests. But Now It May Be a Matter for Individual Conscience.” The Guardian 29 Apr. 1998: T002.
Winikoff, Beverly and Suzanne Wymelenberg. The Whole Truth About Contraception: A Guide to Safe and Effective Choices. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press; 1997.