New Challenges on “Birth Control”

The Catholic Church claims to be the “rock of Peter,” and the Obama administration seems to come up against this “rock” recently when it moved toward universal availability of free contraceptives, even in Catholic institutions.

In order to understand how Catholics could be caught in an ostensibly counter-cultural position (“against birth control!”), we have to be aware of the extraordinary sea change that has taken place since the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1930, the first Christian group to allow limited uses of contraception. A person in our day reading the March 22, 1931 editorial of the Washington Post in the aftermath of that conference would no doubt consider it a forgery.

Yet the following excerpt reflects prevailing opinion among Christians at that time, as well as among the editors of that newspaper:

It is impossible to reconcile the doctrine of the divine institution of marriage with any modernistic plan for the mechanical regulation or suppression of human birth. The church must either reject the plain teachings of the Bible or reject schemes for the “scientific” production of human souls. Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution, by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be “careful and restrained” is preposterous.

What was the basis for this widespread belief in the 1930s? In part, there was the Bible, but the belief was due in large part to a long tradition of Christian ethics, not just in Catholicism, but also in Protestantism. Little by little, however, after the Episcopalians, Protestant denominations accepted contraception. Methodists, Presbyterians, some Lutheran synods, Mennonites, and others followed suit in the following decades.

Why is Catholicism a “holdout?” Here again, the source is not just the Bible, but a long tradition from Patristic times. Yes, in the early Christian era, contraceptive methods were available – many of them even riskier than modern pharmaceuticals, and contraceptive by causing abortion. They were the subject of frequent condemnations by Fathers of the Church and theologians – St. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in the second century, Minucius Felix and St. Hippolytus in the third, St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great and St. Jerome, as well as the Council of Ancyra in the fourth. In the Reformation era, Luther and Calvin both vehemently condemned contraception.

Some Christian resistance has historically been based on the Bible, especially the narrative about Onan (Genesis 38:8-10) who practiced coitus interruptus and was punished by God for the act. But Catholicism, which published the canonical Bible 1700 years ago, is not “based” solely on the Bible, and the arguments of the Fathers are not just derived from the Bible but from natural law – the unwritten law prevailing, sometimes in bare outlines, among all religions and cultures – laws against murder, theft, adultery, etc.

The Catholic Church does not prohibit “birth control,” based on Natural Family Planning, such as Dr. Fehring’s Marquette method, or Dr. Hilgers’ Creighton method, or Dr. Billings’ method, which identify a woman’s fertile periods, and have also proven effective in helping infertile couples to become pregnant. But it can also be used to “space” pregnancies by abstinence during fertile periods.

         The Lambeth Conference, 1930

Although NFP, has been proven in various studies, and in particular by documented research by the Paul VI Institute, to be as effective as the “pill,” it is not popular because of the periodical abstinence required, or in individual cases where treatment for irregular periods, etc. requires consultation with specialists.

So the Catholic objection is not against “birth control,” but against artificial contraception, i.e., blocking procreation by artificial means. However, in common parlance, “birth control” has become synonymous with contraception, which goes beyond “control” to blocking births.

The objection that Catholics use contraceptives as much as the general public is just a new form of the “everybody does it” moral principle. But the objection is also not factual, a recent “fact-check” column in the Washington Post discovered. The widespread statement, “98 percent of American Catholic women have used contraception in their lifetimes” is actually based on 2006-2008 interviews by the Guttmacher Institute of 7,356 females aged 15-44, in which 68 percent of the Catholic women had used some form of contraception. The 98 percent figure was based on tables in the study that were misinterpreted. The Guttmacher Institute came out afterwards with statistics to correct the misinterpretations.

Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae warned against four inevitable results of the widespread use of contraception: 1) an increase in conjugal infidelity; 2) a “general lowering of morality”; 3) loss of respect for women by men, and a tendency to treat women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment” rather than cherished partners; and finally, 4) the massive imposition of contraception by governments.

Hardly anyone would deny that the first three predictions have come to pass. In regard to the fourth prediction, for most of us the example of Communist China, with its forced “one-child” policy used to come to mind. But now we are confronted with the unthinkable: that the United States government may impose contraception, directly or indirectly, through insurance or taxation, or out-of-pocket funding by self-insurers, upon Catholic universities, hospitals, and other institutions.

Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, recently complained to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi that she has to pay about $1000 a year for contraception. President Obama, in a telephone call to Fluke, offered her his personal support. And he has framed a mandate that will, if successful, grant individuals like Sandra Fluke the funding they are seeking.

The handwriting is on the wall. The American people, whether they support contraception or not, are now being asked to come to the aid of those who do not feel they should have to pay for contraceptives. We’re seeing the logical working out of what even the Washington Post could see in 1930 and, it seems, only a few religious people can see today.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.