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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Manfred

    The 1930 Lambeth Conference compelled Pius XI to write the encyclical Casti Connubii (of Chaste Marriage)in 1931 because he realized the enormity of the issue. However, reality set in and by the pontificate of John XXIII, the Pope established a “birth control commission” which ultimately agreed, the majority, that the Church could change Its teachings. The issue roiled for a few years until Humanae Vitae, but by then the damage was done. The quiet nod had been given to Catholics by a silent hierarchy and by priest-confessors. That is why Obama is so confident introducing this subject in an election year. He knows the bishops no longer have an “army” of voters.

  • TomD

    I have come to believe that President Obama concluded that this controversy regarding the HHS mandate is to his political advantage, even among many voters who self-identify as Catholic. It would seem to be a perfect wedge issue during this election cycle.

    While it would be entirely speculative to claim a “conspiracy,” I do believe that Obama and his advisors concluded that, for the 2012 election cycle, the net effect of this controversy will be positive. What better way to divert attention away from the economy, with the help of supporters in the media, and to make voters, even many Catholics, concerned about this issue. Seemingly, Republicans have walked right into the trap.

    When George Stephanopoulos asked his infamous questions at the New Hampshire Republican primary debate, I was puzzled. Why these questions now? Now, it seems clear that there were some behind the scenes activities going on at the time, perhaps even a semi-coordinated effort between Obama advisors and some members of the media.

  • Sherry M.

    Thank you, Mr. Kainz, for your succinct analysis of the situation. This is a good article for sharing with friends. I find that many Catholics have not read Humanae Vitae nor do they have the historical perspective that you highlight so well.

  • Dave

    The bishops know it too, which is why those of us who do live and support the Church’s teachings need to rally to them as never before. It won’t do to complain they are not doing enough if we don’t support what they are doing.

  • Pete Brown

    Nice piece Dr. Kainz. I think however it’s inaccurate to describe the Church’s modern position as in any respect based on the Onan story in Genesis 38. It is not. Casti Connubi in 1930 did indeed cite this story earlier as a basis for opposition to birth control rooted in revelation. But tellingly neither Humanae Vitae nor Evangelium Vitae cited Gen 38 or any other passage in Scripture. The teaching instead is based wholly on natural law. Evidently between 1930 and 1968 the Church has decided that opposition to birth control is not rooted in revelation after all. The teaching has remained constant in other words though the rationale has changed a little. Or so it seems to me

  • Matt

    The United States will see the direct imposition of a contraceptive mandate if the Church fails today’s government challenge. In short order, “Free” contraceptives will be provided to avert a high household tax based on the number of children over government mandates, in effect a softer form of China’s policy. Consider Leon Panetta just informed Congress that International consensus trumps Congress’ will. If global governance structures can dictate war over the people’s will, as represented by Congress, then population control structures will be next under the Green movement. The Vatican had better come to the realization that cooperating with the secular U.N. so as to “guide it to its proper ends” is a disastrous proposition as evidenced by our own bishops success courting the secular left. It is time to actively fight for survival rather than pastorally guiding us to an abyss for the secular left has no intention, let alone contrition, to amend their ways.

  • Sue

    “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. ”

    The problem is not so much paying for contraception (Sebelius says it pays for itself by eliminating the conception of people. Therefore a “population dividend” credit could theoretically be issued to each premium payer to neutralize the cost, but that would not make the practice any less morally justifiable.)

    No it is the legitimizing of contraception and its morality by government which is the offense here. The setting up of our society to play Centrifugal Bumblepuppies, and the corresponding cheapening of sexuality, marriage, parenting, and family. And the transfer of those institutions to the government domain.

    Let’s jettison our effete obsession with government required employer paid insurance premiums, a category which should never have been countenanced. Third party payor economics and its price-corrupting effect is bad enough, but when you throw in the government as the fourth party, with its design on population emaciation, you have an intrinsic prescription for tyranny.

    Oppose Obamacare. Period.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Pete Brown: Some of the Fathers of the Church did cite the Onan story. But you are right, that was not the only or the main reason for their opposition to contraception.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Whether or not either the Chruch Fathers or modern Popes cite the “Onan stroy,” I do not see how anyone who taeks Scripture even the least bit seriously can fail to be sutnned by its obvious meaning. Rrecall that in Geneisi not even the first murder is pusnished by death, but Onan’s abuse of the reproductive faculty did warrant his death “so great was his sin.” And now we are told we have simply misunderstood this passage for thousands of years? If the consistent teaching of Holy Mother Church on this stands on natural law, then I am moved to believe that the Holy Spirit wanted that passage there to instruct us before before anyone even conceived of the idea of Natural Law.

  • DS

    I sometimes wonder whether the manner in which NFP is promoted — often described as “just as effective as artificial methods” — by the Church causes confusion.

    Does/should the intent of the married couple during sexual relations play any role? Encouraging a couple to utilize NFP to reduce the chances of conception complies with the natural law in a legalistic sense, but it also can convey a powerful sense of control over the procreative process to the couple, and it gives legitimacy (even primacy?) to their desires and intentions regarding size of family and timing of pregnancies.

    At a more fundamental level, NFP seems to be at a half-hearted fulfillment of what Professor Kainz cited in his last column: “Yahweh’s commandment to ‘increase and multiply’.” This is a clear, unambiguous divine directive to procreate. Shouldn’t the Church be teaching couples when to have sex in order to increase, not decrease, the chances of conception?

  • Howard Kainz

    @Thomas C. Coleman: Onan’s offense was not just coitus interuptus, but also breaking the Levirate law (Deut. 25:5-10) which commanded that a brother should raise seed to his deceased brother by marrying the widowed wife. In the context, Biblical scholars take this to be the most important factor in this story.

  • Howard Kainz

    @DS: Yes, the intention is important. If a couple were using NFP to completely avoid ever getting pregnant, e.g. meticulously checking for fertile periods, etc., that would be wrong (and strange). But used rationally, NFP is useful for having or for spacing births.

  • ML

    I couldn’t find that editorial in the March 23, 1931 edition of the Washington post. Wrong date?

  • CaseyinAlaska

    so nice to see some history!

  • Don Schloeder

    @Howard Kainz: That interpretation of the Onan story flies right in the face of the Deuteronomy verses which you reference. The penalty for breaking the Levirate law is spelled out clearly:

    7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.

    In other words, the penalty for breaking the Levirate law is to humiliate the surviving brother. So why was God so displeased that he struck him dead? What was different in the Onan story is that he wanted the gratification that comes from sexual union without the accompanying responsibilities. That is precisely the nature of contraception.

  • Howard Kainz

    @ML:Sorry, that should be March 22, not March 23.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Don Schloeder: Both the Catholic and the Protestant Scripture commentaries I have point to this as an infraction of the Levirate law. Isn’t it even a worse Levirate infraction if Onan agrees to marry, and then frustrates the intention of the marital act?

  • Aaron

    @Howard Kainz: I do not doubt that modern commentaries downplay the contraceptive nature of Onan’s sin (this is one reason why I tossed my free copy of the New Jerome Commentary). However, by DEFINITION, Onan’s sin couldn’t be violating the Levirate law. Refer to Deuteronomy 25:, which defines the Levirate marriage as the duty of the dead husband’s brother to marry the widow. There is nothing about his OBLIGATION under the Levirate law to bring forth children, but should children occur, the first-born son would be credited to the deceased brother.

    BY DEFINITION, Onan upheld his duty and did not violate the Levirate law. His sin, therefore, is not Levirate-related, and is purely his intentional action to prevent conception of a child through Tamar.

  • Manfred

    Howard: I must commend you for the Washington Post citation which I have downloaded. Did the Council Fathers at Vat. II really think they had anything in common with a world which rejected for centuries the Church AND The Washington Post’s editorial position as strong as that was? They wanted to open wondows to this world? At the March 9, 2012 ad limina visit by some American bishops, BXVI is still trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube on the subjects of chastity and marriage. It was he who has stated that the Church is no longer in the time of the Syllabus (PIX, 1869). I believe that is precisely why we are in this position today.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    I’ve been amsued for years at the new scholalry interpretation of the Onan Story. We are now to believe that for these thousans fo years Jews and Christians misunderstood Scripture becuase an inept Holy Spirit had not been careful enough to unambiguously state justn exactly what Onana’s sin was, leaving us carelessly and unintentionally to see it the narrative its most obvious but now apparently false meaning. Ot maybe this was an act of Divine Misdirection according to which we were intended to misinterpret the passage untill such time as the world began to become overpopulated, at which time the REAL nature of the poor man’s sin would be revealed, thereby liberating humans from the onerous tasks of parenting glorifying the human capacity for gratuuitous carnality. And thankfyou, Manfred, you are a rare gem!

  • Tom

    Thanks for your article. A small point: the Church does not find contraception to be immoral because of its artificiality (as opposed to a “natural” method of contraception, such as oral sex), but rather opposes the deliberate effort to frustrate the marital act, however done, from reaching its natural end. (NFP does not deliberately frustrate the marital act and does nothing to prevent it from reaching its natural end.)