Contraception, Conscience, and Church Authority

Until 1930, all Christendom agreed that contraception was an intrinsically disordered act –in other words, a sin. Martin Luther was as clear on this point as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Laws against the sale of contraceptives were enforced in Catholic and Protestant countries. We may also include the Orthodox world. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dolly is more shocked by Anna’s intimation that she is using unnatural means to avoid conception than she is by her friend’s destructive affair with Vronsky.

In 1930, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops famously broke from Christian teaching when it approved “methods of conception control” other than abstinence for married couples burdened by the prospect of a baby. This was odd, because the previous Lambeth Conference of 1920 had uttered “an emphatic warning” that contraception was morally illicit. One might asked how human nature had changed in ten years.

T.S. Eliot, who at that point was rebranding himself as a religious poet, took great interest in the 1930 Anglican proceedings. He agreed with the change in teaching about contraception, but he thought the bishops had seriously undermined their own authority. He acidly noted that they “must have taken a great deal of thought about [contraception]; all the more astonishing that they did not take a little more thought, and not proceed to a statement which seems to me almost suicidal.”

Eliot continues: “For to allow that ‘each couple’ should take counsel only if perplexed in mind is almost to surrender the whole citadel of the Church. It is ten to one, considering the extreme disingenuity of humanity, which ought to be patent after so many thousand years, that only a very small minority will be ‘perplexed’; and in view of the words of the bishops it is ten to one that the honest minority which takes ‘competent advice’ . . .will have to appeal to a clergy just as perplexed as itself. . .by the futility of this sentence.”

Eliot’s point is that, especially when it comes to sex, one can easily and happily confuse ones inclinations with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is one reason why there is a Church: to provide authoritative guidance in such matters. The Anglicans were, in effect, flagging contraception as a moral issue and then telling everyone to be comfortable with whatever their conscience told them.

As Eliot foresaw, this resulted in Anglicans having no further interest in what their bishops had to say on the subject – or other subjects, for that matter. Why should they? The bishops had told them that they were their own tribunals.

Pope Pius XI was upset enough about the Anglican shift to respond with the encyclical Casti Connubii, which confirmed the perennial teaching about contraception. He also reminded people that it was precisely because of the human tendency to rationalize private inclination that Christ had established a teaching Church. It is the Church, and not private judgment, that has been entrusted with revelation regarding faith and morals. Especially in the area of sexuality, where it is easy to make mistakes, a couple would, for their own good, want to consult the moral doctrine of the Church.

Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang outside Church House, Westminster, London, November 13, 1930
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, in 1930

The issue lay dormant among Catholics until the sexual revolution. When Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968) confirmed the teaching on contraception, dissenting theologians opted for the self-defeating approach of the Anglicans. They slapped a “conscience clause” on the teaching. Hans Küng told an interviewer that Catholics should take the document seriously, but added that if a couple decided the teaching interfered with their pursuit of happiness, they should “follow their conscience.”

Fr. Küng was, in effect, surrendering the citadel of the Church. Why have a Magisterium at all? Why not subject all Catholic moral teaching to a conscience clause? Wasn’t Küng really saying that the teaching isn’t true? Or, even if true, not binding if it conflicts with happiness?

Some of these theologians were under the spell of Immanuel Kant, who thought that moral behavior is not supposed to make us happy. Or Hegel, who saw all truth as historically conditioned. In any event, their sophistry penetrated many corners of the Church.

Years ago, when I began teaching marriage preparation, I was obliged to give engaged couples a pamphlet entitled “Together for Life” by Joseph M. Champlin. I still have a copy. Regarding a couple wishing to postpone a child, Fr. Champlin writes:

“Aware of the Church’s traditional teaching [which he doesn’t explain] they feel caught in a dilemma with God seeming to say one thing in their hearts and another through his Church. . . .There is no easy resolution of that matter, but neither does God want couples to be terrified whenever they make love. In the complexities of life all of us now and then become similarly torn between conflicting commands. At those times we purify our hearts, search for God’s light in this special circumstance, then decide what is the best course to follow.”

Ten to one that after reading this a couple jump directly to “the best course to follow” and put a chemical plug on their fertility.

But there is a deeper problem here. The implicit message is: God’s will is something you deal with while gritting your teeth. But since gritting your teeth is not fun, and God doesn’t want us to be upset about the choices we make, then follow your conscience.

There are so many fallacies here; it would take a book to address them. A short response is that saints not only heroically conform their lives to the will of God, but also love that will. Are we not called to imitate them? If we do, even the sex might be better. As Benedict XVI points out in Deus Caritas Est, eros is most fully itself when governed by agape.

George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).