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The Catholic Church and Contraception

The Church's stand on contraception is even less logical than its stand on abortion. One would naturally assume that anyone totally opposed to abortion would be in favor of contraception. Contraception would thus prevent the unwanted pregnancies that would otherwise have ended in abortions. Yet the Catholic Church is not only opposed to ending unwanted pregnancies, it is also opposed to preventing them. [1]

Historical Background

The history of contraception goes back a long way. We find writings of ancient Egypt (c10th century BCE) which recommended spermicidal tampons made of crocodile feces. In Europe we have naturalists such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) and Soranus (early second century CE) recommending what they thought to be effective contraceptives. [2] Contraception was thus an accepted form of birth control before the arrival of Christianity.

Like the case with abortion, the anti-contraceptive attitude was not universal in Christian antiquity. On one side we have views such as those of John Chrysostom (c345-407), who called contraception "something worse than murder." On the other we have the Christian physician Aetios (sixth century CE), the court physician for the emperor Justinian, recommending the contraceptive methods of Soranus. [3] However, due to the development of the anti-sex attitude of the religion, anti-contraception eventually became generally accepted as the "Christian" position. The theologians cited the story of Onan in Genesis as the Biblical base of their anti-contraception stance:

Genesis 38:7-10
But Er, Judah's first born was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. Then Judah said to Onan [Er's brother], "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother." But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went into his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.

The above passage actually pertains to an obligatory Jewish custom, know as the levirate, which stipulates that if a man dies childless, his next male relative, normally his brother, must impregnate the man's widow. This is to ensure an heir for the deceased's name and property. Within the context of the whole passage, Onan was slain because of his refusal to honor his obligation under the levirate not because he practiced coitus interruptus. The theologians, however, interpreted the above passage to support their position and asserted that Onan was killed because he practiced contraception. [4]

Thus up to the beginning of the twentieth century all Christian churches, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, were anti-contraception. Since then, thanks in part to the development of liberal theology and modernism, the mainstream non-fundamentalist Protestant churches had accepted contraception. [5]

The Catholic Church, however, remained obstinately anti-contraception. In the twentieth century, three papal encyclicals set the tone for the Church's position on contraception: the Casti Connubii (1930) of Pope Pius XI (1876-1958), the Humanae Vitae (1968) of Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) and the Familiaris Consortio (1981) of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005). In the Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI ruled out any reason that would allow the use of contraception:

No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything which is intrinsically against nature may become comformable with nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is designed primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purposely sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. [6]

Pope Pius' argument that contraception is "against nature" is ludicrous to the extreme. Isn't it against nature to shave? Isn't it against nature to have a bypass operation? Isn't it against nature for the pope to refrain from sex? His nocturnal emissions would surely convince him of that! Today more and more Catholics are citizens of the poorer third world countries. The papal ban on contraceptives can only mean more maternal and infant deaths, and more children than the poor parents can afford to raise. Apparently the church does not consider starving children and infant deaths "against nature."

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The Russian Roulette of NFP

A slight modification went into the papal position in the next encyclical, Humanae Vitae. The development of the birth control pills in the fifties had, at last, given the world the most effective method of contraception ever devised. Rather than welcome the development, the Church condemned it. In the Humanae Vitae Pope Paul VI asserted that contraception was to be condemned as much as abortion. He gave three reasons for this condemnation. The first, in line with the earlier encyclical of Pius XI, was that contraception "is a sin against nature." The second reason was that contraception "could open up a broad and easy path to conjugal infidelity." The third reason was even more incoherent than the first two, he asserted that "Men who have become accustomed to using contraceptives could lose their respect for women." [7] Ranke-Heinemann gave the following comment on this reasoning:

A church that understands human rights chiefly as men's rights and human dignity as male dignity ... should show some restraint when the topic is human dignity, and not impute their lack of respect for women to husbands ... the Church's celibates have no notion of why a husband loves his wife not just physically but spiritually. [8]

It was also in this encyclical that the pope introduced the church approved method of birth control, the so-called "rhythm method" or, more recently, "natural family planning" (NFP for short). There are actually several methods grouped under this umbrella term, all of which involves periodic abstinence from sex.

The calendar method (or calendar rhythm) involves the abstinence from sex for about two continuous weeks each 28 day cycle of the woman in order to avoid her fertile period. The method is extremely unreliable as a method of birth control. Some women have menstrual cycles so irregular that the rhythm method cannot be used by them at all. Even in those who have regular cycles, the "failure-rate" for the method is about 40 percent.

Another form of the rhythm method is called the body temperature method. This method involves a woman charting her temperature every morning after waking up. The idea is that since the body temperature normally rises slightly (about 0.2 to 0.4 degrees Celsius) after ovulation, abstaining from intercourse from the day menstruation ceases until after three consecutive days of sustained elevated temperature would ensure prevention of conception. Anyone who understands this method will immediately see how useless it is. Firstly the temperature rise is very small, most normal thermometers cannot register such a slight rise. Secondly temperature rises could be caused by other reasons-such as the onset of a low grade fever or even due to the husband turning the electric blanket on! Thirdly, if for one reason or another, the couple could not detect a temperature rise, they would have to abstain from any conjugal relations until the next cycle. Reported failure rates of the temperature method is around 30 percent.

Theoretically, the most effective form of the rhythm method is the Billings method. Also known as the ovulation method or the cervical mucus method, the idea behind this is that the color and consistency of the cervical mucus changes around the time of ovulation; mainly it becomes clearer and less tacky around ovulation. The couple is to abstain from sex from the day the cervical mucus changes into the wetter and slippery form until three days after it reverts to its original consistency. As I mentioned above, theoretical studies of volunteers who participated in the research program on the Billings method report a failure rate of only 3.1%. However couples not under the research program tends to use this method imperfectly and actual failure rate among users is the highest - with an astounding 86.4% pregnancy rate in one year reported among women who used this method! As the experts in sex research Masters, Johnson and Kolodny warned "[D]on't rely on this method unless you are absolutely, positively committed to it." [9]

When the rhythm method as a whole is compared with other forms of contraception, it fares the worst. Given below is a comparative table adapted from Masters, Johnsons and Kolodny's book Heterosexuality (p263):

MethodFailure Rate
 IUD6.0%
 Pill7.3%
 Condom15.8%
 Diaphragm22.0%
 Spermicides30.2%
 Rhythm Method/NFP31.4%

The pope calls the rhythm method the natural method but the real reasons are obvious. First it calls for abstinence from sex for a long period of time, something the church had always wanted married couples to do. Second, the method is inherently less reliable than all other methods, which makes a mockery of any serious attempts at family planning.

The third encyclical, Familiaris Consortio, gives the same tiresome condemnation of birth control. Perhaps the most memorable message of this encyclical was the assertion by Pope John Paul II that the soul's salvation and marital happiness is essentially based on the couple choosing the "right" method of birth control; the rhythm method. [10] In the same encyclical the pope criticized the actions of some governments in imposing a limit to the number of children a couple can have as "a severe affront to human dignity." But as Ranke-Heinemann reminds us:

He forgets to say that many Catholic spouses see in the pope's style of limiting their freedom at this point an equally "severe affront to human dignity." In addition they perceive it as hypocrisy when the church insist upon freedom against contraception, but outlaws freedom for it, because at bottom the church doesn't really defend the freedom of a single couple. It merely strives to impose its own moral dictatorship without regard to the welfare of married people, a dictatorship based on pleasure-hating celibate contempt for marriage, and a maniacal cult of virginity. [11]

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The Effects of the Anti-Contraception Stance

The Church today is doing its utmost to prevent the spread of contraceptive knowledge in the underdeveloped countries. [12] The result of this action can only mean suffering for the poor in the third world. With more children than they can afford to feed, doubtless starvation, disease and infant deaths will remain a common occurrence in the third world. But then starvation, disease and infant deaths are not "against nature."

The Church actually gives more protection to fictitious [a] children than it does for real one. One would think that any moral philosophy that prohibits the killing of even "potential" children via contraception would oppose war, for in wars real children are killed. But true to its schizophrenic form, the church does not condemn war. In fact, the need to provide sufficient manpower to fight a war was the reason cited by some theologians as a reason against contraception. Thus, in 1915, in the midst of the First World War, the Catholic Theologian, Professor A.J. Rosenberg used the following argument against contraception:

Modern wars are wars in which the masses play an extremely important role. Thus the deliberate limits placed on the number of children [in France] meant renouncing the same national strength as that attained by Germany ... The was has shed new light on the problem of deliberate avoidance of children. [13]

Rosenberg and his ideas are not an aberration. His views were echoed throughout by theologians in Germany, Austria, Belgium and the U.S. [14] In other words, the Church justify its anti-contraception stance by saying that wars, which are allowed, need a constant production of human beings to replace those killed! As Ranke-Heinemann rightly notes:

to this day the Church gives fictitious potential children more protection than it gives real, half-grown children from the death and hell of the battlefields, in keeping with the intolerable, perverse Catholic doctrine that actual crimes are committed in the bedrooms of married couples and not in the theaters of war and the mass graves. Catholic moral theologians have always talked a great deal about just wars, but never about just contraception. [15]

For some reason, the Church has a particular aversion to condoms over all other methods of birth control. While it teaches that a wife may passively submit to sex with her husband knowing that he will practice coitus interruptus, especially if she anticipate death or a severe beating should she not do so; the same passive submission is not allowed in the case of the use of condoms. In 1916, the Vatican declared that if the husband uses a condom, the wife must resist him "as she would a rapist." [16]

This is further elaborated by the Belgian theologian Arthur Vermeersch (d.1936). He taught that the wife is obliged to resist her husband if he wants to use a condom during intercourse. She must resist him with all her might, until she is physically overpowered or sacrifices "a fair equivalent to life." She must also be prepared, by her righteous actions, for the unhappy consequences such as the loss of familial happiness, breakdown of the marriage, separation, desertion or even divorce. All these she must endure in order to prevent her husband from using a condom. If any suggestion is made as to the magnitude of sacrifice the woman must make, Vermeersch answer was "Why should one find it terrible that marital chastity, like all Christian virtues, demands its martyrs?" [17]

This aversion to the condom is brought to its logical conclusion by the ruling of Pope John Paul II during the International Congress of Moral Theologians in Rome in 1988. According to the pope a hemophiliac with AIDS cannot use condoms to have intercourse with his wife. Condom is a method of contraception and "no reason, however grave" will allow its use. The fact that a condom can help reduce substantially the risk of the hemophiliac infecting his wife with the HIV virus is irrelevant. The unfortunate man therefore cannot experience normal marital relations with his wife. And if he cannot abstain, it is better for him to infect his wife than to use a condom. As Ranke-Heinemann remarked: "If the pope weren't the pope, his position might put him at odds with the state penal code." [18]

This absolute opposition against the use of condoms is felt most strongly in the third world - where the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS continues unabated.

10% of Uganda's population has HIV/AIDS. One would of course argue that abstinence is the ideal to follow but with such large numbers of infected persons, it is certainly prudent to allow other measures that could stop the spread of the dreaded disease. This, of course, is not how the Catholic Church sees the situation. In 2000, the Archbishop of Uganda, Christophe Pierre, called on the country's youth to resist the use condoms.

Similarly Bishop Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Brazil issued a "letter of condemnation" against an Italian Catholic priest, Valeriano Paitoni for his campaign to stop AIDS in Brazil. His crime? Distributing condoms. Father Paitoni's position was that since condoms protect life, it deals with a "greater good". The Church's absolutist ethics position does not allow for such consequentialist thinking: Condoms prevents the possibility of conception during the sex act and is therefore evil. [19]

Indeed its irrational battle against the use of condoms the Church have even stoop to falsifying scientific data. In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, speaking on behalf of the Vatican's "Council for the Family" announced that "scientific studies" have shown that the latex of the condom is permeable to the HIV virus. He urged that condom manufacturers should add a warning label to their packets stating this "fact". However when the data cited in his "scientific studies" where checked by the BBC it turned out that our Cardinal had bent the facts quite a bit. The research cited was by Dr. Dave Lyttle who pointed out that in a test of almost 500 different condoms, only 2.6% allowed "one virus at the most" to past through. This statistic was used by Dr. Lyttle to point out the high efficacy of condoms, not to their failure, in preventing HIV infections. He concluded in his report that condoms are "essentially impermeable" to the HIV virus, the exact opposite of the claims made by Cardinal Alfonso. When questioned, Dr. Lyttle agreed that his data has been "misused" by the Vatican. The World Health Organization have also confirmed the findings of Dr. Lyttle and other experts, that condoms reduce the risk of HIV infection by 90%.

It comes as no surprise then when we hear Morten Rostrup, President of the international council for Médicins Sans Frontièris (Doctors Without Borders), stating that the Church's position on condoms " was totally unacceptable from a moral, ethical, and medical perspective ...the ban was helping the spread of the deadly disease." He added that the Catholic Church is now part of the problem. [20]

The position of Roman Catholicism on birth control shows the Church for what it is now and what it has always been throughout its history: a morally bankrupt institution.

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Notes

a.What else can you call babies that have not even been conceived?

References

1.Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p463
2.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p70-71
3.Ibid: p73
4.Knight, Honest to Man: p158
Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p86
5.Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief: p463
6.Quoted in Knight, Honest to Man: p159
7.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p295-296
8.Ibid: p296
9.Masters, Johnson & Kolodny, Heterosexuality: p261-263
Pickard, The Safest Way: p91
10.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p297
11.Ibid: p285
12.Knight, Honest to Man: p158
13.Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: p289
14.Ibid: p290
15.Ibid: p291
16.Ibid: p286-287
17.Ibid: p288
18.Ibid: p298
Wills, Papal Sin: p189
19.Cornwell, Breaking Faith: p120
20.Cornwell, The Pontiff in Winter: p244-246

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