Some people ask: “When will the Catholic Church get with the times and allow birth control?”
The Church, however, teaches that the moral laws concerning marriage were ordained by God and, thus, do not change with the passage of time or the whims of man.
From the Catholic perspective, marriage consists of a mutual self-giving between husband and wife, which finds fulfillment in children (see Genesis 1:28).
The Church’s moral teachings are not restrictive rules meant to make life difficult. They are life-affirming principles designed to guide us on a path to heaven. When teachings seem too difficult it is often because they are calling us to be selfless, denying the promptings of the world, the flesh, and the devil towards selfishness. When the teachings seem impossible it is often because we are relying not on God’s grace, but on our own limited abilities.
From the Catholic perspective, intercourse is a sacred gift given to man by God for the good of the spouses, for their unity and for the bringing of new life into the world. The Church does not teach, of course, that a husband and wife must intend to conceive a child with every act of intercourse. Yet, by the same token, the marital act must never be deliberately closed to the possibility of new life by an artificial barrier.
Some see the Church as hypocritical because of its approval of the natural means of birth regulation, namely the Sympto-Thermal Method or Natural Family Planning, which relies upon the infertile periods in a woman’s monthly cycle. In the first place, by following the natural design of the woman’s body, the Sympto-Thermal Method does not offend God’s creation, but works with faithfulness to it. Secondly, the Church does not permit the use of this method as a means of avoiding pregnancy indefinitely, but specifically “when there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions” (Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 16). At the heart of the Church’s teaching against contraception is the conviction that marital love is in its essence life-giving. Because the Sympto-Thermal Method leaves the marital act open to the possibility of offspring, it does not violate the inherent unitive and procreative properties of conjugal love.
The Church’s ban on birth control finds scriptural support in the story of Onan in the Old Testament, who, realizing in the midst of intercourse with his brother’s wife that the offspring would belong to his brother, “spilled the semen on the ground” (Genesis 38:9). In doing this He grievously offended God and was struck down.
We also find a condemnation of “sorcery” (Greek, pharmakeia) in the New Testament, amid warnings against sexual immorality, indicating the term refers to contraceptive potions used at the time (see Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:20 or the Book of Revelation 9:21 and 21:8).1. The mixing of potions is likewise denounced in the Didache, a Church manual dating to the apostolic era. In defending Christians in the second century against charges of incest, moreover, Athenagoras argued that intercourse is to be limited to the bearing of offspring (Plea 33). This position is supported in the writings of other Church Fathers as well.2
Christianity’s ban on artificial birth control remained absolute and universal through nearly two millennia until Anglicanism sanctioned its use at the Lambeth Conference in 1930. Currently, of all Christian bodies only the Catholic Church maintains the original Christian position on birth control.3
The dreadful practice of legalized abortion—the state-sponsored destruction of its most vulnerable citizen, the child awaiting birth in her mother’s womb—is one of the fruits of the contraceptive mentality, which exalts man as the master of life and death, the one who decides if new life shall come or, once it has come, if it shall be permitted to develop. The contraceptive way of thinking has prevented many from seeing abortion as intrinsically evil. In fact, Anglicanism, which initially condemned abortion even as it authorized contraception in 1930, came to rule before the end of the 20th century “that in certain cases direct abortion is morally justifiable” (Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church 31).
- John F. Kippley and Sheila K. Kippley, The Art of Natural Family Planning, Cincinnati, Ohio: The Couple to Couple League International, Inc., 1997, p. 268 ↩
- See Caesar of Arles, Sermons 179 (104):3; also Clement, The Instructor of the Children 2:10:91:2; 2:10:95:3; and Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:19. Conversely, none of the Church Fathers asserted that intercourse may be used merely for pleasure, that is, that the act may be deliberately closed to the prospect of new life. ↩
- Having investigated the historical Christian view of contraception, Charles Provan conceded, “We have found not one orthodox theologian to defend Birth Control before the 1900s. NOT ONE! On the other hand, we have found that many highly regarded Protestant theologians were enthusiastically opposed to it, all the way back to the very beginning of the Reformation” (The Bible and Birth Control, Zimmer Printing, 1989, p. 81; Kippley-Kippley, p. 267). ↩