The Catholic Church's Teaching on Birth Control
Dear Archbishops/Bishops, Clergy, Religious and Laity,
The population control and contraception people are hard at work in PNG. Aided by the Government and local politicians, a population control and contraception organization named Marie Stopes is moving into more and more provinces. They are well funded and are attracting many women and girls who line up to receive contraceptive hormone implants which last for five years. Are women fully informed about what they are putting in their bodies? Who knows. Does anyone know the long term physical effects of the implants? And what about the moral, social and cultural implications? Artificial contraception, of course, is considered morally wrong by the Church.
Marie Stopes have targeted Moresby, Madang, Hagen, Goroka, Rabaul and Milne Bay so far but are also spreading their efforts elsewhere every day.
It's worth reviewing the teaching of the Church on this matter. I found the attached article on the internet. It gives a lot of useful information.
In Madang, we're trying a grass roots kind of counter-attack by getting lay people involved. In Megiar Parish, Catholic women were given information in a workshop using the Tok Pisin talking points developed at our Pastoral Centre. The women then went to the various outstations and local markets to give awareness about the teaching of the Catholic Church on artificial contraception and on possible consequences of what Marie Stopes is doing. Karkar Island was targeted by Marie Stopes too. The local member there was behind this. Sr. Lorena from the National Family Life Office was in the area so she went over for a couple days and gathered a group of women to give awareness. Women there now have a message they can share with others. We're trying to get the message out to our parishes, our Catholic women and others.
The Catholic Church's Teaching on Birth Control
The "birth control" issue is, without a doubt, one of the most controversial and often least understood issues in Catholic morality. On July 25,1968, Pope Paul VI issued his now famous and challenging encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae (Human Life), which condemned all unnatural or artificial forms of birth control as always morally wrong. Today, it is generally accepted that about 80% of Catholics do not follow the teachings of Humanae Vitae when it comes to using different forms of birth control.
In this bulletin, we will look at the Church's teaching on birth control, why the teaching of Humanae Vitae has not been more widely accepted, the case for Natural Family Planning methods and the four negative consequences flowing from the widespread use of contraceptives. We will also look at the question of conscience and the possibility for responsible dissent from the Church's teaching on the issue of birth control.
The Catholic Church Urges Responsible Family Planning
When discussing and reflecting on the difficult and controversial issue of birth control, the first thing we need to be clear about is that the Catholic Church is not opposed to birth control. In fact, she encourages and exhorts couples in the direction of what is called "responsible parenthood." In considering how many children to have and when to have them, a husband and wife, according to a Vatican Council II document, "will thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already and those who may be foreseen" (Gaudium et Spes, Art. 50). Common sense tells us that a couple should only have as many children as they can properly take care of. This, of course, means different things to different people. For some couples, large families are a blessing. A couple may find joy (in the midst of many obvious difficulties and sacrifices) in raising several children and the children may enrich each other's lives. For other couples, a smaller number of children is the wiser course for reasons of health, temperament, energy or finances. Either way, the point is that the Church does not teach that a couple should have as many children as possible.
On the other hand, the official teaching of the Catholic Church does state that artificial (condoms, diaphragms, intrauterine devices) and chemical (the "pill", foams, gels) forms of birth control are always morally wrong. The Catholic Church only approves ofnatural forms of artificial birth control, the best-known and most effective of which is The Natural Family Planning Method (NFP) (not to be confused with the "rhythm" method).
Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, condemned all forms of artificial contraception because, by a free act of will, they separate the procreative dimension of sexual intercourse from its unitive dimension. In the Church's view, sexual intercourse has written into its very nature a twofold meaning. One is the unitive aspect which uses sex to celebrate and deepen the love which a married couple has for each other. The second meaning is the procreative aspect through which a couple cooperates with God to create new life, thereby ensuring the continuation of the human race.
According to Humanae Vitae, these two meanings cannot be separated. Sexual intercourse is to express love and to be open to the transmission of life simultaneously. According to official Catholic Church teaching, artificial forms of contraception are morally wrong because they involve a positive attempt to remove the procreative aspect of sexual intercourse from its unitive aspect. On the other hand, taking advantage of the body's natural rhythms of fertility and infertility, as in the case of methods like the NFP, is morally permissible because it does not involve that attempt to separate the procreative aspects of sexual intercourse from the unitive aspect. The Church believes that when couples use natural methods of birth control to do family planning, they are using the method God and nature has given them.
The Catholic Church believes that when couples use
natural methods of birth control to do family planning,
they are using the method God and nature have given them.
On hearing the Church say that contraception is wrong because it interferes with nature, some people ask: "What is the difference between using eyeglasses or corrective surgery and contraception? All three interfere with nature." To this objection, proponents ofHumanae Vitae respond: "This line of reasoning is false because the intervention of a lens or a medical surgeon is intended to restore a sick body or organ to what nature intended it to be, whereas, the use of contraception is intended to prevent a healthy body from operating as it was intended to by God."
Reasons Why Most Catholics Do Not Follow the Church's Teachings on Forms of Birth Control
As we have already stated, statistics show that the vast majority of Catholics do not follow the Church's teaching on birth control. The fact that such a large percentage of Catholics choose not to follow this particular aspect of the Church's moral teaching does not mean that the Church must be wrong and the majority right. Moral teachings can never be decided on percentages or the voice of the majority, though such a voice should always be prayerfully listened to. As we reflect on why most Catholics today do not follow the Church's teaching on forms of birth control, it might be good to outline some of the reasons why Catholics back in the 60's started to dissent from the Church's teaching on this moral issue.
During Vatican Council II, Pope John XXIII set up a commission to study the issue of birth control which was the source of much inner conflict for many Catholics. After John XXIII's death, the new Pope Paul VI broadened the membership of the commission to include married couples and physicians. The very fact that a special commission was set up by the Pope to study the birth control issue caused many Catholics to expect a change in the Church's teaching which, until then, had condemned all forms of artificial birth control as morally wrong, except for medical reasons (Humanae Vitae, Article 15).
By June, 1966, the commission completed its work and presented the Pope with a majority report and a minority report. The majority report recommended that the Church changes its position on birth control and permit couples to use artificial forms of contraception under certain circumstances. The minority report recommended that the Pope hold fast to the traditional teaching. As the news leaked out that the majority report recommended a change in teaching, Catholics and, in some cases, their pastoral leaders started to expect and prepare for a change. Within this climate of anticipated change, many Catholics started to use some forms of contraception (mainly, the "pill").
In July, 1968 (two years after receiving the two reports of the commission), Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. While the Pope carefully examined the majority view, he decided that the truth resided in the minority view. Almost immediately, there was an uproar amongst Catholics, including well-recognized theologians and priests, who expected the Pope to adopt the majority view. Many theologians and priests publicly dissented from the teaching of the Pope. Needless to say, the public dissent of theologians and priests from Humanae Vitae didn't encourage Catholics who were already using birth control to reconsider their position in the light of Humanae Vitae.
In addition to expecting a change in teaching and the public dissent of theologians, a third factor which facilitated dissent from Humanae Vitae was the new post Vatican II emphasis on the role of conscience. The slogan, "let your conscience be your guide," replaced the preVatican II emphasis, "let Church authority be your guide." In the 60's, Catholics now felt free to follow their conscience even if it disagreed with the official teaching of the Church.
Fourthly, while many faithful Catholics wanted to be loyal to the teachings of the Church, the only natural form of birth control which they were familiar with was the rhythm method. All too many of these Catholics already had several "rhythm babies" to prove how ineffective this method was. Many such Catholics felt that they had no option but to use the "pill" if they weren't to continue having more and more children. Back in the 60's, the Natural Family Planning method, which is said to be 98% effective (when used correctly), was not sufficiently known or developed. Even today, most Catholic couples are unaware of the NFP method and its effectiveness, which is probably a big reason why so many Catholics today continue to rely on artificial forms of birth control
Other reasons why Catholics today do not follow the Church's teaching on forms of birth control is that they, like some theologians, find the Pope's reasons for condemning all forms of contraception to be unconvincing. Others do not follow the Church's teaching because one spouse is unwilling to cooperate. In addition, there are often financial and temperament reasons to be considered. Finally, some couples do not find the idea of abstaining from sex, during the fertile period, attractive. They find it restrictive and a hindrance to spontaneity.
Even today many Catholic couples are unaware of Natural Family Planning methods of birth control and their effectiveness.
Pastoral Understanding for Couples Unable to Follow Humanae Vitae
After Humanae Vitae was issued, several European National Conferences of Catholic Bishops were quick to understand that not all couples would be able to follow its teachings, and so they issued Pastoral Letters that showed understanding and a recognition that ultimately married couples must follow their consciences. The Belgian bishops told their people: "Catholics who cannot follow the encyclical's teaching should not consider that because of this they are separated from God's love." The German bishops wrote: "Pastors must respect the responsible decisions of conscience made by the faithful." The Scandinavian bishops wrote: "No one should be considered a bad Catholic because he or she cannot follow the teaching of the encyclical."
Following an Informed Conscience
The Church recognizes the right and obligation of her people to follow their conscience. The Vatican Council document on Religious Liberty states: "It is through their conscience that people see and recognize the demands of the divine law. People are bound to follow their conscience faithfully in all their activity so that they come to God who is their last end." But the same document also states the importance of following a conscience that is formed in the light of official Church teaching. "In forming their consciences, the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is, by the will of Christ, the teacher of truth" (Art. 14). In his latest encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (the splendor of truth), Pope John Paul reminds us that "conscience is not an infallible judge. It can make mistakes" (Art 62). In a Statement on the Formation of Conscience, the Canadian Conference of Bishops states: "When doubt arises due to a conflict of my views and those of the magesterium (the Church's official teaching office), the presumption of truth lies on the part of the magesterium." Essential helps to the proper formation of conscience are prayer, reflection on Church teaching, and dialogue with one's priest.
Responsible or Non-Culpable Dissent
Having carefully and prayerfully formed one's conscience in the light of Church teaching, a sincere Catholic may still come to a judgment about some moral matter that is at odds with official Church teaching. In this situation we have an example of "responsible dissent" or an example of a formed conscience that is "objectively erroneous" but "non-culpable." We say that such a conscience is "objectively erroneous" because it is at odds with objective truth taught by the Church's official teaching office, but it is "non-culpable" because the person sincerely sought to discover the truth and form his/her conscience in the light of the Church's official teaching. (For more on this, see Veritatis Splendor, Articles 54-64.)
In trying to decide whether our dissent from an aspect of the Church's teaching is responsible or irresponsible, we might ask ourselves the following questions:
An erroneous conscience is non-culpable when a person sincerely sought to discover the truth and form his/her conscience in the light of the Church's official teaching.
In general, do I have a sense of respect for the teaching office of the Church and for the values which she seeks to promote and protect, and does my public behavior foster a respect for the teaching office of the Church?
Have I made a reasonable effort to understand the Church's viewpoint on a particular moral issue, and am I open to reassessing my position in the light of new information, new understanding and ongoing prayer and reflection?
Have I sought the counsel of a priest or some other recognized wise person in the community?
If the moral issue is birth control, the question can also be asked: Have I looked into the Natural Family Planning method of birth control, a method approved by the Church?
Sometimes the best response we can give to gospel
and Church ideals is an imperfect response.
It would be a perfect world if all of us could fully embrace all the teachings of Christ and his Church, teachings about loving one's enemy on living a simple lifestyle, resolving conflicts without reporting to courts of law. But, the reality is that sometimes the best response we can give to the teachings of Christ and his Church is an imperfect response. I don't think that God wishes us to go around feeling guilty about our imperfect responses as long as we remain open to God's saving grace which daily invites us to move one step closer to Gospel and Church ideals.
The Case for Natural Family Planning
The birth control method called Natural Family Planning should not be identified with the old "rhythm" method, which some Catholics nicknamed "Vatican Roulette" because in their mind it came closer to gambling than to any real science. Many Catholics who had children in the 50's and 60's will tell you about the number of "Rhythm babies" they had.
The introduction of the pill and other artificial methods of birth control were greeted positively because they were seen as totally safe, they eliminated all fear of unwanted pregnancies, they facilitated the desire for spontaneous sex. Then slowly, but surely, such methods of birth control were seen not to be totally safe. Some were recognized as abortifacient and the pill was seen as not necessarily healthy. Also, as we shall see later, widespread use of artificial methods of birth control opened the door to widespread promiscuity.
In the 70's, Natural Family Planning (NFP) arrived on the scene. Among those who started to adopt the NFP methods were young couples of different religious persuasions, feminists and health advocates. These people started to extol the positive dimensions of Natural Family Planning. They found it highly effective when used correctly (98% - 99%), free of any side effects, both spouses were involved, and it had positive effects on the couples' overall marital and sexual relationship. I sometimes say to couples: "If you are not motivated by moral reasons to look into the NFP method, perhaps you may want to look into it for health reasons and because of the positive effects it seems to have on the overall relationship of couples who use it."
Besides the health and moral reasons for looking into the NFP method of birth control, there is, as I have already said, the positive effect on the overall couples' relationship. The rate of divorce amongst users of the natural methods of birth control is very, very low-less that 5% compared to the 50% overall divorce rate in the United States. Couples who already have a good relationship are surprised how much better it becomes after they begin to use natural methods of birth control. One woman, married 11 years, writes: "We were always a close couple, but I can't believe how much closer we have become in the last three years since we started relying on fertility awareness. In fact, my husband told me that he feels we've grown more during the past 40 months than all the previous years of our marriage put together. I agree." Another woman writes: "Despite the fact that I have difficulty abstaining when I'm ovulating, the advantages far outweigh this one hurdle. My husband is very aware of this and is very understanding, trying to be affectionate in other ways" (quoted in, No Pill, No Risk Birth Control, by Nova Aguilar). Aquilar's research shows that couples using natural family planning methods achieve deeper satisfaction and marital security. In the natural methods, birth control is no longer "the man's job" or "the woman's job."
Among those using NFP methods of family planning
are couples of different religious persuasions,
feminists and health advocates.
It is a cooperative adventure. We shouldn't have to wonder for long why couples using the natural methods have longer and happier marriages. The qualities needed to make the natural methods of birth control work are also the qualities needed to make a marriage work; namely, good communication, discipline, self-restraint, responsibility, love and concern for the other person. (For more information on Natural Family Planning methods of birth control, you may contact your local parish or the Family Life Office of your local Diocese.) The book, Challenge to Love by Mary Shivanandan, is the fruit of 50 in-depth interviews with couples who use or have tried to use the NFP method of birth control. In the words of the couples themselves, the book outlines the positive features and the difficulties involved in following natural forms of birth control. The book is published by KM Associates, 4711, Overbrook Rd., Bethesda, MD 20816. The same publisher offers a free listing of NFP material and a sample copy of The NFP Reader.
The Downside of a Contraceptive Mentality
In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Article 17), Pope Paul VI warned of "grave consequences" that would follow if the use of contraception became widespread. Now 25 years later, we can look at some of the consequences which the Pope "prophesied" and see to what extent the Pontiff may have had an eye into the future.
Couples using NFP methods find it safe, healthy
and helpful to their overall marriage relationship.
First, Paul noted that the widespread use of contraception would "lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality." Hardly anyone will deny that there has been a widespread decline in sexual morality in the past 25 years. The increase in abortions, divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and sexually-related diseases should convince any skeptic that sexual morality is on the decline. Of course, it would be wrong to say that contraception is the only cause of this decline, but it would also be a grave error to think that the widespread use of contraception has nothing to do with the decline in sexual morality. The easy availability of contraceptives has led teenagers, and often people much older, to believe that they can engage in non-marital sex "responsibly." Also, popular "wisdom" states that the easy availability of contraceptives would protect teenagers and young adults from becoming pregnant which, in turn, would decrease the number of abortions. The fact is that easy access to contraceptives has done the very opposite. As the number and proportion of teenage family-planning clinics increase, so do the number of teenage pregnancies and abortions increase.
Writing on the connection between the widespread use of contraceptives, abortion and non-marital sex, Janet Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Dallas University, states: "Most abortions are the result of unwanted pregnancies, most unwanted pregnancies are the result of sexual relationships outside marriage and most sexual relationships outside of marriage are facilitated by the availability of contraception. To turn the "progression" around: contraception leads to an increase in non-marital sex, an increase in non-marital sex leads to more unwanted pregnancies; more unwanted pregnancies lead to more abortions. Not many women intend to use abortion as a "back-up" to failed contraception, but it is often undeniably used for just that purpose" (The Catholic World Report,July, 1993).
A second consequence following the widespread use of contraceptives which Paul VI mentioned was "that men lose their respect for women seeing them as mere sex objects rather than as respected, beloved companions." Concerning this consequence, Janet Smith comments: "Paul VI saw that the use of contraception would encourage the man to look upon the woman not as a special woman with her own needs and desires, not as a female with a marvelous procreative faculty, but as an object. He can easily come to look upon her as one from whom he can desire sexual pleasure without risking the personal bonding that comes through participation in sexual intercourse open to procreation."
It would be a grave error to think that the widespread
use of contraception has nothing to do with the
decline in sexual morality.
Thirdly, Paul VI observed that the widespread use of contraception would place "a dangerous weapon in the hands of public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies." The forced birth control and abortion program in China show the extreme towards which government will take population control programs.
Fourthly, Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would lead men and women to think that they had "unlimited power over their own bodies and its functions." Sterilization is now the most widely used form of contraception in America.
As we reflect on the above consequences following in some way from the widespread use of contraceptives, we might do well to take a second look or, for most of us, a first look at the wisdom of Humanae Vitae.
@ Father Eamon Tobin