More than 1600 years ago, in the waning days of the Roman Empire, Augustine Aurelius, Bishop of Hippo declared himself a sex addict. His classical 13 book treatise Confessions of St. Augustine, one of the foundational texts of Catholicism was written “to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions”. Augustine was the first theologian to equate sex with sin.
For Augustine the exercise of lust was acceptable only when occurring within a marriage and only when it might produce a baby. It is “a procreative purpose which makes good an act in which lust is present” he wrote and declared that married people who use contraceptives “are not married”.
Whenever theologians discuss sex they often also comment negatively on the role of women and Augustine was no exception. He insisted that sin entered the world because man (the spirit) did not exercise control over woman (the flesh) and declared, ‘It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater’.”
For the next 1600 years the Catholic Church adhered to St. Augustine’s theology. Then in the early 1900s a vigorous women’s movement arose that demanded basic rights, among them the right to vote, the right to their own legal identities, the right to own property, and the right to determine when to have a child. In 1916, three years before women in the United States gained the right to vote, Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic.
In the 1920s attitudes toward birth control were changing even among churches. In 1930 the Anglican Church for the first time approved of the use of birth control. Other Protestant denominations soon followed suit.
But the Catholic Church stood firm. “(S)tanding in the midst of moral ruin” Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Casti connubii in December 1930. Echoing the words of Augustine, the Pope declared that contraception “violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw.”
In the next two decades scientists discovered methods to identify those times of the month when lovemaking would be unlikely to produce a pregnancy. This led Pope Pius XII to formally break with Augustine, who condemned intercourse within marriage “where the conception of offspring is avoided”. In 1951 the Pope approved of couples practicing what came to be called the rhythm method.
The appearance of the first birth control pill in 1960 led many in the Catholic Church to urge a reconsideration of its position. Catholic physician John Rock, one of the developers of the pill insisted the pill was a “morally permissible variant of the rhythm method” because it used hormones already present in a woman’s body to mimic the natural infertility of a pregnant woman.
In 1962 Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, the first assembly of Roman Catholic religious leaders to discuss doctrinal issues in over 100 years. He did not want the birth control issue to dominate an assembly that he hoped would challenge many of the underlying ways of doing things of the Church. Thus he established an independent Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. After his death a few months later Pope Paul VI continued the Commission, expanding its membership to 72.
In 1966 the Commission’s report recommended that the Church, as it had done in many other ways during the Vatican II proceedings, modernize its attitudes toward birth control. It noted that the Church had already recognized the legitimacy of “human intervention in the process of the marriage act…” It noted the “social changes in matrimony and the family, especially in the role of the woman” that had occurred. And it maintained that allowing birth control would strengthen rather than undermine marriage. “The doctrine on marriage and its essential values remains the same and whole, but it is now applied differently out of a deeper understanding.”
The Commission heard from several of its members who were married couples and from many other Catholic couples about the tension and insecurity that came from trying to abide by the rhythm method and the negative impact it had on their marriages. The report concluded that the “condemnation of a couple to a long and often heroic abstinence as the means to regulate conception, cannot be founded on the truth.”
A single Commission member, American Jesuit theologian John Ford drafted a minority report. Three other theologian priests on the Commission signed on. Its thesis was blunt. “If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to… (admit) that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned.”
But dissenters may also have been concerned that allowing women to control their bodies could be a slippery slope leading to a re-evaluation of the entire role of women in the Church. As one of the authors of the minority report, Stanislas De Lestapis, a Jesuit sociologist had warned a few years before allowing women the freedom to regulate when they got pregnant would lead to a “confusion between the sexes.”
Pope Paul VI surprised most everyone by rejecting his Commission's recommendations. He disingenuously noted that the recommendations had not been unanimously approved.(There were two votes. The theologians on the Commission voted 15-4 in favor of a change. The Bishops and Cardinals voted 9-2.) The Pope issued his own encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) in 1968 that declared “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”
For the last 47 years, while virtually every other Christian denomination has approved of birth control and the majority of Catholics use birth control regularly the Catholic Church has fiercely maintained its position that the sperm has a God-given right to try to get to the egg.
Tragically, the Catholic Church has theologically linked contraception and abortion. It views both as mortal sins. The result is to leave it little room to embrace the overwhelming empirical (and commonsensical) data that increased use of contraception leads to decreased abortions.
The Netherlands, for example, has no restrictions on abortion yet has an abortion rate almost 70 percent lower than that in the United States. This is because in that country contraceptive devices are widely available and free.
In the United States about half of the 6.6 million pregnancies a year are unintended. Among unmarried young women age 20 to 29, this rises to nearly 70 percent. And nearly half (44 percent) of unplanned pregnancies among unmarried young women result in an abortion, resulting in nearly 600,000 abortions each year.
Three recent studies hammer home that point. In Missouri, Iowa and Colorado women, primarily teenagers, were allowed to choose their form of contraception at no cost. Researchers found that women overwhelmingly (75 percent) chose the longest lasting, most convenient and most effective birth control.
Teen birth rates decline by 40 percent and abortions fall by a similar amount. The changes were particularly pronounced in the poorest areas of the state,
Researchers who conducted the study in the St. Louis region estimated it would prevent 62-78 percent of abortions.
But the Catholic Church remains stuck in the 5th century. The United States Catholic Conference led the fight against the federal government requirement that insurance policies cover contraception. Funding for the wildly successful program in Colorado was cut off because of opposition by, among others, the Catholic Church.
So far Pope Francis appears supportive of these oppositional efforts. On a visit to the Philippines in January the Pope called on families to be “sanctuaries for respect for life”. According to the Guardian he “praised the church for maintaining its opposition to modern birth control” and noted, “The remarks were seen as a direct response” to a 2013 Philippine law that offers women free contraceptives.
Pope Francis has spoken out vigorously and eloquently on behalf of the weak and the poor. But to date he has failed to embrace one of the most practical and effective strategies. As Isabel Sawhill, economist at the Brookings Institution notes, “If we want to reduce poverty, one of the simplest, fastest and cheapest things we could do would be to make sure that as few people as possible become parents before they actually want to.”
The Pope urges the world to tackle global warming. A recent report from the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, estimates that providing family planning to the 225 million women around the world who want it but can’t get it could meet 16-29 percent of the necessary decrease in greenhouse-gas emissions. Simultaneously it would improve food security, and prevent an estimated 52 million unintended pregnancies every year.
Worldwatch President Robert Engelman, commenting on his organizations report on the same subject, argues, “increasing women's reproductive rights should be at the heart of the climate discussion, in the same basket as strategies like increasing energy efficiency and researching new technologies." He notes that reducing population growth could reduce CO2 emissions by more than if global deforestation were completely eliminated.
Pope Francis spoke on many issues in his week-long visit to the United States. Birth control is connected to much of what he said.