Amazingly, before 1930, no responsible authority in any Christian congregation whatsoever had ever taught that artificial contraception was permissible. In that year, the Anglican bishops, at their Lambeth Conference, were the first. They introduced what seemed a very small concession. They said that, in certain dire circumstances, it might be allowable for married couples to use contraception for brief periods of time. Note the careful restrictions: married couples only, dire circumstances only, for a brief time only. Yet within a few short decades, as we know, this small concession turned into a “right” of any individual, married or not, to use contraception, for any purpose, for as long as he or she wants.
How could such a drastic change take place so quickly? People reasoned implicitly as follows. If contraception can be permitted in some cases, then it is not intrinsically wrong. Therefore, contraception is not actually wrong at all. And if it’s not wrong, then what it brings about—smaller families, induced sterility—are likewise not a concern.
In response to the Anglican departure from historic Christian teaching, Pope Pius XI wrote his profound and inspiring Encyclical Letter on chaste marriage, Casti Canubii (on December 31, 1930). However, in 1931, the Federal Council of Churches in the US followed the Anglican bishops instead, and taught that contraception is permissible in some cases. This produced an uproar. One leading newspaper editorialized: “The mischief that would result from an attempt to place the stamp of church approval upon any scheme for ‘regulating the size of families’ is evidently quite beyond the comprehension of this [Council]. ….Carried to its logical conclusion, the [Council’s] report if carried into effect would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution.” What was the newspaper that criticized the decision of the Federal Council of Churches so fervently? Not a Catholic paper—The Washington Post! (March 22, 1931, p. S1).
By the 1960s, therefore, the Catholic Church understood herself to be the sole Christian authority that continued to uphold the historic teaching of Christianity against contraception—a teaching which dates back to the Didache of the Twelve Apostles in the late 1st century. But then why was the matter reconsidered at that time, in the years leading up to Humanae Vitae in 1968? In fact, the 1960s discussion has been frequently misunderstood in hindsight: the debate as it arose in those years was not about whether contraception was always wrong. Responsible moral theologians of the Catholic Church all conceded that it was. Rather, the debate concerned whether hormonal methods of birth control (the Pill) should be classified as contraceptives—in which case these methods would fall under the centuries-old teaching. But the Pill seemed to work differently from so-called barrier methods. Perhaps, some thought, it was not a contraceptive, but rather just a means of regulating the physiology of a woman’s body.
That was the question that originally presented itself to Paul VI, and that he therefore posed to a specially-appointed theological commission for investigation. But as a result of lobbying and political pressures, the public debate among Catholics changed into the open questioning of the historic teaching. The expansion of the debate, in retrospect, was just about inevitable, since it was timed in coincidence with the fraught period of time we call the sexual revolution, together with the so-called “women’s liberation” movement. Also, in retrospect, we might see that the liberalization of access to the Pill, occurring around 1960, was not independent from the subsequent sexual revolution and consequent social changes.
In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI said that the widespread use of contraception would lead to sexual immorality, a lowering of standards of decency, a greater contempt for women, and the possibility of government forced family planning. It was too shocking for the Pope to propose, but others—at that time—also said that contraception would lead to the civil approval of same-sex relationships, or that it would lead to a demand for abortion. All of these consequences have followed, painfully and rapidly. And yet some still wish to question the wisdom of that great Encyclical.
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