Contraception, Sex, and Women

in the Roman Catholic Church



By George Desnoyers




Although the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) teaches that both contraception and fornication are sufficiently grave to qualify as mortal sins, the Church has consistently taught that contraception is worse than fornication, or even sex with one’s own mother.  In fact, that last thought has been explicitly stated by some of the Church’s most important moral theologians.  Even Thomas Aquinas, whom some say is the Church’s greatest theologian, asserted that incest that preserved the integrity of the sex act itself is less sinful than contraception.
           Before proceeding, it should be noted that, according to the RCC any sexual sin involving pleasure is sufficiently grave to be a mortal sin if the other conditions necessary for a mortal sin are also met.  Accordingly, even thinking about masturbating can be a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church.
[When studying the Church’s teachings regarding the conditions that must be met for a mortal sin, pupils sometimes joke that one would almost have to be a moral theologian in order to commit one.  This is probably not the case in the matter of sex sins.  The Church has always been quick to order its severest penalties - up to and including the death penalty - to its sinners in the area of sex.]
          To get back to contraception, until the Canon Law of 1917/1918, the Church taught that contraception was equivalent to murder – and not just murder only, but murder of one’s own children.  That was considered far more serious than sex outside marriage.  Although there have been some changes in Church laws, and a complete revision of the Canon Law in 1983, the basic Church teachings on the seriousness of sins in the area of "artificial" contraception have not been altered.
           One interesting inconsistency in the Church’s past treatment of contraception is that for a period the Church was treating contraception as murder at the very same time it was allowing abortions during the early period of pregnancy when [it was thought] the embryo was not animated.
            It is natural to wonder how the Church could have ever thought that the use of contraception is so awful, perhaps even worse than sex with one’s own mother, or the murder of one’s own children.


For one thing, the Bible does speak approvingly of some sex outside marriage.  For instance, it speaks approvingly (some think only non-condemningly) of Israel’s patriarchs having concubines in addition to their multiple wives.  For another [less-debatable] example, the Bible speaks approvingly of a man having a child with the wife of a deceased brother for the purpose of producing an heir.
            To further understand the RCC’s position of making artificial contraception a more serious sin than sex outside of marriage, it should be realized that the Church has had an understanding of the sin of Onan that is unique among nearly all Christian denominations and churches.  At least for a very long time, the RCC understood the sin of Onan to be the spilling of his seed, while virtually all other Christian organizations have considered the sin of Onan to be his refusal to produce a child by the wife of his deceased brother.  In fact, the RCC has repeatedly used the word “onanism” to refer, not just to “coitus interruptus,” but also to all methods of artificial [or unnatural] birth control.
           Another thing to keep in mind while trying to comprehend the Church’s latest teachings on birth control is that the ever-present fixation on sexual sins has always been intensified, and the Church’s prohibitions reiterated more forcefully, when developments outside the Church produced a favorable condition (a force vector) in the direction of anything deemed a sexual sin.  So, for instance, there was some heightened concern over sexual sins when condoms made their appearance in the middle of the seventeenth century.  We are still living through a much more intensified wave of concern about contraception that resulted from the appearance of “the pill” (and some related developments since).  Although “the pill” was not approved for use in the United States until 1960, it was being tested when Pius XII gave the Church’s grudging approval to the rhythm method in 1951.  Since the Church approved rhythm, the focus has no longer been on a couple’s intent to avoid having children (although the Church insists that any couple using natural birth control must always maintain the intention of ultimately having the “right” number of children for that couple).  The intent to avoid having children at a particular time is now okay.  In 1951, the RCC’s focus moved from the intent of the couple not to produce children to the effects that various “artificial” contraceptive techniques of birth control have on the integrity of the sex act.
           Some of the Church’s greatest blunders have been in documenting the thinking of its popes, often by publishing encyclicals.  Let’s review the case of the 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that condemned artificial contraception.  Within a few weeks of the issuance of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical had been loudly criticized by thousands of good Catholics around the world, including several bishops.  In the years immediately following, most bishops took the occasion of Humanae Vitae to teach primacy of conscience.  They taught that, if a Catholic gave serious consideration to the teaching of the encyclical and still disagreed with it, that individual's own conscience should be his/her guide, and the person would be no less a Catholic.  No papal encyclical had ever before been the occasion for the wide-spread teaching of primacy of conscience.  Polls consistently show that between three-quarters and nine-tenths of Catholics disagree with Humanae Vitae’s position on artificial contraception, and most married Catholics do not feel guilty when they ignore the teaching of the Church and use artificial contraception.  But there is still a minority of Catholics that believes in following the dictates of the Church in this area.  (The story of Humanae Vitae, for those not familiar with it, can be learned from chapter six of Garry Wills' excellent book, "Papal Sin," available in paperback.)


A central issue the Church has to deal with in the area of artificial contraception is the Church's previous claims that contraception violates natural law, law which humans are able to arrive at by the use of reason alone.  If it is so natural to arrive at the law against contraception, why didn’t the Greeks, who first recognized and defined natural law, know this?  Why didn’t the Jews of biblical times know this?  Why didn’t Jesus and the authors of the NT know this?  Why are the Catholic Popes and Curia virtually the only society in the world that knows this natural law?
            Perhaps most reasonable of all to ask is, why didn’t the special Pontifical Commission on Sexuality that was established by Pope John XXIII and that reported to Pope Paul in 1965 know of the natural law against contraception?
            That Pontifical Commission was made up of well-educated people who certainly understood the concept of natural law, and who would certainly be capable of using their reason to arrive at it.  They were people who, in large part, were picked specifically because they were Catholics in good standing.  They were people whom, it was believed, could be counted on to arrive at a report favorable to the Church’s past position.  In fact, they had all accepted the Church’s ban on contraception in the past.  They began their work on the Commission in agreement with papal thinking, and very respectful of the papacy and the Church’s authority.


Let’s look at the final votes of that Pontifical Commission.  There were three separate votes at the final session in 1965.  The sixteen bishops on the Commission voted nine to three in favor of ending the Church’s prohibition on contraception [three bishops abstained, and one – the current Pope, John Paul II, – was absent].  The nineteen theologians on the Commission voted fifteen to four in favor of ending the Church’s prohibition on contraception.  And the non-Episcopal members of the Commission voted thirty to five in favor of ending the Church’s prohibition on contraception.
            Pope Paul VI was furious when the votes of the Commission were made public.  No wonder.  Very few on the Commission agreed with him.  So much for contraception being opposed to natural law, law which humans are supposed to be able to reach by the use of reason alone.


Here is some testimony provided the Pontifical Commission on Sexuality.  It was provided by a person who was both a husband and a scholar.  “Rhythm destroys the meaning of the sex act; it turns a spontaneous expression of spiritual and physical love into a mere bodily sexual relief; it makes me obsessed with sex throughout the month; it seriously endangers my chastity; it has a noticeable effect upon my disposition toward my wife and children; it makes necessary my complete avoidance of all affection toward my wife for three weeks at a time.  I have watched a magnificent spiritual and physical union dissipate and, due to rhythm, turn into a tense and mutually damaging relationship.  Rhythm seems to be immoral and deeply unnatural.  It seems to me diabolical.”
            What did this husband-scholar’s wife say?  Here’s some of her testimony.  “I find myself sullen and resentful of my husband when the time of sexual relations finally arrives.  I resent his necessarily guarded affection during the month and I find that I cannot respond suddenly.  I find, also, that my subconscious dreams and unguarded thoughts are inevitably sexual and time consuming.  All this in spite of a great intellectual and emotional companionship and a generally beautiful marriage and home life.”  [Quotes of this husband and wife are from: Robert Blair Kaiser, "The Politics of Sex and Religion: A Case History in the Development of Doctrine, 1962-1984" (Leaven Press of "The National Catholic Reporter," 1985), pp, 95.]


I do not know whether this couple used a thermometer, or whether they measured mucus.  But, while those activities might turn the ineffective use of "rhythm" into the more effective “natural family planning” (NFP), I don't believe they would have significantly altered this couples overall negative experience with the Church's grudgingly-approved method of birth control.
            With experiences like those surrounding the Pontifical Commission on Sexuality and Humanae Vitae, certain phenomena, like the dwindling supply of priests and declining church attendance, are easy to understand.  It is handwriting on the wall.  The institutional Church is losing moral credibility and force.  There are huge areas, e.g., in promoting equality of the sexes, where the Church dramatically lags behind a very large part of the civilized world.  And the problem isn't only that the Church is often not seen as a part of the solution.  The Church itself is viewed as a large contributor to the problem.


 From what I see, even after Pope John Paul's long-standing application of litmus tests to candidates for appointment to bishop, the magisterium still does not approve of the Church's ban on artificial contraception.  The bishops are just not allowed to speak honestly regarding the issue.  Assuming that the magisterium, the Church's teaching authority, resides in the bishops, I believe that the Catholic Church’s magisterium has not supported the Church’s position on contraception for some time.  And I think Pope Paul VI knew it too.  That is why Paul VI intervened personally in Vatican II’s handling of the issue, deliberately sabotaging the hard work of a Vatican II committee.  When word got to Pope Paul VI that a Vatican II committee of bishops was preparing a document that would be in strong disagreement with the Church’s ban on contraception, he had his Secretary of State deliver a letter to the Vatican II committee that demanded the insertion of four "modi" (emendments).  The "modi" included a condemnation of contraceptive devices and a declaration of the authority of Casti Connubii.  [The final document, which just barely followed the instructions of Pope Paul VI, was Gaudium et Spes (1965).]


Such is now the state of the Church.  The pope can exercise such control over a council of the world's bishops!  How different from the case of the first ecumenical council (Nicaea, 325 A.D.), when the pope, although a bishop, wasn't even invited!


Many people feel that the Church’s teachings regarding sex and gender, past and present, would be entirely different if either men became pregnant or women ran the Church.  Such might very well be the case.  The domination of [mostly] celibate males in the Church has not been a factor favorable to the consideration of many of the issues that are of greatest concern to women.
            Let’s look at just one example of the Church’s treatment of women.  This is a very interesting example, because it is one in which there was an unusual degree of celibate male support given to the ecclesiastical consideration of women's issues - just not quite enough.  The U.S. bishops performed okay, the Vatican terribly.
           In 1983 the U.S. bishops set out to prepare a letter addressing the concerns of women.  There was a six-bishop drafting committee led by Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Illinois.  A group of seven women consultants served to assist the bishops.  Over the next two years approximately 75,000 women provided input to the committee in meetings held in dioceses, on college campuses, and on military bases.  In 1992, after an eight-year period marked at many points with Vatican meddling, the bishops voted on the final draft.  One hundred thirty-seven bishops voted in favor, and 110 voted in opposition.  It was the first time that the U.S. bishops had voted to reject a pastoral letter they had prepared.  (A two-thirds vote is required for the approval of a pastoral letter, the most authoritative document the U.S. bishops are permitted to write.)
            At a 1991 meeting held at the Vatican (between the second and third drafts), Vatican officials assigned to work with the U.S. drafting committee charged that the pastoral drafting committee had not spoken "sufficiently as bishops," but simply related the concerns of women.  Some of the Vatican consultants also charged that the drafting committee had only consulted "radical feminists."  Within the context of Christian feminism and Christian feminist theology, the "radical feminists" are contrasted with "reformist feminists."  The “radical feminists” are often thought of as post-Christian (in a derogatory sense) or non-Christian; the “reformist feminists” are usually deemed Christian.  So much for the input of 75,000 women.  The Vatican officials, in effect, dismissed them as "radical" post-Christian (derogatory sense) or non-Christian feminists.
           One can only wonder how many of those 75,000 women, and how many of their children, are practicing Catholics today.  Isn’t the Church is driving people away?
[I grew up in the parish of Our Lady of Hope in Springfield, Massachusetts.  During my youth there were several Masses simultaneously on two floors of the church several times each Sunday morning.  And both floors were generally close to capacity in Catholics.  I visited the church a few years ago.  I learned that there are now far fewer Masses, only one floor is used, and the one sanctuary still in use is generally only about one-third full.  You can visit the church, on Carew St. in Springfield, and check it out.]
           The unfortunately credible story of the sabotaging of the U.S. bishops' important effort to write a pastoral letter addressing the concerns of women is told on pages 234-245 of Thomas C. Fox's excellent book, Sexuality and Catholicism (George Braziller, Inc., 1995).  Another important book regarding sex and gender that most Catholics should read is Uta Ranke-Heimemann’s “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church.”  If they ever make me pope, these books will be required reading for Catholics.  Kind of like the opposite of the Index of forbidden books.
           The latter book is currently out of print, but it is usually pretty easy to find a used copy via the internet by going through “Bookfinder” or some similar website.  A used copy usually costs only about five or six [U.S.] dollars.  But, if necessary, you should mortgage your house to buy one.

George Desnoyers
Pittsfield, Massachusetts