Almost a year ago at this time, I dedicated my bulletin column to a short series on a delicate moral issue. I spoke about the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction. This followed the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex “marriage” the law of the land. Again, I thought I would take up another sensitive issue. With the spread of the Zika virus earlier this year, a news reporter once asked Pope Francis if such a health concern would be a circumstance that would render the use artificial contraception as being morally acceptable. The Pope’s off-the-cuff response was rather unclear, and left the media to jump to all sorts of conclusions.
Since the Church’s teaching on the use of artificial contraception is so seldom discussed or explained, I thought I would use the next couple columns to offer some teaching. First a little bit of history. Up until 1930, it was universally believed by Christians of all denominations that the use of artificial contraception (or birth control) was morally wrong. In fact, this was the belief of the early Church, which saw such a thing as a pagan practice (…yes, there were forms of artificial contraception in ancient times). In 1930, caving to social pressures, the Anglican Church, permitted the use of birth control in extreme situations. Soon afterward, other Protestant denominations followed suit to the point where today, it now has universal acceptance. The Catholic Church is the only one that maintains the belief of early Christianity on this issue.
Responding to this huge shift in attitude. Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical letter in 1968 entitled Humanae Vitae (Latin for “On Human Life”). This was probably the most controversial Church document of the 20th century. Speaking on the whole gamut of life issues, Paul VI stated, “[W]e must once again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth. Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman. Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (HV 14).
In simpler words, Catholic teaching forbids any direct form of abortion, sterilization, or artificial contraception. So controversial was the Pope’s clarification of the Church’s teaching on the issue of contraception, many within the Church openly rejected it. In fact, I have heard from many couples whom, years ago, when preparing for marriage, were told by their priest not to worry about such a teaching. Many were instead counseled to simply “follow their consciences” – as if their consciences had autonomy over the teaching of the Church!
The Church has confirmed and reiterated its teaching about the immorality of contraception in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 2370 and 2399). Pope Paul VI predicted that if contraception became widespread, there would be greater marital infidelity, a general lowering of morality, and a loss of respect for the woman in which she would more often seen by the man as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment. I think its fair to say the Pope’s predictions have come to fruition, and then some. Next week, I’ll speak about why the Church teaches that the use of artificial contraception is a moral evil.