Up until the early 1900s, all Christian churches opposed artificial birth control. There were dissenters, but they were few. Then, in 1930, the Anglican bishops held an historic meeting. They gathered for the Lambeth Conference, convened every ten years by the Archbishop of Canterbury. They decided to change the Anglican Church’s position. They ruled that married couples could now use artificial birth control to avoid conception.
This 1930 ruling of the Anglican bishops looked to the motives for avoiding birth and not the objective morality of the means to do so. It looked to the choices that individuals make and not to the inherent meaning of human sexuality. Their decision was based on situation ethics.
Soon after, all other Protestant churches followed the lead of the Anglican Church. On Feb. 23, 1961, The National Council of Churches stated that “the general Protestant conviction is that motives, rather than methods, form the primary moral issue provided the methods are limited to the prevention of conception.” Today most Christians accept artificial contraception. Even a majority of Catholics!
Nonetheless, the Catholic Church has remained constant in her teaching on the meaning of human sexuality. Fifty years ago, in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Blessed Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic teaching on married love, responsible parenthood and the continued rejection of unnatural forms of birth control. More recently, in his Theology of the Body, Pope St. John Paul II provided an integrated vision of the human person. He spoke of the body not as an object to be used for pleasure or to be manipulated at will. As previous popes, he taught that marital love must be procreative and unitive at the same time in order to be the total self-gift of one spouse to the other.
The Catholic Church does not bless the use of artificial contraception because it separates the procreative and unitive aspects of the marital act. Artificial contraception is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (procreative aspect of marriage) and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (unitive aspect of matrimony). It harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of life. This teaching continues to cause discomfort for some and anger for others. But, many of the effects of accepting artificial contraception have hardly contributed to the good of the spouses or to the common good.
Many men and women believe that their bodies are their own to do with as they please. The contraceptive mentality has deceived them into believing that we are not subject to any natural law, that is, God’s design for creation which all can know by the use of human reason. This same mind-set contributes to accepting same sex relationships, the manufacturing of test tube babies, abortion-on-demand, government-paid contraception, gender confusion and euthanasia.
While many may hasten to trumpet the personal benefits of total freedom over their own bodies, the effects of the wide use of artificial contraception have not been good, as Pope Blessed Paul VI predicted. We are now witnessing an increase in conjugal infidelity, more divorces, more pregnancies out-of-wedlock that contribute to the cycle of poverty, more abortions, more cases of venereal diseases, the objectification of women and the plague of pornography. How many lives and careers, political and professional, are being ruined because individuals who bought into the sexual permissiveness, fostered by a contraceptive mentality, engage in immoral behavior and are now being exposed for their misdeeds.
The Catholic Church continues to hold fast to God’s plan for marriage. It remains countercultural. It refuses to abandon the natural law. For 1900 years, all Christians lived by this law. Is it suddenly to be rejected? Hardly! Modern society is already reaping the sad results of its rejection of the natural law.
Rejecting the natural law, accepting artificial contraception and promoting total license in sexual matters do not contribute to a society’s future. Historian Arnold Toynbee once said, “No nation has long endured that has failed to discipline itself sexually.” The Church’s consistent teaching on human sexuality needs to be heard and understood more clearly today more than ever. It opens the path to true personal fulfillment of spouses in marriage and stability in society.