The Catholic Church And Contraception

This is a follow up to Robert Levine’s excellent post below on American Puritanism.  A very good article in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago has not received the attention it deserved, How the Catholic Church almost came to accept birth control.  The Catholic Churches’ objection to birth control is recent.

Contrary to widely held assumptions, the Catholic ban on birth control is relatively recent and has not been consistently supported by the clergy and the laity. Prior to the 1930s, the church had no official position on contraception. But on Dec. 31, 1930, Pope Pius XI issued a papal encyclical, Casti Connubii (Latin for “Of Chaste Wedlock”), which for the first time explicitly prohibited Catholics from using contraception.

It was a Catholic Doctor, John Rock, who developed the birth control pill thinking it would answer Church objections to birth control.  He was both right and wrong.

In 1964, Pope Paul appointed a commission on birth control to advise him. As the panel deliberated, anticipation ran high; many journalists, clergy and lay Catholics expected the church to lift the ban. Scottish songwriter Matt McGinn wrote a jaunty tune, recorded by Pete Seeger, about a woman with a house full of children waiting for the pope to “bless the pill.” She buys a package of birth control pills so she will be ready when the church acquiesces. In the final stanza, she hopes to hear the pope’s approval “before my man comes in.”

In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals. The minority who were opposed issued a separate report. After much consideration, the pope issued a formal encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) in 1968, siding with the minority and reaffirming the church’s prohibition of any form of artificial birth control.

The decision was not popular.

Catholic leaders quickly criticized the decision. Father Bernard Haring of Rome, widely regarded as the leading moral theologian at the time, called upon Catholic women and men to follow their consciences, rather than the pope’s decree. Countless parish priests agreed and gave sermons to that effect. The pope’s decision had little impact on Catholic women’s use of contraception. Two years after the decree, two-thirds of Catholic women were using contraception. Quickly, the gap between Catholic and non-Catholic women disappeared. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, Catholic women use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholic women. The Catholic Church has remained an outlier on the issue, unable to enforce its ban.

I guess we should not be surprised that a group of theoretically celibate men are out of touch with reality but out of touch they are as indicated by the fact that Catholic Church pews are filled with families consisting of one or two children.


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  1. Hopefully my point is clear: you can try to correlate sexual activity with negative outcomes, but correlation and causation aren’t the same thing. Furthermore, it’s quite difficult to separate results of sexual activity from results of sexual activity given access and education about birth control, or results of sexual activity given other circumstances.

  2. For example, a lot of young women go through a great deal of pain and regret after their first sexual experience, but how much of that is because of the constant messaging that young women get that they’re used up and dirty after they have sex? How do you separate that out?

    (Sorry for multiple posts — this commenting system is killin’ me!)

  3. Points taken and no, I’m not claiming any proof. I also know the difficulty of proving causation as opposed to correlation, but at some point I don’t see how a massive shift toward higher rates of divorce, higher rates of pregnancy and abortion, STDs, etc, all correlating with the time period of changing sexual mores isn’t at least highly suggestive of causation.

  4. Re young women experiencing pain and regret- if the tendency for women to feel this way hasn’t diminished even while society’s negative messaging about loss of virginity has lessened a great deal, isn’t that significant? Not sure how that can be measured but surveying women could potentially test the hypothesis.

    Also, just the reports from the women themselves. I know when I’ve seen this in women I know, it hasn’t been about societal stigmatization but rather about a more intense feeling of betrayal, having felt duped that the other person didn’t experience the sexual relationship as a more lasting bond. I think those types of reported experiences speak to the gender differences in sexuality (though it of course varies for individuals, with some females not necessarily experiencing emotional bonding as intensely and some males being just as susceptible to it as the average female.)

  5. Wow, not only did the system eat my comment, but it also won’t let me post it again, because it’s saying it’s a duplicate. Wow.

  6. Over and over and over again. I’m trying to reply!

  7. If you look closely at the issues, they really aren’t as cut and dried as that.

  8. Lol, well, it doesn’t want to eat the same comment twice I guess.

  9. As an example, people are much more likely to get divorced for a lot of reasons.

  10. Nope, won’t even take my comments in one-sentence batches now.

  11. Trying to take a different takh, maybe consider what “success” looks like. Couples who are over 30 years old at the time of their wedding are much less likely to get divorced.

  12. “Re young women experiencing pain and regret- if the tendency for women to feel this way hasn’t diminished even while society’s negative messaging about loss of virginity has lessened a great deal, isn’t that significant?”

    You don’t think the pain and regret are much lessened now that they don’t ship young women off to maternity camps and throw them out of the family? I’m saying that there’s the pain from standard teenage heartbreak, which is quite frankly not going away no matter what (and probably shouldn’t), and there’s the pain and regret of having one’s life completely changed forever.

  13. No, I was reacting to your statement in a different way- assuming (I guess incorrectly) that you meant that if we could eliminate the pain that comes from social stigma, that quite possibly there wouldn’t be pain and regret.

  14. And on the other bit, about divorce rates- keep in mind that I don’t have to prove or accept that the sexual revolution is the only driver in order to say that it has had a big effect.

  15. Honestly, once I got to be to the age where nobody was attaching moral stigma to having sex, there really wasn’t that pain and regret, even for the choices I can look back on and say that I shouldn’t have made. I can think back on some of those “whoops” decisions with some mild regret, but it’s really not a big deal, and because I was careful, it has had essentially zero impact on my ability to live a happy and successful life. When I think back on the real regrets of my life, absolutely none of them had to do with sleeping with someone I wasn’t married to. Once I kissed someone when I was supposed to be manogamous with someone else, and I regret that infinitely more than anyone I slept with when I wasn’t betraying anyone. It’s not the sex that carries the regret, it’s the circumstances. These are important values to teach — don’t cheat on anyone, don’t betray people’s trust, don’t do anything you’re not personally comfortable with, be strong enough to say no — great stuff. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

  16. “keep in mind that I don’t have to prove or accept that the sexual revolution is the only driver in order to say that it has had a big effect.”

    I had a bunch of other examples in my earlier comment. Let’s try again maybe.

  17. At the same time, we went from a world where a woman who wanted a divorce basically had to give up her children (who belonged to the head of the household) and live a life a scorn and shame, to a world where that’s just not the case. This means that a woman who no longer wants to be in her marriage can go ahead and not be in that marriage, whereas that used to be essentially impossible. In my view, a high divorce rate is much preferable to a system which financially, socially, and emotionally entraps women in marriages even if they don’t want to be in them. I’d also say that this would still be the case even if the sexual revolution hadn’t coincided with the legalization of birth control.

  18. Holy hell. This system really doesn’t want me to tell you that birth control allowed women to go to work, and that meant women weren’t financially dependent on their husbands.

  19. Also keep in mind that I don’t advocate a return to the status quo ante. I think that there were better ways to have brought about change which would have led to less social upheaval and more net positives for women.

  20. I can believe that, CStanley. I just think that sex is a big ol red herring in a lot of these debates. Sex in and of itself can be a wonderful positive thing in women’s lives, when treated with the respect and joy it deserves. Take away the consequences and the shame, and you’ve just got an excellent physically-satisfying way to show love and affection. It doesn’t have to be some big scary shameful thing, it doesn’t have to follow anyone around forever, it doesn’t have to have horrible consequences, and on the other hand it doesn’t have to be strictly a holy thing only experienced by married people for the purpose of creating new life.

  21. Great job you two. Gives a person hope.

  22. jDave, I agree it’s been a good discussion. Also, for a bad Catholic, you held your weight pretty well in defense of the Church and it’s values. :)

  23. Roro,
    Where I differ from your opinion there is that the degree to which we’ve removed consequences IMO has made it less likely for a lot of women to enjoy sex that is in the context of love and respect. And although I think shame was inappropriate, I do think teaching restraint as a value for men and women is important, in part because not doing this leads to the pendulum swing where prudishness is stigmatized. For teenagers now I find that it’s much harder for girls to feel empowered to say no because as soon as they’re in a relationship sex is expected. I don’t know if you are around teens much but I feel there’s been a huge change since I was a kid, probably because we’re now seeing the third generation and the older values are losing traction.

    Of course I will also point out that a huge reason that the more traditional values have been cast aside is that the older generations failed to live by them. In that sense, what people were experiencing was the worst of both worlds where a lot of marriages were miserable and people weren’t very faithful but other than economic security and family stability people weren’t feeling they were getting much out of it (they were made to feel guilty for breaking the rules but living by the rules was joyless.) so I’m not saying that all of the negative changes are the fault of the nasty hippies or anything.:)

  24. Thx CS, it’s great seeing you around and your fine work.

    roro and I had another excellent discussion a little while ago. I respect her a lot.

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