HUMANAE VITAE AFTER 45 YEARS (Part 1: How We Got Here)

Humanae Vitae was promulgated 45 years ago this week by Pope Paul VI. Without a doubt if has become the most controversial Catholic document of our time. Reaction to this encyclical has amounted to an open revolt on a scale unseen since the Reformation. The Church has been ridiculed and derided for its position on artificial contraception. She has been accused of being stuck in the middle ages, out of touch with the times, and hostile to women. For all those who cast stones at the Church, few have taken the time to read Humanae Vitae or to understand the reasons behind the Church’s teaching.

Birth control is not new. Egyptian papyruses dating more than 1,500 years before the birth of Christ describe various methods of birth control from using honey, acacia leaves and lint to form a primitive diaphragm-like barrier to utilizing crocodile dung as a spermicide. The ancient Greeks utilized the siliphium plant to concoct a contraceptive potion. It was so popular it was harvested to extinction. Animal skin condemns and other herbal remedies were utilized by various cultures through the ages. In a similar manner, there is a historical trail of consistent Christian teaching against contraception dating from the earliest days of the Church.

Fathers of the Church such as Clement of Alexandria (AD 195) and Hippolytus of Rome (AD 255) condemned the practice. Lactantius (AD 307), a Christian philosopher and apologist, and advisor to Emperor Constantine, instructed couples to use abstinence if they were too poor to have more children rather than resorting to potions.

St. John Chrysostom (AD 391) wrote, “Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility, where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well... Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation.”

Likewise, St. Augustine (AD 419) also harshly condemned the practice of contraception writing, “Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.” The Bishop of Hippo understood the use of contraception to be such an attack on the marital act that he taught that if husbands and wives intentionally engaged in contraceptive sex that “they are not spouses at all”.

Even the later Protestant reformers were unanimous in their condemnation of contraception. Luther considered it “far more atrocious than incest and adultery”. John Calvin called it “a monstrous thing” and likened contraception to murder.

Consider that Christians could not keep in agreement on matters such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist or what books belonged in the bible. We have splintered over papal authority and infallibility. We haven’t even been able to maintain agreement over how man is saved. Yet somehow, for nearly 2,000 years all of Christianity was able to maintain consistent agreement over the immorality of contraception until only 80 years ago.

In the early 20th century Margaret Sanger and her associates, backed financially by the likes of the Rockefeller family and other wealthy progressives, dedicated themselves to changing public opinion and established anti-contraception laws both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Utilizing civil disobedience, public debates, and persistent political campaigning they succeeded in their mission of shifting the culture in the direction of accepting birth control—a term Sanger is credited with coining. One of their most powerful tools was the practice of using isolated, extreme examples of hardship caused by not having access to contraception. Doing so allowed them to claim a moral high ground while framing their opponents as heartless, cold, and uncaring. This is a tactic still in use today by those pushing the limits of cultural mores.

Similar tactics were employed within the ranks of the Anglican Church in England. During the 1920 Lambeth Conference, a decennial assembly of the Anglican leadership, the issue of possible moral uses of birth control for married couples was brought up and soundly defeated. In only ten years that position would come under fire again. At the 1930 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion was swayed by heart rending stories of children and families suffering in extreme poverty and women running the risk of death as the result of complicated pregnancies. Breaking with over 1,900 years of tradition, they decided to allow married couples to practice birth control under serious circumstances. The dam had cracked and the flood waters were soon to follow as one by one other denominations began to follow suit in shifting their moral position on contraception.

In December 1930 Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii, On Christian Marriage, as a direct response to the actions of the Anglicans at Lambeth. Referring to contraception as a “criminal abuse” and a “deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious”, Pope Pius could not have been more direct or forceful in his reiteration of longstanding Christian teaching on the immorality of contraception:

“Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (#56, emphasis added)

With the advent of the Pill as an approved oral contraception in 1960, new questions arose regarding the morality of contraception. Specifically, many honestly wondered if this new method of birth control, so different than previous forms, could be interpreted as an acceptable means of regulating births. Pope John XXIII formed a commission to study this question in 1962 on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately, John XXIII did not live to see the final report of the commission on birth control or the conclusion of the Council. Both of those tasks were left to his successor, Paul VI.

Following his election to the papacy, Paul VI expanded the birth control commission to over 50 experts including clerics, theologians, and laity. The commission ended in 1967 and although sworn to secrecy, someone leaked information to the press. Word spread that the commission tendered two reports. The majority report recommended a dramatic reversal in the Church’s position on artificial birth control by declaring that use of artificial contraception was not intrinsically evil and should be left to the conscience of married couples. The minority report encouraged the pontiff to maintain the long held condemnation of contraception, including use of the Pill. As months past after the leaked documents some took the delay—along with the findings of the majority report—as an indication that Paul VI would in deed change course. Many progressive theologians began going on record with such predictions and teaching moral theology in line with the reasoning of the majority report. Many priests, confused about the direction the Church would take, were hesitant to advise engaged and married couples about the morality of birth control for fear that the Vatican would issue a position that conflicted with their direction. 

(Click here for Part 2: A Closer Look)


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