Catholics Do What?,  Contraception

Contraception and the Catholic Church: {part 1} the Historical Precedent

As promised, this week I’m focusing on the Church’s teaching on contraception: the whys, whens, and hows of it, and (hopefully!) providing a good framework for discussion between couples, curious (or hostile) family members, and the occasional stranger with raised eyebrows in the checkout line.

Today’s topic? Some of the historical background on the practice of contraception, and what the Catholic Church’s response has been as the world around her has embraced the practice with open arms.

Throughout the history of Christianity the practice of contraception was uniformly condemned by every single denomination until the early 1920’s. Even Freud and Ghandi, no staunch advocates of Christianity, opposed the practice, identified it as a sexual disorder and a symptom of a deeper societal illness. Check these out:

“The abandonment of the reproductive function is the common feature of all perversions. We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it.” – Sigmund Freud

“A society that has already become enervated through a variety of causes will still become further enervated by the adoption of artificial [birth control] methods …. As it is, man has sufficiently degraded women for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well-meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her.” – Ghandi

Kind of crazy, right? To hear that intensity of condemnation for something which has become such a widely-accepted and even lauded practice, coming from secular and non-Christian voices?

Here’s a final quote that might be more surprising than the first two combined:

“This [contraception] is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed.” – Martin Luther

So after 1,900 some-odd years of unified condemnation of the practice, the Anglican Church became the first to cave, but initially it was only for grave circumstances and for married couples, decided on a case-by-case basis, a kind of “less of two evils” concession – but pandora’s box was opened.

Within the next 5 decades, every single Christian denomination, save for one, would make acceptions for contraception – timidly and with many stipulations at first, but eventually with enthusiasm, and even endorsement, issuing in a growing theological development in the Protestant world of the idea of “stewardship” and “being free to do God’s will and better serve His church” if one wasn’t burdened by so many children.

With the development of the hormonal birth control pill in the 1960’s a massive cultural change was about to take place, and the momentum behind it was unbelievable. Many Catholics – including some priests and bishops – thought the Church might reverse her stance on birth control

Then Humane Vitae dropped. And drop it did, like a bomb on a culture on the cusp of the Sexual Revolution. And it was not entirely well received, to put it mildly.

But the Church stood firm as she always has, and now nearly 50 years later, she’s become the lone voice of any real influence continuing to stand in opposition to contraception.

And here’s why

First of all, as with any hard teaching of Christ, the real hardness lies in our hearts struggling to accept God’s will while putting aside our own.

It hurts to die to self. And He doesn’t ask us to do it lightly.

Remember, every hard thing the Church teaches, whether on the indissolubility of marriage, the sanctity of human life, embryonic stem cell research, assisted reproductive technology, euthanasia…She teaches out of love and concern for her children – for both their bodies and souls.

The ban on contraception has nothing to do with withholding some pleasure or rejecting some good thing.

The Catholic Church is not anti science or anti technology – but she is pro life and pro love.

And contraception is the enemy of both life and of love.

Holy Mother Church isn’t dangling the forbidden fruit of contraception over our heads while taunting us with visions of 12-passenger vans and arduous years of practicing NFP.

It is for the sake of our health and our wholeness, body and soul, and for the health and the longevity of our marriages that she sees contraception for what it truly is: a poison to marital love and a license for heartache and mutual use.

And so she throws an arm across us like a mom in a mini van coming to a hard stop and yeah, maybe it makes us wince a little from the force of it, but her one aim is our safety, our wellbeing, our lives…both here in this life, and in eternity.

Tune in tomorrow when we’ll ask the next logical question: What’s wrong with contraception in the first place?

contraception and the catholic church


  • Chrysten Copley

    Fantastic article! Looking forward to the following posts. One other remarkable voice that was against the pill – Bob Marley. According to his then girlfriend, Esther Anderson, Marley despised the pill and wrote “I Shot The Sheriff” about the doctor prescribing the pill to his girlfriend:

    Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
    For what, I don’t know:
    Every time I plant a seed,
    He said kill it before it grow –
    He said kill them before they grow.

    She included this story in her documentary film “Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend.” While Bob Marley isn’t exactly my spiritual guide, it is amazing how quickly a collective conscience can become numb.

  • Beth

    I loved this post and am looking forward to the others to come. I plan on sharing this information with my family, including four teenagers. These are wonderful, true, loving teachings!

  • Erin

    Fascinating stuff. You are a gifted teacher and a spiritual warrior, Jenny, and I so look forward to your posts on Catholic teaching. Thanks!

  • Caroline

    Well written. I wish our priests would talk about this. During their homilies. More often. But they don’t. Why?

    • Ellen

      I love the wisdom of our church, but I think that there are other, better venues for this particular teaching than Sunday mass. Having more adult faith formation, for one, as my parish does, is a great place to have not just a 10 minute teaching, but really get into these topics and develop relationships in which discernment can happen.

      • Caroline

        I DO think the homily is a good place for it, in this day and age. At least as a starting point. I think so many priests are too cautious and do not want to rock the boat in these placid waters. It is a great opportunity to bring up the subject, and remind -or teach- people who do not know the Church’s teachings on the matter, rather than having some extra sessions listed in the bulletin that maybe some people, or not, will bother attending. It should at least be taught, with emphasis, to teenagers during their faith formation, not sure if it is. My children are still young yet.

      • Jenny Uebbing

        Great point. I think it can be both/and, but it ought to start somewhere, and be gradually ramped up as the parish is ready and disposed to hear it.
        At our parish they’re running some adult faith formation this summer specifically tailored to the “hard topics” in the Church’s teaching, and the talk I prepared for that venue is where this series comes from.

      • Dave

        I think the homily is a perfect place to talk about it. There are many things the priest has to teach his flock about, but one of them surely must be to warn people away from the most common sins of the day.

    • Deacon Thomas A. Pereira

      Very seldom, yes very seldom homily is delivered on this subject . Don’t know whether the Catholic clergy feel this topic is “TABOO” or they are not confident or what?

      • Jenny Uebbing

        I think it’s both/and: a lack of formation for the laity and the clergy, and every one of us being a product of the contraception-loving culture we’ve been raised in. There’s also an awful lot of fear at offending/alienating/driving away butts in the seats, I’m sure. A parish which has a high percentage of parishioners actively contracepting would be wise to ease into a gradual, escalating instruction in this area that begins with baby food and progresses to the harder truths as the people are ready for it. I guess the problem is, you have to actually start doing it, at some point. I’ve definitely been in parishes where the homilies were intentionally banal and unchallenging and the spirituality and dynamic of the parish was very reflective of that. People don’t grow when they’re not properly fed and challenged, but they need a holy pastor willing to lead them.

  • Gigi

    I’m so so so happy you’re writing about this. I’m a 22-year-old, due to be engaged any day (the Lord really wants me to grow in the virtue of patience…I’m doing my best) and the idea of NFP is something that my bf and I talked about during one of our many (wonderful) conversations regarding the Church. Since we’ll be getting married in about a year I need to start charting in about 6 months but I’m just taking in as much information as I can right now. I’ll never be able to thank you enough!!!!!! Please pray for me as I (patiently) await this exciting moment in our lives! I’ll keep you updated!! God Bless you!!!!!

    • Kathryn

      Congratulations, Gigi! As a newlywed (married 13mos) I would suggest DON’T WAIT to start charting! The more data you have the better. The first few months can be confusing as you get into the routine of charting, interpreting your signs (as your chosen method requires), and finding patterns. The more data you are armed with, the more prepared you will feel when you’re practicing NFP as a married woman. I started charting over a year before our wedding and I am so happy that I did!

      Prayers for you and your future hubs as your start out your marriage open to life & God’s plan for your family. There is truly nothing better!

  • Lee

    Arduous years of practicing NFP is a *perfect* quote. It’s a cross Can’t tell you how many solid Catholics think NFP is contraception and have no problems telling me in front of my child. Fight the Good Fight, friend!

  • chrissy

    These days I just feel like I don’t want to be pregnant and have more babies. I love the ones I have with all my heart. I still can’t come to grips with actively doing something I don’t want to do. Like obviously I am prolife and will love thee babies that come my way…..I just don’t really actively want anymore. How do I deal with this? Advice? I am feeling resentful about the situation

    • Donjohn

      I could be wrong but I have not read that the use of contraception is a sin. It’s just not sanctioned. I’m sure the church has no problem with preventing disease, so the use of condoms for that purpose should not be a problem.

      • Jenny Uebbing

        Try reading Casti connubii or Humanae Vitae, or St. JPII’s Theology of the Body or Wojtyla’s “Love and Responsibility.” See also Benedict’s commentary on condoms re: Africa. Definitely officially condemned and definitely a sin.

      • bb

        DonJohn, The Catholic Church DOES prohibit the use of contraception. Read:
        Catechism of the Catholic Church 2363, 2366, 2399, 2370. Ignore the lies the devil whispers in your ear that contraception is not evil. It is. And it will not improve your marriage. You will not magically get to have fabulous sex whenever you desire it. Marriage is still hard and the contraception just blocks the natural process as God designed it. It builds a wall between spouses and between them and God.

        • Donjohn

          Interesting. One of the commentators, Jenny Uebbing, was kind enough to post a link to what Pope Benedict said about condoms. “he conceded that they could be used “”in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”” Although Jenny interpreted the article to mean it’s a sin, I did not get that meaning after reading it.

          The spirit in which I responded to Chrissy was in the context of Holy Matrimony. If the intention of sex between a husband and wife is not to spread infection and has nothing to do with contraception, then Pope Benedict’s statement could apply.

          I never meant to imply that condoms or any contraception was accepted by the church or that promiscuous sex itself should be accepted.

          • Jenny Uebbing

            Ah, I see. Well Pope Benedict’s remarks that were made so much of re: condoms were a rather nuanced theological interpretation of the holy father’s to indicate that someone (in this case, male prostitutes infected with HIV) was on the “path to conversion,” and so in this case using a condom to prevent the transmission of the disease during a sexual encounter with a client would be a step in the right direction. Not an objective good on the part of the user, but less degraded than the combination of paid promiscuous sex as a prostitute + HIV exposure. So the condom would be a concession in this case, a kind of acceptance of the lesser evil of the disordered sexual relationship minus the horror of HIV transmission.

            Of course, if the sexual relationship was healthy and holy, it would involve not two gay male prostitutes, but a married couple, and in the case of a life-devastating illness like HIV, the greatest good would of course be abstinence. I can’t imagine risking exposing my husband to HIV, condom or not, and the truly loving reflex would be lifelong abstinence. So for the example Pope Benedict used, yes, a condom is a lesser of two evils and a concession to a softening conscience in a hardened sinner. But still not an objective good in and of itself.

          • Donjohn

            I don’t wish to mean for people to read too much into my comments. I’m not commenting on homosexual sex or promiscuous sex, which are a much bigger issue than condom use.

            If a husband and wife wish to have sex and they wish to reduce possible infection from anything, not just HIV, then as a medical instrument for this end, condoms are allowed since they are not being used as a contraception.

            Similar arguments can be made for contraceptive hormone treatments to treat medical conditions. They are not being used as contraception.

            When it comes to married couples, I guess it comes down to intent.

          • joseph e.

            Should be careful that we are not trying to force words to say your mind.

            BXVI was conceding that for a person who, already living in debauchery, exercising his concern of transmitting disease by using a condom had a moralizing element to it. It should be noted that this debauchery was set in a homosexual context where the possibility of conception is non-existent. This was simply an academic exercise and was meant in no way to be instructions on the use of condoms and should be understood with some uneasiness.

          • Donjohn

            Are you saying that a spousal couple are directed by church doctrine to transmit diseases to eachother because it’s not a homosexual setting?

    • bb

      Hang in there, Chrissy! Simcha Fisher has a great book “A Sinners Guide to NFP.” It’s funny and real. NFP can be so hard and awful. But as she says (quoting St Peter) “where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” NFP is the only option that will lead us to God. It’s a cross…especially after child #4, #5, #6…. But the alternatives are horrible and will NOT help your marriage. Hang in there and God bless you for fighting the good fight.

    • Jerry Rhino

      The following quote (26), from the Winnipeg bishop’s conference, has never been addressed by any pope since it was published. De fide divina et catolica implies a catholic, or universal view (including Canada).

      26. Counsellors may meet others who, accepting the teaching of the Holy Father, find that because of particular circumstances they are involved in what seems to them a clear conflict of duties, e.g., the reconciling of conjugal love and responsible parenthood with the education of children already born or with the health of the mother. I accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assure that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.

      Gaudium et Spes, one of the sixteen documents of Vatican II, states: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”

      • Jenny Uebbing

        interesting excerpt, but definitely does not carry the teaching authority of the Magisterium, so therefore can’t be held up as a universal teaching of the Church.

        And Gaudium et Spes makes frequent reference to the necessity of conscience being properly formed, i.e. in accord with natural law and the Magisterium, in order to be the best possible help to the individual owner.

        • M. E. Rade

          The catechism teaches that the conscience is the vicar of Christ on earth. One must always follow their developed conscience…even if it contradicts Chuech teaching! Look it up. Also, NFP is contraception. The church allows it because it is natural not artificial. It is interesting that the church allows so many others procedures that are artifical that we can do to our bodies, but not contraception. (Might be some interteresting research in there for you.) Also, you might want to dig deeper into Church history than just JPII and Benedict. Humane Vitae speaks to the conscience of the couple, it states each couple must decide what is right for their family. I find your interpretations very “letter of the law” and I’m not sure that was how they were intended to be interpreted.

          • Jenny Uebbing

            I think you may be confused about who the Vicar of Christ on earth is.

            Not going to touch the “NFP is contraception” conflation, I think you need to do some more research on that yourself.

            I will say one more time, contraception is not forbidden because it is “artificial,” it’s forbidden because it’s damaging to the marital relationship and to the persons involved, and because it devalues and denigrates the sexual relationship. And the Church didn’t “discover” the wrongness of contraception (as the Ghandi and Frued and Luther quotes helpfully support), rather, she points to natural law and confirms that yes, this is bad for you, this will hurt you, and it’s wrong.

          • Patrick Coffin

            M.E. Made: You have reflected the most common misunderstanding both of the Church’s teaching, I’m afraid, about conscience and about NFP being “natural” contraceptive, and contraception being “artificially” so. This is incorrect. The classic biblical text, cited by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930), is Genesis 38:1-11, in which the birth control practiced by Onan had nothing artificial about it. He “spilled his seed upon the ground.” No rubber barrier, no chemical concoction, IUD, jelly, etc. But as acts go, it was still — objectively — mortally sinful. What makes an act contraceptive is the will to deliberately prevent the coming to be of a new human person. I get into all these objections to HV and more in Sex Au Naturel.

      • Jeff Tan

        Judging solely from this excerpt from the Winnipeg conference, I actually don’t see it addressing Humanae Vitae. It simply puts conscience in as the final defence, which goes without saying, so what is there to address?

        • Jerry Rhino

          According to Wikipedia, “The Winnipeg Statement is the Canadian Bishops’ Statement on the Encyclical Humanae vitae from a Plenary Assembly held at Saint Boniface in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Published on September 27, 1968, it is the Canadian Bishop’s controversial document about Pope Paul VI’s July 1968 encyclical on human life and the regulation of birth.” Jan, if you would review the statement in its entirety, I would like to read your comments.

    • Jenna

      Chrissy, after baby #3 I started practicing Marquette Model and it’s been life changing. Here is their website and there is a Facebook support group that is even more helpful. Prayers for you during this hard time!

  • Dennis D

    I wish our priests would talk about this. During their homilies. More often. But they don’t. Why?

    Why? Because catholic feminists believe that no man has a right to preach to women about contraception and 85% of all priests in the US have been cowed by them–or agree with them outright. Also pastors and bishops don’t like to bring up topics that upset those who give $$$ generously to the Church as long as it doesn’t challenge their personal world view/practices.

      • Jenny Uebbing

        My role as a woman in the Church, which I’m perfectly confident in, is to instruct and teach in a non-liturgical setting, whether that be in my own home, at the university level, advising on a pontifical council, in catechetical instruction, etc. Or heck, even just via social media. Just because it’s not within the context of a liturgical celebration doesn’t mean it’s not effective or important. That’s kind of a tired line of feminist complaint from the 70’s, equating only liturgical service with respect and importance within the Church. I’ve got no problem with the role of priest and deacon being masculine, until and unless the Church says otherwise. Equal dignity doesn’t necessitate identical roles for the sexes.

      • chrisr

        Women don’t get pregnant without men. Men may not have to carry the child but they do have to carry their wives and their families through each pregnancy. I’m sure priests suffer labor pains trying to nurture and give birth to the spiritual growth of their flock. I believe it’s completely appropriate for the priest to discuss this topic. Because ultimately this topic is about the love and sacrifices made by all, male and female, clergy or lay. It is the Christian experience.

        • Donjohn

          Well, I didn’t mean to say that the priest shouldn’t address it or that it would be inappropriate if he did. It just works better and it’s less of a feminist issue if it also came from the mouth of a woman.

  • Cami

    Really well done! Love the quotes. It really gives a perspective on how common cultural thinking has shifted. Sharing this! Keep ‘Em coming!

  • Theresa

    I don’t think you are alone in this phase. I clearly remember going through the same thoughts and emotions with guilt, confusion, even anger with God sometimes. I am a cradle Catholic who always practiced my faith and believed in the Church teaching; however, I was not always an obedient Catholic. Even though I carried 6 children to term and like you say I love them completely, I occasionally took steps I should not have to prevent their conceptions. Thank God they made it through those artificial barriers. When I took NFP seriously is when I successfully avoided pregnancy during the times it was necessary. I do not believe that God wants us to breed indiscriminately. The Church follows natural law and so does NFP but back to the point. I too dreaded getting pregnant for a few years between pregnancies. Looking back on it now, my spiritual life was not as strong as it could have been but even when it was I can tell you that I think its natural when we are younger and our children are younger, we are tired and more body conscious etc. to feel the burden. Many things in life can feel like burdens at certain points because they are difficult. We pray and persevere and the burden lessens and/or disappears eventually because ‘ this too shall pass’. I will advise you what you have probably heard a thousand fold- pray – in prayer I mean actually dialoque with the Lord and tell him exactly what you are writing. When I do that His answers seem clearer. Time will reveal and reward if that makes sense. Above all trust me this too shall pass…and you will recieve the graces to trust in God’s will, and the burden will lift to allow you to willingly follow His will and to seek His will without fear that you may not want what He does, if that makes sense. 🙂 Never beat yourself up or feel guilt for feeling this way this way because you feel this way for a reason. That is for you to discern with God. With prayer and frequent use of the sacraments you will hear His still small voice.

  • Michael Petek

    The evil of contraception is rooted in the malice it shares with the sin of homicide, which is the desire that another person shall not live.

  • ElsieArsie

    A beautiful article. I, too, look forward to the next. One correction, however. The article implies the Church is a denomination. She is not.

    Thank you, Jenny.

  • Donjohn

    It would be good if you could define exactly what contraception is and if it can be used for non contraceptive reasons, like medical reasons. There’s a lot of confusion there

    Does the church consider it’s use a sin, or is this just a directive or church opinion? Saying something is bad doesn’t make it a crime.

  • Kaylee

    Loved this. As a young Catholic actively practicing and struggling (because its not always the easiest option) with NFP this gives me even more information to explain why my husband and I have chosen to walk this path. Many friends don’t understand, and I love having solid facts to explain why we are called to not use contraceptives of ANY kind. Looking forward to following your future conversations on this topic! 🙂

  • Laura

    I have a question. This is truly just because I don’t know the answer, not to be argumentative. If sex is only supposed to be for times when starting a new life is a possibility, does this mean pregnant women or women who have reached menopause should not be having sex?

    • Jenny Uebbing

      no, that’s a great question. Sex is always inherently procreative in a meta sense (maybe I just used that term wrong?) but, in the case of a post menopausal woman, a woman in phase 1 or 3 of her monthly cycle, a pregnant woman, a couple stricken by profound infertility – in none of these cases has anything been intentionally done to separate the procreative from the unitive aspect.

      That’s what we mean by identifying God as the designer and the ultimate authority on whether and when a new life does come into being. Even in the best of conditions and with ideal timing, we can’t guarantee conception even in the case of a healthy, ovulating couple. So there’s definitely something of a mystery to human fertility. But no, for a woman who isn’t having a regular cycle, either because she’s pregnant or ill or past childbearing age, none of those factors are within her control, and so there is noting “contraceptive” about sex in those instances. I hope that makes sense?

  • rene

    I know that TIME magazine has put certain articles on this (killer) drug. In an article from almost 50 years, TIME says that the actual inventor for the pill was a Catholic (doctor 0r scientist) who wanted to make a remedy for infertile women so that they could conceive by tricking their system (now said to be false banner for their research by PBS)….and it actually prolonged infertility making it the pill and then he met Margaret Sanger who a fugitive from Obscenity laws enacted by US Congress and state laws that prohibited these unnatural and anti-life, marriage laws.
    You may have to search TIME search engine or something. And some doctor just passed away from Cancer who developed such homicidal drug. God have mercy on his soul. Remember this was meant for racial genocide contrary to Church teaching and laws in books then.

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