Christian teachings on contraception and birth control - a contentious subject particularly in the Catholic Church and in countries with high incidence of HIV.
Last updated 2009-08-03
Christian teachings on contraception and birth control - a contentious subject particularly in the Catholic Church and in countries with high incidence of HIV.
Christian ideas about contraception come from church teachings rather than scripture, as the Bible has little to say about the subject. As a result, their teachings on birth control are often based on different Christian interpretations of the meaning of marriage, sex and the family.
Christian acceptance of contraception is relatively new; all churches disapproved of artificial contraception until the start of the 20th century.
In modern times different Christian churches hold different views about the rightness and wrongness of using birth control.
Liberal Protestant churches often teach that it is acceptable to use birth control, as long as it is not used to encourage or permit promiscuous behaviour.
Less liberal churches only approve the use of contraception for people who are married to each other.
Since these churches regard sex outside marriage as morally wrong (or if not wrong, as less than good), they believe that abstaining from sex would be morally better than having sex and using birth control.
More conservative churches suggest that contraception should be limited to married couples who are using it to regulate the size and spacing of their family. They often teach that using contraception to prevent children altogether is not desirable.
The Roman Catholic Church only allows 'natural' birth control, by which it means only having sex during the infertile period of a woman's monthly cycle. Artificial methods of contraception are banned.
Thus the only way for a Catholic couple to be faithful to the Church's teachings on human sexuality and to avoid having children is to use 'natural' family planning. Many Catholics have decided to disobey church teaching in this part of their lives, causing a substantial breach between laity and the Church establishment.
For most of the last 2000 years all Christian churches have been against artificial birth control.
In the first centuries of Christianity, contraception (and abortion) were regarded as wrong because they were associated with paganism or with heretics such as the Gnostics, the Manichees and, in the middle ages, the Cathars.
Protestant attitudes to birth control began to change in the 19th century as theologians became more willing to accept that morality should come from the conscience of each individual rather than from outside teachings.
Another influence was the churches' changing attitude to sex.
Instead of seeing sex as something rather dangerous, many Christians began to regard sex as one of God's great gifts. Sex was a force that could preserve the institution of marriage if couples didn't feel threatened by the possibility of having children they could not support.
Influenced by this, the Protestant churches concluded that as the use of birth control often led to stronger families and better marriages, churches should let believers use birth control as their own consciences dictated.
This change came slowly - as late as 1908 the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church stated that birth control "cannot be spoken of without repugnance," and denounced it as "demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare."
But the Anglicans were the first church to issue a statement in favour of contraception, which they did at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 by a majority of 193 to 67. A group of American Protestants followed in 1931.
Nowadays most Protestant denominations permit artificial birth control to some extent.
The history of modern Roman Catholic thinking on the subject is dealt with in the Roman Catholic pages.
Two parts of the Bible are often quoted to show God's disapproval of birth control:
The first of these examples is normally rebutted by demonstrating that contraception has not prevented human beings from being fruitful and multiplying.
There are at least two interpretations of the second example:
The Bible never explicitly approves of contraception.
However, there are a number of passages where the Bible appears to accept that sex should be enjoyed for other reasons than the production of children, and some people argue that this implies that no wrong is done if a couple have sex with the intention of not having children.
The Church of England approves the use of contraception.
It wasn't always so - as late as 1908 the Lambeth Conference stated:
the Conference records with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare.
Lambeth Conference, 1908
By 1930 the Lambeth Conference had changed its mind and declared that if there was an ethically acceptable reason not to have children and to continue to have sex then:
the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of Christian principles.
Lambeth Conference, 1930
By 1958 the Anglicans had concluded that God wanted the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children to be something for the consciences of the potential parents, and that they could manage their family and fertility "in such ways as are acceptable to husband and wife".
The Church forbids sex outside marriage, so its teachings about birth control should be understood in the context of husband and wife.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that using contraception is "intrinsically evil" in itself, regardless of the consequences. Catholics are only permitted to use natural methods of birth control.
But the Church does not condemn things like the pill or condoms in themselves. What is morally wrong is using such things with the intention of preventing conception. Using them for other purposes is fine - for example, using the pill to regulate the periods of a woman who is not in a sexual relationship is not wrong.
The Church teaches that using artificial contraception is wrong because:
This is one of the most controversial areas of the Church's moral teachings; partly because birth control is now accepted in most of the West, but also because the philosophical and theological ideas behind the ban are hard to understand.
As a result, many Roman Catholics see the ban as arbitrary and unreasonable, but in fact the ban is based on a thorough analysis of the issues involved.
Catholic objections to artificial contraception are partly based on 'natural law' and partly on the bad consequences that will result if contraception is widely used.
But Catholic policy on birth control is also derived from the way the Church views the nature of marital sexuality and responsible parenthood. The Church teaches that the physical expression of love between husband and wife in sexual intercourse can't be separated from the reproductive implications of both the act and marriage.
Sex is seen as intimately involved in God's design for the universe, and as something profoundly important that involves a person's mind and spirit as well as their body.
The Catholic Church does not see any point in putting forward the various arguments that show the benefits of contraception to individuals or to the world. Pope Paul VI put it like this: "It is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it."
A 2008 study suggests that most practising Catholics are ignoring the Church's teachings on contraception and sex.
The Tablet magazine surveyed 1,500 Mass-goers in England and Wales; 40 years after Pope Paul VI forbade birth control use in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).
82% of people are familiar with the Church's moral teachings but more than half of 18-45 year olds still cohabited before marriage. The contraceptive pill is used by 54.5% and nearly 69% had used or would consider using condoms.
The survey also found that more than half think that the teaching should be revised.
The modern attitude of the Catholic Church to contraception was laid down in the 1930s when Pope Pius XI issued Casti Connubii (which translates as 'Of Chaste Marriage').
This document said that artificial birth control was a violation of the "law of God and nature" and that those who used it committed "a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."
In 1951 Pope Pius XII said that it was acceptable to use the rhythm method if a couple had a good reason to limit the size of their family.
In 1958 Pius XII stated that it was legitimate for women to take the birth control pill for medical reasons other than contraception. He said that the contraceptive side effect would not be wrong because of the doctrine of double effect.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, which banned all artificial methods of birth control. His uncompromising position on birth control led to protests around the Catholic world and Roman Catholic hierarchies in some countries openly modified the policy.
The document surprised many Catholics, who had hoped for a relaxation of the traditional attitude after Vatican II, and it rejected the views of the commission appointed to consider birth control, which had recommended that the ban on contraception be ended.
Pope John Paul II thought birth control was profoundly important; while still Cardinal Wojtyla he wrote that the issue of contraception was a "struggle for the value and meaning of humanity itself" (1978).
When he became Pope he confirmed the Church's position, "the natural regulation of fertility is morally correct; contraception is not morally correct."
'Natural family planning' involves using self-control to regulate sexual activities in harmony with nature. The natural methods of family planning are:
Natural family planning methods are quite hard work. The couple must measure and chart certain physical symptoms with accuracy, and then interpret the charts properly, keeping in mind other events that may interfere with the woman's normal bodily rhythm. They also need the self-discipline to regulate their sex life accordingly.
Natural family planning is not unethical or disobedient to God because:
Natural family planning alone does not satisfy Catholic teaching about birth control; motivation and purpose are also important.
Family planning must be used responsibly and not for trivial reasons. So while it would be good to use family planning to space out a family's children, it would be wrong to use family planning because a couple would rather spend their money on a new car than caring for a child.
A lot of Roman Catholic moral reasoning is based on the idea of natural law - not just sexual ethics.
Natural law is a way of describing the basic moral code that comes to mind when human beings think seriously about ethical issues. To Catholics, natural law amounts to the way God wants the universe to work.
Don't get confused and think there is a direct connection between 'natural law' and 'natural family planning' or between 'natural law' and 'unnatural sexual practices'. Natural law is a technical theological and philosophical doctrine.
Pope Pius XI objected to contraception as breaking natural law:
No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything which is intrinsically against nature may become comformable with nature and morally good.
Since, therefore, the conjugal act is designed primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purposely sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.
Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii
Paul VI also used the natural law argument, emphasising the:
inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.
Pope Paul VI
Closely related to the Natural Law argument, but not quite the same, is the argument that procreation is "a fundamental human good," and any voluntary action that frustrates its intent is intrinsically evil.
The Catholic Church teaches that there is an inseparable connection between sexual intercourse and conceiving children, and that it is wrong for human beings to use artificial methods to break this connection.
Church documents speak of the connection between the "unitive significance" and the "procreative significance" of sexual intercourse.
There has been much argument about this in the Church. Here are some of the points that have been made:
This question was asked by members of the commission which investigated birth control at the request of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.
The majority of that commission thought that though marriage as a whole should be open to new life, every single sexual act did not need to be.
They thought that it would be better for sexual acts using contraception to be ethically assessed in the light of the state of the marriage as a whole, and the motivation and approach of the couple concerned.
Looking at it that way, the union in one flesh of husband and wife is formed over the whole period of the marriage, and so only if the partners of a marriage intended never to have children would they be failing to connect the procreative and unitive significance of sex.
The meaning of "artificial contraception" in Papal condemnations is not quite what it seems, and does not just refer to the method of birth control.
The basic idea is that everything in the universe has been created by God with a particular end in mind. Human beings follow natural law when their actions are in line with this 'natural' end.
God is said to have created sexual intercourse for two purposes; both of which must be fulfilled if the act is to achieve God's intention:
If a couple have sex with artificial birth control they do two wrong things:
Their action is therefore unethical and against God's plan.
In contrast, natural family planning is not unethical or disobedient to God.
Catholic teaching says that using artificial contraception changes the nature of the sexual act. At first sight this seems odd, but to Catholic theologians the effect is quite clear.
Compare a couple who have sex when the wife is on the pill, and a couple who have sex during the infertile period. There seems to be no difference whatsoever between the acts performed by each couple.
And there doesn't seem to be any difference in the mental background either - both couples are having sex with the intention of not getting pregnant.
But theologians say that there really is a difference:
And according to Church teaching that different kind of act is a wrong act - it's often described as a non-marital act, and as such it undermines the whole idea of Christian marriage.
Sexual intercourse using contraception is said not to satisfy the uniting purpose of sex. The physical or chemical barrier of contraception is said to create a spiritual barrier between the partners.
This sounds odd and needs a step-by-step explanation:
Because the Church believes that a human being can "only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself" (from Gaudium et Spes), and a couple using artificial contraception are not giving each other the sincere gift of themselves.
To Catholic theologians there is a clear analogy with Christ's giving his life on the Cross to save humanity, which is regarded as the ultimate and full gift. As Christ held nothing back, nor should a married couple hold anything back.
Pope Paul VI pointed out four bad consequences for humanity that would result if artificial contraception were permitted.
Some Catholics think the Church's stand on contraception should be changed. Among their reasons are:
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