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For a Lady Pope

The Catholic Church’s doctrine on contraception

In order not to go back to St Augustin or St Thomas of Aquin, both of whom condemned contraception, it is probably more prudent to look at the two encyclicals of the 20th century that have treated the subject of contraception within married couples.

L’encyclical Casti connubii

The first encyclical, Casti connubii, (chaste wedlock) was a papal encyclical promulgated by Pope Pius XI on December 31, 1930. The chapter dedicated to contraception was entitled, “The crime of Onan.” It might be useful to reread the article, “The biblical basis for the doctrine on contraception,” also on our website, which explains the interpretation given to the verses in Genesis on the Onan affair, involving an infraction of the Levirate Law (Onan refused to sleep with his sister-in-law, his brother’s widow, in order to avoid giving her any offspring).

The word “crime” is used by Pope XI to stigmatise all forms of contraception. Contraception is described as something “intrinsically wrong”. Even with a legitimate woman, all sexual coupling is seen as illicit and blameworthy if, during the act, means of avoiding conception are used.

By using the term “intrinsically wrong” the Pope is saying that all contraception is malignant and he makes absolutely no exceptions. Very few other acts are defined as being “intrinsically wrong”.

For example, to kill a man is bad and forbidden by the fifth commandment, however it is allowed in cases of legitimate defence. In the same way, stealing something from another person is reprehensible, but can be justified if the thief is dying of hunger.  The use of contraception though is condemned without exception.

This doctrine has been taught in the Church for many centuries. When St Thomas Aquinas named the different sins he already placed the sin of preventing the creation of the next generation just below the sin of murder.

In 1930, several months before the publication of the encyclical, Anglican bishops had, for the very first time, decided to allow the use of contraception in marriage. The Pope wanted to distance himself as much as possible from this direction, which he considered to be both libertine and scandalous. The Vatican, advised by a Jesuit who was almost seventy years old, wasn’t prepared to listen to the world and instead secreted its own moral ideology in opposition to that of other Christian churches.

The encyclical Humanae vitae

In 1968, the famous encyclical, Humanae vitae, by Paul VI was published. The contraceptive pill had been on the market for the last ten years.

The battle within the Vatican had been a hard one. Those for and against the ban on contraceptives confronted each other vehemently. In 1966, the commission set up by Paul VI to examine the problems of contraception recommended the use of artificial contraception, despite being aware that this would be an aberration of the doctrine. This recommendation was noted in a secret report. These prelates were probably not inspired by the same Holy Spirit who had, for centuries, suggested the opposite. Paul VI, influenced by Cardinal Wojtala, the future Jean Paul II, preferred to maintain the secular doctrine and went against the commission, publishing the encyclical.

It wasn’t as easy for Jean Paul II to refer to the punishment of Onan because, based on this postulate, he would logically also have to have prohibited all methods of avoiding pregnancy, including methods such as taking a woman’s temperature to detect when she is infertile. The theologians realised that Onan would also have been punished if, in order to avoid making her pregnant, he had only had full sexual intercourse with his sister-in-law during her infertile periods.

The Pope declared contraception to be against natural law and forbid it vehemently.

Whilst the reflexions on human love expressed in this encyclical have been widely appreciated, the same cannot be said for the outright condemnation of all means of contraception, which separate the sexual act from procreation. This condemnation was written in the same chapter and paragraph as that referring to abortion and even worse, is cited in identical terms: “... we must once again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth”. “Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.

This unhappy but deliberate amalgam has bought discredit on the Church’s teachings, especially as the majority of moral Christians do not follow the Vatican on this point and consider that the use of contraception is a sensible one, allowing couples to have children at an appropriate moment in their lives.

On 24th July 2008, when Pope Benedicte XVI celebrated the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae vitae’s publication, he gave some clear sightedness to the subject. God will not in fact immediately condemn you, if you don’t share all the opinions laid out in the encyclical, as is the case for 95% of Catholics. What a relief. We can finally sleep peacefully in our beds at night.

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