The church vs. contraception: A matter of conscience . . . or control?
by Ken Burrows
For many months now, in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement for employers’ insurance policies to cover contraceptive drugs and services, the Catholic Church has taken vehement exception to this requirement. Churches themselves are exempt from the mandate, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) insists the requirement forces certain Catholic-affiliated entities (e.g., hospitals, universities, social service agencies) to violate their conscience, apparently on the assumption such entities share (or should share) the same religious objection as the church to contraception.
A February 2012 pastoral letter from Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the topic spoke of concern for “the reverence for conscience.” The following month another letter from Cardinal Dolan referred to the right “of any faith to define its own teaching” and the right of every person of faith to not be forced to “violate their conscience.” The April Statement on Religious Liberty issued by the USCCB asserted that religious freedom goes beyond freedom to worship and must also guarantee “respect for freedom of conscience.” The day after the presidential election, Cardinal Dolan wrote a letter to President Obama congratulating him on his victory while also reminding him, “We will continue to stand in defense of … our first, most cherished liberty, religious freedom [emphasis in original],” which presumably also includes, as the USCCB said, freedom of conscience.
So it’s clear that the Catholic hierarchy, in pressing this issue, is claiming a deep and enduring moral certitude in its opposition to contraception. That’s what it means to say something is a matter of conscience. It seems equally clear the church is insisting there is both a personal and an institutional conscience to be safeguarded. For even though the church’s language frequently refers to the contraception mandate violating a person’s conscience, the Affordable Care Act certainly does not mandate any contraception usage by an individual. It merely requires only that contraceptives be made generally available by an institution. Yet this is what the church adamantly opposes, thereby ascribing conscience to the institution as well. One might even interpret that to mean the church believes institutional conscience overrides personal conscience, because the church’s position makes no exception to allow for contraception insurance to be provided to individuals in these institutions whose personal consciences would not be violated by it.
On the basis of claiming this institutional, conscientious opposition to contraception, the church now seeks to withhold contraceptive insurance coverage to persons who live beyond its own congregation walls. That’s an extraordinary contraction of individual freedom for the church to try to impose, so it is fair to ask: Is the church’s position here substantive and genuine enough to warrant that? Just how deeply conscientious is the church’s opposition to contraception? How morally urgent is it? Or to ask it in a more pointed way: Is this opposition more about conscience or about control?
A walk through history serves to confirm these are valid questions to ask.
Old notions of freedom, celibacy, marriage, sex
For the church, contraception is (and has been through history) inextricably bound up with sexual mores in general, and with attitudes toward marriage and procreation, for readily obvious reasons. The church has exhibited conflicted and changing postures on these subjects. For nearly the first 400 years of the church, Christians regarded freedom as a core message of Genesis, by which they mainly meant freedom from demonic powers, freedom from autocratic state powers, and freedom from sexual and other obligations that come into play if and when one marries and has children. Along with this emphasis on “freedom,” the early Christians also brought moral rigor to their beliefs. This combination is one thing that put the early Christians at odds with the Romans, because it represented a challenge to the more pagan and hedonistic practices followed by the state in general. In the eyes of the state, it all added to the rebel character of the Christian sect.
There was a prevailing conviction in many circles of that early church that celibacy, therefore, was a morally higher station to be in than marriage, since it freed the person from what was often viewed as enslavement to sexual passions. St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God, because God intended every person to maintain a state of virginity that was natural at birth. Tertullian, a Christian theologian, called marriage an “obscenity” and a moral crime. Fellow theologian Origen said matrimony is “impure and unholy, a means of sexual passion.” Even Jesus and the apostle Paul are quoted on more than one occasion as saying it was not at all expedient to marry, and celibacy was a preferable state to keep for oneself. (The Council of Trent in the 16th century ruled that anyone saying marriage might be more blessed than celibacy was guilty of heresy and subject to excommunication.)
Universal celibacy was, of course, not only unachievable but also impractical as far as continuance of the human race was concerned. Where the church begrudgingly accepted that marriage (and sex) would happen, it went about defining what was morally acceptable. Clement of Alexandria, a comparative “liberal” Christian teacher in the sense he did not deem all sexuality to be inferior or morally tainted, nonetheless insisted the only moral rationale for intercourse was procreation and that any other use constitutes “injury to nature.” On that basis, he went so far as to morally exclude intercourse with a menstruating, pregnant, infertile, or menopausal wife. The “integrity of the act” became the criterion by which to judge. (Centuries later Thomas Aquinas would even hold that incest was preferable to contraception because it preserved the fertilizing integrity of the act.)
Yet even “morally approved” intercourse sometimes left the church with what would today be considered the most bizarre of attitudes toward the resulting newborn infants. Pope Gregory the Great said babies were born as “the damned fruit of the lust of their parents” and are “the offspring of hell.” Women who died in childbirth were often refused burial in consecrated ground because giving birth was considered demonic until the baby was baptized. Mothers were forced to wait 40 days to be cleansed of the “sin” of motherhood before returning to church with the new baby; 80 days if the offspring were female.
Augustine’s perspectives on “freedom”
Perhaps no one individual contributed more to formulating the church’s positions on these issues than St. Augustine. Scripture and church historian Elaine Pagels said Augustine’s views have survived “far beyond his lifetime … [his] teaching throughout western Christendom has surpassed that of any other church father.” Just what were some of his teachings? For one, Augustine saw in the tales of Genesis not the beginning of a story of human “freedom” as the early Christians defined it but rather a story of human bondage, owed largely to human corruption that he deemed inevitable and universal.
Augustine concluded that the fall in Eden not only caused human mortality but also cost moral freedom, and this irreversibly corrupted the human experience of sexuality. He said in essence that Adam’s sin literally deprived humanity of the freedom to choose not to sin. He went on to profess that humans inevitably contract the disease of sin through the process of conception—he even identified semen as the carrier agent. He made no allowance for the moral innocence of infants. This in turn led to the concept of original sin that endures in the church today.
Augustine argued that sexual desire was spontaneous and uncontrollable, which in his mind confirmed its inherent sinfulness. He further contended that all sex acts not directly aimed at procreation were immoral. From where did Augustine draw these conclusions? One theory is that his inability to control his own sexual impulses and the guilt and self-loathing it provoked in him (as revealed in his Confessions) made him see openness to procreation as a minimally necessary atonement for the sin of sexual intercourse. But in the matter of self-control, he expanded beyond the strictly moral realm. He said man was so corrupted he could not be trusted to govern himself at all, so submission to authority, including even that of the state, was therefore not only acceptable but also preferable. He validated secular power and church authority at once.
The church’s changing status
Historians note Augustine was essentially contemporaneous with Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the official religion in the early 4th century. With that the church’s status in the eyes of the state evolved from one of being a rebellious pariah to one of being the emperor’s co-religionists, having preferential favor. Along with this came no small amount of power and prestige, which may have played a role in how Augustine came to so enthusiastically welcome imposing control over man, both spiritually and temporally.
Augustine effectively repudiated the dual foundation of early Christian faith: the inherent goodness of creation and freedom of the human will. He had his detractors. Julian of Eclanum, the son of one of Augustine’s fellow bishops, was one who dissented from Augustine’s views, contending people are indeed free to choose or not to choose sin and bear moral responsibility, the world is inherently good, and sexual desire itself is innocent. The two debated for over a decade, and after much contention the Catholic Church adopted Augustine’s views over Julian’s. (When the monk Jovinian argued that celibacy was no holier than marriage, the bishop of Rome and Augustine were among those who condemned him as a heretic.) Again, some historians suggest a key reason why Augustine’s beliefs prevailed was that they underscored Church authority—if the human condition is innately diseased and man cannot control his choices, as Augustine contended, then the church becomes the sole means for discipline and cure.
Contraception to the fore
So what do these competing stances and dynamics in the early church have to do with how the same church regards contraception today? Quite a lot, actually, for the spirit of Augustine, and that of some of his ideological colleagues, has been passed on down, leaving its mark in more contemporary times. And just as various leaders in the early church disagreed on key faith tenets, the lack of unanimity also has passed down through the ages in the area of contraception, which has been marked by more conflict, even within the seats of hierarchical power, than the church would lead one to believe.
According to another Scripture and church historian, Garry Wills, criticism of contraception can be found in Christian history from the 3rd century on, but it is “misleading to call this a constant teaching,” with the most consistent attacks based on the argument that the potions used for contraception were tantamount to magic or witchcraft. He said Jews had no prohibition on it in their detailed laws, and classic Greek and Roman cultures accepted contraception as pretty much a non-issue. Wills reports that subsequent campaigns against contraception tended to focus not so much on contraception itself but on some larger struggle such as goodness over evil of the body or the sacrifice of marriage to virginity. Wills states this period is “not the place to look for sanity on these matters,” due to a variety of strange notions put forth. Some of those notions of what was “natural” in sex would persist into the 13th century when Thomas Aquinas would define as sin any sex position where the man was not on top. This is the same Aquinas who argued incest was preferable to contraception, because it left intact the possibility of fertilization.
The issue flared again in the 19th century when scientific advances (including condom technology), the study of demography and family patterns, the industrial revolution, greater urban living, and other factors led to a limiting of births. Instead of taking this opportunity to reevaluate the history and morality of contraception, Pope Pius IX (papacy from 1846 to 1878) viewed the changes of modernity as an assault on religion and judged any attempt to adjust procreation to societal changes as giving free rein to sexual indulgence. (See additional notes on Pius’s assessment of freedom in general further below.)
Early in the 20th century the Catholic counterattack on contraception gained steam, with a Belgian Jesuit named Arthur Vermeersch goading Belgian bishops to tell their priests they must oppose this modern evil at all costs. His advocacy came in part as a reaction to the Anglican Church having just voted to allow the practice of contraception. As part of his campaign, Vermeersch went on to write the encyclical Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Wedlock) for Pope Pius XI (1922 to 1939), which argued contraception was a sin because it violated “natural law.” Pius cited Augustine in making his thesis, quoting him thus: “Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.” Part of the encyclical read: “. . . 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.”
Pius went on to describe this contraception ban as a “most grave law of God,” commanding Catholic clergy to support it before the faithful under pain of eternal damnation. And since the prohibition was theoretically based on “natural law,” the church said it should be binding on non-Catholics as well. So the bishops also mounted campaigns to, for instance, prevent Margaret Sanger from talking about birth control, something even Franklin Roosevelt acquiesced in at the urging of a monsignor closely allied with FDR politically.
Rhythm: mechanics replaces intent
Not long after Casti Connubii, research into what became known as the rhythm method surfaced and, ironically to many, gained the church’s favor, which declared it a natural, not artificial, form of birth control (a decision one can reasonably suppose Augustine would have never approved of, since he had specifically condemned couples using sterile periods as determined by Greek medicine to avoid conception). This fundamentally changed the church’s teaching because where before the intent to prevent conception was itself considered morally wrong, now the methods of prevention were the moral criteria. The sex act was good if carried out “naturally,” no matter its contraceptive intent. Meanwhile Pope Pius XII (1939 to 1958), successor to Pius XI, continued the church’s assault on artificial birth control, declaring it a mortal sin whose practitioners would be doomed to hell.
If seemingly dubious manipulation of language and meanings regarding contraception seemed to take root through the years, it would pale in comparison to the maneuvering around politics and processes when contraception really came to the fore again during the papacies of John XXIII (1958 to 1963) and Paul VI (1963 to 1978).
Contraception under review: John XXIII and Paul VI
It began more or less with conservative suspicions of John XXIII, triggered in part by his encyclicals seen as dangerously open to and cooperative with the world (Mater et Magistra [Mother and Teacher], Pacem in Terris [Peace on Earth]). So when John opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and let it be known he wanted a pastoral approach, not a doctrinal one, the suspicions developed into machinations. The Pope’s own staff, the Curia, were determined to corral the world’s attending bishops at the Council to assure adherence to doctrine. One tool was a “schema on sex morality” written by archconservative Franciscan Ermenegildo Lio. The schema contained 21 doctrinally based condemnations. But the Council bishops as a whole refused to be spoonfed this way and demanded more say. The schema draft was rewritten several times. One Cardinal Ottaviani called in American ethicist Father John Ford for help. Ford had written an ethics manual used in seminaries to enforce the precepts of Casti Connubii. But the majority of bishops kept winning on the Council floor, and the decree on marriage steadily oriented more toward viewing marriage as a sacrament of love, not just a mechanism for procreation.
Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens had persuaded Pope John to set up a separate commission to weigh the empirical evidence on birth control. This initial commission, which was kept a secret from most of the Council, consisted of four married laymen and two priests. With such a composition, the Pope was obviously seeking new light on the subject compared to his predecessors. The first conclusion reached by the commission, which was still feeling tentative about how far it might go, was the noncontroversial decision to do more study. Pope John died while the commission was still in deliberating stages, and Pope Paul VI inherited it.
Unexpectedly, the new Pope expanded the commission and in a first for such a panel, invited women to participate. The commission’s existence was eventually leaked, and various players swung into action. The earlier schema on sex morality was amended, against agreed on protocol, to include a new condemnation on contraceptive “devices” and to reassert the authority of the Casti Connubii encyclical of 1930, the one citing Augustine’s prohibitions on contraception. Pope Paul supported this, and Cardinal Ottaviani immediately declared to the assembled bishops the directives were not up for discussion but were to be obeyed.
But, again, the majority of the Council’s bishops balked, saying it was the Council’s very purpose to discuss and debate such substantive issues. They went about reassessing the document. The result was that the authority of Casti Connubii was toned down, and they brought into the document potential flexibility in defining what birth control practices could be judged illicit or otherwise. But they had not at that point definitively settled the issue of contraception.
Meanwhile Pope Paul seemed to be of almost contradictory minds. He had sided, unsuccessfully, with the conservative minority in the Council to inhibit any talk of the church changing its stand on contraception. Yet he was expanding the commission that was studying the issue. Some observers have said they thought Paul was so certain that past church authorities could not have erred that he assumed a broader look at the subject of contraception would simply revalidate Casti Connubii. This was not to be.
The commission of 6 members met five times in 1963. It was then expanded to a membership of 13, and eventually 15, in 1964. The following year its membership soared to 58, including 34 lay people. It received input from members of the Christian Family Movement—these were faithful, practicing Catholics (chosen for that reason, in fact)—who called into serious question the “natural law” arguments against contraception and candidly reported how the arbitrary mechanics of practicing the rhythm method of birth control stressed and even threatened their marriages.
Historian Wills relates, “The commission members, even trained theologians and spiritual counselors who had spent years expounding the church teachings, felt they were looking at reality for the first time. To their shared surprise, they found they were not only willing to entertain the idea of the church’s changing, but felt it had to change on this matter, that the truth, once seen, could no longer be denied.”
And indeed, when the 19 theologians on the commission convened to vote and were asked whether church teaching on contraception could change, 12 said yes.
This sent a shock wave through the Vatican. For the next commission meeting, the final one, the current members were demoted to “advisers,” and the new formal commission comprised 16 bishops who would enter a final report. They would field input from others, but theirs would be the governing verdict, with Cardinal Ottaviani presiding over the debate. Lay Catholics again offered stories of how efforts to stay within the church’s birth control constraints brought harm to their marriages. Among the theologians, a Jesuit priest who had taught Casti Connubii for 20 years announced he was withdrawing his textbook because he could no longer uphold what it professed. When the 19 theologians who had been on the former commission voted again, it was 15 to 4 against the claim that contraception is intrinsically evil. The vote of the larger group—primarily lay Catholics in good standing—was 30 to 5 against.
Then came the most pivotal vote of all, that of the 16 bishops on the newly constituted commission. The vote here was 9 to 3 for changing the church’s position, with the rest abstaining. This of course did not sit well with the conservative minority.
Maneuvering and mixed messages
Although there had been an upfront agreement that the commission would submit only one report, Cardinal Ottaviani and John Ford issued an unofficial “minority report” anyway, saying any change in the church’s position was inconceivable. They acknowledged in this report they had no “arguments that are clear and cogent based on reason” for their position. The reason to maintain the teaching was that the alternative would require admitting the church had erred for centuries on the issue of contraception. Pope Paul then relied on this minority report to say he could not accept the commission’s overall findings in favor of change, since there had been disagreement. Respected observers of things papal were known to say they saw Paul as torn by doubts but with an excessive concern for the power and prestige of the papal office, including its self-ascribed inerrancy, and it was this more than anything else that led to his decision to reject multiple majority votes for change by bishops, theologians, and faithful laity.
And thus did Pope Paul go on to issue his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) in 1968, which reiterated Casti Connubii’s contraception ban: “The church, calling men back to the observance of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” It is well documented that the Catholic faithful did not in the main consider this encyclical binding. It wasn’t long before 600 Catholic scholars issued a statement insisting that families, not the church, should be the final arbiter on contraception. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the USCCB at the time, stated the obvious when he said Humanae Vitae set up a direct conflict between many people’s experience and the authority of the church. What is less well known is that even bishops sometimes told believers they could set the encyclical’s birth control ban aside if they felt bound by conscience to do so. Or that Pope Paul himself, only four days after issuing Humanae Vitae, said it is not “a complete treatment of marriage,” and its subject matter is one to which “the church could and perhaps should return with a fuller, more organic treatment.” Or that Paul’s successor, John Paul I (1978), sent personal congratulations on the birth of the world’s first test tube baby, even though Humanae Vitae condemned in vitro fertilization.
But when John Paul I died only a month into his papacy, his successor, John Paul II (1978 to 2005), set about implementing even stronger denunciations of contraception, quashing all dissent on Humanae Vitae. His 1988 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of Truth) reasserted the church’s teaching authority in this area, and he backed it up by showing a clear preference to appoint only bishops who agreed with his position on contraception. Emphasis on doctrinal adherence regarding contraception was ascendant once more.
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI (2005 to present) has acknowledged the “difficult situation” surrounding Humanae Vitae, but said the encyclical continues to express “unchanged truth.” Benedict caused a stir in 2010 when he conceded condom use can be morally allowable in certain situations, such as to avoid the spread of HIV infection. In an effort to quell the widespread interpretation that this signaled a change in the church’s stance on contraception, the Vatican issued a statement saying: “The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified.” So intent to avoid pregnancy was singled out again as a moral criterion, leaving many wondering anew how that squares with approval of the rhythm method. Small wonder Benedict himself has said Humanae Vitae represents for Catholics “a sign of contradiction.”
Of conscience, control, and liberty
What does this varied history mean in context of the church’s efforts today to impose its will by widely restricting access to contraception insurance coverage even for non-Catholics, claiming this is a matter of conscience? At a minimum, since this represents an attempt by the church to exert control over those beyond its own faithful, it is rational and fair to question just how deep and constant this “matter of conscience” is. The history of infighting over contraception in the church calls into question just how much of its motivation comes from conscience and how much from the desire to control.
Now, granted, the church is clearly not an open and democratic institution and is not claiming to be. But in America it coexists with an open and democratic system and culture, enjoys the freedoms of that system, and is called to respect the freedoms of others in return as far as how much of its religious dogma it can impose. The USCCB’s Statement on Religious Liberty takes pains to reference American freedom, saying the bishops are “grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens.” “We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both.” the document states. They cite this freedom as a “special inheritance…and a heritage to be guarded.”
This is in marked contrast to how the church had occasionally viewed freedom in its past. Pope Gregory XVI (1831 to 1846), in his papal bull of 1832, said in reaction to growing intellectual sophistication of the times that liberty of conscience is madness and any efforts on behalf of freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, or even freedom of religion is heretical (one assumes by the last of these he meant freedom to choose a religion other than Catholicism). Pope Pius IX (1846 to 1878) issued his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, attacking, among many other things, democracy and freedom of speech. (He would a few years later lead the movement to assert papal infallibility.) Pope Leo XIII (1878 to 1903), annoyed by advances in science, declared that “it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, of speech, of writing, or of religion.” Note that such declarations were being made decades after America established such freedoms as constitutional guarantees, so cherishing of American liberty is hardly a long-enduring characteristic of the church. As we’ve seen in this historical review, the quashing or dismissal of these kinds of freedoms has continued into modern times within the church itself, notably in the combination of autocracy and deception that marked the Vatican Council’s handling of the contraception issue under Pope Paul in the lead-up to Humanae Vitae.
Despite its frequent claims, the church is also not as unchanging in its convictions as it leads others to infer. Consider its ultimate exoneration of Galileo, once accused of being a heretic for postulating a heliocentric universe, judged contrary to Scripture. The church even expressed contrition for its treatment of him. Or take the issues of priestly celibacy and sacred, sacramental marriage. The foundations for the church’s rules here are routinely said to come from Christ himself, and yet the church began to validate marriages only in the 5th century and did not require a priest’s blessing on marriage until the 16th century. From the 5th to 11th century, priests were commonly married, having abandoned the early rule of celibacy. So the church has changed with the times, even on doctrines it may call unchanging.
It is certainly possible that when a hierarchal institution like the church interfaces with a free society like America, the rights of each may not always mesh. They may even be in opposition. This is what is occurring in the current conflict in which the church essentially invokes its right of conscience to justify undermining the right of equal treatment guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution—by withholding for the few the equal access to contraception insurance coverage granted to the many. When such a conflict arises, one party’s rights do not automatically trump the other’s. America grants wide respect to religious convictions but does not cede to them supremacy over citizens’ rights. Rather, the conflict calls for a reasonable weighing of the competing rights to reach the fairest resolution possible. “America” too has a conscience in the game.
The church is claiming its institutional conscience should rule. But as this document has described, the church does not appear to have reached a true consensus on what that institutional conscience is. When a representative commission of the church itself carefully examined its own conscience on the issue of contraception, it concluded more than once it was time to change. Then minority dissenters intervened, and with a Pope deciding unilaterally, that judgment was negated. The institutional conscience could hardly be said to have prevailed. And remember, that same Pope went on to say “the church could and perhaps should return” to give the subject fuller consideration. It’s fair to ask if the church really knows what its conscience is on this.
Given this circumstance, the church may still retain the prerogative to categorically ban contraception for its own individual believers, but a rational balancing of rights hardly gives it cause to try to limit access to it for others. To borrow some common papal verbiage, creating inequality of rights in America is a grave infraction. The church needs much more than its fluid, uncertain, even contradictory take on contraception to justify such a transgression. The church should also have grave concerns that it is leading some of its faithful to exacerbate this inequality by withholding birth control insurance even for persons who work in settings with no religious affiliation whatsoever (e.g., Hobby Lobby). These believers cite as justification that they share their church’s conscience—the same uncertain conscience, relying on the same equivocal foundation. They are magnifying the injury to equal rights already being inflicted elsewhere.
What, at last, are we to conclude? In light of its history, it appears the church today is not so much acting on a genuine, settled conscience about contraception but rather seeking to control the personal choices of others on a less-than-conscientious basis, exercising its guardedly insular and intransigent authority and striving to extend it even to citizens beyond its own flock. A nation that values equality, religious pluralism, and individual freedom should take proper alarm at this. U.S. bishops who say they cherish our “gift of liberty [as] a heritage to be guarded” should not seek to violate America’s principles this way, and the American conscience should not tolerate them doing so.
Garry Wills, Papal Sin, (Doubleday, 2000)
Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (Random House, 1988)
Barbara G. Walker, Man Made God (Stellar House Publishing, 2010)