Catholic debate over contraception sparks scholarly duel

What’s old is new again.

That is the argument being levied by a group of Catholic theologians against a report by other theologians who argue that the Catholic Church’s prohibition on artificial contraception is not rooted in Scripture or theology. That perspective was presented at a symposium on Sept. 20 about international aid held in conjunction with the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.


In August, the U.K.-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research published a report in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the papal encyclical banning the use of contraception. The statement, signed by more than 150 Catholic scholars, argues, “The choice  to use contraceptives for either family planning or prophylactic purposes can be a responsible and ethical decision and even, at times, an ethical imperative.”

According to the group’s website, the full report was “made available to all U.N. departments and development agencies who are trying to navigate the relationship between religious belief and women’s health as they work towards the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.”

The Catholic Church teaches that any sexual acts that are closed to pregnancy are morally illicit and bans the use of condoms, hormonal birth control pills and sterilization. On Tuesday, another group of Catholic theologians released their own statement in support of that teaching.

Their statement, signed by more than 500 scholars and presented at a press event at the Catholic University of America, says the Wijngaards statement “repeats the arguments that the Church has rejected and that numerous scholars have engaged and refuted since 1968.”

It says those pushing for the church to lift its ban on artificial contraception have failed to take into account findings from the past five decades that, they say, show contraception harms women and destabilizes relationships.

“Abundant studies show that contraception, such as hormonal contraceptives and intrauterine devices, can cause serious health problems for women,” the statement says.

“The widespread use of contraception,” it continues, “appears to have contributed greatly to the increase of sex outside of marriage, to an increase of unwed pregnancies, abortion, single parenthood, cohabitation, divorce, poverty, the exploitation of women, to declining marriage rates as well as to declining population growth in many parts of the world.”

Miriam Duignan, communications director for the Wijngaards Institute, rejected those claims and called access to contraception a social justice issue, especially for women in the developing world.

“We are not advocating population control; we are not advocating abortion; we are not condoning anything that leads to promiscuity,” she told America. “We want to open up a discussion about the use of contraception for family planning and to show that the use of contraception falls squarely within papal teaching for responsible parenthood.”

John S. Grabowski, an ethics professor at the Catholic University of America and a co-author of the statement supporting the church’s ban on contraception, told America that it is important for U.S. Catholics to know that there are many in the scholarly world who stand by the church’s teaching.

“People might stop and reconsider what we know now compared to 1968,” he said.

A 2012 Gallup Poll found that more than eight in 10 U.S. Catholics think using artificial birth control is moral. Another poll two years later by the Spanish-language television network Univision found large majorities of Catholics in countries in Latin America, Europe and the Philippines also approved the use of contraception. By contrast, fewer than half of those Catholics polled in Congo and Uganda said it was morally permissible.

The church, of course, is not a democracy, and the 1968 ban promulgated in Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” and supported by subsequent popes still stands. Married couples who wish to delay pregnancy are encouraged by some Catholic groups to use Natural Family Planning, which tracks a woman’s fertility cycle to determine when she is least like to conceive.

Critics of the church’s ban on condoms and birth control pills contend that the intent of both artificial contraception and N.F.P. is the same, thus the ban does not make sense. But the Catholic University statement rebuffs this criticism.

“Couples using these methods make no attempt to thwart the power of acts that could result in the procreation of new human persons,” the statement says. “They respect God’s design for sexuality; they help individuals grow in self-mastery; they have the potential to strengthen marriages and respect the physical and psychological health of women.”

Duignan said the Wijngaards Institute made its report available during the U.N. symposium because some international aid agencies have expressed frustration to her group that faith-based organizations stymie efforts to make contraception available in the developing world. She said her organization wanted to show that not all Catholics are against contraception and indeed some see it as a social good.

“We’re really trying to help tackle the injustice for people who live in countries where the Catholic Church has the authority and power to impact healthcare,” she said.

She pointed to instances of women with many children living in extreme poverty who do not wish to get pregnant but either cannot afford contraception or do not have access to it, as well as couples where one partner is infected with H.I.V.

“It’s not just a theory or philosophical debate,” she said. “This is a life or death matter for people.”

Grabowski, on the other hand, said that he and his colleagues have heard a different story, one more in line with pronouncements from Pope Francis who has repeatedly condemned “ideological colonization,” which some interpret as criticism against international aid packages that include money earmarked for contraception. (The pope has also suggested, however, that there may be special cases in which couples have understandable reasons for wanting to limit family size.)

“What we’re hearing from people in the developing world is that they’re grateful that Catholic scholars are speaking out on issues like this because they’re dealing with contraception imperialism from the U.S. and other countries that link aid to contraception,” Grabowski said.

Michael O’Loughlin is the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

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Douglas Fang
3 years 11 months ago
I feel a little bit both puzzled and disappointed that this kind of debate is still going within the circle of the scholars while the real world has moved on. For most regular Catholics, this topic is now purely academic and is so far removed from the experience of their daily lives. I come from a third world country where Catholicism is a cultural identity that seems to be stronger than national identity. The level of devout is way more than in America. Being a good Catholic means going to Mass every day and pray the rosary and all kinds of recitations every night. Yet, most, if not all Catholics that I personally know in my country totally ignore the teaching of HV. In my country, I never saw a priest mentioned about this teaching as if he might feel either embarrassed or ashamed to teach something that he would never have to uphold or suffer as he deeply understood that for poor families, it is cruel to ask them to “breed like rabbit”… After I came here to America, I saw something similar. I never saw a priest mentioned anything about HV. Everyone that I know personally doesn’t following the teaching of HV. As I shared this story before, even the catechists that prepared my children for the Confirmation told me that “Nobody or organization can tell them how many children they can have...”. The argument that responsible contraception within the context of marriage somehow leads to all kinds of degeneracies are just ludicrously false and completely dishonest. In the contrary, a number of studies discover the positive effect of good sexual activities within the context of marriage as they can benefit your health, your relationship, your emotion, and your psychology. Sometimes, I honestly wonder whether the people that promote NFP as the only acceptable form of contraception, which they know that most families will fail to use it to control the number of children that they CAN REASONABLY/FINANCIALLY BRING to this world, do harbor some hidden form of “Misery love companionship”. In other words, as they cannot or can no longer enjoy healthy sexual activities, i.e. they are clergy, divorcees, widows, involuntarily singles, too old, too tired, etc. they want to ask the young, healthy, and sexually active married couples to suffer unnecessarily??? In the end, the Pope did challenge the Church to leave the comfort zone, i.e. ivory tower???, to go out to the trench, to smell the sheep, to understand the real story behind each individual life… Because I believe that this is where you can experience the power, the mercy, and the providence of God.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 11 months ago
Douglas - the very Pope you praise for going to the trenches is a firm believer in HV, as was St. Mother Teresa and every recent saint, the popes and every official Church decision and document. So, you are saying that they are all wrong. Not possibly wrong, but definitely wrong, and moreover, that every lay Catholic or priest you ever met knows it. Do you really think that the Church should also approve of abortion and homosexual sex, and all the rest? I hope you reconsider. Or, at least ask yourself if the Church changed its doctrine on these issues, would there be more or less saints, since making saints is what she is all about. I believe that HV teaches a beautiful image of man and woman and a message different from anything in the secular world. I believe adherence to HV results in a much happier and holier life, avoids many of the curses and suffering and ennui of the modern world. I have met many people who agree with this vision, including a majority of priests I have discussed this with. Note also that every Protestant Church held the same belief only a few decades ago on many of these items. Were 1900 years of Christians of all denominations so wrong and so far from what you now think the good life demands? I understand that living the fullness of HV is counter-cultural and even radical. It even seems a heavy burden, or even an impossible standard (as Marie Haener-Patti implies below). To paraphrase St. Paul (1 Cor 1), to some Catholics it is considered a major stumbling block, and to many secularists complete foolishness, even laughable. But, it produces converts and saints. So many converts have credited HV as a major reason for their conversion. Jesus taught a radical faith. He said "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-30)
Michael Barberi
3 years 11 months ago
Douglas, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. If you are perplexed why NFP is claimed to be God's Procreative Plan and the only morally permissible means of birth control, you are not alone. Many moral theologians who have spent more than 30 years studying this issue have put forth legitimate, scholarly and responsible reasons why HV should be responsibly changed. The report on contraception by the Wijnaard Institute is but one good example. Another one is my published essay. Lastly, those who argue that every moral teachings of the magisterium is the surest way to live a good and holy life, often equivocate any disagreement with one moral teaching with the disagreement of the agent of every other moral teaching. This sounds to me like guilt by association or the implicit claim that the attitude of the disagreeing agent is morally distorted regardless if the reasons for disagreement are different for each teaching. What is often neglected by those who criticize like that is the fact that there is often a common underlying moral principle that underpin many teachings on sexual ethics.


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