The Catholic Church and birth control

On June 28, 1966, the Papal Commission on Birth Control submitted a report to the Vatican after they had prayed together, listened to presentations from experts, reviewed surveys taken from over 3,000 dedicated Catholic couples from 18 countries, and argued among themselves about numerous matters pertaining to human sexuality. This report stated that the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic evil of artificial contraception was in a state of doubt. It also recommended that the procreative aspect of sex should not be tied to every sexual act, but belong to marriage as a whole and that couples should be free to choose the non-abortive method of family planning that would work best for them.

However, On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), which basically denied the recommendations of the committee. His reasons for this document were that the vote for the commission’s report was not unanimous and that his predecessor had established papal teachings based on natural law that he chose to uphold. Although there was no unanimous concordance, but a 30-5 vote is a pretty strong consensus! He chose to assert the power and authority of his office over the collegially discerned recommendations of the Commission, which had acted in the spirit of Vatican Council II. He chose to say that he knew what was better for the good of married couples than the 3,000 or so couples consulted by the Commission, and he understood theology and the moral law more clearly than the bishops, cardinals and theologians serving on the Commission. The consequence of this has been a loss of respect for the teaching office of the Church, and the marginalizing of countless thousands of Catholics.

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“The ban on artificial birth control is total and absolute.” Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, The Catholic Answer.

who do not accept the thesis that every contraceptive act is morally wrong. I can vouch for the fact that very many bishops share the same “. . . (Fr. Richard McCormick maintains that) there are many Jesuits conviction. However, sadly enough, fewer and fewer are willing to say this publicly.”
Thomas J. Gumbleton, Auxilliary Bishop of Detroit, in America, November 20, 1993.

These two quotes reflect something of the tension and diversity of opinion among Catholics regarding the Church’s teachings on birth control. Some, like Fr. Stravinskas, seem to regard artificial contraception as morally wrong in all circumstances. Others, like Bishop Gumbleton (and the many bishops and Jesuits to whom he alludes), question the very basis for considering artificial contraception to be immoral. The attitudes of priests and other ministers who are entrusted with providing moral guidance at the parish level also reflect this diversity. When these priests are asked about the morality of artificial birth control, some say that it is a mortal sin regardless of the circumstances of the couple. Others tell couples that they are to learn the Church’s teachings and make up their own minds about what to do.
The response of the laity, especially in the Western world, has been mixed. The Natural Family Planning movement is stronger than ever, with salaried teachers in many dioceses. Nevertheless, over 80% of Catholic couples within their childbearing years use some form of artificial contraception at some time to regulate the births of their children. These couples are often regularly attending church yet they do not seem especially concerned about living in mortal sin. What is interesting is that even though they have disregarded the Church’s teachings on birth control, a majority of these same people support Pope John Paul II and value his leadership (Associated Press Poll, 6/5/96). This split between Catholics’ love of the Pope and their blatant disregard for his teachings on human sexuality is one of the most significant signs of the struggles within the church.

I feel that every person is distinct and has a dramatically different story to tell. It is, therefor, impossible to make one general statement regarding a controversial issue and expect it to work, or be true, for everyone. There will always be “what if…” questions that need to be looked at on a case by case basis. When the pope published Humanae Vitae he completely disregarded the opinions of the people he is supposed to be leading. I feel that because the church says that every sexual act should have the possibility of creating life it is hypocritical to support natural family planning but not contraceptives such as condoms and the pill. Each of these takes away the possibility of having a child and is used with the same intent. I feel that this issue should be decided on each couple based on their situation and should not be decided by someone as removed from the situation as the pope is.

Catholic Catechism
Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI


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