Will the Catholic Church rethink contraception


Could the Roman Catholic Church be ready to reconsider its prohibition of the use of contraception?

The fact that prominent Catholic conservatives have felt the need to speak out against such a possibility gives some grounds for thinking that, within the Church itself, and under the protection of Pope Francis, a movement for change is underway.

Theologians going back to Thomas Aquinas have said that interfering with sexual intercourse to prevent procreation is a misuse of the human genital organs, and therefore wrong.

Earlier popes had also opposed contraception.

Nevertheless, the development and release of oral contraceptives in 1960, and subsequent evidence that many Catholic couples were using contraception, triggered calls within the Church for a reconsideration of the prohibition.

In response, Pope John XXIII set up a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, but did not live to see it complete its work.

Instead, the commission sent his successor, Pope Paul VI, a report noting that the Church was already allowing couples to calculate the days of a woman’s cycle when she cannot conceive a child and restrict sex to those days.

To this observation the commission added: “it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature,” and concluded that contraception is permissible if it is part of “an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness.”

A minority report recommending against changing the Church’s teaching was supported by only four of the commission’s 72 members.

To most Catholics, therefore, it was a surprise when, in 1968, just two years after receiving the commission’s report, Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), stating that any “action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is “absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.”

The very existence of Humanae Vitae, and its survival without any liberalizing modifications, depended on untimely papal deaths.

John XXIII was a reforming pope, who had convened the Second Vatican Council in order to reconsider a number of Church practices.

Had he lived longer, he might well have accepted the view of the overwhelming majority of the commission he had established.

Without the sudden death of John Paul I, the successor to Paul VI who died only 33 days after his election as pope, the strict prohibition of contraception may not have survived unchanged.

Indeed, when he was Bishop Albino Luciani, John Paul I had favoured a more liberal view of contraception, writing that manufactured progesterone could be used “to distance one birth from another, to give rest to the mother, and to think of the good of children already born, or to be born.”

Catholic conservatives believe that Humanae Vitae has permanently settled the question of the use of contraception to avoid pregnancy, notwithstanding the contingencies that affected its promulgation and survival.

If you are willing to believe that God conveys the truth to popes, you may also believe that God works in strange ways.

Doubts about the permanence of the Church’s doctrine were raised last year, however, when the Pontifical Academy for Life released Etica Teologica della Vita (Theological Ethics of Life), a volume, in Italian, of more than 500 pages that brings together papers from a seminar along with the text that served as the basis for discussion. Some of the senior Catholic theologians contributing to the discussion suggest that the use of contraceptives in some circumstances may not be wrong. Continue reading

  • Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is a prolific author and founder of the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save.
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