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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Catholics and Contraception: Blind Acceptance of Authority?

I recently was speaking with a protestant who intimated an understanding of Catholics' opposition to contraception as being just another instance of our blind acceptance of an authoritarian rule established by the Catholic Church that has been added to the Bible arbitrarily. Here, I present four perspectives - in brief form, conveniently tailored for our ADHD culture - in response to this claim to illustrate that it is unsubstantiated and unequivocally false.

A Brief Historical Note: For Centuries, Protestants Rejected Contraception
The first important point is that although protestants depict the Catholic opposition to contraception as a teaching through which the Church exercises its supposedly totalitarian control over those subscribing to the Catholic Faith, the truth of the matter is that the founding members of the protestant movement - including Luther and Calvin - also openly opposed contraception. In fact, Christianity was unified in its opposition to contraception for centuries, until the early 20th century when the Anglican bishops convened at the Lambeth conference in 1930 to establish some exceptions to their opposition to the use of contraception. Hence, if the Catholic Church is in this case, as many protestants say, simply adding arbitrary rules to those established in the Bible, then so were the protestants for all those centuries.

To this conclusion, the pro-contraceptive protestant may respond, "Fine - the protestants were wrong all those years. It took this long for us to realize that contraception is indeed morally permissible." Ignoring the unabashed brazenness of this claim for the time being, I will respond by saying, "OK, but the evidence above still eradicates the grounds for holding the position that the Catholic teaching on contraception is just another instance of Catholic authority flexing its muscles of totalitarian control over its people through the establishment of principles that were (it is alleged) without good reason added to those principles found in the Bible, when in fact all of Christianity, including protestants, taught and abided by a principled opposition to contraception for centuries."

For more on the history of the Christian opposition to contraception, which dates back to the infancy of Christianity (about two millennia ago), see Fr. Mitch Pacwa's article on the subject: link.

A Response to the Claim that the Catholic Teaching on Contraception is an Authoritarian Rule Created by the Pope that is Blindly Accepted by Catholics
One of the many works by Christian figures giving a reasoned opposition to the use of contraception is the great book Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (who later was to be elected Pope John Paul II). Upon mentioning that such works exist, the protestant whom I mentioned earlier made it clear that she understood that such works are simply instances of Catholics blindly accepting the authoritative teachings of Church leaders.

Such an understanding is, to be frank, a gross distortion of the truth of the situation. In fact, in Wojtyla's introduction to Love and Responsibility, he establishes clearly that the book was not written to be taken as doctrine - that is, as an authoritative teaching of the Church. It was, in fact, written 18 years before he was even elected pope. (Note that there are many other books by people who aren't even priests that establish through reason the immorality of contraception. I mention Love and Responsibility here only because it is the best one I have read.) If it helps the protestant reader, you may think of Love and Responsibility as similar to a sermon written by the pastor of your own church, in which he (or she) discusses his (or her) understanding of how one is to rightly live out the Gospel. You as a member of that church may accept or reject that understanding based on your own reasoning. I could say more on this, but I will leave it to the reader to study for himself the introduction to Love and Responsibility, which is available in its entirety in the preview of the book on Google Books (link).

(The reader will note that the above analogy between the teachings on contraception contained in Love and Responsibility and a protestant pastor's sermon is somewhat inaccurate, in that the faithful Catholic cannot in good conscience refuse to accept the Church's teaching on contraception, since this teaching has elsewhere been stated authoritatively (for example, in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae). However, this point is tangential to the current discussion, as my objective here is to establish that non-authoritative works, such as Love and Responsibility, do indeed exist and establish the immorality of contraception based on reason alone, without relying upon authority.)

A Note from a Prominent Protestant Leader of Today on the Catholic Opposition to Contraception
Although many protestants have since 1930 rejected the centuries-held Christian opposition to contraception, there are still prominent protestant leaders who are not vehemently opposed to the Catholic teaching on the matter and who actually see great value in it. This fact by itself is further evidence that this teaching is based on reason, and is not accepted solely because it is taught authoritatively. Consider the thoughts of the Protestant pastor Russell E. Saltzman on this topic: link.

A Note from the Perspective of a Young Lady
A video was produced recently by a young lady (in her teenage years, I would guess) that offers her case for opposing contraception. Although less intellectually rigorous than the above references, it is more lighthearted and was received well by priests I know, so it may be helpful for some.

On the General Calendar, August 9th is the feast day of St. Edith Stein (1891-1942), Carmelite nun, prominent Catholic intellectual, convert from Judaism, and martyr of Auschwitz. On the Traditional Calendar, it is the feast of St. John Marie Vianney (1786-1859), patron of parish priests. Orate pro nobis.


Annie Zeiler said...

Another point to make is that Gandhi, both highly regarded and entirely non-Christian, pointed out, "I urge the advocates of artificial methods of birth control to consider its consequences. Any large use of the methods is likely to result in the dissolution of the marriage bond." (Note the correlation of the contraceptive pill hitting the market around the same time the divorce rate began increasing in the US.) It's not an issue of one religious doctrine versus another. It's an issue of human nature facing temptation made facilitated.

The Protestant said...

My original argument for the advocation of the use of birth control rested upon the fact that with the use of both NFP and artificial contraception, a couple is attempting to regulate when and if they have a child. Therefore, I concluded that it should not matter if the method is "natural" or "artificial", as long as it is not abortion-inducing.

After further reading, I have concluded that I was ignoring a fundamental portion of the argument against the use of artificial contraception: it is not so much the stewarding of the size and timing of one's family that is the issue, it is the attempt to separate the act of marital intercourse from procreation. Instead, NFP should be seen as responsible parenting in a marriage where the raising of children is not seen as a burden, but as a fulfillment of the marriage covenant itself. I agree with this statement and am beginning to recognize the importance of not severing marriage, sex, or procreation from each other.

Patrick Lee summed it up much better than I ever could: http://www2.franciscan.edu/plee/misconceptions_about_sex.htm

It took a lot of research and thought to come to this conclusion, and twice as much humility to admit the error of my thinking. Thank you for being willing to try to correct me.

"Correction is grievous unto him that forsaketh the way; and he that hateth reproof shall die." (Proverbs 15:10)

Patrick La Fratta said...

Thanks be to God.

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