Exactly 50 years ago today, Pope Paul VI stunned Catholics all over the world by declaring that birth control was “intrinsically wrong” in a document titled Humanae Vitae (“Of human life”).
… We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process… are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.”
While he directly mentioned abortion, he also included birth control and contraception in his directive.
In 1968, an untold number of Catholics were already using contraceptives to avoid pregnancy. In fact, a papal commission has been assembled for the purpose of possibly overturning the Church’s ruling on this issue. The Vatican had claimed that it was up to the individual to “follow their conscience” — which sounds remarkably progressive — but we all know how things turned out.
That said, the Church’s beliefs haven’t stopped young Catholics today — that is, the ones 30 and younger — from using birth control anyway. Tom Gjelten of NPR explains:
When Krista Sanders, 32, attended a marriage workshop with her husband at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Milwaukee, she learned that her church was still promoting the “rhythm method,” which advocates avoiding sex during the part of the month a couple is most likely conceive, as the only acceptable way to avoid pregnancy. It did not impress her.
“They give you handouts with all these testimonials about natural family planning, with testimonials from couples who have done it,” Sanders says. “But I don’t know that very many people follow it. It’s kind of, like, ‘O.K., that’s a nice suggestion. I appreciate the information.’ But in this current day, I don’t know that it’s as relevant for couples like us or other people starting out their marriages in the Catholic faith.”
As the old joke goes, there’s a name for people who use the rhythm method as their only means of birth control: parents.
Back to Pope Paul VI, he offered this reasoning as to why birth control destroyed relationships:
… a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and… reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
That’s quite a leap. As if using a condom or taking a pill would make sex any less meaningful or enjoyable or respectful. The phrasing is also troubling since it suggests birth control would lead to men (and only men) taking advantage of the situation… and that women would find no benefit at all from birth control.
The fact of the matter is, more Catholics than ever before are taking fertility into their own hands, ignoring the Church’s prohibition. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that only 13% of Catholics agreed contraception was morally wrong. The rest found it morally acceptable (45%) or not a moral issue at all (42%).
There are other reasons that the Catholic stance on birth control isn’t being taken seriously today, even among believers. The cost of living is higher, as is childcare, and many young people are too burdened with student loan debt to consider having a family. If the Church wants its members to reproduce, perhaps it ought to consider helping out with the financial burdens or at least giving couples the flexibility to get pregnant on their own timelines without sacrificing intimacy.
Shaming them for taking a responsible and sensible action hasn’t been working too well.
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