Home » Personal Morality – Contraception

4.6 Personal Morality – Contraception

Exerpts from the book by Michael Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholic beliefs in England

published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991. pp. 80-84.

Published on our website with the author’s permission

4.6 Contraception

The invitation to the members of the bishops’ commissions to discuss difficulties with the teaching of the Church drew forth mainly critical comments on the papal teaching on contraception from nearly two-thirds of our respondents. A common view was that the publication of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (Paul VI, 1968) had been a disaster. For some, the main problem was that of uncertainty about what exactly was the current official teaching on contraception and the evidence of conflicting advice from different priests:

It is very hard for the ordinary Catholic to know what to do when there is so much divergence. (C4; Female, 40s)

I think the differing opinions on the part of the clergy is confusing … I certainly wouldn’t presume to oppose the teaching of the Church … I suppose I sin and then look for forgiveness. (022; Male, 40s)

What the Church teaches about contraception, I might say I find difficult, if I knew for certain at the moment that I knew what it was! (072; Female, 40s)

A number of members observed that they were unconvinced by the teaching in Humanae Vitae or felt that it had got out of proportion when compared to other moral teachings:

I think there is too much concentration on birth control and not enough on the evils of the population explosion. (C44; Male, 50s)

Frankly I don’t think that … even very good Catholics have taken it as a rigid rule … The question is open to personal interpretation, and that is as it should be. (C54; male, 60s)

I stand on Vatican I (the General Council of the Church which defined the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870), infallible is infallible and everything else is not infallible! But at the same time, I would give a great deal of weight to a statement put out by the Pope. But as for any statement, I would want to look at the reasoning for it. And it was the reasoning put forward by [Pope] Paul in Humanae Vitae which decided me that the whole thing was a mistake. (C43; male, 60s)

Others drew attention to what they regarded as inconsistencies in terms of moral teachings on the matter of intention or on the distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’:

I was always taught that the essential part of any action is your intention. The use of the ‘safe period’ in intention is that you do not have a child … To talk about differences is simply hair-splitting. (026; Male, 40s)

To put it simply, as I understand it, you may kill a man if he is about to rape your wife, or in self-defence, and the Church doesn’t ask whether you killed him with a knife or your bare hands. It doesn’t matter because it is the motivation that matters. But when it gets to birth control, it is not concerned that this is a person who is concerned about the health of his wife, is eager to give his children a good home …The Church has got to be realistic and it has got to understand the basic psychology of people. (063; Male, 30s)

A second group of criticisms related to the method of presentation of the teaching and the implications of this for lay participation in the Church and styles of religious authority. One member, for example, who personally thought Humanae Vitae, apart from one paragraph, was a magnificent document, was staggered that Pope Paul could set up a commission to study a problem and then completely ignore its findings (Kaiser, 1987). He added:

I don’t say he should completely have accepted them but I think he should have given a reasoned argument as to why he wasn’t going to accept them, and I thought this was a very bad thing from the point of view of consultation within the Church … [so that] realistic dialogue within the Church hasn’t really got off the ground, (c 13; Male, 40s)

Similar remarks were made by two Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC) counsellors:

I’ve never been very happy with the way Humanae Vitae was promulgated. It was a great difficulty for us in CMAC, and the method by which this was done was very bad as [a] public relations exercise, (cig; Female, 60s)

Half the evening was spent with people … absolutely black in the face with fury that the Pope had made this edict against contraception when all the Family Commission in Rome had advised him that he must accept it in some form or another … He had asked for their advice and then hadn’t taken it. (C2i; Female, 50s)

In the light of the contested nature of the teaching on contraception, it is perhaps not surprising that a third group of members thought it likely that there would be changes in that teaching in time, as there had been in the case of usury. Here, as in the case of intercommunion, the expectation was that deviance from the official norms would precede changes in the rules:

I am sure that eventually … not in my time … it will come that the use of contraceptives is allowed simply because people will be doing it… The way we’ve lived will be the official way … I think that people of my generation disagree with the Church in their minds but obey in their practice … over birth control … but not so the young … and I’m right behind them. (026; Male, 40s)

Well, obviously the birth control question I find very, very, very difficult, but I don’t think it’s irreversible. I think that a lot more research will go on and perhaps in another generation the Church will come up with something on that. Let’s put it this way: the truth can’t change, but our knowledge of the truth is changing all the time. And whereas the Church was static, she is now on the move. And the basic teachings … of the gospels and of Christ will never change, but perhaps the understanding ofit will change. (014; Female, 50s)

Comments from other members indicated elements of uncertainty and ambivalence. A convert said that:

when Humanae Vitae burst I felt that the Pope must be raving mad, but now, looking back, I’m delighted he chose against the pill … [because] it would have put collosal pressure on a lot of women who are physically and emotionally turned off by the pill, (cio; Female, 30s)

About one quarter of those members who raised the issue of contraception or the papal encyclical, either saw nothing wrong with the teaching or expressed their willingness to accept it loyally as the formal teaching of the Church, even if they still hoped for changes or were critical of the presentation of the teaching. One member who described how he had been brought up to be loyal to the Church’s teaching, explained this loyalty and argued that a new type of loyalty, appropriate to the contemporary situation and based on participative decision-making, was necessary:

If the doctrine on birth control were changed, I’d get mighty upset, having operated he old system under great difficulty … I’d murmur: ‘the bloody Pope’ … I suppose possibly my generation are the last generation that will feel that way … The teaching that we received, which was … relevant to the problems of its day and age, plus the experience we had with the Church, produces loyalty … Somehow or other people have got to do the same process for another generation in a different situation; not produce the same sort of loyalty or the same sort of attitudes, but something as effective … I think we rmust introduce a lot more the notion of people participating, people feeling committed to decisions because they are decisions of themselves rather thai something which is merely handed down. (029; Male, 40s)

Shortly before the interviews with lay members of the bishops’ commissbns were undertaken, David Martin predicted that with the breakdown of the Catholic ghetto and the emergence of a new Catholic middle class, doctrinal tensions could build up to the point of explosion ‘whenever a single point of doctrine is undermined simply because a hole in the dyke undermines the complete defensive system’ (1972: 187; emphasis in original). The publication of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 did in fact create something of an explosion. But on the basis of the evidence we have reviewed here, that expbsion was not as catastrophic or as destructive or all- embracing as Martin had anticipated. The bulk of these English core Catholics did in fact regard the teaching on contraception as a mistake. But, in regretting that as an issue it had been given such prominen:e in Catholic moral teaching, they were in effect reinterpreting it as belonging to an area of life where privatejudgement was appropriate. Many were more upset by the way in which the traditional teaching had been reaffirmed than by the issue itself because it seemed to indicate a frustration of their expectations and hopes for a new-style, participative Church where due attention would be given by the clerical leadership to lay experiences and advice. The explosion, if such it was, appeared also to be muted by the anticipation of eventual change according to a presumed secular rationality because a once-static Church was ‘on the move’. The wider significance of contraception was clear. New generations of Catholics .vould have to struggle to find new but authentic bases of loyalty for themselves. They would not feel obliged to accept meekly, as an carlbr generation once had, a religious teaching which did notseem to make sense of their deepest everyday experiences. The issue of contraception is important not only because it affects the lives of so many people, but more particularly because it serves as a touchstone for the much more fundamental issue of religious authority in a changing Church. We will return to this aspect in chapter 7.