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Tag Archive | "Pontifical Commission on Birth Control"

Why the Church allows Natural Birth Control (but not Contraception)

Reading certain passages from Humanae Vitae makes one wonder why the Church allows natural methods of birth control while remaining strongly opposed to the use of contraceptives:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act…

…an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.

Impairs the capacity to transmit life. ‘Impair’ is an active word, it is a commission and not just an omission. While abstaining from sex during the fertile period is really just an omission of a certain act in the transmission of life, it’s the counting of days since the wife’s last menstruation and the charting of her temperature to be sure she’s “safe” that constitutes the commission part. So why is natural family planning allowed? Recently released official documents of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate shed some light. The following is an excerpt from the minority report (click here for an article on the majority report) drafted by the Jesuit theologian John Ford with assistance from another Catholic theologian, Germain Grisez:


But is the objection really ‘nugatory’? (I had to look that up and it means “of little or no importance; trifling.”) Let us try to dissect that passage and examine it carefully:

The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
Having intercourse during the infertile period does not prevent the beginning of new life… Using science to determine exactly when that infertile period comes and deliberately scheduling all sexual activity within that period does prevent the beginning of new life.


The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
[during the infertile period]…the couple do not have intercourse to prevent conception but for the sake of some other good. Couples using contraception also do not have intercourse to prevent conception but for the sake of some other good, which is intimacy.


The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
The “pill” or some mechanical or chemical device does prevent conception, but these are not themselves the conjugal act. Charting to find that infertile period to avoid pregnancy is also not itself the conjugal act.


The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
Rather they are interventions in the conjugal act. The “conjugal act” is the sexual intercourse itself and not the procreative consequence of such act. How then, does contraception intervene with the conjugal act?


The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
Using a thermometer does not prevent conception. It does, by making sure she’s “safe”.


The Report says: But when we try to think about it:
The couple who use the infertile period do nothing that would deprive even a single conjugal act of its power of generating a new life.


They may be doing nothing contraceptive during that single conjugal act, but they sure did something beforehand to make sure that such act would be powerless in generating a life.

The only difference between artificial and natural methods of birth control is the timing, that is, when the act of birth control takes place. In natural family planning the method is applied before intercourse while in contraception it is during intercourse (the pill may be taken before intercourse but its effects are present during intercourse). But the intent is the same: to isolate the unitive significance from the procreative significance of the marriage act (in non-ecclesiastical language that means to enjoy sex without getting someone pregnant). As Igme once said, “What is the difference between ejaculating sperm in latex and ejaculating it in a uterus in its monthly off switch? The intent is the same!

In case the similarity is still not clear, let us use an analogy about releasing baby turtles into the sea. Let’s try to find the difference between the two:

a. Building a concrete wall along the beach to prevent the turtles from reaching the ocean

b. Releasing the turtles when the tide is out and the sun is scorching hot and the only shade under which the baby turtles can get protection from the deadly heat is from the shadows of hungry sea gulls flying overhead

In both cases the effect is the same: the baby turtles do not make it to the safety of the water, much less into adulthood. While the first is obviously a deliberately preventive act, the second, if we take a moment to think about it, turns out to be just as deliberately preventive. The concrete wall may be an artificial intervention in the life cycle of turtles, but the timing of the release during extremely unfavorable conditions is really just the same in terms of intent and effect, even if it merely takes advantage of “a faculty provided by nature.”

So why does the Church allow natural methods but not artificial ones? The only logical explanation I can think of is that the Church has a strong preference for – a complete obsession with – the adjective natural. And if this is the case, as it probably is (if you think I’m wrong there’s a comment section below), the following passage from Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene says it best:

It is a simple logical truth that, short of mass emigration into space, with rockets taking off at the rate of several million per second, uncontrolled birth-rates are bound to lead to horribly increased death-rates. It is hard to believe that this simple truth is not understood by those leaders who forbid their followers to use effective contraceptive methods. They express a preference for ‘natural’ methods of population limitation, and a natural method is exactly what they are going to get. It is called starvation.

And since starvation is natural for as long as we simply allow women to bear babies into a world where there is not enough food without actively robbing them of their food, there should be nothing intrinsically evil about it. Children dying of hunger and disease are just succumbing to a population control faculty provided by nature, and maybe that’s why the Church seems more concerned about sperm cells slamming against the wall of a condom, ending their lives in an unnatural rubbery death – while millions still wouldn’t make it to the egg, much less to the womb, even without any form of birth control.

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The disturbing politics behind the Church’s anti-contraceptive stand

In a previous post I mentioned that the real reason why the Roman Catholic Church is against contraceptives is Humanae Vitae, a 1968 encyclical written by Pope Paul VI insisting that sex must be kept open to the transmission of life. While the infallibility of such encyclicals may already be questionable to non-Catholics and even to liberal Catholics, what is more disturbing is how Humanae Vitae got promulgated even if the majority of the members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control proposed that “artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods to be employed“, as stated in the majority report:

The acceptance of a lawful application of the calculated sterile periods of the woman–that the application is legitimate presupposes right motives–makes a separation between the sexual act which is explicitly intended and its reproductive effect which is intentionally excluded.

Here the Commission acknowledges that even the “accepted” natural methods of birth control deliberately try to separate the unitive from the procreative purpose of sex.

The tradition has always rejected seeking this separation with a contraceptive intention for motives spoiled by egoism and hedonism, and such seeking can never be admitted. The true opposition is not to be sought between some material conformity to the physiological processes of nature and some artificial intervention.

My understanding here is that there is no difference between “material conformity to the physiological processes of nature” (i.e., scheduling sex based on the wife’s fertility cycle to make sure she doesn’t get pregnant) and using contraceptives.

For it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.

Whether by slipping a condom or counting the days since his wife’s last mentruation, man is using his skill to put nature under his control.

The opposition is really to be sought between one way of acting which is contraceptive and opposed to a prudent and generous fruitfulness, and another way which is, in an ordered relationship to responsible fruitfulness and which has a concern for education and all the essential, human and Christian values.

The Commission is saying that what’s important is to distinguish between hedonistic sex and responsible family planning. In short, what matters is the intent, not the method.

Nevertheless, Pope Paul VI “explicitly rejected his commission’s recommendations in the text of Humanae Vitae, noting the 72 member commission had not been unanimous (4 theologian priests had dissented, and 1 cardinal and 2 bishops had voted that contraception was intrinsically evil–significantly Cardinal Ottaviani, the commission’s president and Bishop Colombo, the papal theologian).

But the real reason for Pope Paul’s rejection may be a lot more disturbing. In an article published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao talked about a book titled Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission, and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church” written by an insider, Robert McClory. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an online version of the book and so I hope the readers will forgive me for quoting heavily from Tiglao’s article since contraception is a very hot issue today and the message couldn’t wait until I’ve read the book.

The overwhelming majority in the commission concluded that artificial birth control did not violate the Church’s teachings, and that Catholic couples should decide for themselves what methods to use. However, a Jesuit theologian wrote a dissenting report, signed by three other theologian-priests, a bishop and—this proved to be most crucial—by the ultra-conservative Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. It was Ottaviani who is said to have single-handedly convinced Pope Paul VI to reject the pro-contraceptive report signed by the 70-plus members of the commission, and instead adopt the dissenting report of just six members, that the Church should label artificial contraceptives as intrinsically evil.

Ottaviani was the most influential cardinal in the 1963 Papal Conclave, which elected as pope the bishop of Milan Giovanni Batista Montini, who assumed the name Paul VI. It was solely Ottaviani who was authorized to announce to the world the election of the new pope, whose Humanae Vitae encyclical set in stone the Church’s uncompromising stand against artificial.

The picture that emerges is as follows: Like all politicians, Ottaviani reminded Paul VI that he, indisputably the most powerful prince of the Church then, helped him become pope, so that he should therefore take his advice to reject the commission’s majority report. Pope Paul VI gave in, thinking that the Second Vatican Council was the more important battle, instead of contraceptive use, which wasn’t after all, a burning issue at that time. Ottaviani’s “Semper idem” abhorrence of contraceptives became the Church dogma, and succeeding popes never dared reverse a predecessor’s encyclical.

Ottaviani passed away in 1979, and his ultra-conservative bloc in the Church that wanted it to remain in the medieval world view weakened to insignificance. His legacy—or his curse—lives on though, most prominently in our country.

And that, my friends, is how all this mess began. The Church teaches that Humanae Vitae as well as every other Catholic dogma is infallible because it comes from divine revelation as the Holy Spirit descends on the pope. It seems now that such dogma had been conceived with less spirit and more politics, to the detriment not only of the faithful, but the rest of the Filipinos.

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