Catholicism, and Christianity in general, has a long history of opposing contraception—as well as any form of recreational sex that does not lead to procreation. For centuries, any form of contraception was considered sinful. The sin was dubbed “Onanism,” after the Biblical story of Onan, who was killed by God for ejaculating on the ground rather than impregnating his dead brother’s wife. The prohibition on contraception was articulated by several early Catholic thinkers: Clement of Alexandria wrote that “the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted,” and St. Augustine said that couples who use contraception “are not [husband and wife]; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame.” Early Protestants such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were also strongly against contraceptive practices.1
The Twentieth Century
Contraceptives available for most of the Catholic Church’s history were crudely made and often ineffective—objects inserted into the vagina to catch sperm, animal-skin condoms, or the withdrawal method. However, in the early 20th century, the mass production of cheap, effective rubber condoms made contraception into a much more relevant issue.2 In 1930, Pope Pius XI published an encyclical (a letter concerning theological matters, addressed to the church as a whole) entitled Casti Connubii, which among other things explicitly denounced the use of contraception among Catholics.3
Over the next few decades, however, as birth control technology became increasingly effective, birth control continued to gain popular support. The issue came to a head at the Second Vatican Council in 1963, when Pope John XXIII put together a commission of theologians to review the issue of contraception. The council met repeatedly over the next three years, growing from six members at the first meeting to several dozen at the last. Although at first the council was opposed to amending Casti Connubii, their opinion changed over time. In 1966, the commission sent its report on birth control to Pope Paul VI (John XXIII had passed away while the commission was deliberating). This report, supported by all of the highest-ranking clergymen on the council, favored relaxing the standards put forth in the Casti Connubii to allow Catholics to use contraception.4
After considering the issue for two years, Paul VI chose not to follow the council’s recommendations. Instead, he sided with the dissenting voices on the council, and continued the Catholic prohibition on contraception. In 1968 he issued another encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which upheld the Church’s prohibition on non-natural forms of birth control. Humanae Vitae is currently the official position of the Catholic Church.4
Currently, the only form of birth control permitted by the Catholic Church is Natural Family Planning (NFP). This method involves abstaining from sex during the fertile period of a female’s menstrual cycle. Couples who engage in Natural Family Planning are taught to look for subtle changes in a female’s body temperature and the composition of her cervical mucus to tell when she is past her fertile period. To Catholic theologians, this allows couples a measure of control over a female’s fertility without divorcing sex from its true purpose of procreation. However, only 3.6% of American Catholic women use this method of birth control, perhaps because it involves a rather complex and unappealing technique (examining cervical mucus) and requires couples to abstain from sex for several days each month.5
Furthermore, many Catholics—including priests and other influential figures within the Church—take a dissenting position on birth control. In September of 1968, only two months after Humanae Vitae was published, a group of Catholic bishops in Canada released the Winnipeg Statement, which argued that people who choose to use birth control can still be considered good and devout Catholics.6 This document generated significant controversy within the Church but has had considerable influence on the teachings of many Catholic priests in the Western world.
Recent popes (including the current, famously progressive Pope Francis) have not spoken out against the prohibition on contraception, but a few have expressed a somewhat more open-minded view than the Humanae Vitae would seem to allow. Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010 that condoms may be permissible in a narrow range of situations, such as in the case of a prostitute using condoms to prevent disease.7
In conclusion, the Catholic Church is a complex institution with two thousand years of history, which aims to represent over a billion people worldwide. Its views on contraception have evolved over the years, and although the modern church still officially prohibits contraception use, there are significant voices within the church that express a more open attitude towards birth control. We at SexInfo aim to be a resource for people with all different kinds of religious views, and we cannot give a definite answer to complex moral or theological questions. Ultimately, it is up to individual Catholics to decide on the best ways to balance honoring their religion with enjoying a healthy sex life.
- Brom, Robert H. "Birth Control." Catholic.com. Catholic Answers, 10 Aug. 2004. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
- "People & Events: The Catholic Church and Birth Control." Pbs.org. Public Broadcasting System, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
- Pope Pius XI. "CASTI CONNUBII." Letter to TO THE VENERABLE BRETHREN, PATRIARCHS, PRIMATES, ARCHBISHOPS, BISHOPS, AND OTHER LOCAL ORDINARIES ENJOYING PEACE AND COMMUNION WITH THE APOSTOLIC SEE. 31 Dec. 1930. N.d. Vatican.va. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_....
- May, Elaine Tyler. "When the Catholic Church Nearly Approved the Pill." The Washington Post. 26 Feb. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-30801860.html?refid=easy_hf>.
- Doyle, Fletcher. "Natural Family Planning: Key to Intimacy - Catholic Update June©2007." Americancatholic.org. Franciscan Media, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0707.asp>.
- "CANADIAN BISHOPS' STATEMENT ON THE ENCYCLICAL "HUMANAE VITAE''" Letter. 27 Sept. 1968. N.d. Http://archive.org/web/. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <http://web.archive.org/web/20060829044505/http://www.catholic-legate.com....
- Donadio, Rachel. "Vatican Adds Nuance to Pope’s Condom Remarks." New York Times 21 Dec. 2010. Print.
Last Updated 18 May 2014.