Issue Report: Catholic Church contraception policy

Is the Roman Catholic Church's contraception policy justifiable?

The Catholic Church forbids the use of barrier methods of contraception such as condoms and treats emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill as a means of abortion. The Church’s policy was ‘reemphasised’ by Paul VI’s encyclical letter ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 1968. This draws a distinction between ‘Natural Family Planning’ where couples seek to have sex when the woman is not ovulating (such as the rhythm method, temperature charts and cervical mucus examination), which the church allows, and unnatural barrier methods which the church considers a sin. The logic behind the distinction is that whilst both methods prevent fertilisation, the former is based on the observation of the natural rhythms of life created by God, hence God has not made the woman fertile rather than humans preventing the creation of new life. Condoms can prevent both the HIV/AIDS epidemic (a fact which the Catholic Church now recognises after years of denial) and high population growth which afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries. The Catholic Church believes that abstinence and Natural Family Planning are viable alternatives to the use of barrier methods in solving both of these problems and whilst Natural Family Planning is not effective for casual sex (which the Catholic Church condemns in any case), it can be effective as part of stable marriages. Historically Christianity has not been united over Contraception. From the 1930s most Protestant sects have allowed the use of condoms in their teaching. The Catholic Birth Control Commission (1963-66) in fact voted 30 to 5 in favour of allowing the use of contraception but was overruled by the Pope. However, the Church maintains that the use of contraception is a violation of natural law, that it is forbidden by the biblical passage in Genesis which describes the spilling of Onan’s seed, and that it is prohibited in the Apostolic tradition by the teachings of the First Council of Nicaea and St. Augustine. Recently the debate has been reignited by the statement by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a senior Cardinal under Pope Benedict, that condoms are the “lesser evil” in the fight against AIDS. Such a stance of allowing limited use of condoms has long been taken by more liberal African and Latin American clergy, such as Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico.

HIV/AIDS: Is Church policy on contraceptives appropriate in context of HIV/AIDS?

Church contraception policy focuses on saving souls not lives

The opposition puts this debate in a very different context, seeing it within the framework of the Catholic Church. The Church’s priority is not for life on earth, which is merely a passing phase in our existence, but rather for the care of our immortal souls. The Church believes that if its followers use contraception they are violating natural law, scripture and church teaching, hence sinning and (given that Catholics do not accept ‘Justification by Faith Alone’) condemning their immortal souls to an eternity in hell. Avoiding this is more important than preventing death from HIV/AIDS by condom-use. As Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35).

Evil (condoms) should not be used to fight evil (HIV/AIDS)

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good,” it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.

If people followed Christian principles; they would not contract HIV/AIDS.

The twin problems of AIDS and population growth are not a direct result of Church teaching but rather Catholics picking and choosing which doctrines to follow. Abstinence before marriage on the part of both parties and faithfulness within is very effective in terms of limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS, as are Natural Family Planning methods at preventing unwanted pregnancy. Indeed the Burundian Catholic Church has gone even further and advocated compulsory HIV testing before it allows members of its congregation to marry. Good Catholics who follow doctrine fully are at a very low risk and the Church cannot be held responsible for those who simply pick and choose which articles of faith they wish to obey.

Following divine law on contraceptives is hard but necessary

Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

By encouraging sexual immorality, condoms increase risks of HIV/AIDS

Fr. Gerald Magera Iga, in a campaign urging condom sellers in Uganda to burn up their stocks [Comtex newswire. 25 Jan. 1999]. – “Every condom sold sends the buyer to acquire the AIDS virus.”[1]

Condoms do not ensure against pregnancy and STDs

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“Condoms do not guarantee protection against HIV/AIDS. Condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

From the text of a statement issued by the bishops of South Africa following their semiannual meeting, where they considered a change in their official condoms policy in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic – “[W]idespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms [is] an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV-AIDS. …[C]ondoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV-AIDS.”

Abstinence 100% effective against pregnancy/STDs/HIV/AIDS

"Contraceptive Failure Rates - Pregnancy and Disease Prevention". No Room for Contraception. Retrieved June 12th, 2008 - "

“The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and you know is uninfected.”

Church contraception policy undermines the moral obligation to protect life

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“At least, this is the view of many Catholics at the front lines of the global HIV battle. Catholic organizations mercifully provide around 25 percent of the care AIDS victims receive worldwide. Many of the clergy and laity involved in treating people with AIDS, who otherwise fully ascribe to the church’s teachings on sexual ethics and the sanctity of marriage, nevertheless endorse the use of condoms. They argue that the preservation of human life is paramount.

Father Valeriano Paitoni, working in São Paulo, Brazil, summarized this perspective: “AIDS is a world epidemic, a public-health problem that must be confronted with scientific advances and methods that have proven effective,” he said. “Rejecting condom use is to oppose the fight for life.””

Church policy against contraceptives worsens HIV/AID pandemic

There are clear harms that result from even a small proportion of the world’s 1.09 billion baptised Catholics (143m and 541m of whom live in Africa and Latin America respectively) failing to use condoms to protect against AIDS. In 2003 there were 43m HIV/AIDS sufferers worldwide, 29.4m of whom lived in Sub-Saharan Africa with the total figure predicted to double by 2010. The Catholic Church is thus partly responsible for at least some of the 3.1m deaths every year from HIV/AIDS. Whilst the trend in European nations is towards lapsed Catholicism, in Africa strict obedience to the Church’s teachings remains strong and so it is reasonable to assume that the Church could prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths by changing its policy.

While not 100%-effective, condoms reduce risk of HIV-transmission

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“Although it is true that condoms are not 100-percent effective in preventing HIV infection, they do reduce the risk of transmission significantly. Comparing condom use to a suicidal dare, as Cardinal Trujillo does, is scientifically inaccurate and socially irresponsible.

A preponderance of medical research demonstrates that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV. For example, the European Study Group on Heterosexual Transmission of HIV followed 124 discordant couples (in which only one of the pair is…”

Condoms prevent transmission of death, not merely transmission of life

Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, on the need to change the church’s policy on condoms in the fact of the AIDS epidemic [“Condoms for Catholics?” Newsweek, July 20, 2001]. – “The use of a condom can be seen not as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of life’ leading to pregnancy, but rather as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of death’ to another.”[2]

Catholics can support condoms as lesser evil than HIV/AIDS

Contraceptives protect married women from HIV-infected husbands

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Catholic Church does, will not protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is her husband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husband’s sexual overtures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself and her children.

Given these realities, isn’t opposing the use of condoms tantamount to condemning countless women to death? In the midst of the AIDS epidemic, which has already killed tens of millions and preys disproportionately on the poor, the condom acts as a contra mortem and its use is justified by the Catholic consistent ethic of life.”

Condoms are needed where abstinence is not an option for women

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“Of course, never having sex will significantly reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. (It will not, though, completely eliminate the risk of contracting HIV, since the virus is also transmitted via blood products, birthing, and breastfeeding.) But the Vatican must be made aware that abstaining from sex is not a choice that many women living in the developing world have. To preach fidelity and abstinence assumes that a woman can determine with whom she sleeps and when – a grave misunderstanding of the relations between the sexes in places where women are sometimes betrothed at birth or sold for cattle. How can the Vatican continue to prohibit the use of a life-saving intervention amid a pandemic of unprecedented proportions? By reflexively invoking Humane vitae whenever the condom issue arises, the church has tragically misdiagnosed the moral problem at hand.”

Church condom policies fail to adapt to harsh modern realities

Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". 24 April 2006

“If men did not stray, if women had rights, if AIDS did not kill, perhaps the church’s strict ban on condom use would be morally defensible. But none of these conditions applies in Africa today. As a consequence, the cost of the church’s inflexibility may mean not only untold human suffering, but the loss of millions of innocent lives.”

Dignity of life: Does condom-use violate the dignity of life?

Contraceptive-use undermines the dignity of life.

Life begins before the womb; contraceptives end budding life

Life should form by God's will, not by human birth control

Evangelium vitae. The Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II. 1995

“On a more general level, there exists in contemporary culture a certain Promethean attitude which leads people to think that they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands.”

Pregnancy is a gift, not something to be prevented/avoided.

Contraceptives interrupt/demean the Godly act of creation

If life begins at conception, contraception cannot violate life.

One of the main Catholic arguments against abortion is that life begins at conception, or when the sperm enters the egg. This argument can work, however, against the Catholic position on contraception. If life begins when the sperm enters the egg, contraception cannot be seen as taking a newly formed human life; contraception occurs before life has started. Therefore, it cannot be said to violate the dignity of life as it relates to a fertilized egg or an unborn child.

Sexual morality: Does condom-use violate principles of sexual morality?

Contraception undermines sexual morality; encourages promiscuity, infidelity

Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI. 1968

“Consequences of Artificial Methods. 17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”

Condom-use is a responsible act of sexual maturity and prevention

Condom-use, in modernity, is seen as a wise and responsible act for those that are sexually active. The Church wrongly teaches that condom-use leads to irresponsible sexual immorality. On the contrary, the decision to use contraception during sexual intercourse requires that an individual responsibly consider the consequences of their action (i.e. the possibility of impregnation and/or transmitting STDs such as HIV/AIDS). Contraceptive use, therefore, characterizes responsible sexual behavior; not the opposite.

Sexual morality can/should go hand-in-hand with condom-use

There is no reason that sexual morality cannot be taught along with the distribution of condoms. The possession of condoms does not, in itself, motivate sexual immorality and irresponsibility; many other cultural factors are involved. Teaching proper sexual morals can easily accompany condom distribution and use.

"Multiply": Does God's commandment to "multiply" support a condom ban?

Contraceptives violate God's commandment to "multiply"

The Hebrew Bible clearly promotes prolific childbirth in opposition to the use of contraception. – “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). This is considered by Jews and Christians as his first commandment, because it is written at the very beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Condoms help people regulate their reproductive "multiplication".

If a couple wanted to have ten children, it is feasible that they could. Is this what God commanded? Obviously not. This would be unreasonable and would force a couple to sacrifice certain other areas in which they are meant to fulfill God’s will. Therefore, God intended for humans to regulate their reproduction and even minimize their offspring. Condoms are a reasonable way to do this. And, obviously, the use of condoms does not mean that a couple will not fulfill God’s commandment to “multiply”. In fact, a couple could use condoms, but still decide to have ten children.

"Spilling seed": Does this Biblical passage support Church policy?

Contraception wrongly aids in "spilling the seed"

Onan is condemned in the Bible for “spilling his seed”. Genesis 38:9-10, states that during intercourse Onan “spilled his seed on the ground” (coitus interruptus). This was “evil in the sight of the Lord” and was punished by Onan’s death. This is an explicit condemnation of birth-control or the wasting of sperm.

"Spilling seed" is not what God found wicked about Onan's acts

The passage in Genesis 38:9-10 doesn’t say that “spilling the seed” was wicked in the sight of the Lord. What was detestable was Onan’s decision NOT to fulfill his brotherly obligations of carrying on the lineage of his brother (Deuteronomy 25:5–6). His defiance is what was wicked in the eyes of God, as were his selfish intentions… not the actual act of “spilling the seed.” Nowhere in the Bible does it state that contraception is wicked in the eyes of the Lord, and the Genesis 38 passage is no different.

Theology: What other justifications support Church condom policy?

Church contraception policy properly based on faith not reason

Thomas Aquinas wrote, “If the only way open to us for the knowledge of God were solely that of reason, the human race would remain in the blackest of ignorance.”[3]

Pope Paul VI ruled against contraception in the 1960s; this ruling stands.

The 1963-66 commission was set up only to advise the Pope and ultimately until a subsequent Pope decrees otherwise it is he who is the Supreme arbiter of the Church’s policy, acting as Christ’s representative on Earth. No Pope has re-ruled on contraception since Paul so it is his interpretation that must stand.

Church contraception policy is supported by natural law:

The Catholic position on contraception is highly influenced by the natural law theory of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, which deems that sexuality has as its end purpose, procreation; to interfere in this end would be a violation of the natural law, and thus, a sin.

The fathers of the Catholic Church condemned contraception.

“the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (Clement of Alexandria). In light of controversy over whether Paul VI’s ruling was infallible, the Church has even as recently as 1997 stated that Rome considers it as a matter of scripture and hence “definitive and irreformable” (Vademecum for Confessors 2:4).

Priests need not promote condoms, but should not ban them

UNAIDS Director Peter Piot said in 2001: “When priests preach against using contraception, they are committing a serious mistake which is costing human lives. We do not ask the church to promote contraception, but merely to stop banning its use.”[4]

The 1960 Church Commission ruled in favor of contraceptives.

The Commission set up to decide on a policy revision in the late 1960s took expert advice both on matters of faith and on the practical implication of allowing contraception. It came to the conclusion that it should be allowed by a significant majority but was then over-ruled in very quick succession by Pope Paul VI.

Pope Paul VI's 1968 ruling is not binding and can be overturned.

Importantly the Papal ruling has not been defined as an interpretation of scripture (there is some argument about this) and so is not a ruling on which the Pope was infallible and which binds future Popes, hence the Church does have the ability to overturn the ruling.

The bible does not actually condemn the use of condemns.

Scholars have for centuries argued over whether the discussion of Onan in Genesis condemns him for spilling his seed or for failing to take care of his brother’s wife.

The Winnipeg Statement of Canadian Catholic bishops supported condom use.

It stated that Catholics could in good faith use artificial contraception.

Few support Catholic condom policy, undermining Church legitimacy

Claire Short, the UK’s minister for international development – “The Catholic church … opposes contraception but most Catholics in the world use it, so the Catholic church is stuck and wrong on these questions. But lots and lots of Catholics ignore the Catholic church’s teaching, including lots of good priests and nuns who are in favor of condoms being made available.”[5]

Marriage: Is condom-use bad for marriages?

Condoms help preserve the sexual life of a marriage.

Without condoms, many married couples may have to forego sex in order to prevent further pregnancies. It is unhealthy for married couples to deny their sexual attraction to one another in this way.

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