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Debate: Catholic Church contraception policy

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Should the Roman Catholic Church change its current position of forbidding the use of contraception?


This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Andrew Goodman. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

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.

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Costing lives? Is the Catholic Church's anti-contraceptives policy responsible for lives lost in the world? Is this important or wrong?


The Catholic Church's policies against contraceptive use leads to the wider transmission of HIV: 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.

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The church should focus on what it believes is "right" for our souls, not on what it believes will save 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. Further, 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.

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Theologically unfounded? Is the prohibition of contraceptives use by the Catholic church unfounded on religious grounds?


If the Catholic Church wishes to focus on issues of faith, they must admit that on contraception they are inconsistent by their own logic. 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. 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 natural law that the Church claims falls on its side is vague and perhaps contradictory, given belief in the separate creation of animals and man which the Church approves. 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. Indeed in the Winnipeg Statement, Canadian Catholic bishops stated that Catholics could in good faith use artificial contraception. When placed against the threat of AIDS, the view of many senior Cardinals that prohibiting condoms stems the tide of immorality pales in comparison. Indeed the majority of Catholics do not support the prohibition, the Commission ruled that allowing contraception was scripturally sound and a number of senior African Cardinals have spoken out against the policy.


Pope Paul VI made his ruling against contraceptives in (note not banning contraception but merely reaffirming that this had always been the position of the Catholic Church). 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. The Church points to natural law, that sexual pleasure becomes sinful when it defeats the basic purpose of sex, procreation.

Condemnation of Onan in Genesis and Deuteronomy:

Much Church doctrine is rooted not in the Bible or in natural law but in the teachings of the Church Fathers and they very clearly 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).

Effectiveness: Is the Church's recommended policies of birth control effective?


The Catholic Church’s natural methods of contraception are simply not viable in many of the areas which the policy hits hardest.

  • The rhythm method requires observations to be marked on calendars over a long period of time and it doubtful that many newlyweds have the will-power to abstain for their first month together. Experience in relatively developed nations such as Ireland shows that over the longer-term far less reliable methods such as withdrawal in fact become dominant because of the rigour required to keep track of fertility cycles.
  • The Billing method which uses analysis of cervical temperature to determine fertility both requires accurate thermometers and that those thermometers are kept sterile in order to prevent infection, which can kill in the absence of reliable healthcare.
  • Examination of cervical mucus has the problems of both of the previous methods, being difficult and requiring a sterile environment to prevent infection.
  • Indeed one of the reasons cited by members of the Commission for rejecting natural methods alone was exactly this impracticality when combined with the relatively high levels of education needed for them to be effective.


Natural Methods of contraception can provide the solution to high population growth in areas where there is a cultural stigma against condom usage (aboriginal communities in Australia provide a non-Christian example, as do even some Protestant areas in North Carolina, USA) and in areas where condom distribution is impractical. There is a disturbing rise in couples in medium term relationships who choose not to use condoms because they consider them unpleasant; for them natural methods offer an alternative to invasive procedures such as the implant. Similarly, in developing nations natural methods would prevent a reliance on condoms from the developed world which can often not be distributed to remote areas and need to be stored within a certain temperature range, impractical in mid-summer in Sub-Saharan Africa where refrigerators are often scarce. Indeed the WHO and the Indian Parliament have recently diverted funds towards education programmes in order to ensure that Natural Family Planning is a viable alternative to barrier methods in terms of birth control.

International relations: Does the Church's policy on contraception have a negative effect on the politics of the developing world?


The Church’s stance on contraception encourages the invasive involvement in the politics of developing nations whose governments are promoting contraceptive use in order to fight AIDS: This has negative consequences for both the states and the Church. In the mid-1980s, the Catholic Bishops Conferences of the Philippines and Cardinal Sin in particular conspired to campaign against the parties of the left in order to ensure that the 1987 Constitutional settlement “protects our people against the contraceptive onslaught”. This obligation which anti-contraception bishops felt to involve themselves in politics can be attributed to the central policy of the Church. Regional Churches have also played a role in rallying support against NGOs who distribute contraceptives as part of their missions. Prohibition of contraception commits the Catholic Church to undermining the separation of Church and state which is accepted in the Constitutions of many developed nations and often to actively undermining the policies of governments designed to protect their own people.


'There is no obligation on the Church to involve itself in earthly politics implied by doctrine. The Church, for example, spoke out against Cardinal Sin when they considered him to have gone too far into partisan politics.

To back-track on Church doctrine would create international schisms within the Church: Regional Churches often feel obliged to follow their faith. Rome changing its position on contraception would be seen as illegitimate by the regional Churches that are currently most vocal in their opposition to condoms. The break from Rome under Henry VIII and current Anglican controversies over gay and female bishops highlights the fragile and often decentralised nature of the Christian Church. To backtrack on matters of doctrine risks similar schisms within the Roman Catholic Church which would inevitably lead to more radical regional Churches further involving themselves in partisan politics. They may even return to a position of denial that condoms even protect against HIV/AIDS - a position which Rome and scientific pressure was instrumental in pulling them away from but which could easily have resulted in divisions. Therefore, continuity of Church policy maintains an international stability among Church's.

Popularity of Church: Would removing the ban on contraception help strengthen falling Church membership? Should this be an objective?


Removing the ban on contraception would help strengthen falling Church membership in developed nations by lifting a burden placed upon its members which a majority of Catholics in developed nations see as unworkable. Removal would also prevent schisms in the Church around the flashpoint of how to deal with the AIDS epidemic. The Church is constantly under pressure to adapt to changes in a manner which is spiritually consistent but deals with issues in the material world. The process is one of natural evolution, as for instance (albeit a case in a different context) with the Church’s gradual recognition of abuse issues within its clergy, on anti-semitism or wrongdoing in genocides. Increasingly, Rome stands alone as the sole advocate of an anti-contraception policy, after the Anglican Communion’s change of policy in the 1930s, and contraception’s increased acceptance in both Orthodox and reformed Judaism. Now prominent Catholic politicians, bishops and regional Churches are accepting firstly that condoms can prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and subsequently that in limited situations such as where one partner is HIV positive in a loving or abusive marriage, barrier contraception use should be permitted. The Catholic Church’s survival depends on whether it can remain credible on a host of issues such as married priests and gay bishops. The Church has in the past changed its views on slavery and the subjugation of women when it became apparent that they were no longer viable and this is now the case with its policy on contraception.


The Catholic Church is not a democracy, its purpose is to provide spiritual guidance to its flock. Whilst political parties often have transparent leadership elections with one member one vote, a ‘One Catholic One Vote’ (OCOV) system for electing the Pope is inconceivable. Instead the Conclave decides in great secrecy, in a guarded anonymous-but-consensus system. So too should the Church take a strong stance on what it considers to be matters of faith. It would be bizarre to appeal to other religions such as Judaism whose teaching the Church rejects, or even to Protestantism given that Catholics’ issues with the Protestant faith run far deeper than just contraception (justification by faith alone, the sacraments, priestly status, to name but a few). Further, even if it were desirable to repeal the prohibition, to do so on a doctrine which has been exposed to so much scrutiny and has been reaffirmed by the Church as infallible would undermine Rome’s monopoly power over setting doctrinal positions. It would result in more Catholics questioning the articles of faith they find difficult to accept and destroy the validity of the doctrine of Papal infallibility. One of the central themes of religion is a struggle to accept one’s faith and the Church would be showing weakness by giving into popular pressure in this struggle.



  • This House believes that the Catholic Church should rethink its stance on contraception
  • This House believes that the Catholic Church should do more to fight AIDS in Africa
  • That Catholic leaders should be held responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS
  • This House would break from Rome
  • This House would give local Churches greater autonomy

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