The Roman Catholic Church’s unique stance on Family Planning and contraception was mostly from Augustine of Hippo’s commentaries before we had sufficient knowledge of human reproduction. Due to the “infallibility” of the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church hinders itself from reissuing statements on dogma that could uplift the lives of its flock including its stance on contraception. Below is an excerpt from Pastrana & Harris’ Demographic Governance and Family Planning: the Philippines’ Way Forward.
Roman Catholicism is the only religion that specifically and explicitly condemns contraception. First, let’s look at other religions and then answer the question why contemporary Catholic teaching is so profoundly different from that of all other religions.
Hinduism values human sexuality. Hindu scriptures applaud small families and the Upanishads (texts delineating key Hindu concepts) describe birth control methods. At some phases of its history, it has decorated its temples with carvings illustrating the pleasures of sexual congress.
Buddhism, which grew out of Hinduism, has never condemned nor restricted access to family planning. One common Buddhist saying is that “Many children make you poor.”
Confucianism emphasizes the importance of balance and harmony in the individual, the family, and society. Since having too many children can upset this balance, family planning has been a valued part of human sexuality in both Taoism and Confucianism. In the Chinese religions, sex and sexual pleasure are esteemed and celebrated along with the need for moderation. Abortion is either allowed or is condemned as a crime within the family, not as a crime against the state.
Judaism has several manifestations, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, each of which places a different emphasis on the Biblical injunction to be “fruitful and multiply” and the drive to nurture and educate children. Orthodox Jewish woman have an interesting interpretation of oral contraception, encouraging it’s use before marriage in order to decrease the chances of menstrual bleeding on the wedding night, when the newlyweds are supposed to retire to a private room for time alone, known as Yichud. Yichud allows for the consummation of the marriage and is a requirement under Orthodox Jewish law but intercourse cannot take place during menstruation. A disproportionate number of scientists and physicians who have been leaders in family planning have also been Jews.
Christianity and Islam both recognize teachings found in the Old Testament. The Old Testament only mentions contraception once, in the story of Onan (Genesis 35) whom “God slew” because “he spilt his seed on the ground,” i.e. practicing withdrawal or coitus interruptus. Jewish theologians sometimes interpret Onan’s sin not as the use of contraception but as disobeying his father’s command to make his deceased brother’s wife pregnant. The only reference to abortion in the Bible is explicit that abortion is that it is not murder unless the woman dies as a result of the abortion (Exodus 21:23).
Islam allows a lot of latitude in its interpretation, which is reflected by the various differences in family planning policies by distinct Muslim groups and countries. The Qur’an calls on the faithful to “procreate and abound in number,” but there is not express prohibition of contraception and ‘azl’ or withdrawal is mentioned as acceptable in the Hadith, or sayings of the Holy Prophet.
The reason contemporary Catholic teaching is so profoundly different from that of all other religions goes back Saint Augustine. No other religion asserts as Catholicism has done since Augustine that sexual intercourse is intrinsically sinful, that celibacy is preferable to marriage but that within marriage the sole justification for the pleasure of sex is that it must be open to procreation. The teaching of the Church was that new born babies would burn in Hell for all Eternity unless they received the sacrament of baptism. Augustine overcame this intuitively cruel conclusion by arguing that Original Sin had been transmitted in the semen since Adam, like some latter day AIDS virus.
Augustine of Hippo (354-436) lived a time when even the role of the ovaries in reproduction was not understood and women were perceived fields in which men sowed their ‘seed.’– hence ‘wasting semen’ was perceived at wasting everything that was needed for conception.
Protestants as well as Catholics followed the Augustinian condemnation of contraception until relatively recently, when all denominations, except the Roman Church, have come to accept martial sexual relations as a blessing and therefore contraception as moral. The Anglican (Episcopal) communion did this at the Lambeth Conferences of 1920 and 1930. In 1954, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stated that “to enable them to more thankfully receive God’s blessing and reward, a married couple should plan and govern their sexual relations so that any child born to their union will be desired both for itself and in relation to the time of its birth.” The United Methodist’s Resolution on Responsible Parenthood encourages all possible efforts by parents and the community to ensure that every child enters is healthy body and wanted.
Why could Protestants escape a 1500 year old mistake but the Vatican could not? The answer is yet another twist in a tangled tragic tale of error and stubborn patriarchy. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul) expressed the issue clearly in 1966,
If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches . . . It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect . . . a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error.”
What Cardinal Wojtyla should have gone on to say is that the Vatican, unlike Protestant churches, was unable to admit ‘serious error’ because slightly over a century earlier, in 1870 Pope Pius IX had declared all popes as infallible in 1870. A less rigid man than Pope John Paul might have noticed that none of the comments of the Popes or the encyclical Humanae vitae which his predecessor Pope Paul was to issue in 1968, had been framed as infallible. Nevertheless, the fact that his Church, again in Wojtyla’s words, “had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding [artificial contraception], under pain of eternal damnation” was sufficient to prevent the hierarchy back tracking. Better to prolong a mistake from the fourth century, by a clever man but one who new zero about the awesome wonders of human reproduction, than to relieve millions of women of earthly pain let alone ‘eternal damnation.’
Source: Pastrana, Quintin & Lauren Harris, “Demographic Governance and Family Planning: the Philippines’ Way Forward,” Bixby Center for Population, Health and Sustainability: University of California, Berkeley. http://bixby.berkeley.edu/bixby-visits-philippines-to-discuss-family-planning/family-planning-policy-brief-1-4-11-2/