A recent article in the newspaper caught my eye with the intriguing headline, “Catholic Church updates fight as pill marks 50th anniversary.” I am too young to remember the original controversy over the pill, which seems to have happened only in the Catholic Church. The pill was promoted as a great advancement for women and for families. The pill would give women control over their own fertility and over their own bodies, allowing them to choose a pregnancy rather than being surprised by a child. Families would be free from the financial and emotional worries of leaving family size to chance, they said, and couples who could not afford to have another child could continue to be intimate without the worry of a possible pregnancy. Everyone said the pill was a great gift to women and marriage, and it would make marriages stronger and less stressful.
In all the world, the only people who stood against this new freedom and opportunity was the Catholic Church. The popular media tried to say that it was only the Pope and a few old celibate Bishops who really rejected the pill. The truth was a little more complicated, as it usually is, but the whole incident created a separation between laity and clergy, and between doctrine and practice, that has not yet healed. Behind the media story was the simple fact that, rather than inventing some new prohibition, the Church simply upheld the same teaching which Protestant churches has also taught until the 20th Century. Morally, the Church said that the meaning of intimacy lies in two purposes, both a loving union of a husband and wife, and the gift of new life which that union tends to create. Taking fertility out of the picture deprives the intimacy of an essential element, and not only undermines the meaning and purpose of that intimacy but ultimately undermines the meaning and purpose of marriage.
Pope Paul VI also warned that, in addition to moral consequences, the pill would have negative practical consequences. He said it “…could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards…Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman and disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Humanae Vitae, 1968
Years ago, Catholics did not really understand the full impact of the moral arguments that the Catholic Church made, and doubted the Pope’s assessment of the practical consequences. They thought the Hierarchy would realize its mistake and eventually accept the pill because of its great benefits for women and families.
Now that the pill is nearing 50 years of widespread acceptance, we have a better perspective to evaluate who was really right. Are women more free, more respected, more equal today than 50 years ago, at least as dating and marriage goes? Are marriages stronger today or more fragile? Today nearly 40% of children grow up without their fathers, and it is contraception which made fatherhood optional. Loss of healthy restraint in relations between men and women created a demand for abortion which was subsequently legalized in 1973. Doctors have also seen much evidence that the pill causes higher incidences of weight gain, depression, moodiness, and strokes, and has negative impacts of women’s fertility. For all these reasons, the Church is more and more convinced that contraception is not a gift but a Trojan horse in marriage.
While the pill made a big splash, what has been completely overlooked has been the advancements in understanding fertility. Natural Family Planning, based on today’s understanding of the woman’s cycle, is very effective in postponing pregnancy for couples who are not ready to be pregnant. For more information on NFP, these blog entries are worth reading.