Contraception and Catholicism
by Richard Posner
It is always difficult to decide whether a religious tenet of a hierarchical religion, such as Roman Catholicism, reflects religious belief or institutional strategy. The Roman Catholic Church is a huge “corporation,” one that reached its present size, wealth, and influence in a competitive environment, where it had first to confront paganism and Judaism, and later Protestantism and secularism.
The Church has long been hostile to contraception, but the nature of its hostility has changed, and may be changing yet again with the Pope’s recent acknowledgment that the use of condoms may sometimes be justified as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS. I want to consider the institutional as distinct from doctrinal considerations that might explain the history of orthodox Catholic views of contraception.
In the early years of Christianity, the Church had to steer a middle course between Christian extremists who thought sex a form of purely animal behavior that Christians should eschew, and pagans, who had a notably relaxed attitude toward sex, including masturbation, homosexual and other nonmarital sex, and contraception in the form of coitus interruptus and abortion. Rejecting sex altogether was not a viable policy for an ambitious Church (think where rejection of sex got the Shakers), but accepting the pagan view would have resulted in a failure to differentiate Christianity from paganism, and perhaps reduce Christianity’s appeal to women.
The compromise position that the Church adopted was that sex was proper as long as it was oriented toward its proper function, which, the Church held, was procreation within marriage. But it had to qualify this view to avoid condemning sex by married people who turned out to be sterile, for example because the wife had reached menopause. So the Church allowed that a secondary lawful purpose of sex was to reinforce the marital bond.
Many centuries later the “demographic transition”—the tendency for the birthrate to fall when a nation achieves a certain level of prosperity—placed the Catholic condemnation of contraception under pressure. Married couples wanted to have sex, but didn’t want to have the number of children that an active sex life would produce without contraception. And contraceptive methods improved. Eventually the Church achieved a partial accommodation by authorizing the “rhythm” method of contraception, since that was a form of abstinence and abstinence was consistent with Catholic doctrine—indeed it was enjoined on priests and nuns. But few married couples found it satisfactory.
Greatly improved contraception (notably the pill), improved treatments of venereal diseases, increased privacy, relaxation of parental controls, continued declines in family size, and increased divorce rates (in part a consequence of lower birthrates and women’s greater access to the job market)—all factors that reduced procreative relative to nonprocreative sex (in part by increasing the prevalence of nonmarital sex)—put irresistible pressure on the Catholic prohibition of contraception, to the point where today in the United States and most European nations, even such traditionally strongly Catholic nations as Ireland and Italy, Catholics use contraception at the same rate as non-Catholics.
With the Church unable to resist the sexual revolution, efforts to prevent contraception were seen as likely to have perverse consequences. True, if contraception were unavailable, there would be less promiscuity; but there would be some promiscuity, and probably a good deal, and a higher fraction of sex acts would result in unintended pregnancy, and therefore in an increased number of births to unwed teenagers and an increased number of abortions. The net effect would be unclear, but could well be worse from the standpoint of overall Catholic doctrine.
(read the rest of this post on The Becker-Posner Blog)