Why is birth control the Catholic Church’s last stand?

To many observers, the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to birth control seems nonsensical — they might as well oppose ice cream. It seems like a win-win: the liberals are happy that women get reproductive freedom, but meanwhile if you’re anti-abortion, it seems like avoiding unwanted pregnancies in the first place is the best possible solution. What’s not to like? Or more to the point: why are they making this, of all the many Catholic moral teachings, the cross they’re willing to die on, even as the laity has long since stopped caring?

I don’t think we can explain this simply through misogyny or fear of feminine sexuality, etc., because there are plenty of misogynists in the world who don’t make a point of picking a fight with the president of the United States over birth control. This birth control issue seems to be almost exclusively a Catholic “thing,” so it has to have a Catholic-specific explanation. I propose that the answer can be found in a historic compromise set forth by one of the most influential thinkers you’ve never heard of: namely, Clement of Alexandria, a second-century Christian philosopher.

In the history of the Catholic Church, Clement’s compromise was arguably almost as defining a moment as Paul’s declaration that Gentile Christians were not obligated to meet Jewish ritual requirements. The point at issue was of course not birth control, but whether marriage should be permitted for Christians. This question makes sense in light of the fact that Jesus and Paul, the two major founding figures of Christianity, were themselves celibate — and in the Roman world, counterintuitive as it seems to us now, there was a huge attraction in celibacy. The sects of Christianity that required celibacy actually grew much more rapidly than the more moderate versions.

At the same time, a celibacy requirement obviously presented a huge obstacle if Christianity was to be a mainstream movement, since it automatically excluded many people (including many of the rich and powerful, whom Clement was eager to court). Possessing the Catholic instinct for having things both ways, Clement came up with a solution: celibacy would be the elite path, but marriage would be permitted for the average believer.

Unlike Paul, who permitted marriage purely as a release of sexual tension, Clement’s rationale for permitting it was to limit sex to reproductive purposes. In this, he was following the prescriptions laid out in Plato’s Laws (which he weirdly believed to be inspired by Moses) for bringing the sexual drives under the control of reason. He believed (or at least said) that there was a real danger of a slippery slope and claimed that there were some Christian sects that allowed a total sexual libertinism, which was throwing the movement into disrepute. Hence the need to limit sexuality to its obvious and natural purpose: reproduction.

This compromise obviously had its influence in the East as well, but its effects were arguably more intense in the West, where all clergy were eventually required to be celibate. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the stigmatization of non-reproductive sexual activities (including homosexuality) picked up speed, resulting in the invention of the category of sodomy. (Fun fact: Tertullian, a theologian writing at roughly the same time as Clement, argued that the sin of Sodom was indulging in marriage.) Toward the end of the Middle Ages, marriage was ultimately enshrined as a sacrament, cementing the two-tiered system as the basis of day-to-day Catholic experience. The shock of the Reformation, which combatted the requirement of priestly celibacy, only led to a further entrenchment of clerical celibacy during the reactionary period of the Counter-Reformation.

Fast forward to the aftermath of Vatican II, where a spirit of reform and openness to the modern world dominated — and one of the innovations of the modern world was of course The Pill. A council of experts recommended that the Catholic Church change its anti-contraception stance, but in 1968 the pope rejected their recommendation and reaffirmed the status quo in the infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae. In retrospect, this moment could appear to signal the premature death of the “spirit of Vatican II.”

This is strange: in the wake of Vatican II, the Catholic hierarchy was willing to make radical changes to the liturgy, to dethrone Thomas Aquinas as the standard of all theology and philosophy, to rethink its stance toward other religions, etc., etc. Why go to war over such a small and seemingly harmless issue?

I’d propose it’s because it went deeper than ideas: it was about day-to-day life. It was about the base-level way the Catholic community was structured — including the legitimation of the hierarchy’s authority. All of that depended on the notion that sex should be limited to its “natural” purpose of reproduction and otherwise avoided. What widespread dissemination and normalization of birth control threatened to do was decouple sex and reproduction — and also make sex seem less “dangerous,” less in need of control. The entire rationale behind Clement’s compromise and hence the entire rationale behind the way the Catholic community had structured the most intimate aspects of its day to day life would be totally destroyed.

In the face of that threat, the Catholic hierarchy basically decided to pretend that the advent of birth control had never happened — that it was some kind of aberration rather than a normal fact of modern life. The fact that they allow the practice of “Catholic family planning” based on timing the woman’s menstrual cycle is not hypocritical within this horizon: the Catholic Church has always tacitly allowed loopholes to lessen the severity of its rules, and this is a naturally-occurring loophole that doesn’t fundamentally change the relationship between sex and reproduction. It relies on the natural operation of the woman’s reproductive system, whereas artificial birth control works by disrupting that natural operation.

So the reason the Catholic hierarchy views issues of sexuality as their Rubicon is because it strikes at the heart of that hierarchy’s own self-legitimation and day-to-day life experience. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the hierarchy views Clement’s compromise as something almost as fundamental as Paul’s refusal of conversion to Judaism for Gentile believers. The threat is just as great as if a council of theologians was suggesting that the Catholic Church should require believers to convert to Judaism after all — the very basis for a separate Christian structure of authority would be utterly destroyed.

The fact that this insistence is gradually alienating the hierarchy more and more from the laity and thus undermining its authority is no counterargument: I’m pretty sure the hierarchy thinks they can wait this out.

34 thoughts on “Why is birth control the Catholic Church’s last stand?

  1. I may be off-base, and I think you are right about this, but I also think that on a popular level this issue captures the imaginations of many Catholics (and others) out of an emotive inflation surrounding the ideas of “fairness” and “shame”: “It’s not fair that kids today escape the shame of unwed pregnancy. We played our own lotteries and ‘won’; we made sexual sacrifices without access to tools to ‘cheat.’ Access makes it much easier to give the illusion of virginity in a world where virginity is ‘expected’ less and is never really genuine.”

  2. There was an article in the local paper about how the church is considering its options to avoid having to pay for contraception under the new health care laws. There was talk of just opting out and paying the consequences, literally. I thought it was telling that a nun was quoted as basically saying the church is making decisions that don’t impact the decision makers at all but are hugely impactful to thousands of women, and they need to consider that carefully before they do something rash. The same article mentioned a HUGE percentage of Catholics who believe it’s fine to use contraception.

  3. This is an interesting post, but I think there might be more to be said. It is of course true that many of the Patristic thinkers viewed sex as icky, but these tended to be monastics, and there was a counter-current that was very “pro-marriage”–John of Chrysostum’s sermons are a good example of this. Further, I think we have to be careful about posing marriage and celibacy as contraries. For many of the fathers, celibacy had to do with not succumbing to the cares of the world rather than just sex–which is why Gregory of Nyssa (I think) maintains that one can be virginal yet married.

    The intellectual grounds the Church has opposed contraception have actually become more entrenched after the influence of John Paul’s phenemenology. While I don’t agree that contraception is always sinful, there are points that I think people don’t take seriously enough. First, by limiting the consequences of sex it becomes easier to treat it as recreational, as “just sex” rather than as something life-altering. Second, by (mostly) closing sexual acts to the possibility of procreation, it becomes easier to value sex purely for one’s own pleasure. Third, although contraception has allowed women to pursue professional careers by postponing childbirth, there are good sociological arguments that it intensifies pressure on women who do not wish to postpone childbirth to do so.

    However the Catholic fixation on declaring the use of contraception as intrinsically disordered in every instance without considering the personal and social context is in my opinion unjustified, and by so narrowing the focus it tends to cause people to overlook the negative effects contraceptive use can have on one’s personal life and on culture at large.

  4. I have also heard the case made that the decision to condone contraception historically sets off a period of decline in the mainline protestant churches from which they will not likely recover, and so I think there is an element of self-conscious distinctiveness at work, even if unintentionally, that has served an end of the Catholic Church. Obviously Catholics on the ground by and large don’t care, but I think they find it comforting to know that they body to which they belong still imposes rules that don’t directly map on to secular liberal culture.

  5. Matt, yesterday Democracy Now hosted a conversation on this issue. The representative from some pro-choice Catholic non-profit reported that 98% of Catholics use contraception, despite the church’s teachings. That debate is worth checking out.

  6. Adam,

    I know this is just a blog post, but do you mind pointing to where in Clement these ideas are found? Or a secondary source that summarizes this presence in his writing? I find this fascinating, as I did not realize how early such influence from Greek views on sex had entered into Christian theological thinking, since I was under the impression that most arguments for celibacy pre-Constantine were motivated by eschatology, not negative views of sex per se.

    It is also interesting to notice (this might seem like it is coming out of nowhere) that Jewish law permits birth control in many circumstances, and even back in the Talmud abortion was not only sometimes allowed, but sometimes required (I only know some rough details about this…). The RC Church, on the other hand, canonizes women who decide to die along with their unborn child in circumstances in which Jewish law would require an abortion.

  7. The marriage-related stuff is translated into Latin in the standard ANF edition — to get it, you need to pick up the Alexandrian Christianity volume of the LCL. It’s in book 3 of the Stromata. Ted’s book Plato or Paul elucidates some of this.

  8. Really good post.

    I want to echo Hill’s point, which was my initial reaction to the post’s title: the reason why it is the last stand is that it is something that really marks out brand Catholic against the competition. Indeed, I have heard Catholic and quasi-Catholics argue that its counter-cultural nature (despite almost all Western Catholics ignoring it) is what really marks out how the Church is the “only really radical force blah blah blah”.

    For Thomas: people did plenty of recreational sex when it had the full range of consequences. I’d agree that there might be something problematic about having sex purely for one’s own pleasure (using people), but how about having sex for the pleasure of all parties? In terms of life changing sex (though I don’t really know what this means), or sex that deepens love could it not be considered more life changing if you can have it without having to worry about there being a kid, but think more about how to bond with your partner?

  9. I just want to chime in and agree: you need to get _Plato or Paul_. Awesome, fascinating, liberating, wonderful. Also surprising.

    I love the fact that this blog leads me to so many great books. (Now reading Melville’s _Confidence-Man_ because of the Melville aesthetic theology book.)

  10. I’m not certain that we can so heavily emphasize Clement here. A lot of the other Church Fathers also were thinking about this same subject, and most came to the same conclusion as Clement. It’s not clear they needed Clement to get to that conclusion – especially since it’s a similar one that Platonic philosophy pointed at. Though I’m probably talking based off my ignorance here, I think this would be a problem for anything that emphasized celibacy. Doesn’t Buddhism (which also had a (semi)celibate founder and most/many of whose leading lights were also celibates) effectively have the same problem? The Aztecs also had a celibate priesthood, and I wonder whether they too would run into the same types of problems.

    Further, I would make a point that Judaism, which strongly rejects celibacy, suffers from a number of fairly difficult problems related to that rejection. And it’s possible, or even likely, that Jesus is reacting to those problems through his own celibacy. The fact that there’s a lot of resentment at how power and wealth were divided up in his time – which was almost exclusively through families in the Israel of his time- perhaps indicates something like that.

    Thomas, your depiction of Judaism and contraception is pretty misleading. The haredi only allow contraception in limited cases (less limited than the Catholic Church, but still quite limited). There’s a reason they have huge families, you know.

  11. It seems to me that Clement got there first with this precise solution. He was also hugely influential in other compromises — for instance, “explaining away” the anti-wealth sections of the gospels — that I’m inclined to credit him with “cultural” type of issues where the tradition wound up embracing something basically exactly like he advocated. He was, after all, the first truly famous Christian teacher in the intellectual capital of the empire, which was then to give us Origen, Athanasius, etc. They didn’t “need” him, but then, they probably didn’t “need” St. Paul to come up with the notion that Gentile Christians don’t need to convert.

  12. > I’m pretty sure the hierarchy thinks they can wait this out.

    The hierarchy have been hoping they could wait it out since Innocent II went to his reward. It hasn’t really worked out.

  13. It’s also important to remember that planned parenthood and some contraception were pushed by protestants to reduce the number of Catholic (and their large families). This history was instilled an institutional skepticism as to motives.

  14. A Fascinating post. I don’t believe you have plumbed the full depth of this wierdness, however. I have read that the scientist, a practicing Catholic, who did the earliest work on developing the pill felt that he was simply opening further the “window” of time when sex was licit, but also non procreative. In other words, an enhancement of the “rhythm method”. A study group, convened by the Pope, made up of nuns in health care, and catholic doctors and scientists, advised that the pill was fully within established catholic teaching. The first indications were that the Pope would accept their advice, but “at the last minute”, “Humanae Vitae” was promulgated. The scientist who had done this work understood himself to have erred, and began attending mass multiple times daily. He was also made bitter and “broken” by his experiance.

  15. Yes, I had heard a similar story. ‘Humanae Vitae’ took the minority position, against the recommendations of the Pope’s advisors. The ‘rhythm method’ always seems like a major fudge to me, because no matter what it said, how can this be more an interference with nature than condoms, particularly when some women who follow it use complicated temperature measures and the like.

  16. I wonder why in this article you fail entirely to address the theology behind the issue; probably most clearly defined by John Paul II in the 1990s. Surely you are not unaware of it?

    I’ve been teaching natural family planning in the context of Catholic teaching for thirty years, so saw the development of this theology from a few echoes (but persuasive ones) in Humanae Vitae into a fully fledged theology of sexuality.

    It’s in that context that this issue is the big one for the Catholic church; the Catholic understanding of sexuality is as a revelation of the nature of God. Contraception is a rejection of that understanding; it derives form a flawed understanding of the nature of God and of humanity. Abandon Humanae Vitae and you abandon an aspect of the Trinity.

    I must say I’ve been surprised by the way in which the American bishops – scarcely those most usually identified with theological depth and orthodoxy – have stepped up to the plate here. Perhaps, just perhaps, they’ve started reading some modern Catholic theology.

  17. I would tend to view the theology as a later rationalization for the “existential” decision to try to pretend that the premises behind Clement’s compromise had been toppled. It is absolutely ridiculous to me to think that using birth control would entail denying the Trinity — and I think it’d be just as ridiculous to Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Augustine.

  18. I am really curious about what daldred has to say about this: “the Catholic understanding of sexuality is as a revelation of the nature of God.” What, exactly, is the site or source of this revelation? The Trinity reveals a Catholic understanding of sexuality? Or sexuality reveals the Trinity? Scripture reveals ideas that lead to both? Or? I began to read through JPII’s Theology of the Body a few years back, and I suppose you are saying along with him that marital sexual union expresses this truth? So what do hermaphrodites reveal about the Trinity?

  19. I’m scarcely going to post the whole of the theology of the body into a blog comment; but as to the site and source of this revelation – its primary source is Scripture. Genesis tells us that “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” – immediately before they are invited to multiply; and Paul calls marriage the image of Christ and the church.

    Where male and female are together, then, in a relationship ordered to procreation, there is an image of God, who is the Trinity; there is also an image of Christ’s love for the Church, which is also an aspect of the Trinity (as Christ is God and Man in relationship with the Father). This is what John Paul identified as the spousal nature of God; the nature which marriage and sexuality reflect and reveal (as our bodies are themselves theologies, not mere physical irrelevances).

    But that’s a short and necessarily highly incomplete (and thus inadequately accurate) summary; you really need to read it more deeply to get it fully.

    Did it take its time to be revealed? Possibly; but then theology tends to follow controversy; what is generally assumed is often not the subject of detailed teaching until it needs defending. For a Christian to accept contraception as part of marriage would have been ludicrous until the early 20th century; it was only when some started to do so that the orthodox position needed clear definition and explanation. And Catholicism does not move quickly on things which are expected to form part of the deposit of faith for centuries to come.

    (Hermaphrodites? In this context, if they are married, they would reveal the spousal nature of God directly. If they are committed to celibacy for the sake of God, they have chosen a different expression of spousality. It’s up to them how they live their lives to reveal God’s glory, as it is for anyone else).

  20. Thanks for taking the time to lay out these issues to some extent. I respect your opinion, but I still maintain that these theological moves — no matter how interesting, nuanced, or erudite they may be in themselves — are fundamentally post-hoc justifications for a decision that bore principally on a significant legitimating principle of the authority structure within the Catholic community. For a certain type of Catholic, I guess the concerns motivating that decision had their own theological urgency — but there are other types of Catholics as well.

  21. I think that is a matter on which one must take one’s choice.

    If one believes, however, that the process by which the fullness of truth is revealed is one which involves some sort of authority inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it is a resonable expectation that at times that authority may act, thorough the imperfectly understood prompting of the Spirit, in a way which it can only later fully explain; for to do otherwise is to allow a (false) zeitgeist to become a norm without challenge.

    Reading Catholic teaching on birth control over 30 years ago (not, then, as a Catholic, nor a married man), I perceived Casti Conubii as something of a reactionary, ‘hold the line’ text, and Humanae Vitae as a more complex but not yet complete version; but both pointing to an actuality deeply aligned with promptings which I had previously, outside Catholicism, noticed in Scripture. It was therefore no surprise that in due time a far more thought out, more complete presentation came about.

    But I don’t think it is yet fully developed; and in that context to regard it a simply a post-hoc justification is, I believe, both premature and an incorrect reading of the way in which the knowledge of God develops. Surely a God who no longer allowed us to gain revelation appropriate to our time and place would be either a dead God, no longer the God who speaks and nourishes His people; or a God whose people are sinless and able fully to know the fullness of truth at all times.

    But that is not the God or the people I know!

  22. AFAIK, the connection between sexuality and the Trinity is developed especially through “nuptial theology,” which Fergus Kerr traces through de Lubac, Balthasar, JPII, etc. in his Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians. (Note he’s not terribly sympathetic to it.)

  23. Anthony, if you consider the idea that human sexuality has something to do with God, in whose image human beings are created, to be gross and creepy, then I wonder what you think of sexuality; or perhaps what you think of God.

    You are surely either seeing sex as nothing to do with God’s original creation of humanity (but then it is something inherently sinful – a Gnostic position), or if you see humanity – including our sexuality and spousality – as truly in the image of God then you see God as likewise gross and creepy.

    I don’t see either as a particularly well-considered and developed Christian viewpoint; yet those seem to be the directions in which a rejection of sexuality as part of the image of God necessarily lead.

  24. “You are surely either seeing sex as nothing to do with God’s original creation of humanity (but then it is something inherently sinful – a Gnostic position)”

    I don’t get this opposition. By this logic, wouldn’t wearing clothes and tending fields be inherently sinful, because Adam in the garden does neither? Why can’t there be a third category, things which are neither inherently sinful nor bound up with “God’s original creation of humanity” — things which just aren’t significant in themselves? Why does every damn thing about human life have to reveal the Trinity or else be sin?

  25. Every damn thing would naturally be sinful; otherwise it wouldn’t be damned!

    Sexuality – the becoming one flesh of male and female, the injunction to multiply – are (in Scripture) inherent parts of the creation of humanity (as indeed is tending the garden). Clothing is not in that class; it;’s a reaction to a fallen nature which has damaged the meaning of sexuality – something which should not be necessary, but is made so by sin; and so perhaps an example of your third category.

    But I can’t see how you can argue that sexuality would fall into that category, without jetissoning Genesis.

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