From the Beginning to Pope Francis, the Church Has Taught Against Contraception

Natural Family Planning Awareness week is celebrated each summer to coincide with the July 25, 1968, publication date of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical teaching against use of artificial means of birth control.

Each year there are rumors that the teaching on contraception is in doubt, so this is a good time to review how the Church has taught against contraception from the beginning, and how often Pope Francis has repeated his support for the teaching.

The Church has always been against contraception, from its earliest days.

One way the Church teaches infallibly is when it teaches the same thing “at all times and in all places.” That is the case with the teaching on artificial contraception.

  • Clement of Alexandria criticized the “sin of Onan,” or “wasted” sexual acts in A.D. 195.
  • Hippolytus of Rome in 255 preached against “drugs of sterility” and other contraceptive methods.
  • Augustine wrote in 419 against couples “obstructing their procreation” by “an evil deed.”
  • The First Council of Nicaea couldn’t have foreseen vasectomies, but in 325 taught against castration.
  • Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, On the Regulation of Birth, reaffirmed and updated Church teaching in 1968.
  • In 1992 the Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterated the prohibition against “direct sterilization or contraception” (CCC 2399).
  • The 1997 Vatican guide for confessors put it this way: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.”
  • In 2006, the Compendium of the Catechism in No. 498, said: “Every action — for example, direct sterilization or contraception — is intrinsically immoral which (either in anticipation of the conjugal act, in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences) proposes, as an end or as a means, to hinder procreation.”

In recent years, Pope Francis has reiterated Church teaching on contraception, as well.

In the Philippines, he taught that contraception undermines the family.

The more you take away sex’s natural consequences, the more unintended consequences you get. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would “lead to conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.”

Pope Francis reiterated that at a January 2015 Meeting of Families in Manila.

“I think of Blessed Paul VI,” he said. “At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families.”

He knew particular cases could be difficult but “He had a broader vision: He looked at the peoples of the earth and he saw this threat of families being destroyed for lack of children,” Francis said. “Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming.”

The wolves have certainly come now. Early on, sociologists began tracking the huge extent to which contraception and divorce are linked. Mary Eberstadt has spelled out how Paul VI was right. Contraception fueled the sexual revolution and its attendant problems:

“[T]he sexual revolution has profoundly affected the most fundamental aspects of human relationships, including the way women view and treat men; the way men view and treat women; and it has even undermined one of the deepest shared tasks of men and women, which is the protection of children from forces that would harm them.”

The divorce epidemic, in turn, pushed a new class into poverty: Single mothers. Now, as Brad Wilcox points out, the ravages of the sexual revolution disproportionately hurt the poor.

Pope Francis also decried the demographic disaster Europe is facing.

In a newspaper interview in 2015, Pope Francis said a society “which does not love being surrounded by children, which considers them above all a worry, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.”

He noted that Europe falls short of a replacement birthrate, and explained why. Yes, he said, parenting “must be responsible, as the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI also teaches, but having many children cannot automatically be an irresponsible choice. Not to have children is a selfish choice.”

A report in The Lancet showed that 23 nations — including Spain, Japan and the Ukraine — are expected to see their populations cut in half by 2100, with 34 countries including China not far behind.

Fertility rates have to stay above 2.1 children per woman (on average) for a nation to replace its population. In 1950, women worldwide gave birth to 4.7 children on average. In 2017, they averaged 2.4 according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. If current trends hold, that average will dip below 1.7 by 2100. Worldwide, 183 out of 195 countries already have a fertility rate below replacement.

That means 93% of countries will be on track to see their nationalities disappear.

When the refugee crisis raged, Pope Francis told Europeans they should have no trouble welcoming immigrants — since they had emptied their lives of children. “When there is an empty space, people try to fill it. If a country has no children, immigrants come in and take their place,” he said. “I think of the birth rate in Italy, Portugal and Spain. I believe it is close to zero percent. So, if there are no children, there are empty spaces.”

Pope Francis has praised how the Church’s teaching on contraception is counter-cultural.

St. Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception has “proved prophetic,” said Pope Francis in a 2014 Corriere della Sera newspaper interview.

Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would have the effect of hurting men’s respect for women, and he was right. Sex without consequences made sex inconsequential, and this badly backfired for women.

While women have undeniably made greater strides in society than ever before — more education, more work opportunities and a better legal position — it is also undeniable that disrespect for women is greater than ever. You see it in the abuses that gave rise to the #MeToo movement, the campus hookup or “rape” culture, the epidemic of pornography, much of which depicts violence,  and in human trafficking, and in the pervasive use of women as objects in our entertainment and advertising.

Pope Francis said Paul VI “had the courage to stand against the majority, to defend moral discipline, to exercise a cultural ‘brake,’ to oppose present and future neo-Malthusianism. The question is not that of changing doctrine, but of going into the depths, and ensuring that pastoral [efforts] take into account situations, and what it is possible for people to do.”

Pope Francis has also promoted large families.

Francis praised large families at a General Audience in December 2014, saying, “In a world often marked by selfishness, the large family is a model for solidarity and sharing, and this attitude then becomes a benefit for the whole society.”

But a few weeks later he made international headlines for explaining responsible parenting by saying the Church doesn’t ask that we “breed like rabbits.” An uproar that followed, so he made clarifying remarks, including at his next General Audience on January 21, 2015.

“It gives consolation and hope to see so many large families that welcome children as a gift from God. … They know that every child is a blessing.” He also refuted the opinion that “the birth of many children are among the causes of poverty.” He reiterated that point in Laudato Si’, No. 50.

Pope Francis echoed the theme in his encyclical Amoris Laetitia. “Greater emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that children are a wonderful gift from God and a joy for parents and the Church. Through them, the Lord renews the world.”

Actually, Pope Francis’s encyclical Amoris Laetitia promotes Humanae Vitae repeatedly.

Pope Francis says in the encyclical “we need to return to the message of Humanae Vitae” and that Humanae Vitae’s teaching “should be taken anew.”

He explained that “the conjugal union is ordered to procreation ‘by its very nature.’” And that the creation of a child “does not appear at the end of a process, but is present from the beginning of love as an essential feature, one that cannot be denied without disfiguring that love itself. From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact be­get a new life” (No. 80).

Specifically, he said natural family planning methods of family planning “are to be promoted, since ‘these methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness be­tween them and favor the education of an authentic freedom” (No. 222).

In fact, Pope Francis has lost fans due to his contraception teaching.

“The news that Pope Francis has strongly defended the Church’s ban on artificial birth control left me, in a word, devastated. I had hoped for so much more from this man,” Boston Globe and Crux columnist Margery Eagan wrote. “Pope Francis left me feeling foolish for even hoping that he’d somehow see his way to ending the Church’s completely indefensible contraception ban,” she added. “Mostly, I just feel sad.”

Michael Coren, the Canadian talk-show host and author of Why Catholics Are Right announced hat he had left the Catholic Church, and explained “Francis has also gone to the Philippines and referred to ‘gender theory,’ which is Catholic code really for same-sex issues, and compared it to the Hitler Youth. The Catholic Church is not going to change its teaching. Believe me, the Catholic Church cannot.” He added that “the teaching on contraception” was also part of the reason he was leaving.

So, not only would a change in the teaching on contraception contradict the longstanding faith of the Church, it would contradict the signals Pope Francis has given all along. The Church has very good reasons for rejecting contraception, and we should be grateful for what the Church teaches — after all, even non-Catholics are now rejecting artificial birth control.

Image: Marcin Mazur, MAZUR, Flickr.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.