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Catholics and the Pill: 50 years on

It is now 50 years since the contraceptive pill was approved by the US FDA – a useful marker for a review of the Catholic church and contraception.

This was originally one of those topics that Pope John XXIII had hoped to include in the modernization deliberations at Vatican Council II, but which did not happen as the council ran out of time.  It was then left to his successor, Pope Paul VI, to pick up the ball and complete the review of teaching in the light of modern teaching and technology.  Before reaching any conclusion, he appointed a committee of experts, lay and clerical, to review the evidence and make recommendations.

As is by now well known, the clear verdict of this expert advice was to offer qualified support for some  use of artificial contraception . Instead of following the advice of his own experts, Paul got cold feet, and issued an encyclical which reaffirmed the traditional teaching against all artificial contraception. In the process, severely damaged the authority of the church in the eyes of Catholics the world over. The first point to note about Humane Vitae is that it is not, as commonly supposed, simply a reaffirmation of traditional teaching. In its own way, it represents a profound new departure, in that it recognizes that procreation is not the only purpose of sex in marital relationships.  By accepting the validity of “natural” family planning and the desire to avoid pregnancy while still enjoying sexual intercourse, the document recognises the unitive value of sex alongside the procreative value.

Where it ties itself up in knots, is in its attempt to reason that “natural” means to avoid pregnancy are somehow acceptable, and “artificial” means are not. This not only flatly contradicted the evidence of the expert committee, it also diverged dramatically from the conclusions of the other denominations, which had accepted a need for contraception years earlier. It also contradicted, with disastrous consequences, the lived experience of ordinary Catholics and their pastors.

The saving grace of the debacle around Humanae Vitae, was the speed with which priests and bishops around the world, rushed to remind Catholics of Church teaching on conscience.  In effect, so many pastors were saying, it did not matter if the Church “taught” that artificial contraception was wrong: individual Catholics were free to ignore that teaching  – as long as they did so “in conscience”. And they did so, in their millions. A widely quoted statistic, allegedly from the US bishops own figures, is that “97%” of US Catholic  married couples have at some time taken advantage of this escape clause. It is also known that a high percentage of priests in the privacy of the confessional , will endorse it.

The established teaching of the Church is that for doctrine to be authentic, it must have the support of the “faithful as a whole”, it must be in accordance with the sensus fidelium. In the light of the above, can we say that Humane Vitae has this support – can we accept it as authentic doctrine?

One obvious and frequently made rejoinder to the argument from statistics made above, is that the sensus fidelium is not, and cannot be reduced to, a simple matter of counting heads:  we cannot formulate doctrine by opinion poll. Another is that teaching must apply to the church as a whole. The experience and attitudes of US Catholics do not reflect those of the rest of the world. Other nations and cultures, and especially those of the global south, so often overlooked but where the church is showing its strongest growth, should also be considered.  I will consider this latter argument first.

Here, I want to draw on an important analysis of global sentiment prepared by Catholics for Free Choice a few years ago, drawing on completely reputable research by governmental and international development agencies of various kinds. This is the report “Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behaviour and Reproductive Health: a World View” (2004).

This useful report covers a range of topics on sexual behaviour, but for now I want to consider only what it has to say on contraception. Here are some key findings:

  • Catholics number about 1 billion people worldwide, about 17% of global population. However, in many countries, Mass attendance is low and declining.
  • In many predominantly Catholic countries, the majority of married women are currently using “modern” contraception: 64% in Colombia, 60% in Mexico, 50 % in Peru. (If these are the percentages “currently” using contraception, the corresponding figures for “ever” used will necessarily be higher)
  • In Argentina, 74% of Argentinian women, 70% of Bolivian Catholic women, and 90% of Colombian Catholic women have at some time used artificial contraception.
  • In African countries, contraceptive use is lower, but this has nothing to do with religious teaching. The rate of use between Catholic and other Christians is virtually the same. (Other research from Africa shows that a major reason for the lower use of contraception in Africa is the resistance from the women’s husbands, and a cultural desire for large families). However, in many of these countries, and others where the (then) current use  was low, indications are that use is increasing.  In Chile, usage rose from 19% in 1990  to 26%  in just 8 years.
  • Even in countries where they are not currently using contraceptives, Catholic women overwhelmingly approve the principle of contraception. This includes 90 % or Catholic women in Nigeria, 76% in Uganda, 63% in Kenya, and 90% in the Philippines.
  • On church teaching specifically, there is widespread evidence that Catholics generally believe that the church should abandon its current position on contraception. In Australia, only 2% of Catholic university students accept the Church’s teaching. In Canada, 68% of Catholics believe the church should “abandon” its teaching. In Catholic Chile, only 14% disapprove of contraceptive use.
  • In Mexico, 91% of Catholics believe that adults should have access to contraceptives. Note also that 81% believe that adolescents should have access to contraception
  • In the Philippines, 76% said they would support political candidates who speak in favour of legal family planning.
  • In the US, 60% of Catholics agreed that it is acceptable to give the birth control pill to teenagers.


It is clear that around the world as a whole, research evidence is that Catholics are disregarding formal Church teaching on contraception. Where a law is simply disregarded, the main impact is simply to erode the perceived authority of the lawmaker, and to encourage further disregard of other laws.

I fully accept that the principle behind the sensus fidelium is not one to be simply reduced to opinion polls. However, I do suggest that in the face of substantial prima facie evidence to the contrary, we are entitled to ask, is there any evidence at all that there is support for the teaching from “the church as a whole?”.

Unless the supporters of Humanae Vitae can produce evidence that they have such support, I suggest that we must conclude that there is none, and hence that the teaching lacks validity.

See also:

Sexual Ethics and the Sensus Fidelium

Articulating the Sensus Fidelium: A German Example

Church & Laity: More on the Sensus Fidelium


Lucker, Bishop Raymond: Revelation and the Church: Vatican II in the Twenty-First Century


One Response

  1. Thank you Terrence for such a great reading. One of my favorite subjects now is Sensus Fidelium. The term is still in the Catechism and it sure does make a lot of sense.

    I’ve often pondered about what is the real difference between the Church’s acceptance of some forms of birth control, which they call “natural” and those of which it objects to in other forms which are deemed not natural.

    It seems to me if one is using a form of birth control that does not have a success rate that one would naturally want to use something that had a success rate.

    I really believe that couples should decide for themselves what method to use or not to use. Apparently, most are choosing effective measures to prevent pregnancy.

    Science has come a long way since even back when Humanae Vitae was written. I recently read that as men get older the chances for the child having Downs Syndrome are much higher. I also heard on the news recently that there may be a form of contraception available for men to use. Sorry I don’t have a link for that.

    I really wish that the Church would get out of our bedrooms and quit acting like they know what is good for us.

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