A Birthday to be Celebrated
(The 60th Anniversary of Casti Cannubii)
John F. Kippley
Whenever I have the opportunity to address a group on the topic of sexuality, I ask, "How many people here are aware that before 1930 no Christian church had ever given its acceptance to contraception?" I find that even among good practicing Catholics, only a very few recall that important fact of Christian history. What that means in practice is that the reference of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae to "the moral teaching on marriage proposed with constant firmness by the Magisterium of the Church" (n.6) and the "constant teaching" of the Church (n.11) are not perceived to have the richness of meaning that was intended by the Pope. I think he supposed that Christians in general and Catholics in particular were aware of the historical events leading up to the 1930 encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii. And that encyclical's birthday is well worth celebrating this coming New Years' Eve.
The Beginnings of the Sexual Revolution
The real beginning of the modern sexual revolution was the publication of the Rev. Thomas Malthus' Essay on Population in 1798. As an economist in a discipline then called the gloomy science, Malthus predicted that population would grow geometrically but that food supplies could only grow arithmetically and that unchecked population growth would result in mass starvation. As an Anglican clergyman, he recommended only sexual self-control to achieve family population control, but the scare he created would outlast the morality of his suggested means. In the 1860s the neo-Malthusians promoted the population scare, but they now advocated contraception.
The neo-Malthusian advocacy of contraceptive birth control ran directly counter to universal Christian morality, and by that I mean that in the 19th century Christian churches were united in teaching that it was immoral to use unnatural methods of birth control. In the United States, the reaction to the neo-Malthusians was illustrated by Anthony Comstock, an evangelical reformer who persuaded Congress in 1873 to outlaw the sale and distribution of contraceptives in federal territories; many states passed similar legislation, and collectively such acts were called the Comstock laws. The Catholic Church in the United States at this time was small and weak-without political influence. Thus it is fair to say that the American anti-contraceptive laws of the late 19th century were passed by essentially Protestant legislatures for a basically Protestant American.
The Christian Embrace of the Sexual Revolution
Satan, however, has never felt constrained by laws or Christian teaching, so he kept tempting people to think that they could replace what God has joined together in the marriage act by devices that would separate it, and the pro-contraceptive pressures continued. In 1908 the Church of England reaffirmed the traditional teaching against unnatural forms of birth control as it called them. Despite additional pressures created by Margaret Sanger and one of her lovers, England's Havelock Ellis, the Anglican bishops again reaffirmed the traditional teaching in 1920. However, the pressures of the roaring twenties proved too much, and at their Lambeth conference in 1930, they capitulated and reluctantly accepted unnatural methods of birth control as morally licit. Mark well the date: August 14, 1930. It marks the first time in history when a Christian church accepted unnatural forms of birth control as morally permissible. Luther had called such behavior a form of sodomy, and Calvin had condemned it as a sin against the fifth commandment. Evangelical Charles Provan has written that in his research he found not one orthodox Protestant theologian before the 1900s who accepted contraception, and he has found well over a hundred who condemned it. Interestingly, Anglican bishop Charles Gore argued in 1930 that to accept contraception was to open a Pandora's box and specifically that it opened the door to accepting sodomy. How right he was!
The Catholic Response
Just a scant four and one-half months later, Pope Pius XI issued his response, the encyclical Casti Connubii. Again, mark the date well: December 31, 1930. This encyclical is such a compendium of teaching about Christian marriage that I think Pius XI must have been working on it for some time before the Lambeth departure. After all, it was not just Christian teaching against birth control that had been under attack in the 1920s but the whole idea of marriage as a divinely created and permanent relationship. However, there can be no doubt that the Lambeth pronouncement was the immediate occasion for its promulgation, as is clear from the beginning of the following key quotation.
Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin. (par. 56)
It would be hard to imagine a much more forceful enunciation of the Christian teaching against marital contraception, and the reaction of some Protestants would be equally strong. In March of 1931, a committee of the Federal Council of Churches endorsed "the carefully and restrained use of contraceptives by married people," and this drew American reaction. A Lutheran theologian called marital contraception "one of the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a 20th century renewal of pagan bankruptcy"; a Methodist bishop said the "the whole disgusting (contraception) movement rests on man's sameness with the brutes," and the Washington Post ran a strongly critical editorial: "Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraception would be 'careful and restrained' is preposterous" (March 22, 1931). How true and prophetic.
There is a double significance to the Lambeth decision to accept contraception. First of all, as noted above, it marked the first break from a previously unanimous Christian moral teaching. Secondly, it was tantamount to an embrace of the sexual revolution which was quickly followed by the action of the Federal Council of Churches in the United States. What was truly revolutionary about this was that churches calling themselves Christian were now saying that married couples could take apart God's plan for sex, that they could impose their own domination upon the order of creation.
Once the "respectable" Protestant churches embraced the sexual revolution, the anti-contraceptive laws began to fall, beginning in the Thirties, and culminating in the 1965 case of Griswold v Connecticut in which the Supreme Court invented a constitutional "right" to marital privacy which they first used to declare all anti-contraceptive laws unconstitutional and then used in 1973 to declare all anti-abortion laws also unconstitutional. The American religious, social, and legal connection between contraception and abortion is crystal clear. I think it is also clear that every mainline church which accepted contraception has also accepted abortion.
Natural Family Planning
It is sometimes alleged by sons of the Church that Casti Connubii was so strong a statement against birth control that it excluded-or almost excluded-natural family planning. The actual text does not support that allegation. Three paragraphs after the above quotation, we find Pius XI addressing this issue. "Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner, although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth." Reasons of time could be either menopause, pregnancy, early postpartum, or the infertile times during the years of normal fertility. It is almost impossible to believe that Pope Pius XI was unaware of the beginnings of the rhythm method, for Austrian Hermann Knaus had made his discoveries about ovulation and the infertile times of the cycle in the mid-1920s, and the word about such discoveries and their practical applications certainly must have been well known in the Vatican.
The Time Has Come
In 1964, Dr. John Rock wrote a book titled The Time Has Come-for the Catholic Church to accept contraception. He was dead wrong, but his title is right for today. The time has come for everyone in the Catholic Church to recognize that to accept marital contraception is to fully embrace the sexual revolution. Anthony Kosnik et al argued in their 1977 Human Sexuality that there was no moral difference between a married couple using contraception and homosexuals engaging in their forms of sterile sex. To accept marital contraception is to think that unchaste behavior is not unchaste or at least can be morally justified. I think that's the key to the most unfortunate but well publicized rash of priestly unchastity. In 1980 Archbishop John Quinn noted that 71% of the laity and 70% of the priests disagreed with Humanae Vitae. I submit that eventually thinking leads to action. Anglican Bishop Gore was right: accepting marital contraception logically entails accepting sodomy. The time has come to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Casti Connubii as a milestone in teaching the divine truth about human love. The time has come for a rebirth of the teaching of chastity on every level.
(Previously published by Lay Witness, December 1990. Reprinted with permission by Catholics United for the Faith (www.cuf.org).