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The Disintegration of the Family and Casti Connubii, the Church's Response (2001)

John F. Kippley

The last day of the Jubilee Year 2000 marks the 70th anniversary of a landmark encyclical, Casti Connubii, written by Pope Pius XI to reaffirm the divine truths about human love, marriage, and sexuality in the face of unprecedented challenges. We live in times of continued challenges, so it's prudent to look, once again, at the moral world of 70 years ago and the reasons for this pre-Humanae Vitae encyclical.

The Roaring Twenties
The Twenties have been romanticized in film and folklore as a time of speakeasies, dancing the Charleston, rising hem lines, a rising stock market-basically good times and lots of fun despite a few gangster wars and the inconveniences and logistical challenges of Prohibition. These were also times of both senseless sexual experimentation and at least some serious discussion about sexuality. Contraception became widespread. Companionate marriage-a trendy term for serial bigamy-was advocated as the liberated way of life. That combination led to a sharp rise in the divorce rate. Pressure was applied within the Church of England to approve contraception, and in mid-August 1930 the Anglican bishops capitulated. It was to this world of rapidly declining sexual morality and liberal religious abandonment of the Christian Tradition that Pope Pius XI would have to respond with Casti Connubii, just four and one-half months later.

In 1910, there was one divorce for every 11.4 marriages. In 1913, Margaret Sanger began the organized birth control movement in this country under the erroneous assumption that if people could have unlimited sex and very small families, they would be happier. Presumably, such happier couples would stay together and the divorce rate of 1910 would fall. The reality proved otherwise. The promotion and practice of unnatural forms of birth control fueled a tremendous increase in divorce and remarriage. By 1920, the ratio of divorces to marriages had risen to one divorce for every 7.5 marriages, and by 1930, the ratio was one divorce for every 5.75 marriages, a 92 percent increase in the divorce ratio in just 20 years! Something revolutionary was happening.

That something was the growing acceptance of unnatural forms of birth control. Because we have grown so accustomed to a contraceptive culture, we sometimes fail to realize that it hasn't always been that way. On the other hand, others think that the contraceptive culture began only with the Pill or with the rejection of Humanae Vitae. Not so. Commenting on the sexual discussion that was going on in the 1920s, Walter Lippmann wrote in 1929: ". . . whether or not birth control is eugenic, hygienic, and economic, it is the most revolutionary practice in the history of sexual morals" (A Preface to Morals, Time-Life edition, 1964, p. 272).

Essentially, the "reformers" of the Teens and Twenties were saying this: "Marry, contracept, and divorce when you get bored with each other. Then start over again. However, if you happen to have a baby, then stay together for the benefit of the child." Seventy years later, the culture no longer talks about a continuing cycle of divorce and remarriage as a great advance in modern thinking, but it also no longer encourages couples to stay together for the benefit of the child. Instead, sex outside of marriage is almost taken for granted, and unwanted babies are killed before they are born.

Pope Pius XI responded to the revolutionary attack on marriage in two ways. First, he upheld the indissolubility of marriage, and second, he followed this positive affirmation of the biblical Tradition with a treatment on false theories.

The Pontiff's following words illustrate the turbulent times: ". . . the sanctity of marriage is trampled upon and derided; divorce, adultery, all the basest vices either are extolled or at least are depicted in such colors as to appear to be free of all reproach and infamy" (no. 45).1 What would he say about today's TV, with both its daytime soap operas and nighttime sex comedies?

In listing the false principles of the new libertines, Pope Pius XI points out that "their basic principles [lie] in this, that matrimony is repeatedly declared to be not instituted by the Author of nature nor raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a true sacrament, but invented by man" (no. 49).

And if the institution of marriage takes its origin solely from the will of man, then its laws and customs become "subject entirely to him, hence can and must be founded, changed and abrogated according to human caprice and the shifting circumstances of human affairs . . ." (no. 50).

Pope Pius XI goes on to discuss legalized divorce and the evils of divorce (nos. 85-93), and he quotes from an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII written 50 years previously: ". . . once divorce has been allowed, there will be no sufficient means of keeping it in check within any definite bounds" (no. 91).2

Unnatural Forms of Birth Control
Casti Connubii is best known for its strong reaffirmation of the consistent teaching of the Church against unnatural forms of birth control.3 Informed readers know that this encyclical was issued in response to a very specific historic event: the acceptance of marital contraception by the bishops of the Church of England the previous August. However, not everyone realizes for how long Catholic teaching had been under attack by secularism.

The attack started subtly at first. Anglican clergyman and economist Thomas Malthus probably did not intend to undermine Catholic teaching when he published his gloomy treatise in 1798, "An Essay on the Principle of Population." However, his tract caused fear by predicting that population would outgrow food supplies resulting in mass famine. St. John tells us that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18), but perhaps it is also true that perfect fear casts out love.

Malthus recommended late marriage and total abstinence once a desired family size had been reached. Within 25 years, the neo-Malthusians had rejected the idea of self-control and were promoting unnatural forms of birth control.

Opposition to neo-Malthusianism left a clear trail in the United States-the 1873 Comstock laws against the distribution and sale of contraceptive devices. In Europe, early 20th-century opposition to contraception was marked by the Lambeth conferences of the Church of England. Both in 1908 and in 1920, the bishops of the Church of England firmly rejected the neo-Malthusian efforts to get organized religion to accept contraception. But the pressures of the Roaring Twenties proved to be too much for them when, on August 14, 1930, the Anglican bishops accepted unnatural forms of birth control.

Pope Pius XI now had to contend with something altogether new. For the first time in Christian history, a Christian church had gone on record as accepting unnatural forms of birth control as morally acceptable.

The Holy Father began his direct response to Lambeth of 1930 in Section IV of his encyclical. First he reaffirmed a basic moral principle: "But no reason, however grave may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good" (no. 54). That is, the end does not justify the means, nor does the end make morally the same the various means of pursuing that end.

The following paragraph is the one most quoted from this encyclical.

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 (no. 56).

The first phrase "Since, therefore . . ." tells us the occasion-unquestionably the Anglican decision at Lambeth to accept contraception. The second phrase "the Catholic Church . . ." states the responsibility of the Catholic Church to teach clearly on moral issues. The third phrase "any use..." reaffirms Christian Tradition.

In the very next paragraph, Pope Pius XI addresses the responsibility of priests to teach and counsel clearly about the immorality of marital contraception:

We admonish, therefore, priests who hear confessions and others who have the care of souls . . . not to allow the faithful entrusted to them to err regarding this most grave law of God; much more, that they keep themselves immune from such false opinions, in no way conniving in them. If any confessor or pastor of souls . . . lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God . . . for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ: "[T]hey are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit (Mt. 15:14).

Strong words, indeed. This double affirmation helped to keep the teaching alive and well accepted for the next 30 years-through a severe depression, a major world war, postwar recovery, and the 50s-the golden years of American Catholicism.

Periodic Abstinence
The Anglican bishops posed a false dichotomy for themselves: complete abstinence or contraception. Pope Pius XI accepted the middle and morally permissible way-the use of abstinence during the fertile time along with the enjoyment of the marriage act during the infertile times. Here is how he phrased it:

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. For in matrimony as well as in the use of matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved (no. 59).

Note the words, ". . . on account of natural reasons . . . of time." I believe that is the Pope's acceptance of the systematic abstinence form of natural family planning. (The other form is ecological breast-feeding.) That was not new. The Church had accepted the principle of systematic periodic abstinence long before it became truly practical for postponing pregnancy. The question was sent to the Sacred Penitentiary, and in 1853 it accepted the principle. It was further debated in Spain, and in 1880 the Sacred Penitentiary reaffirmed its 1853 decision. Pope Pius XI went on to warn against abortion, sterilization, and those who promote adultery (nos. 63-79). Casti Connubii has undoubtedly been overshadowed by Humanae Vitae and the turbulent reaction to it. I am not aware of any official Church celebrations in the past 70 years to celebrate Casti Connubii-nothing on its 40th anniversary in 1970, its 50th in 1980, or its 60th in 1990. That's unfortunate, because it contains much perennial value and deserves to be read and commemorated. The times of Pius XI were not as degenerate as our own, but there are sufficient similarities to make this instructive document worthy of further study.

  1. The official Vatican text does not number the paragraphs or small sections as is common in modern encyclicals. I have simply hand numbered each paragraph. If you have an old printing of this encyclical, you may find a difference in numbering after paragraph 23 because the first English edition did not include paragraph 24. That paragraph begins, "This mutual inward molding of husband and wife . . ." Paragraph 25 starts with "By this same love . . ." I am told that paragraph 24 began to appear in some English editions beginning in or before 1951, but one popular edition began to carry that paragraph only in the last decade.
  2. Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae sapientiae (February 10, 1880).
  3. "Unnatural forms of birth control" is the only term comprehensive enough to include all the various immoral forms of birth control. It's the term used by the Anglican bishops at Lambeth of 1930, and on this one they got it right. My use of the term "contraception" is shorthand for the longer term.

Previously published in Lay Witness, January/February 2001. Reprinted with permission by Catholics United for the Faith (