Religion’s place in civilization has always been a tenuous battle between the liberties society is willing to afford it, and the divine right they claim. More recently religion has come to fill the void between human desire and morality in the wake of inherent greed. The Roman Catholic Church is, perhaps, one of the most driven and commanding religious institutions; its claims have always been those of religious enlightenment, a beacon of hope morally guiding society in a world of darkness and sin. On an idyllic level, Catholicism functions as intended; for its millions of followers the Church provides a sense of stability and spiritual guidance. Yet regardless of intent or belief, religion and Catholicism are flawed; they are human concepts instituted and governed by man, inherently subject to human error and imperfection. Religion in general and particularly the Catholic Church have always claimed a monopoly on the definition of transgression and morality, fortifying its role in society as a pillar of hope and faith for all people both good and evil. Yet history has demonstrated that these charges have been repeatedly abused and misinterpreted, catering to the powerful while often smothering subordinates’ cries of injustice. Perhaps one of the most staunch and unwavering views of the Catholic Church has been their stance on contraception; until the 1930s Catholicism stood side-by-side with Protestants in their dissenting view on the distribution and use of contraception. However with the advancement of modern medicine the use of contraception became an acceptable and essentially healthy practice for much of the world. While Protestants recognized the value of contraception and safe-sex, Catholicism still refuses to accept its necessary role in society.
By the Catholic definition, transgression (otherwise known as sin) is defined as “an offence against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods” (Catholic Pages). Catholicism further splits sin into two categories: mortal sin and venial sin. Venial sin is a comparatively mild form of transgression when compared to mortal sin, as its consequence is not eternal damnation; it is essentially any sin that is committed without the full knowledge or intent of the parties involved and is not “grave” in nature (O’Neil). For a transgressive act to be considered a mortal sin, it must fulfill three requirements: the matter must be “grave”, the sin must be committed with full knowledge, and the sin must be committed deliberately (Catholic Pages). Murder, theft, adultery, premarital sex, bearing false witness, and the use of contraception are all considered mortal sins in the eyes of the Catholic Church and are divinely punishable by eternal damnation (Catholic Pages). While there are several acts that unarguably belong in this category, it would seem that several are out of place, the most blatant being contraception. It is important to note that the Catholic definition of sin is neither more nor less legitimate than that of any other denomination; it is merely a byproduct of biblical interpretation and human policy. Many argue that one of Catholicism’s greatest weapons has been its definition of sin, which has repeatedly been wielded to assert Church authority in matters ranging from warfare and foreign relations to simple public policy disagreements. Contraception, which by biblical reference is alternatively referred to as “Onanism” (referring to Onan’s sin of withdrawal in refusing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, a sin by Jewish faith) has been manipulated similarly to homosexuality (Brohm, Birth Control). The term “Sodomy” (like Onanism) was also coined by the Catholic Church, as it referred to the men of Sodom and the homosexual acts they committed (Brohm, Birth Control). When an institution holds the power to define what is right, they hold a monopoly on justice and while it may be righteously wielded for a period, basic human nature makes its abuse inherent.
Focusing specifically on the mortal sin of contraception, a practice that has come to be more than a means for inconsequential pleasure, especially in a world of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, the need for its proper distribution and use is more necessary than ever before (particularly in preventing the spread of infectious and potentially deadly diseases). The Church has always maintained a firm stance on contraception, lauding it as a “violation of natural law” (Brohm, Contraception and Sterilization). This opinion can be traced back to passages in Genesis: “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so he put him to death also” (Genesis 38:9-10). However this biblical reference is disputable as Onan’s use of “coitus interruptus” (otherwise known as withdrawal) was aimed at preventing the pregnancy of his dead brother’s wife, with whom he was charged to procreate according to Jewish tradition. It was not merely for the sake of avoiding pregnancy that Onan acted in such a way; he was simply trying to avoid creating children for whom he couldn’t provide. This single passage forms the basis for the Catholic argument against contraception. The church also considers the practice of sterilization (just as that of contraception) sinful as the majority of biblical doctrine compiled against contraception does not specifically prohibit contraceptive measures, but rather condemns the practice of sterilization as a defilement of the human body.
When examined in context, much of Catholicism’s argument against contraception is substantiated by their doctrine and interpretation. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote, “They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption” (Brohm, Contraception and Sterilization). Epiphanius’ basis for claiming the Egyptian’s actions sinful seems to be more a statement against Egyptian culture and peoples (a civilization that was largely under Moslem rule and therefore in direct opposition to Catholicism), than a direct attack on the “crime” of contraception. It is more a method for the Church to gain control and power over a civilization than a moral statement like the Church often parades it as. This same format of condemnation occurs in the writings of St. Augustine; “You [Manicheans] make your auditors adulterers of their wives when they take care lest the women with whom they copulate conceive. They take wives according to the laws of matrimony by tablets announcing that the marriage is contracted to procreate children; and then, fearing because of your law [against childbearing]aˆ¦. They copulate in a shameful union only to satisfy lust for their wives” (Brohm, Contraception and Sterilization). Again, the substantiation of Augustine’s argument is based not on the inherent sinfulness of contraception, but rather the transgressive actions of the Manicheans whose own law prevents them from bearing children in certain situations. Both Augustine and Epiphanius highlight an inherent irony that occurs repeatedly in Catholic doctrine; the Church adopts a position on an issue, not in the spirit of moral guidance and leadership, but rather as a means of vilifying and defiling society’s view of a certain race or civilization (most typically one that was proclaimed heretic or had an outstanding argument with the Catholic Church such as the Manicheans or the Egyptians). By using their power to interpret religious doctrine, the Church was often able to form their policy in a manner that vindicated their cause, while slandering the moral standards of their enemies and dissenters.
In recent times the Catholic petition against contraception has focused on the defilement of marriage. The Church’s stance on the unacceptability of premarital sex has always remained firm; hence it is assumed that contraception is used only within the confines of marital relations. As is tradition, the current Pope Benedict XVI renewed the Catholic Church’s stance against the use of contraception (specifically birth control) in a 2008 Vatican statement calling the policy “an important document which addresses one of the essential aspects of the marital vocation and of the specific path of holiness that follows from it” (Ertelt). Essentially the current pontiff claims that the use of contraception is an attack on the natural expression of love displayed through the act of procreation. While Pope Benedict XVI’s stance on contraception is more rationally defined than previous church policy, it still demonstrates a disconnect with modern society. Obviously the Church will never promote or endorse multiple sex partners and it is unlikely that their stance on premarital sex will change in the near future, however their dissenting position on birth control and contraception suggests a lack of modern day colloquial knowledge. The rationale for the use of contraception is far beyond any ancient concepts of marital relations or natural order, the issue is one of public health and world population.
Perhaps the most compelling rationale for contraceptive education and use is the current HIV/AIDS pandemic that is sweeping Africa and invading other parts of the world. As of 2007 it was estimated that approximately 33 million men, women, and children were afflicted by either HIV or AIDS (AVERT). Since 1981 the HIV/AIDS and the subsequent illnesses it causes has killed 25 million people (AVERT). While not all of these numbers can be derived directly from the absence of proper contraceptive measures, a fair majority of those afflicted acquire the disease through unprotected sexual interaction. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 5% of the adult population is afflicted (roughly translating to 22 million people), some myths suggest the only cure for HIV/AIDS is unprotected intercourse with a virgin child, only further reinforcing the need for contraceptive awareness and education (AVERT). The Catholic Church has always regarded itself as a shelter for the poor, homeless, and otherwise less fortunate; however their medieval stance on contraception suggests that they are ignoring the reality of modern times. Catholicism contradicts its own doctrine when it preaches a message of caring for the sick, only to turn and condemn contraception, a practice that could potentially stem disease and poverty on a global scale.
Even ignoring disease, the proper education and use of contraception still holds the power to improve the standard of living worldwide. There are between 143 million and 210 million orphans worldwide; the Catholic Church has always pledged to be an institution that provides hope and shelter for those in need (including the millions of orphans), yet every year hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies result in children being forced onto the streets or into the foster system (Skyward Journey). Mother Teresa, 1979 Nobel Peace Prize Winner and one of the most gracious and influential women in the twentieth century, fervently opposed the use of contraception. This is in many ways ironic, as Mother Teresa’s mission centered on caring for the impoverished children of the world. Her humanitarian efforts to promote adoption are legendary, yet in 1988 Oxford conference she stated “that she would never allow a child entrusted to her care to be adopted by a woman who had an abortion or used contraceptives. “Such a woman cannot love,” she said.” (BBC News). Mother Teresa’s stance on adoption and contraception are inherently contradictory; contraception reduces unwanted pregnancies, consequently reducing the number of orphaned children (Mother Teresa’s mission). Yet to say that contraception is not only a sin, but also a disqualifying characteristic for an adopting mother is (plainly put) ridiculous. There can be no solid proof that a woman who chooses to take birth control is incapable of loving; such a statement is fundamentally absurd. Mother Teresa’s opinion regarding contraception identically mirrors that of the Catholic Church as a whole (she was commonly called upon by Pope John Paul II to be an ambassador of Church doctrine), and demonstrates a clear disconnect with the problems facing the modern world.
The Church also blatantly ignores the medicinal uses of birth control in their anti-contraceptive convictions. Sex without the consequence of pregnancy is not the only use for the pill; women who suffer from irregular and uncommonly painful menstruation periods turn to birth control as a form of relief and regulation. The hormones within the pill act to correct imbalances within some women’s biological cycle (an aspect of birth control which Catholicism wholly ignores). This not only makes menstruation more regular and predictable, but it often shortens the total length and decreases the severity of side effects like nausea and cramps. Even the use of birth control for medicinal purposes is generally condemned by the Church, as their doctrine makes no exception or distinction between the medicinal and contraceptive use of the pill (similar to their adamant opposition to abortion, even when it is medically necessary to save an expecting mother’s life).
Ultimately Catholicism’s opinion on contraception has remained static seemingly more for the sake of stubbornness and continuity than actual policy and necessity. With membership, attendance, and giving at an all time low within the Catholic Church (and most sects of Christianity), it would seem that these are a direct response to the stale doctrines and policies that Catholicism clings to in the midst of a dynamic and rapidly developing world. In an age where technology progresses at an exponential pace, humans seem to be searching for spiritual guidance that is as dynamic as the world they live in; not simply a regurgitated list of constant reverence and piety that stands unforgiving and unwavering in the face of new opinions and ideals. The Church preaches messages of forgiveness and compassion, is it not compassionate to prevent the conception of an unwanted child, in a world where children are regularly abandoned and orphaned. Catholicism needs to realize the gravity of their policies, millions worldwide look to the Church’s doctrine for guidance and in terms of contraception millions are misled. The same as condemning homosexuality, Catholicism’s position on contraception touts those who violate their doctrine as sinners to be looked down, a class below those who are “saved” by their faith. Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that its teachings (and particularly the teachings of Jesus Christ) center on acceptance and love; nowhere in the Ten Commandments is it specified “thou shall not use contraception” but rather “love thy neighbor” and “do not covet they neighbor’s property” are dictated. The basic principles of compassion and the appreciation are taught, not constraint and restriction. The Catholic opinion and fixation with the sins of society ultimately detract from the purpose and message of religion in general; its purpose is not to dictate and control the lives of its followers, but rather to support and supplement believers’ faith, counseling them in times of trouble and providing an explanation for those areas which man falls short.