It is always difficult to decide whether a religious tenet of a hierarchical religion, such as Roman Catholicism, reflects religious belief or institutional strategy. The Roman Catholic Church is a huge “corporation,” one that reached its present size, wealth, and influence in a competitive environment, where it had first to confront paganism and Judaism, and later Protestantism and secularism.
The Church has long been hostile to contraception, but the nature of its hostility has changed, and may be changing yet again with the Pope’s recent acknowledgment that the use of condoms may sometimes be justified as a way of preventing the spread of AIDS. I want to consider the institutional as distinct from doctrinal considerations that might explain the history of orthodox Catholic views of contraception.
In the early years of Christianity, the Church had to steer a middle course between Christian extremists who thought sex a form of purely animal behavior that Christians should eschew, and pagans, who had a notably relaxed attitude toward sex, including masturbation, homosexual and other nonmarital sex, and contraception in the form of coitus interruptus and abortion. Rejecting sex altogether was not a viable policy for an ambitious Church (think where rejection of sex got the Shakers), but accepting the pagan view would have resulted in a failure to differentiate Christianity from paganism, and perhaps reduce Christianity’s appeal to women.
The compromise position that the Church adopted was that sex was proper as long as it was oriented toward its proper function, which, the Church held, was procreation within marriage. But it had to qualify this view to avoid condemning sex by married people who turned out to be sterile, for example because the wife had reached menopause. So the Church allowed that a secondary lawful purpose of sex was to reinforce the marital bond.
Many centuries later the “demographic transition”—the tendency for the birthrate to fall when a nation achieves a certain level of prosperity—placed the Catholic condemnation of contraception under pressure. Married couples wanted to have sex, but didn’t want to have the number of children that an active sex life would produce without contraception. And contraceptive methods improved. Eventually the Church achieved a partial accommodation by authorizing the “rhythm” method of contraception, since that was a form of abstinence and abstinence was consistent with Catholic doctrine—indeed it was enjoined on priests and nuns. But few married couples found it satisfactory.
Greatly improved contraception (notably the pill), improved treatments of venereal diseases, increased privacy, relaxation of parental controls, continued declines in family size, and increased divorce rates (in part a consequence of lower birthrates and women’s greater access to the job market)—all factors that reduced procreative relative to nonprocreative sex (in part by increasing the prevalence of nonmarital sex)—put irresistible pressure on the Catholic prohibition of contraception, to the point where today in the United States and most European nations, even such traditionally strongly Catholic nations as Ireland and Italy, Catholics use contraception at the same rate as non-Catholics.
With the Church unable to resist the sexual revolution, efforts to prevent contraception were seen as likely to have perverse consequences. True, if contraception were unavailable, there would be less promiscuity; but there would be some promiscuity, and probably a good deal, and a higher fraction of sex acts would result in unintended pregnancy, and therefore in an increased number of births to unwed teenagers and an increased number of abortions. The net effect would be unclear, but could well be worse from the standpoint of overall Catholic doctrine.
The Church finds itself today in a quandary: its proscription of contraception is so widely ignored, and so anachronistic given today’s sexual mores, as to invite derision—to make the Church seem “out of it.” This might not matter a great deal if Roman Catholicism were a fringe faith, as Christianity was at its inception. It is, as I said, a vast “corporation.” It has hundreds of millions of “customers.” It has been losing customers in the Western world, but gaining them in Africa—but Africans, ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, are pressing for a relaxation of the Church’s ban against contraception because condoms are a cheap and effective method of preventing infection with the AIDS virus.
It is therefore not surprising, from an institutional perspective, that the Pope should take a first, albeit hesitant. step back from the proscription of contraception by acknowledging publicly that condoms might be justifiable as a method of reducing the incidence of AIDS. Apparently he gave the example of a male prostitute’s using condoms (although there is some question whether the male sex of the prostitute might just have been a mistake in translation), and this puzzled people because the traditional objection to contraception is that it prevents procreative sex, and male prostitutes service homosexuals and homosexual sex is not procreative. But homosexual sex in Catholic teaching is a mortal sin, so anything that facilitates it, like condoms in the presence of AIDS, is morally questionable.
The biggest problem that the Church faces in backing off its traditional condemnation of contraception is a potential loss of religious authority, which is no small matter in a hierarchical church. In 1930, responding to the Anglican Church’s rescission of its prohibition of contraception, Pope Pius VI made an “infallible” declaration unequivocally reiterating the Catholic Church’s age-old prohibition of the practice, and his declaration was repeated by subsequent popes well into the 1990s. Were the Church now to repudiate that doctrine, it would undermine papal authority. Infallible papal pronouncements would be seen as tentative, revisable, like Supreme Court decisions, which have the force of precedents but can be and occasionally are overruled.
Moreover, the ban on contraception is bound up with broader views of sex that are held by the Church. Contraception facilitates nonmarital sex, and one method of contraception—the condom—because of its dual use as a preventive of venereal infection, facilitates homosexual sex. The Church is more strongly condemning of nonmarital sex, including homosexual sex, than it is of contraception, but relaxing the ban on contraception would undermine its other policies toward sex. Moreover, the efficacy of contraception in preventing teenage births is bound up with sex education in schools, and sex education has the inevitable consequence of “normalizing” teenage sex.
Concern with the loss of religious authority may explain another peculiar feature (to an outsider, at least) of Catholic doctrine, which is the ban on priests’ marrying and on women becoming priests. The problem of priests’ sexually molesting boys would be solved if priests were allowed to marry and if women could be priests, because then the priesthood would attract fewer homosexuals. The current shortage of priests and nuns (a shortage due in part to the reduction in the average size of Catholic families—a reduction that in turn is due in part to contraception) would also be greatly alleviated if priests could marry and women could become priests. But the solution would represent such a dramatic reversal of age-old Catholic doctrine as to undermine any pretense of papal infallibility.
An intermediate position for the Church to take—and the most likely position for it to take in the short run—would be to relax the ban on contraception only with respect to condoms, viewed as an essential preventive of AIDS. Yet even that might be a problematic solution, because it would be seen as an acknowledgment that people cannot control their sex drives, yet that control is basic to the most distinctive features of Catholic doctrine, such as the ban on sexual activity and marriage of priests and nuns, on divorce, and on nonmarital and “unnatural” sex (homosexual sex, masturbation, oral and anal intercourse, etc.). Why sex plays such a large role in Catholic doctrine is a deep puzzle, but precisely because it plays such a large role, an attempt to backtrack from it could prove destabilizing.
The Pope may thus have opened Pandora’s Box. But he may have had no choice, from the institutional perspective that I have been emphasizing.