Professor Leslie C. Griffin, It’s Not Only About Contraception: It’s Also About Authority

July 8, 2014

Now that”>Hobby Lobby has won its lawsuit challenging four of the twenty contraceptives required by the contraceptive mandate because its owners believe those four are abortifacients, attention turns to the cases of employers opposed to all contraceptive use. These include six cases of for-profit companies run by Catholics and a large percentage of the nearly”>four dozen cases brought by religious non-profits challenging the accommodation that they received to the mandate.

Why do these Catholic employers oppose all contraception so vigorously? The short answer is that the church has always taught that sexual activity must take place according to the laws of nature. Because artificial contraceptives unnaturally interfere in God’s plan for reproduction, their use is completely banned.

Church history shows that the opposition to contraception also has a lot to do with church authority. In the following four stages of contraceptive debate, reasserting the church’s authority has been as important to the church as the merits of contraceptive use itself.


Stage 1: The Anglicans v. The Pope

The practice of contraception was widely opposed in the Christian world until the twentieth century. Then the Anglican bishops, meeting at the Lambeth Conference of 1930, approved birth control methods “where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood.”

The Vatican quickly responded to that challenge with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical letter Casti Connubii (on the Chastity of the Married Couple), which rejected any change in the church’s teaching. The church could not err, and had always taught that God created the natural cycles of human sexuality. Thus it was a severe sin against nature to intervene in those processes artificially. The pope asserted his authority to decide the question of contraception:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some [i.e., the Anglicans] 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.

Other parts of the official teaching that were also strongly emphasized in the pope’s letter were the subjection of the wife and her obedience to her husband that form a natural part of marriage.


Stage 2: The Majority of the Papal Commission

So things stood until the 1960s, when Pope John XXIII was elected and called the Second Vatican Council, which addressed and updated many matters of marriage and family life. The pope, however, perhaps recognizing contraception’s controversial nature, took contraception from the Council’s jurisdiction and reserved it to a papal commission.

After Pope John XXIII died, the Papal Commission’s Majority—including nine of its twelve bishops—recommended that the traditional teaching on contraception be changed. A minority worried that if the teaching were changed, it would suggest that Pius and other popes had been wrong. Unthinkable!

Rejecting his commission’s report and finding solace in the minority view, John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, famously issued the encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, which reasserted Casti Connubii’s ban on any artificial contraceptive use. American Catholic theologians revolted, and the laity soon followed. Since then all studies show that a majority of American Catholic women use contraception in violation of the church’s teaching.


Stage 3: Papal Infallibility

Massive lay dissent did not affect one of Paul’s successors, Pope John Paul II, who pushed to cement the teaching in stone for future generations rather than reform it.

Traditional Catholic doctrine teaches that the Pope may teach infallibly—without error—but only on certain limited types of doctrinal questions, such as the status of Jesus and Mary. Pope John Paul II, however, frustrated by the large dissent in sexual practice, issued statements suggesting the infallibility of the church’s teaching on contraception as something that had always been true and could never change. The pope viewed contraception as part of his theology of marriage, which also celebrated women’s submission in their families and saw motherhood as women’s primary role. John Paul II’s papacy invigorated sanctions against anyone who challenged the traditional teaching.

According to Patricia Miller, when Dr. Nafis Sadik, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, tried to explain to John Paul why “natural family planning was an unrealistic option for women who were powerless to demand abstinence from their husbands,” he responded, “Don’t you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women”?

John Paul also issued encyclical letters that insisted that Catholic moral teaching must become the civil law of every country. The American bishops got the message.


Stage 4: The Contraceptive Mandate

As stated above, every survey since Humanae Vitae demonstrates that a majority of American Catholic women use contraceptives and do so in numbers that match or exceed contraceptive practice by other American women.

Unable to persuade its members through the pulpit to obey church teaching, the American bishops began a sustained political and legal campaign to block contraceptive freedom wherever they could. Their lobbying against abortion rights and international family planning programs is too extensive to describe here. Mentioning the contraceptive mandate is enough.

The contraceptive mandate debacle and”>Hobby Lobby reinforced the bishops’ authority over women. The bishops were the first to vigorously attack the contraceptive mandate, and it was their lobbying that led the Obama administration to amend the original contraceptive mandate to include an accommodation for religious nonprofits. Now, all Catholic nonprofit employers have to do in order to avoid the mandate’s requirements is sign a form letter to their insurer indicating that they do not want to cover contraception. Yet they are all still in court, arguing that signing the self-certification form substantially burdens their religion.

What the bishops are really saying is that they want the authority to decide who uses contraception. They have been claiming that authority since 1930. It is time to see that throughout these years it has been a claim for religious authority rather than religious freedom that has guided the contraception debate.

Citation: Professor Leslie C. Griffin, It’s Not Only About Contraception: It’s Also About Authority, Hamilton and Griffin on Rights (July 7, 2014),