The Pope and the Pill: The Catholic Church‘s teaching against contraceptive birth control has “laid a heavy burden on” innumerable people. John M. Swomley reveals that the problems in countries that are associated with overpopulation and the political campaign in the United States to deny reproductive freedom to women are all due to the papal decision to protect the authority and "infallibility" of the papacy. He also confirms the Catholic Church’s fear that papal infallibility would be compromised in connection with abortion. From: Christian Social Action, February 1998
The Pope and the Pill
The Catholic Church ‘s teaching against contraceptive birth control has “laid a heavy burden on” innumerable people
by John M. Swomley
Why does the pope oppose contraceptive birth control, family planning and abortion? Does the Vatican not know that there are many countries where the food supply, arable land and water are not enough to care for present or future populations?
A number of Catholic countries in Latin America have abortion rates two-to-four times higher than in the United States, yet the Catholic bishops there have not launched a crusade against abortion and birth control, as the bishops have in the United States. Why not? Is it because the laws there conform to papal policy and that is sufficient? The answers to these and other related questions have been almost completely ignored by the religious and secular press.
The birth control story begins with the Second Vatican Council in the early l960s and the decision of two popes to re-examine the church’s position on birth control. Pope John XX Ill had intended to begin that re-examination, but he died before he could begin the process. His successor, Pope Paul VI, appointed a Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control.
That commission was two-tiered: (1) a group of 15 cardinals and bishops; (2) a group of 64 lay experts representing a variety of disciplines. A member of the lay commission, Thomas Burch, a professor at Georgetown University in the 1960s, said the pope had asked them to try to find a way to change the church’s position on birth control without destroying papal authority.
Commission Voted for Change
After two years of study, the lay commission voted 60 to 4, and the clergy voted 9 to 6, to change the position on birth control, even though it would mean a loss of papal authority, because it was the right thing to do. However, a minority report was submitted to the pope. The co-author of that report was a Polish archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II.
A Roman Catholic historian and theologian, August Bernhard Hasler, tells the story in his 1979 book, How the Pope Became Infallible. He provided the following quotation from that minority report, which actually was the one accepted. It clearly sets forth the basis or reason for the current Catholic crusade against birth control and family planning:
“If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubi was promulgated). and in 1951 (Pius XII’s address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died).
“It should likewise have to be admitted that for a hall a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now he declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved” (page 170).
Dr. Hasler concluded: “Thus it became only too clear that the core of the problem was not the pill, but the authority. continuity, and infallibility of the Church’s magisterium.”
In conformity with this minority report, Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical, Humnae Vitae, in which he condemned every form of contraceptive birth control. Hasler wrote: “After the promulgation of the encyclical. . . the Church conducted a massive purge of its key personnel wherever it could” (page 283).
In other words, the problems associated with countries that are overpopulated and the political campaign in the United States to deny reproductive freedom to women are all due to the papal decision to protect the authority and "infallibility" of the papacy.
“A Source of Incalculable Harm”
Hans Kung, arguably the world’s leading Catholic theologian, wrote: “This teaching [against contraceptive birth control] has laid a heavy burden on the conscience of innumerable people, even in industrially developed countries with declining birth rates. But for the people in many under-developed countries, especially in Latin America, it constitutes a source of incalculable harm, a crime in which the Church has implicated itself” (cited in Stephen Mumford, The Life and Death of NSSM 200, page 203).
Confirmation of the Church’s fear that papal infallibility would be compromised has occurred in recent years in connection with abortion. Cardinal John O’Connor, in an April 3, 1992, speech at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio said, “The fact is that attacks on the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, unless they are rebutted effectively, crude church authority in all matters, indeed the authority of God himself.” He said, according to the April 9 edition of his newspaper, Catholic New York:
“Abortion has become the number one challenge for the Church in the United States because. . .if the Church’s authority is rejected on such a crucial question as human life.., then questioning of the Trinity becomes child’s play, as does questioning the divinity of Christ or any other Church teaching.”
Politicians Should Enact Laws
Unfortunately the Vatican is not content with applying its dogma against contraceptive birth control to members of he Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II in his Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation has declared that Catholic teaching must become law. The Instruction states: “Politicians must commit them selves, through this intervention upon public opinion, to se curing the widest possible consensus on such essential points. .. .” They are expected to enact into law "appropriate legal sanctions” for violations of the law.
The Vatican wants to outlaw contraceptive birth control because of its stance that there should be no interference with conception. There are, however, means that function utter sexual intercourse to prevent implantation in the uterus, such as the IUD and certain pills. Conception, of course, is not complete until the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. Nevertheless, this type of birth control is also to be outlawed, the Vatican says.
These strictures, if enacted into law, would put the majority of the population, which is non-Catholics, along with non-conforming Catholics, into the position of being law breakers. Non-Catholics even today are affected if they use Catholic hospitals and compliant physicians. since they are forbidden to provide information about contraceptives or to prescribe or apply them.
The problem with papal infallibility, aside from its requirement that Catholics are expected to accept it without question, is that no human being is free from error. We are all creatures of our culture, our education, and our vested interests. The pope tries to avoid this criticism by insisting that he is the vicar or spokesman for God or Christ. Yet the very fact that he asserts infallible authority over millions of people who must obey him is a radical departure from the teachings of Jesus, who told his disciples:
“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, .” (Mark 10:42-43).
Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul rejected the legalism inherent in the papacy’s infallible rules.
Contributing editor John Swomley is Professor Emeritus at St Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri
Christian Social Action, February 1998