Birth Control—Who Should Decide? You or the Church?
By Awake! correspondent in Spain
“A CHILD is an angel provided by God. The more children you have, the more proof there is that God is blessing you and using you for his glory.”
These words of the local parish priest weighed heavily on Joaquim. He was out of work. He and his wife, Lourdes, already had six children. How could they cope with any more? His objections were silenced by the warning: “To avoid conception is a sin. You will be excommunicated if you do that!” Dutifully, Lourdes gave birth to ten more children, despite the economic hardship this impoverished Portuguese family had to endure.
The priest was merely reiterating a fundamental Catholic teaching, that marriage should be fertile and that each couple should be “magnanimously willing to welcome the children” that might come along. However, in recent years many Catholics are expressing doubts about official church guidelines on this matter.
A French Catholic mother of ten exclaimed: “For me, Roman Catholic teaching is impracticable today for normal young couples who wish to live their married lives in the sight of God!” Kitty Parker from California expressed similar sentiments: “My husband and I decided to opt for birth control after a long time talking, reading and praying. It was our first major break with the church.” Judy Ford of Paignton, England, feels that “the decision should be with the family concerned, without fear of reprimand from the Church.”
Many sincere Catholics are asking themselves: ‘In this age of overpopulation, widespread poverty, and mushrooming shantytowns, should it be the church that decides whether specific birth control methods are right or wrong?’ Whom should a Catholic listen to? The pope, the parish priest, or his own conscience?
Not Just a 20th-Century Issue
Parents have long sought practical ways to limit the number of children. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle spoke of the value of controlling population growth in order to alleviate the spread of poverty. He refers to some birth control methods that were popular in his day. In many lands the practice of delaying weaning for several years also contributed to lowering the birthrate. However, one of the most common forms of population control, still practiced in some countries today, was that of infanticide. The unwanted child, often a girl, was mercilessly killed.
In recent years, because of improved health care, the average mother in some African countries has as many as eight children. If the birthrate in India (nearly five children to each mother) continues at its present level, that country will have a population of nearly a thousand million at the turn of the century.
Many of these growing families are flocking to the hopelessly overcrowded megacities of the Third World, such as Calcutta and Mexico City. The latter could have anywhere from 26 million to 36 million people by the year 2000. Consequently, the majority of these poorer nations practice some form of family planning.
Meanwhile, in many Western countries, where family planning clinics are widespread, the birthrate has fallen considerably. Contraceptive methods are used by the majority of married couples, irrespective of their religion. Protestant churches generally leave the question of contraception to the conscience of the couple concerned. However, in 1930, Pope Pius XI formalized the current official Catholic position, which was reinforced by Pope Paul VI and has been emphasized by the present pope, John Paul II.
A Dilemma for Sincere Catholics
How is the official Catholic ruling on birth control defined? Put simply, it declares that only “natural” methods of birth control are morally acceptable. The “natural” method was described by Pope John Paul II as “discerning the rhythms of human fertility and guiding . . . parenthood according to these rhythms.” Other forms of contraception are forbidden.
Clearly, many Catholics find the rhythm method impractical. Thus, they are obliged to follow either the dictates of their own conscience or the doctrine of their church. In most Western countries, pragmatic Catholics tend to ignore papal pronouncements, although not without some soul-searching. This is true even in predominantly Catholic countries.
A French priest explains: ‘Setting very high standards, not as directives, but in an absolute sense, leads to the existence of parallel churches: On the one side are those who lay down the law and a minority who obey. On the other side, a majority who do what they can or even decide to ride roughshod over these very complicated principles.’ In Spain over 60 percent ignore church teachings on birth control even though well over half of these consider themselves practicing Catholics. In Italy a recent poll indicated that less than 2 percent definitely align themselves with the official church position.
This enormous discrepancy between what the church teaches and what Catholics generally practice is not surprising in view of the conflicting opinions expressed by bishops, priests, and theologians on this question. While papal statements have been unequivocal, many high-ranking churchmen do not see the matter as clear-cut, some even speaking out openly against official dogma. Meanwhile, local priests, who have to counsel married couples, are often unwilling to make moral judgments in this regard. So the basic question is, Are there definite divine instructions relating to birth control?
What Is the Bible’s Viewpoint?
Those who argue against contraception often cite the Biblical command given to Adam and Eve: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.” (Genesis 1:28, Douay) However, as Spanish writer Ricardo Lezcano rightly observed: “It seems somewhat contradictory to apply to 4,000 million human beings the same formula that was applied to the only two inhabitants of the planet.” This command was clearly related to the special circumstances existing at that time.
Nowhere in the Bible is birth control or family planning discussed. Although the Bible condemns sexual immorality, it does not teach that only procreation can legitimize sexual relations between husband and wife. (Compare Proverbs 5:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 3.) In this matter, therefore, as in others where direct Scriptural guidance is absent, each couple must decide in harmony with their conscience. Establishing arbitrary standards of right and wrong would be going “beyond what is set down.”—1 Corinthians 4:6, The New American Bible, a Catholic translation.
This does not mean that every form of birth control is acceptable in God’s sight. The Bible makes clear that God esteems the life of the unborn child and takes note of its embryonic development. (Psalm 139:13-16; Jeremiah 1:5) Under the Mosaic Law, someone who even unwittingly caused the death of an unborn child was liable to severe punishment. (Exodus 21:22, 23) Therefore, from God’s viewpoint, abortion is reprehensible, and so is any other device or medication that terminates life after conception has occurred.*
Thus, what many sincere Catholics believe intuitively—that family planning is a matter best left to each married couple—is precisely what the Bible indicates.
Joaquim, the Portuguese father mentioned earlier, came to that conclusion after personally experiencing the difficulties and heartaches of adhering to Catholic doctrine regarding birth control. He began to investigate the Bible to determine whether other dogmas of the church might not also be mere “commandments of men” rather than “the commandment of God.”—Matthew 15:3, 9, Dy.
Now, as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he strives to follow not the dictates of men but, rather, those of Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16) Why don’t you make a similar investigation? Jehovah’s Witnesses in your area will be pleased to help you.
On rare occasions a drastic medical procedure might be indicated to save the mother’s life.—See The Watchtower, March 15, 1975, pages 191-2.
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◼ Humanae Vitae (Encyclical of Pope Paul VI, 1968). The conjugal act ought to be “completely human, totally and exclusively open to the new life.”
◼ Pope John Paul II. “Contraception, judged objectively, is so profoundly illicit that it can never, for any reason, be justified. To think or to speak otherwise is tantamount to saying that there can be situations in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.”
◼ Spanish cardinal Narcisso Jubany Arnau. “[It is] a grave sin to avoid fertility deliberately.”
◼ French Catholic bishops in a pastoral letter (1968). “Traditional wisdom dictates determining which is the most important duty before God in this particular case. The couple must make their decision after a long period of mutual reflection.”
◼ Catholic theologian Charles Curran. After the 1968 papal encyclical on birth control, Curran and some 600 other Catholic academics and church professionals issued a statement declaring that couples ‘were justified in following their own conscience.’
◼ An elderly French priest. “The church insists on speaking in terms that make it lose all its credibility. . . . It continues to lay down the law to the moon.”