The “Counselor” and Contraception

In this month’s column, John Kippley examines the Church’s perennial rejection of contraception from the standpoint of Christ’s guarantee to send the Holy Spirit not only to teach us but also remind us about the truth already made known to us through the natural law (see Romans 1:20)–including the truth about the human person and human sexuality.  

Humanae Vitae and John 14:26

by John F. Kippley

Most people in the first world have at least a vague idea that the Catholic Church teaches that it is immoral for married couples to use unnatural methods of birth control, but very few understand why it teaches this way. One fundamental reason for accepting this teaching stems from John 14:26, the conviction that God Himself is the Author of the teaching against marital contraception.              (Next month’s column will look at the nature of marriage, the marriage act, and the human person.)

In two consecutive sentences in Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI draws attention to the force of Sacred Tradition.  At the end of section 11, he teaches: “Nonetheless, the Church, calling men back to the observance of the norms of the natural law, as interpreted by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”  He starts the next sentence this way: “That teaching, often set forth by the Magisterium. . .” (emphasis added).

Section 11 cites Casti Connubii (Concerning Chaste Marriage) issued by Pope Pius XI on December 31, 1930.  In this encyclical, Pius XI responded to the bishops of the Church of England who had just taken the horrific step of being the first organized Christian body to formally accept marital contraception.  Here’s how Pius XI stated it: “Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question . . .” (emphasis added).  Then he restated the traditional Christian teaching that marital contraception is the grave matter of mortal sin.

What is behind these references to a teaching against contraception that had been universal among all the Christian churches and communions?  Two things: history and a promise.
This historical fact is that from the time of the Apostles up through August 6, 1930, Christianity was united in its teaching against contraception, at least to the extent that no Christian communion had declared contraception to be morally permissible.  Birth control was not a Catholic-Protestant issue at the time of the Reformation.  In fact, Martin Luther called contraception a form of sodomy, and John Calvin called it a form of homicide. The American anti-contraception laws of the 19th century were passed by largely Protestant legislatures for a mostly Protestant America.
In the early 20th century, the Church of England was subject to great pressure. In the face of this pressure, the Anglican bishops courageously reaffirmed the traditional teaching in 1908 and again in 1920.  On August 7, 1930, however, they capitulated.

At the Last Supper, Jesus made a promise to the Twelve Apostles and to their successors through the ages: “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

The Catholic Church believes that God keeps His promises. This bedrock belief is the basis for our belief that the clarifications of the faith that have been issued by the Council of Nicea and subsequent ecumenical councils are true.  The same thing is true regarding the Church’s teaching against unnatural forms of birth control, as the Anglicans correctly called them. The issue was raised many times throughout Christian history, but the answer was always the same: a universal negative to contraceptive behaviors. 

When there was a break among Christians in 1930, the Catholic Church immediately reaffirmed the teaching through Pope Pius XI.  When the Pill and loose speculation led to all sorts of confusion in the Sixties, the Church once again reaffirmed the teaching through Pope Paul VI. When the confusion worsened because of unprecedented dissent, God raised up John Paul II to give new and more profound insights into the nature of marriage and the marriage act in his “Theology of the Body.”  John Paul II also gave us repeated affirmations of the teaching.  One of his strongest statements was to a group of priests in Rome:

“In a word, contraception contradicts the truth of conjugal love.  Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (September 17, 1983).

The constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries and in response to different questions in different times is attributable the continued guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is the guidance that Jesus promised at the Last Supper. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, keeping alive the divine truth about human love. 

John F. Kippley is a co-founder of Natural Family Planning International and the author of Sex and the Marriage Covenant: A Basis for Morality (Ignatius, 2005).  He and his wife are also the co-authors of Natural Family Planning: The Question-Answer Book, a free, short, readable manual that can be downloaded at

12 responses

  1. Why describe Lambeth as “capitulation” when that implies that they did so with bad faith. If they were sincere, there is no capitulation but there is difference of opinion with Catholicism. Such internet talk and name calling is purely a sin against ecumenism and the internet is where sin thrives amongst Christians because essays don’t have to pass publishing muster in the real marketplace. I never read a Protestant saying that we capitulated on usury and adopted in 1830 the identical position Calvin held in 1545. Why does Catholicism on the net have this ad hominem and paranoid quality?

    The above essay by John implies that the Holy Spirit perfectly guides the ordinary magisterium in morals and this is not Catholic dogma….He guides the infallible level only with perfection.

    The Church used light torture in her ecclesiastical courts for centuries and enjoined burning at the stake of heretics by secular rulers after Ad Extirpandum under pain of excommunication (see old Catholic Encyl. at new advent under Inquisition)…. and John Paul II condemned all torture in section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth” as intrinsically evil.

    There John Paul also condemned all slavery and as Aquinas pointed out, the Church’s canons supported just titled slavery due to being born to a slave mother (see Suppl. to Summa T in the section on marriage of a slave wherein Aquinas gives the decretals numbers etc.)

    Both positions (the Church of the past and John Paul) cannot be correct and both were within the ordinary magisterium. The Holy Spirit perfectly guides the Church when she brings something to the infallible level. But She must first do that work and it is work. For a Pope to do an ex cathedra encyclical on birth control, he would have to face the problems that it was largely not papal at all but a tradition based on three early councils, the didache, and two Fathers who were ex fornicators and both of whom gave evidence of having problems ongoing in this area of a psychological nature (Jerome is almost anti marriage and is dismissive of the benefits of children in Against Jovinianus/ and Augustine sees little worth in women’s role in marriage other than childbirth and Aquinas copies this unfortunate passage verbatim 700 years later with approval…they follow).

    “ I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and woman cohabitate.” De Genesi ad litteram 9,5-9 Augustine.

    Aquinas, ST, Pt. I. Q.98, art.2 “Moreover, we are told that woman was made to be a help to man. But she was not fitted to be a help to man except in generation, because another man would have proved a more effective help in anything else.” (On the contrarty..section).

    In short, the tradition is anything but healthy in all its sources and perdured for the reason that slavery perdured in the canons….no one constantly reviewed canon issues to check them against new developments in science and world opinion…etc.

    I would urge you to get a priest with a degree in dogmatics to check your assertions in this whole area.

    Tradition cannot be easily proved where there is silence on an issue. I would ask you or John to name ten Popes who wrote at all on birth control. There were 265 Popes. I would venture to say that less than ten wrote a thing on the issue….Sixtus V (who also executed thousands of criminals and would hardly have thus pleased John Paul)did write briefly….Gregory the Great wrote that married couples should expiate the pleasures had in intercourse (again this would not please John Paul nor most of us)…and add to them the most modern popes and you have less than ten. But don’t let me speak for you. Name more than ten.

  2. Bill,

    I’ll let John Kippley defend his own choice of words, but “capitulation” does not imply an action done in bad faith. The plain meaning of the word is “the act of surrendering or of yielding (as to a dominant influence).” The Lambeth conference allowed an unprecedented (and narrow) exception to the general condemnation of contraception by all of Christendom for 1900 years. This was clearly an act of surrendering or yielding to the spirit of the age, which was–and is–pushing for a more libertine approach to sexual morality.

    It seems to me that the Lambeth Conference was giving in to the “hardness of heart” of its flock, bringing to mind Our Lord’s words in Matthew 19 “but from the beginning it was not so.” Once the dike was burst, we have seen the degeneration of the Anglican Communion in this area such that now, for example, openly homosexual men (and I suppose homosexual women, too) can become bishops. The Catholic Church has its own problems, but thank God it doesn’t have this one, which has serious ecumenical consequences.

    You read “capitulation” as a negative because you clearly have problems with the Church’s teaching in this area and you would prefer that the Church follow the Lambeth Conference (and not Pope Pius XI et al.) on this, which clearly will never happen.

    You raise many side issues here. We could talk about the Church’s teaching on torture or slavery if you like, or about the foibles of individual popes or bishops, but we both know that it’s the arena of sexual morality that is driving this issue.

    You are being disingenuous when you say, “I urge you to get a priest with a degree in dogmatics to check your assertions in this whole area.” You listen to those who agree with you, and everybody else, including the Pope and all those who are faithful to the Magisterium (regardless of their theological credentials), are wrong to the extent they disagree with you, though you have no problem citing JPII when it works to your advantage.

    I don’t like taking this tone on the blog, but to launch out at someone of John Kippley’s character in this way and accusing us of paranoia, ad hominem comments, sinning against ecumenism, as well as implying that we are ignorant of Church teaching and fomenting falsehood (while doing so yourself), I have to draw the line.

  3. You are still judging their motives on outward grounds and not on their explicit statements as to their motives and that is wrong. Check it with your pastor. Show him my post and yours.

  4. Here is the resolution from Lambeth 1930 which is never quoted yet is available right on the net and it does not sound like capitulation to pressure at all:

    Resolutions from 1930
    Resolution 15
    The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

    Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

    Voting: For 193; Against 67.

    To judge this as capitulation to pressure is to imply that one has Christ’s ability to read hearts as when Christ accused the pharisees as seeking to kill Him wherein He was of course correct; but we do not have such omniscience especially concerning 193 separate voters at Lambeth and therefore must take people at their word unless they are notorious people like Hitler. And the vote count lists 67 against which also does not bespeak a frightened group giving into pressure.
    Nor does the later approval of gay marriage have any connection or it would follow that anyone who approves contraception therefore will eventually approve gay marriage which is absurd.

  5. The Anglican bishops had been under pressure for years to change traditional teaching on marital contraception. They had firmly resisted and openly unheld the traditional teaching at the Lambeth conferences of 1908 and 1920. During the 1920s the forces of contraception gained force among the Anglicans. At the Lambeth Conference of 1930, they capitulated to these pressures. “Capitulation” is the best word I know for their acceptance of what they had previously rejected.”
    As far as the connection with the later Anglican acceptance of “gay” marriage, this was clearly and explicitly argued by Anglican Bishop Charles Gore and others at the time. They could see the logic and warned that the acceptance of marital contraception would open a Pandora’s box and would entail the acceptance even of sodomy.

  6. The Catholic Curia had been under pressure for years around the issue of allowing interest on a loan.
    Then what word would you use for the 1830 decision of the Catholic Curia to allow interest on a simple loan after centuries of forbidding it (not extrinsic titles on business investments…always allowed) in the face of decades of Catholic pressure to change on that issue. Is it listening to the Holy Spirit when we Catholics change not under pressures but listening to pressures… but it is capitulation when separated brethern do it? The point is that in neither case can we read hearts like Christ did…and to do so is a sin unless the Lambeth voters wrote notes to the effect that they were capitulating. Catholicism is developing pharisaic judging tendencies in its uneven assessment of Protestant decisions like Lambeth while it judges like decisions by Rome in the most brilliant of lights. NFP is wonderful but satan is greatly pleased that it has become a source of imputing motives to those who disagree with Rome on the matter. At the highest levels of the Catholic Church, this is not happening anymore. Archbishop Amato of the CDF called Rahner an “orthodox theologian” to John Allen in 2001 at the Lateran Conference in Rahner’s honor
    and Rahner had dissented from HV and knew dogmatics and levels of authority better than anyone in that he was for years the editor of the Enchiridion Symbolorum. Were your linking of the gospel to the birth control accurate, that priase by Amato could not have happened….parenthetically neither could have centuries of just titled slavery or torture in the ordinary magisterium’s decisions within Rome and within canon law.

  7. Bill – long timer lurker, first time responder!

    Have you considered perhaps creating your own blog or website maybe BoBB – “Best of Bill Bannon” – or something equally catchy?

    In doing so, it may be easier to create a clearing house for your hermeneutic. It rather seems that hitting two dozen blog comboxes or so to expound on your thinking on a handful of issues isn’t half as efficient – though it may be twice as fun.

    With a blog you could, rather than re-type or clip and paste, give links to you thinking rather than writing out multiple paragraph posts at each step along the way…

    Unless per chance the joy of posting long multi-point posts appeals to the combox warrior in you.

  8. I make no claims to being knowledgeable about the usury situation except to state the obvious. Namely, that the Church did not change its teaching that usury was evil and contradict itself by teaching that usury was a good. And that’s what happened in the birth control issue. In early 1930 the first form of NFP–calendar rhythm–was known. The Anglicans could have modified their previous stance that countenanced only 100% abstinence without accepting directly contraceptive behaviors as permissible.

  9. John
    Do some reading of books not internet essays on usury. The internet is the prime locus of less than stellar essays since they are self published. The Church did change and could change on interest….since it was moral teaching in the ordinary magisterium but not infallible just as the use of torture in Church courts and just titled slavery perdured for centuries and the latter in the canons and then was changed to its opposite. Catholic apologetics people later put makeup on the usury change but could not do so on torture. This prettying up of mistakes in the ordinary magisterium is the same attitude that led to the sex abuse excuses such as Bishops were merely taking advice from psychologists. It turns out that one psychologist in the Boston Globe produced book…told a Bishop a man was still dangerous to children and his advice was ignored. Mistakes like slavery and torture really occurred in the ordinary magisterium and were in the canons and the mistake on what usury was actually also happened. Apologists argue that economies changed and the Church wisely changed with them. Why then did Calvin have our exact 19th century answer in 1545. No…whether you were a cave man or a Renaissance man, to ask interest on a simple loan for incurring the risk that any loan carries (the borrower may die etc)….was always rational and yet was forbidden until 1830
    when the curia said yes to dubia concerning it since now the whole world outside of us was seeing it as benign.

  10. Again, Bill, anybody who disagrees with you must be reading dubious Internet articles instead of the books that support your dissident views. I know there are books out there like that, like the book by Robert McClory (priest-turned-Called to Action and National Catholic Reporter-journalist) entitled “Faithful Dissenters,” but such agenda-driven works seek to undermine the Church’s authority, not provide objective history. I don’t have time today to rebut your false claims that the Church in her official teaching taught error with respect to usury or slavery, but here’s a link to a good discussion on dissent by the Curt Jester:

  11. Again BB, perhaps better to start your own blog…

    Your standard com-box tactics of avalanching arguments or bringing in tangential arguments on usuary when dealing wiht your pet subject of contraception doesn’t lend itself well to com-box discource.

    Much as one would love to respond to 10-paragraph missives using only the sources you cite as respectable or legitimate, most of us just don’t have that sort of time or energy.

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