Protestants are not known for their familiarity with papal encyclicals. We pride ourselves in doing things our own way, often in order to distance ourselves as far from Rome as possible. There is one teaching in particular that most Protestants readily recognize as Catholic, and it is usually received with derision: the prohibition of artificial means of birth control. The Protestants in my circles often disparage this teaching with little knowledge of Humanae Vitae, perhaps the most significant document to address birth control over the last one hundred years. As 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Protestants should reconsider the implications of this document.
I teach ethics at a Southern Baptist seminary in Texas where one of our core ethics courses is “The Christian Home.” I cover a number of issues concerning marriage and family, but the one that receives the greatest response is my lecture on sexuality and reproductive technologies. I treat the biblical understanding of sex and sexuality, assisted reproductive technologies, and birth control. The class concludes with a discussion about hormonal birth control, particularly, “the pill.”
Coming in the closing weeks of the semester, the lecture has a deep impact that often becomes evident midway through the next term. I’ll have a student—or sometimes several—stop by my office and let me know that his wife is expecting a child. In our seminary culture, this is not so unusual except for the fact that the announcement is preceded by an explanation that he had gone home to his wife after my lecture on sex, and they had talked about their use of birth control. That led them to stop using the pill. Given the natural order of things, some months later he sits in my office telling me that his wife is expecting. These students are usually overjoyed, a little nervous, and sometimes overwhelmed. I congratulate them, pray for them, and assure them that God will provide.
Many of my students have never been confronted with a view of birth control other than the typical Protestant position of acceptance. Our students reject abortion and “emergency contraceptives” but don’t worry about the morality of the pill and other methods. They hold this position because their churches do. Beginning with the Lambeth Conference in 1930 and concluding with the wholesale embrace of the pill in the decade or so that followed its release, most Protestants moved away from agreement with the Catholic Church on this moral issue and never looked back. Among Southern Baptists, the drift from renunciation to acceptance of birth control had a clear trajectory. The 1934 “Resolution on Birth Control” urges Congress to reject pending legislation because its purpose
is to make possible and provide for the dissemination of information concerning contraceptives and birth control; whatever the intent and motive of such a proposal we cannot but believe that such legislation would be vicious in character and would prove seriously detrimental to the morals of our nation.
Some forty years later, the Southern Baptist Convention took up the issue of birth control again, issuing a series of resolutions that opposed only contraceptives distributed to minors at school without parental consent. One resolution reads, “We oppose the distribution of birth control devices to minors except with parental or guardian consent.” Other Protestant denominations (United Methodist Church, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) also came to support contraception for various reasons, including family planning and disease prevention. They did so with little theological reflection. If Protestants had been interested in doing so, they would have had to interact with Paul VI’s substantive critique of birth control in Humanae Vitae.
The key idea in Humanae Vitae is the connection between marriage and procreation. In the opening line of the encyclical, Paul VI writes, “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator.” As Paul VI notes, two of the purposes of sexual intercourse are unity and procreation, and the introduction of birth control often separates those purposes from each other. This is not a healthy state of affairs for couples and society.
Paul VI offered some predictions regarding the future of sexuality in such a world. “Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” On the cusp of the sexual revolution, he could not have known the full extent of the lowering of moral standards that was to come. No longer are people concerned about out-of-wedlock birth, because the most serious consequence of sexual immorality can be bypassed with the use of a pill, a patch, or another form of birth control. At the same time, straightforward methods of contraception haven’t significantly dimished the percentage of births to unwed mothers, which now stands at more than 40 percent of all births in the United States—a sharp increase from 1940, when that number was less than 5 percent. This can be explained in part by increased rates of cohabitation where couples intentionally choose to have children without getting married. Despite the availability of birth control, as people more readily engage in sexual intercourse outside the context of marriage, the percentage of births to unwed mothers remains high.
When procreation and unity are detached, the spiritual meaning of procreation within the context of marriage withers. The opening chapters of Scripture underscore the clear connection of procreation and marriage that contraception undoes. After creating mankind, God gave instructions to the first man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Foreshadowing the inauguration of the first marriage in Genesis 2, this command gives us our first glimpse of the context for procreation. In Genesis 2:24, we read, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Part of the one-flesh union is the sexual relationship that was designed to fulfill the command to be fruitful and multiply. Birth control interrupts the procreative potential of male-female union and thus runs counter to the one-flesh formula. The logic may be counterintuitive, but the deliberate intention to render marital union infertile, through artificial means of birth control, leads to a diminished understanding of the purposes of sex. Sex is now understood to be primarily about pleasure. Procreation is something else. It is sex without contraception, no more joyful and meaningful than sex with contraception. Intercourse doesn’t need the context of marriage anymore. And marriage need no longer be directed toward the rearing of the next generation. Are we surprised that a contraceptive culture is also one in which marriage declines?
For many Protestants, acceptance of contraception has created unintended consequences—cohabitation and a growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. According to the Barna Group, 41 percent of practicing Christians believe that cohabitation is a good idea. While this number is less than half the rate of those who hold the same view and have no faith, the number has increased significantly over time. Nearly two-thirds of all women in the United States have been in a cohabiting relationship. The normalization of contraception in marriage has fostered the belief that contraceptive sex in marriage is no different than contraceptive sex in a cohabiting relationship. In both relationships, the main consequence to be avoided is the conception of a child. There are certainly many Protestants who hold to the idea of chastity inside and outside the context of marriage. But this stems from a lingering historic connection between marriage and childrearing. Contraceptive sex undermines it. The separation of marriage and procreation opens the door for Protestant acceptance of cohabitation.
We have also seen significant change in the acceptance of same-sex marriage. The Pew Research Center reports that 68 percent of white mainline Protestants, 44 percent of black Protestants, and 35 percent of white evangelicals now support same-sex marriage. These numbers have risen substantially over the last decade. There is no doubt that those large numbers include a portion of Protestants who have separated the procreative and unitive functions of marriage through the use of artificial means of birth control and subsequently lost sight of God’s design for marriage. As Mary Eberstadt suggests in Adam and Eve after the Pill, the acceptance of contraceptive sex leads to the acceptance of homosexual behavior:
By giving benediction in 1930 to its married heterosexual members purposely seeking sterile sex, the Anglican church lost, bit by bit, any authority to tell its other members—married or unmarried, homosexual or heterosexual—not to do the same.
The natural law argument that sex should be reserved for marriage because marriage is the best context in which to rear children loses its force when contraceptive sex is the norm. Same-sex marriages cannot be procreative by any natural means, but many Protestants no longer see this as a convincing argument against same-sex marriage because their own marriages are not procreative. Having separated sexual union from procreation, Protestants find themselves following the larger culture in matters of marriage and family.
Paul VI also foresaw the objectification of women.
Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Once a man no longer thinks about the full implications sex has for a woman, he comes to view her as a means for satisfying his sexual impulses. Women become objects of desire in the eyes of men.
This objectification is easy to see with casual sex, but it enters into the context of marriage, too. As married couples become accustomed to the use of birth control, separating the procreative and unitive functions of sex, they can begin to view one another as means to sexual satisfaction rather than as covenant partners who are called by God to bring new life into the world. The child draws husband and wife together—they couldn’t have conceived without one another. While sex-for-pleasure involves two individuals seeking their own satisfaction, sex-for-procreation involves two individuals coming together in the most intimate way to produce another human being.
I do not find myself in full agreement with every aspect of Humanae Vitae. The encyclical makes the case that natural methods based on fertility cycles are the only allowable means of family planning. Paul VI states that “married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.” I do not see a difference between this method and other methods that work to prohibit fertilization exclusively. I generally caution against the pill, intrauterine devices, and many other forms of birth control; however, barrier methods may be an acceptable option for married couples, because they impede conception when used with the intent of “responsible parenthood” as laid out in part 10 of the encyclical. In addition, Paul VI condemns sterilization. While I am generally against sterilization as a means of birth control, I believe there may be medically necessary reasons for sterilization, especially when a pregnancy could exacerbate a serious medical condition potentially leading to death. The encyclical makes an allowance for “therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases,” but it is unclear whether sterilization is included in those therapeutic means. Finally and not surprisingly, I do not believe Protestants should adopt the view that marriage is a “sacramental sign of grace” for believers. Instead, I view marriage as a creation ordinance given to all of humanity, one that functions as a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman analogous to the relationship between Christ and the Church.
Nevertheless, I believe that Protestants have done themselves a disservice by ignoring Humanae Vitae’s substantial statement on human anthropology and sexuality. Our distaste for things Roman Catholic, dating back to the sixteenth century, has deprived us of a wealth of theological wisdom on some very important ethical challenges. Protestants would be well-served to study Paul VI’s encyclical and take heed of its warnings. Our acceptance of most forms of birth control is not helping us teach the next generation about sex and sexuality. It is time for us to reconsider our stance.
Evan Lenow is associate professor of ethics and director of the Center for Biblical Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.