The Roman Catholic Church considers any form of contraception a very serious sin. Most people defending the Catholic Church's decision point to the document Humanae Vitae as a document of sound arguments against contraception, without having actually read it or knowing the background of the decision. Here is some information on the background of the document.

In 1963, a Commission was called to study birth control policy and whether it should be changed or not as part of the broader Vatican II reforms called by Pope John XXIII. This commission consisted of two priests, one a diplomat and the other a sociologist, and 4 laymen, a demographer, an economist, and two medical doctors. All were married. The Church's policy on Birth Control had until this time been based on the document Casti Connubii, which condemned it as sinful. The Church made the justification that God had already supplied a way for people to have sexual intercourse without having a baby, simply by following the rhythm of ovulation. When Pope John XXIII died, the commission continued on under the direction of Pope Paul VI. The commission met multiple times, broadening its membership to fifteen men. Up to this point, no one had presumed to recommend altering the Church's teaching on contraception.

Things changed at the fourth session, held in the spring of 1965, when the size of the commission jumped up to fifty-eight, with five women, all appointed by the Vatican as devout and intelligent theologians. They heard arguments from many extremely devout Catholics on how practicing rhythm in sexual relations ruined their relationships, making them obsessed with sex and its mechanics until the time when they were allowed to have it, then waiting in fear for the wife's menstruation, which would sometimes not come. It made the couple resentful of each other because they had to hide their passion and push away from each other until the "appointed time". They heard arguments from doctors who noted that the female's peak of sexual arousment was during the time which had to be marked off-limits, and denying that arousment certainly was not natural, as the Church had argued. The commission finally came to the conclusion that the policy had to be changed on this matter and that the truth could no longer be denied. When the nineteen voting members of the commission convened, the vote was 12 to 7 for changing the teaching on contraception.

This set off alarm bells in the Vatican, since they hadn't expected the commission to actually disagree with them, and all the commission members were demoted to the category of advisers. The commission was reformed with sixteen bishops, again appointed by the Vatican, and the evidence was heard again, as well as new evidence for changing the policy. In the climactic vote of the commission, the results were 9 to 3 for changing the Church's position on contraception, with 3 abstentions.

The Pope was infuriated, and published the document Humanae Vitae to reaffirm Casti Connubii and end the debate. It stated that contraception is a sin because it is intefering with God's plan, and that the only practice a Catholic could use was rhythm, which was the "natural" way. In fact, it was even stated that the practice of rhythm was a better way to have sex, despite all of the evidence and testimonials against this. The Catholic Church considers contraception a sin because Pope Paul VI had a temper tantrum when he didn't get the results he wanted from the commission he appointed himself. Consider this the next time you try to justify the Catholic Church's position on contraception.

In response to quijote:
The explanation in Humanae Vitae does not hold up to the investigation of the council formed of many esteemed members of the Catholic church. Several points don't seem to make any sense at all, for instance, "an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life." The Church approves of the Rhythm method, which is a schedule designed to prevent pregnancy. Hence, it is a birth control method, and those who follow it are "frustrating His design". Either couples must submit themselves wholly to the will of God, or they must be allowed to make choices that allow them to maintain their relationship in a feasible manner. You can't have your cake and eat it too.
That's a side issue, however. I still maintain my main point that the only reason the Church's doctrine on birth control remains is because Pope Paul VI rejected the decision of the council he appointed as the best judges of this moral question, not once, but twice. His mind was entirely closed on the issue. He didn't want an open, intelligent debate on the merits of each side, he wanted blind justification for the view he already held. When he got more than he bargained for from the council, he pulled the Papal Authority card.

An absolutely fabulous way to treat such a sensitive issue of such great importance to Catholics around the world, don't you think?

Damnit, I love the RCC. That's the overt reasoning; maybe they really believe it. Sociochemically speaking, however, this is how I see it. (Is it bullshit? You decide!)

The 'anti-contraception' meme is a part of the 'Catholic Dogma' meme complex. This part contributes to the propagation of the complex over time, thus reinforcing itself as an idea and the church as a whole. Simply stated, the idea spreads itself, causing it (at least if considered in isolation), to become more and more prevalent over time. It does so by the following mechanism:

1. Decrease in contraceptive use --> Increase in Catholic children. (Biological Step)
2. Meme is transferred along the extremely effective (Parent--> Child) indoctrination route. (Memetic Step)

Seeing as the Parent to Child transfer has an extremely high percentage yield, the rate of reproduction is the limiting step in this reaction.

This meme has the opportunity to be at least doubly successful, seeing as it is positively reinforced by other propagation mechanisms bound into the 'Catholic Dogma' complex, such as the Sex Guilt Mechanism (Which I'll node later, unless you want to). Provided two propagation memes are logically consistent, the stability of the thought structure will not diminish over time.
The motivation behind the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control can be debated, but it would be most useful to know what the Church itself has actually stated. In this writeup I summarize the reasons for the opposition given in Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (all quotes are from the English translation archived at

Problem and Competency of the Magisterium

  • "The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator." In other words, marriage and procreation are not just private matters; they have moral aspects on which the Church has an authority to speak.
  • In our time there have been changes in our ability to regulate aspects of human life (science and technology) and in the world at large which provides reasons to do so (overpopulation, the growing understanding of the dignity of women). These have brought about questions as to the appropriateness of using artifical birth control.
  • These questions can be answered with a "moral teaching on marriage -- a teaching which is based on the natural law as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation." Given by Jesus, the Church has the authority to interpret such moral teaching as based not only on the "law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God."

Doctrinal Principles

  • God's Loving Design: Marriage is "the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design." As such it is intimately tied to the Church, and "the marriage of those who have been baptized is, in addition, invested with the dignity of a sacramental sign of grace, for it represents the union of Christ and His Church."
  • Married Love: Married love is: "fully human, a compound of sense and spirit," "an act of free will," "a love which is total," "faithful and exclusive," "and fecund." Married love goes beyong the two humans who enter into it; "children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents' welfare."
  • Responsible Parenthood: Married persons "are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow." They have a responsibility not only to future generations and potential future generations, but to God who has created the institution of marriage.
  • Observing the Natural Law: The married conjugal act is "noble and worthy," even if foreseen to be infertile for reasons independent of the will of the married persons. "The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
  • Union and Procreation: Because of the way God authored man and woman (biologically), "the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life." Therefore there is an inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative significances of marriage, which man of his own initiative may not break.
  • Faithfulness to God's Design: "an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life." Our human sexual functions, just like our body and our life, are not ours to control; we must always look to the will of God.
  • Unlawful Birth Control Methods: From the nature of married love, and the natural law given by God, the Church can determine that: acts interrupting the generative process already begun, acts of abortion or sterilization (permanent or temporary), and acts that as a means or end prevent procreation before, during, or after sexual intercourse, are wrong. And: "though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it."
  • Lawful Therapeutic Means: "the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom — provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever."
  • Recourse to Infertile Periods: "The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God." To use contraception is to interrupt a natural process and offend the dignity of marriage as created by God, but to take advantage of infertile periods is to "rightly use a faculty provided them by nature."
  • Consequences of Artifical Methods: Birth control can lead to or encourage "marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards." Also, "a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to 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." "Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law." It would truly be dangerous for governments or other power structures to infringe on the dignity of marriage and the free will of persons by encouraging or even forcing the use of birth control to further ends not in harmony with the will of God.
  • Limit's to Man's Power: "unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions — limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed."
  • Concern of the Church: "It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching," but the Church "does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. . . . Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter — only their guardian and interpreter."

First Note: If the Church really opposes birth control to maximize membership, why doesn't she allow all of her priests, monks, and nuns to marry and procreate? Why are abstinence from sex until marriage and lifelong celibacy valued so much?

Second Note: izubachi states that the Church considers the use of contraception a sin because Paul VI had a temper tantrum when a commission he appointed didn't agree with him, but the commission could only disagree with his position if he already held it . . . so why did Paul VI and Catholic tradition oppose contraception in the first place? THAT is what is explained in Humanae Vitae. Also, a council of "esteemed members" is with authority only so much as the Church lends it authority. . . however the Popes, Ecumenical Councils of the Bishops of the World Ratified by the Popes, the theology of Sacred Scripture, and the writings of the Sainty Doctors of the Church, all derive their authority more directly from God. izubachi may not like it, and most Catholics might not like it, but they should realize that all of these authoritative sources are overwhelmingly in agreement that artifical contraception is sinful . . . for the Vicar of Christ on Earth to attempt to change Catholic Doctrine because of the recommendtions of a council of primarily laymen who disagree would be irresponsible, and indeed unCatholic.

This is an old Australian joke. It might help to understand that a century ago, the methodist church was one of the parts of the temperance/wowser movement.

A methodist priest comes home and sees his son reading the bible. "Daddy daddy", he asks, "I've been reading the bible but it's really hard. Why is contraception a sin?". His father replies: "Well now that you ask my son. Using contraception might lead to sex, and sex might lead to dancing."

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