The Catholic bishops are in the process of lifting the ban on the birth control pill. The problem is they don’t know it yet. When the USCCB made contraception in health plans “a religious rights issue,” they unleashed fact-based public commentary reiterating that “70 percent of Catholic women use sterilization, the birth control pill or an IUD, according to the Guttmacher Institute research.”Although this has been an open secret about Catholic practice, the bishops have forced the public to decide between saying and doing. At some point, believing that the bishops control the behavior of the Catholic people becomes untenable. So not as to lose all credibility, I predict, the ban on the birth control will be lifted.
There are those, unfortunately, who confuse the immutability of the Catholic faith with the application of the faith to constantly changing circumstances. As Jesus taught (Mk. 7:6; Mt. 15:8) and St. Paul affirmed (Romans 8) God’s spirit is a better guide than the letter of the law.
What will not change is the Catholic teaching in favor of responsible parenthood. “Responsible” here means not having children you can’t afford or raise properly or to force pregnancies on women whose mental or physical health cannot bear those burdens. “Parenthood” means that couples are open to having children as part of the sacrament of Christian love that ennobles the propagation of the human race. But can the pill be a means to these Christian goals? At the close of the II Vatican Council, Blessed Pope John XXIII empowered a commission of theologians and married persons to study whether or not the birth control pill could be used by those practicing responsible parenthood.
In a sports analogy, the pope requested a definition of what should be the “strike zone” as the church gave an umpire’s call on what is outside the faith and what is “down the middle.” Of the 90 members of the commission, some 75 - a majority - stated that as long as the pill was used for the “responsible” part of “responsible parenthood,” it was a legitimate scientific innovation for Catholic couples. Pope Paul VI, however, sided with the minority in issuing Humanae Vitae. The pontiff decreed that the church should outlaw the pill because of the likelihood it would be misused to avoid parenthood.
While recognizing the validity of other theological opinions about the medical advantages in the pill, the outlawing of the pill was based on the notion that it was “artificial,” i.e. chemical, rather than “natural” birth control. There was never a condemnation of avoiding too many children as long as that was a responsible action. Neither was the pill declared “intrinsically evil” since in fact there were many circumstances in which it was advantageous medication. Even the word “artificial” is suspect since virtually all medication expands or reduces the body’s natural functions: Benecar controls blood pressure, aspirin controls headaches and Viagra ...well you know. There is no theological reason to ban these other medications or prohibit church agencies from paying insurance for them. They enhance or limit natural functions of the body so that the person can live and engage in responsible moral behavior.
Lifting the ban on the pill, therefore, is not inconceivable, since imposing it was a “minority” position back in 1967. Special circumstances have already led the Vatican to lift the ban on condoms. Moreover, including birth control pills in health plans has been practiced in Europe without significant Vatican opposition. The recent claim in the US that preventive use of the pill violates religious freedom is unprecedented, and contradictory to established practice.
A slap on the wrists of the American bishops through a Vatican decree that reframes use of the pill would not be unprecedented. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII condemned “Americanism,” which was more a criticism of how Irish bishops mistreated other ethnic Catholics than a condemnation of heresy. It worked. And then, of course, there is the reactionary “Syllabus of Errors” of Pius IX that is often summoned like a ghost to haunt Catholic apologetics.
The lifting of the ban on birth control pills will likely rephrase the approach first outlined in the Dutch bishops’ “A New Catechism.” Pray about using the pill, consult a doctor and priest, then follow your own conscience about responsible parenthood.