Catholics, Protestants, and Contraception

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 92 (April 1999): 10-11.

It has become a commonplace that religious controversy today occurs more often across church boundaries than between them. Prior to Vatican II, the most important theological disputes in America—and in the West in general—pitted Protestants against Catholics. In the decades since, such disputes have increasingly pitted religious traditionalists against religious progressives—with diminishing regard, on either side, to denominational affiliation. In shorthand terms, the present division separates those who see the creeds as expressions of truth from those who see them as exercises in metaphor.

Differences between Catholics and Protestants have not entirely disappeared, of course. Papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas come immediately to mind, as does the issue of the ordination of women. But on most matters of faith and practice—including abortion, the great socioreligious issue of our time—conservative Catholics and Protestants stand together in opposition to their liberal coreligionists.

There is one great exception to this contemporary reconfiguration of religious alignments: the issue of contraception. Conservative Protestants may share Pope Paul VI’s concerns in Humanae Vitae (1968) about the overall negative effects of ready access to birth control on sexual morality. But virtually none of them—as evidenced, for example, in FT’s symposium on contraception last December—is ready to go along with the Catholic Church’s insistence that each and every conjugal act must be open to procreation. The Pope’s prescient consequentialist arguments against contraception do not, in Protestant eyes, outlaw its legitimate use within a marriage open to children.

There are divisions within Catholicism on this point: Many Catholics, it is clear, do not practice what the Church teaches. But among Protestants, it is not simply that the overwhelming majority of them come down on the same side of the issue, but that for most of them there is no real issue here at all. FT received a flood of letters in response to the contraception symposium (for a sampling, see last month’s Correspondence section). Almost none came from Protestants. This is not a matter that engages them.

Permit me a personal elaboration. When my wife and I married, we assumed as a matter of course that we would have children. She talked about eight; I thought two would be fine, but indicated a willingness to negotiate. (We wound up, in the end, with three.) We did not want children immediately—I was still in graduate school—but if she had become pregnant, we would not for a moment have considered abortion.

But neither for a moment did we morally hesitate to practice contraception. (The only extended discussion was over the method.) It was not a matter of carefully weighing the pros and cons and struggling to a decision. We no more debated whether we would use contraception than we debated whether we would, in the fullness of time, have children. Of course we would someday, God willing, have children; of course, in the meantime, we would practice (non–abortifacient) contraception. This was not, for us, a matter of presuming on God’s providence. It seemed rather a right use of reason in fulfilling the various goods of our marriage.

It is important to emphasize, further, that at no time did contraception create a moral or emotional barrier between us. (We have recently discussed this at some length.) We always reached agreement on when we would use it and when not, and during the times we did, it was never, logistics occasionally aside, in any way a difficulty. Whatever problems arose in our marriage, contraception was never among them. Contraception did not, contrary to the warnings of Humanae Vitae on this point, lead me to lose respect for my wife, nor lead her to feel used. If someone had told us, in the words of one FT correspondent, that we were "withholding our fertility from one another," he would have met with blank incomprehension. We intended both the unitive and procreative goods of marriage, but not necessarily both in every act of love.

The point of this self–revelation is not to insist on the rightness of our view of these matters. It is rather to suggest how utterly typical that view was and is. There is nothing singular in our experience, I believe; it is, mutatis mutandis, the experience of most Protestant couples of our generation and after. And I am speaking not of liberal Protestants, but of Protestants committed to a thoroughly orthodox understanding of Christian faith and life. We are as conventional and conservative on issues of sexual morality as our most traditionalist Catholic friends. But while we do not oppose natural family planning—indeed we find it admirable—we cannot concede that it is the only licit method of regulating fertility.

Catholic/Protestant differences on contraception matter as much as they do because they are entangled with larger issues. The Catholic position on contraception, at least as traditionally formulated, is based on natural law. Natural law does not depend on biblical revelation or dogmatic formulation. Its precepts, according to Thomistic understanding, are planted in the hearts of all people and are accessible by reason. We are dealing here, in J. Budziszewski’s nice phrase, with those moral laws "we can’t not know."

Natural law has never played as large a role in Protestant theology as it has among Catholic thinkers. Some Protestants, in the tradition of Karl Barth, vigorously oppose it; for others its role is marginal. But most conservative Protestants take natural law seriously, and see it as an essential element in maintaining public moral standards in an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Enter contraception. Paul VI addressed Humanae Vitae not just to Catholics but "to all men of good will," thus suggesting its foundation in a natural law argument presumably readily available to non–Catholics. But, it turns out, the prohibition against contraception is—for Protestants—a moral law they can "not know." This raises problems, possibly for Protestants, certainly for our understanding of natural law.

Aquinas conceded that there are situations where some people under some circumstances can be blinded to natural law precepts. It seems odd to suppose, however, that in our time virtually all Protestants (and not a few Catholics) would have their moral faculties so corrupted—not in general, but on this one particular issue. And the problem cannot be attributed to lack of careful consideration. Many serious Protestants have by now read and pondered Humanae Vitae and remain as unpersuaded by its arguments as do those who have never given it a moment’s thought. Positions on this issue are firmly set: I doubt that few if any readers of FT’s symposium had their minds changed either way by the arguments adduced there.

The point of my argument, again, is not—or not primarily—to insist that Protestants have this matter right. I obviously think they do, but this is not the occasion to attempt fully to establish that. The point is rather to remind orthodox Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, that we have in contraception and issues that flow from it an impediment perhaps more formidable than we like to suppose to the ecumenical fellowship that is, for so many of us, our deepest longing. In Humanae Vitae (para. 18) Paul VI noted, in magnificent understatement, that "it is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching." On that, thirty years down the line, we can all agree. The question is where we go from there.