In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued what has become one of the more controversial encyclicals in recent memory. In contrast to the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions, which had both been gradually inching closer toward a full embrace of contraception, Humanae Vitae reaffirmed tradition in condemning any and all use of aritificial contraception as sinful. It was a teaching so out-of-step with contemporary culture that it inspired open dissent from both clergy and laity, and even now — more than 40 years later — the encyclical’s teachings are far from popular among self-identified Catholics.
It’s a position that has come to light yet again recently, as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care act — an act which I’ve by and large been supportive of — has come under scrutiny, in part for a provision that requires all employers but the most religion-y to provide their employees with healthcare that will pay for contraception. It’s a reality that has forced me to think long and hard, not only about what religious freedom means but also why one branch of my faith can be so opposed to certain substances that they’ll risk millions in fines just to avoid dirtying their hands with them.
Being raised decidedly Protestant, I spent many years completely unable to fathom how a church could take a position so legalistic and obsessive about externals. The more I think about the teaching, though, the more I understand it. I still regard the Catholic position on birth control to be a tad on the Pharisaical side, in that it adds unnecessarily to the law of Scripture, but in many ways I’ve come around to understanding and appreciating the position. If humankind is made in the image of God, then its natural and appropriate end is the creation of life. If we treat this reality as something to be avoided, our values are confused at best. Continue reading