This post by James McDonald originally appeared at Bad News About Christianity.
“Every sensible man, every honourable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror.”
~ Voltaire (1694-1778)
Because the only reason for sexual intercourse was the bearing of children, all forms of contraception were regarded as sinful. There is no scriptural support for such a view. It is a product of the attitudes of Church leaders. Over the centuries the Western Churches justified their antipathy to all kinds of contraception by reference to an Augustinian notion that bodily organs must be used only for their intended purpose. Contraception was thus inherently sinful. This view was elaborated by St Thomas Aquinas, accepted by the Roman Church and endorsed by Protestant leaders including Luther and Calvin. All mainstream Western Churches shared this consensus well into the twentieth century.
The origins of modern attitudes to contraception are to be found amongst those whom the Churches regarded as its enemies — although in this case a clergyman helped unwittingly. The speculations of freethinkers like Godwin and Condorcet provoked Thomas Malthus, an Anglican clergyman, to publish his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, in 1798. This essay not only influenced Wallace and Darwin in developing evolutionary theory but also prompted freethinkers to consider humane methods of population control. Malthus had considered only celibacy and late marriage, but non-believers quickly realised the benefits of contraception, which now came to be known after the reverend gentleman as neo-Malthusianism. Jeremy Bentham had already advocated birth control before the publication of Malthus’s classic work, but now the case for it was much strengthened. Freethinkers became vocal advocates. Indeed, almost all of the early advocates of birth control and family planning were freethinkers. Among them were Francis Place (1771-1854), Richard Carlile (1790-1843), Charles Knowlton (1800-1850), J. S. Mill (1806-1873), Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant and Margaret Sanger (1883-1966).
Many proponents suffered under the law, since Christian ethics considered neo-Malthusianism (i.e. contraception) both blasphemous and obscene. In the USA Knowlton was imprisoned under the Massachusetts Blue Laws for his book The Fruits of Philosophy. As late as 1914 Margaret Sanger was arrested and gaoled. Her crimes were to have established a family planning clinic in Brooklyn and edited a monthly newspaper, called The Woman Rebel, that advocated birth control. In England J. S. Mill had accepted the need for contraception after seeing a murdered baby in a London park. He was imprisoned for distributing “diabolical” handbills, written by Francis Place, in 1832. Bradlaugh and Besant were prosecuted in 1877 for reprinting Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy. Another book by Besant, The Law of Population: its Consequences and its bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals, written in the same year, later incurred an obscenity prosecution in New South Wales. In England, the General Medical Council struck Dr Henry Allbutt off the Medical Register in 1885 for publishing A Wife’s Handbook, which advocated contraception.
According to traditional Christian teachings, women were dispensable. It was far preferable for a woman to die in childbirth than to indulge in something as filthy and unnatural as birth control. Bertrand Russell cited a case of an Anglican clergyman of his acquaintance who chose to see his wife die giving birth to their tenth child. The reverend gentleman had been told that she would die if she had another child, but contraception was not then an option for a good Anglican. The clergyman got his wife pregnant and she died, as he had been told she would. No Christian condemned him for killing his wife. Only freethinkers like Bertrand Russell found his behaviour reprehensible. Early in the twentieth century it was already known that simple precautions, such as wearing a condom, could render negligible the danger of contracting syphilis. Churches of all denominations deliberately suppressed this knowledge, on the grounds that it was good for sinners to be punished by contracting venereal diseases. As Russell pointed out, they must have held that it was so good that they were willing that the punishment should extend to the innocent wives and children of sinners. He characterised the Roman Catholic Church’s position on this matter as “fiendish cruelty”.
Slowly the law that regarded contraception as obscene fell into disrepute. By the 1920s popular attitudes had changed significantly, and the more liberal Churches performed their customary volte-face. In the Church of England, the volte-face occurred on 15th August 1930 at the Lambeth Conference. In the Orthodox Church bishops abandoned their unanimous condemnation, and now many urge that the question is one for individual conscience. In Roman Catholic countries a similar change in attitudes is currently taking place at the time of writing. In fact there has already been a discernible shift. No form of contraception was permitted at all until 1950. Then in 1951 Pope Pius XII announced to some Italian midwives that God approved the rhythm method, despite its having been consistently condemned by the Roman Church before then. The traditional view had been that all contraception was sinful. St Augustine himself had said so, and had specifically denounced the rhythm method. The traditional view had been upheld as recently as 1930 in the papal encyclical Casti Connubii. Now, suddenly, the rhythm method was acceptable. As cynical observers noted, women were suddenly allowed to evade pregnancy by the use of arithmetic, though it was still a sin to do so by the use of physics or chemistry.
The Roman Church still prefers that a woman who has a medical condition that could severely complicate pregnancy, even causing her to die, should accept this possibility rather than countenance using contraception. It still maintains its opposition to contraception, most recently expressed formally by Pope Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae vitae, and supported explicitly by Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI. Contraception is now acceptable to the reformed churches of the West, but it was not always so.
At the time of writing there must still be untold numbers of people around the world suffering from congenital syphilis because of the desire of both Roman Catholics and Protestants to see sinners punished. Since the advent of AIDS it has been widely recognised that the best way to save lives is to educate people about the disease and to encourage the use of condoms. The Roman Catholic Church has opposed both of these measures, and Vatican authorities have stated that it is better for married couples to risk catching the virus rather than to wear condoms. A cardinal in charge of Vatican social policy has stated that “to talk of condoms as safe sex is a form of Russian roulette”. He claimed that condoms may help spread AIDS through a false sense of security, claiming they weren’t effective in blocking transmission of HIV. He also reaffirmed that the Catholic Church advises against people infected with HIV wearing contraceptives”. His views were described by the World Health Organisation as “Extremely Dangerous”. Bishops and archbishops have explicitly advocated the deliberate fiction that condoms cause AIDS. One Cardinal has carried out public condom-burning ceremonies. As late as 2009, the Pope himself speaking in Africa to the press, claimed that AIDS “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems” to the outrage of health organisations throughout Africa the rest of the world. The United Nations estimates that up to 83 million Africans will die of Aids by 2025.
The Irish Republic suffered one of the worst AIDS crises in Europe, partly because the bishops successfully opposed attempts to educate the population, and partly because the Church ensured that the sale of condoms remained illegal. Another factor was that, because homosexuality was still illegal in the Republic in the 1980s, many homosexuals felt compelled to enter into conventional marriages to avoid discrimination.
The Roman Catholic Church is also against artificial insemination, even using a husband’s semen, since this involves the ejaculation of sperm outside the wife’s vagina. Having sexual intercourse normally, but using a condom to collect the semen, is also not permitted because the condom is a contraceptive. Setting its mind to this difficulty in 1987, the Vatican hit upon the idea of using a punctured condom. It is probably fair to say that many Roman Catholics now regard their Church’s teachings as unrealistic.
Contraception provides an excellent example of a general pattern. The pattern is that a new idea is developed outside the Church. The idea is inconsistent with traditional Christian teachings, and so is regarded by all mainstream Churches as inherently evil (blasphemous, or heretical, or otherwise criminal and depraved). The idea is advocated and developed by atheists and others whom the Church regard as its enemies. These advocates are abused, imprisoned and persecuted by all right-thinking Christians. Sooner or later the ideas are accepted by the population at large. As soon as the Churches start losing credibility because of their stance they find a reason to shift their ground. They abandon their old positions, turn their coats, and ally themselves with the victorious reformers. Soon, they are claiming to have been influential in the reform movement. Generally the first notable Christians to adopt the new view are credited with being responsible for the reform, and it is their name alone that features in popular histories. The Churches generally follow this same path, one after another: Quakers first, then liberal Protestants and Anglicans, then Baptists and other nonconformists, then Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, and finally Christian fundamentalists.
Contraception fits this pattern perfectly. The freethinking pioneers of family planning are now largely forgotten. In England Marie Stopes has been selected to play the role of Christian heroine. In fact, Dr Stopes, the only Christian campaigner of any note, appeared rather late in the day, after the public was largely converted, and after the persecution of campaigners had virtually ceased. Most modern Anglicans would be astonished to discover that their Church has ever opposed contraception. Within a century a new generation of Roman Catholics may well be in the same position.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
 Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, pp 56-7.
 Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, p 25.
 “Vatican firm on Condoms”, The Independent, 30th January 1990.
 Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, widely reported in the world press. See for example Condoms “as safe as Russian roulette”, says cardinal, The Daily Telegraph, 14th October 2003.
 Some Churchmen go further and propagate the lie that condoms cause AIDS. Examples include Cardinal Obando y Bravo ( Nicaragua), Raphael Ndingi Mwana a”Nzeki, Archbishop of Niarobi (Kenya) and Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala (Uganda). Here is Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique quoted on 26 September 2007 by the BBC “Condoms are not sure because I know that there are two countries in Europe, they are making condoms with the virus on purpose,” he alleged, refusing to name the countries. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7014335.stm). The Vatican itself has been criticised by the World Heath Organisation for disseminating untruths on the subject. See for example Steve Bradshaw, “Vatican: condoms don’t stop Aids”, The Guardian, Thursday October 9, 2003 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/aids/story/0,7369,1059068,00.html).
 “Blood Of Innocents On His Hands”, Cover story of the New Statesman, 11 th April 2005.
 Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to the world’s press in Cameroon on 17 March 2009, widely reported around the world. See for example http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/17/pope-africa-condoms-aids.
 “The Sins of the Fathers”, The Sunday Correspondent Magazine 22nd July 1990.
 The question of homologous insemination was addressed by the Vatican’s Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei in 1987, much to the amusement of news media throughout the world.
Beyond Belief: Two Thousand Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church
By James McDonald
Garnet Publishing (1 November 2009)
Why Do Christians Hate Birth Control and Contraception?
The History Of Birth Control | TIME
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