Catholic church's total ban on contraception challenged by scholars

Luca Badini Confalonieri (NCR/Jamie Manson)
Luca Badini Confalonieri (NCR/Jamie Manson)

by Jamie Manson

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Nearly 50 years since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that rejected the use of artificial birth control, a group of prominent Catholic theologians, ethicists and physicians has produced a report reassessing and challenging the papal document.

The report, entitled, "Promoting Good Health and Good Conscience: The Ethics of Using Contraceptives," was commissioned by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, an independent think-tank based in London.

The 20,000-word academic report, which was co-authored by 22 Catholic scholars from Australia, Colombia, Europe, India, the Philippines, South Africa and the United States, evaluates, from within the Catholic tradition, the morality of using artificial contraceptives for family planning. The authors include U.S. ethicists Michael Lawler and Christine Gudorf and African theologian Nontando Hadebe.

A five-page statement summarizing the report's key arguments was signed by 149 Catholic scholars from around the world, including former heads of state, members of Parliaments, priests, religious, a bishop and scholars working at Catholic universities.

The statement calls for a development of the doctrine of contraception that would make it compatible with current scientific and theological knowledge. It also calls the Vatican to form a commission to reopen the discussion of the morality of using contraceptives through an independent process of consultation.

Signatories included former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, and U.S. theologians Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Peter Phan.

The statement was launched during a side event of the U.N. General Assembly called "Keeping the Faith in Development: Gender, Religion and Health," a symposium that examined the intersections and areas of contention between health, human rights and lived theology.

Luca Badini Confalonieri, director of research at the Wijngaards Institute and the principal author of the report, introduced the statement to an audience of 60 participants that included members of multiple U.N. agencies, as well as Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu religious leaders, and several women religious with posts at the U.N.

Badini Confalonieri explained that the scholarly report, which took nearly a year to produce, concludes that "contraception for the purpose of family planning is not 'intrinsically evil,'" as Paul VI declared.

"On the contrary, it can be a good, to the extent that family planning is indeed a requirement of what popes call 'responsible parenthood,'" he said.

"When Paul VI declared that the use of artificial contraception is intrinsically evil, he said that it was always immoral regardless of the intentions of the agents, the circumstances of the situation or the consequences of the action," Badini Confalonieri continued. "Our report argues that there are circumstances when it can be used legitimately and it can be morally good."

The Wijngaards report is "grounded in the ethical and social justice teaching of the Church," Badini Confalonieri said. "According to Catholic teaching, 'responsible parenthood' is a moral duty and it requires that couples determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children taking into account their own 'physical, economic, psychological and social conditions,' as well as their ability to provide for the health, education and growth of the children."

Though the church's ban on contraceptives is often dismissed or ignored by Catholics in the U.S. and Europe, in the developing world the lack of access to contraceptives remains a life or death issue. An estimated 25 percent of healthcare facilities in developing countries are operated by Catholic institutions. The ban on contraceptives continues to be significant point of tension for U.N.-based aid agencies that have declared that sexual and reproductive health care is a Sustainable Development Goal.

The launch of the Wijngaards statement was part of an event initiated by the United Nations' Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development, a group that seeks to foster dialogue between faith-based organizations and development agencies. The symposium was intended to address taboo issues that faith communities encounter when seeking to address sexual and reproductive health challenges in the developing world.

The task force invited the Wijngaards Institute to present their statement in conjunction with the launch of two other reports, "Religion, Women's Health and Rights: Points of Contention, Paths of Opportunities," a paper produced jointly by the U.N. Population Fund and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The third report, "Dignity, Freedom and Grace: Christian Perspectives on HIV, AIDS, and Human Rights," published by The World Council of Churches was also presented. The event was also co-hosted by U.N.AIDS, U.N. Women, and Islamic Relief USA.

The symposium's ten-person panel discussion offered insights from interfaith voices into the struggle for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health in the poorest regions of the globe. Many speakers emphasized the ways in which the faith-based groups can be either agents for justice or obstacles to progress in parts of the world in which girls and women suffer untold discrimination, poverty and disease.

According to the "Religion, Women's Health and Rights," report, each year there are "290,000 maternal deaths, 74 million unintended pregnancies and 3 million newborn deaths."

It is grim statistics like these that motivated the Wijngaards Institute to challenge the Vatican's ongoing ban on contraception and to contribute broader Catholic perspectives in a U.N. environment where typically the Holy See is the dominant Catholic presence.

For decades the Holy See, which has permanent observer status at the United Nations, has used its influence at the U.N. to object to declarations, charters, and sustainable goals that make reference to sexual and reproductive health, contraception and family planning.

In an attempt to engage the Holy See in dialogue, Miriam Duignan, communications director for the Wijngaards Institute, hand-delivered an invitation to the event and a copy of the statement to the Holy See's office near the United Nations in New York City.

Duignan says that she received confirmation that the Holy See received and read the materials, but no representative attended the event.

In an emailed response to NCR, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. stated that it had no official comment on the event.

Backlash to the statement and the event, however, was noteworthy at the Catholic University of America, where several members of the faculty produced a counterstatement to the Wijngaards report and hosted a press conference, which was live-streamed on the CUA Facebook page, at the exact time of the U.N.-hosted symposium.

Related: Scholars reaffirm Catholic teaching against artificial birth control (Sept. 21, 2015)

Addressing these objections during the launch, Badini Confalonieri said, "allow me to ease some predictable concerns: we are not advocating sexual promiscuity, abortion, or population control on the part of governments."

Badini Confalonieri insisted that the report comes out of a deep commitment to the church's social justice doctrine. In an interview with NCR before the symposium, he said that it is precisely Pope Francis' "emphasis on the social gospel, sustainability, and care for poorest people" that motivated the Wijngaards Institute to develop the report.

"All of these social justice issues are linked with contraception," Badini Confalonieri said. "We had an acute awareness that there were so many Catholics with expertise in this field. The lack of debate is glaring."

The Wijngaards Institute was further emboldened by the pope's encouragement of frank dialogue during the Synod of Bishops on the family.

"It was stunning," Badini Confalonieri said, "that there were two meetings by bishops on the family and no formal discussion of contraception. We decided to commission a report to try to kick start dialogue."

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is]

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