A bitter pill? Christians examine the morality of contraception

Despite nearly universal acceptance, some Christians question the morality of contraception.
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Contraception is a sin?

The very suggestion made Bryan Hodge and his classmates at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute laugh.

As his friends scoffed and began rebutting the oddball idea, Hodge found himself on the other side, poking holes in their arguments.

He finished a bachelor's degree in biblical theology at Moody and earned a master's degree in Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

And now, more than a decade later, he is trying to drive a hole the size of the ark through what has become conventional wisdom among many Christians: that contraception is perfectly moral.

His book, The Christian Case Against Contraception , was published in November.

Hodge, a former Presbyterian pastor who is now a layman in the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, realizes his mission is quixotic.

In the 50 years since the birth-control pill hit the market, contraception in this and myriad other forms -- the condom, diaphragm, IUD, the patch, shots, implants and sterilization -- has become as ubiquitous as the minivan.

Like lighter fluid poured out on a smoldering sexual revolution, the pill dramatically opened the possibilities for women in the worlds of work, sports and education. No less than other Americans, Christians were caught up in the cultural conflagration. In a nation where 77 percent of the population claims to be Christian, 98 percent of women who have ever had sexual intercourse say they've used at least one method of birth control.

The pill is the most preferred method, followed closely by female sterilization (usually tying off Fallopian tubes).

"People are no longer ... thinking about it," says Hodge, 36, who had to agree with a Christian publisher who rejected his book on grounds that contraception is a nonstarter, a settled issue.

"People don't even ask if there is anything possibly morally wrong about it."

Slow acceptance » For more than 19 centuries, every Christian church opposed contraception.

Under pressure from social reformers such as Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, The Anglican Communion (and its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church) became the first to allow married couples with grave reasons to use birth control. The methods in use then, in 1930, were chiefly the diaphragm and condom.

That decision cracked a door that, four decades later, was thrown wide open with the relatively safe, effective birth-control pill, which went on the market in this country in the summer of 1960.

Virtually every Protestant denomination had lifted the ban by the mid-1960s.

Even evangelicals within mainline and nondenominational churches embraced the pill as a way that married couples could enjoy their God-given intimate relations without fear of untimely pregnancy. "Let your conscience be your guide" was the mantra.

"It was a reaction to that whole Victorian thing where sex was seen as dirty," says Hodge, who lives in Pennsylvania.

For a culture steeped in the expectation of ever-advancing medicine, a pill to prevent pregnancy was a panacea.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' perspective evolved more slowly.

The First Presidency taught against birth control in the late 1960s, but the implicit message through the 1980s and '90s -- made explicit in the 1998 General Handbook of Instructions -- was that only a couple can decide how many children to have and no one else is to judge.

In recent decades, contraception has become almost as commonplace among Mormons as among the general population, even as LDS families remain larger.

There remains one massive holdout among major Christian churches -- the Roman Catholic Church.

Despite what seemed to be logical arguments-- relaxed sex lives for married couples, women unfettered by large families able to enter the work force, and an antidote to perceived global overpopulation -- Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae squarely rejected contraception in 1968. (The teaching is "On the Regulation of Birth" in English.)

To separate the two functions of marital intimacy -- the life-transmitting from the bonding -- is to reject God's design, the pope wrote.

"The fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life--and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman," Humanae Vitae proclaimed.

Janet Smith, a Catholic seminary professor whose writing and talks have been influential for two decades, puts it this way: "God himself is love, and it's the very nature of love to overflow into new life.

"Take the baby-making power out of sex, and it doesn't express love," Smith says. "All it expresses is physical attraction."

The only form of family planning allowed Catholics, the pope wrote, is one in which couples avoid intercourse during the woman's monthly fertile cycle for "well-grounded" reasons. Systematic ways to do that, called Natural Family Planning (NFP), replaced the old rhythm method.

The church's continued ban on contraception stunned many, including one of the doctors who created the pill, Harvard's John Rock, a Catholic.

By and large, Catholics went with the culture rather than the church.

A 2005 Harris Poll found 90 percent of adult Catholics support contraception, just 3 percentage points lower than the general adult population.

There's a reason for that, says Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group that advocates contraception and abortion rights.

The pill, he says, freed women to enter the work force and culture, and it saved the lives of women in poor countries whose health was compromised by repeated births.

Catholics saw that Humanae Vitae was more about authority and church leaders' unwillingness to acknowledge they were wrong for centuries, O'Brien says.

"The ban on contraception is completely irrelevant to Catholics," he says. "We know the position the hierarchy has on contraception is fundamentally flawed, and that's why it's ignored en masse."

It came to pass? » Catholics who support church teaching, however, say the world -- and the church -- would be better off today if they had heeded Pope Paul VI's warning.

Among the predictions Paul VI made about contraception were that men would come to see women as mere instruments to satisfy their own desires and that there would be a general lowering of moral standards.

People would begin to treat their bodies as machines, the pope wrote, and some governments would use contraception to manipulate their citizens.

"People thought he was crazy," says the Rev. Ken Vialpando, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ogden. "They couldn't see why he was making those predictions."

A person need only chart the rise in promiscuity, divorce, abortion and pornography to see a correlation with the growing use of contraception, Vialpando contends. "Those predictions came to pass. He wasn't off the wall."

Veola Burchett, director of the family life office for the Salt Lake City Catholic diocese, points to China's one-child law as evidence of government manipulation. Others find evidence of bodies treated like machines in modern fertility treatments.

Humanae Vitae was about responsible parenthood, Burchett says. "Large families are a blessing, but we must prayerfully evaluate the number and spacing of our children," she says. "That's what Humanae Vitae teaches."

Vialpando places much of the blame for Catholics' disobedience on priests who are reticent to talk about church teachings on marriage and sex or who bought into the 1960s notion that one's conscience was a sufficient guide.

"What if our consciences are not fully informed?" Vialpando asks. "How can we fault the people if they haven't heard about it and recognize the purpose or meaning of marriage?"

Smith, whose recorded 1994 talk "Contraception, Why Not?" has sold more than 1 million copies, says young adult evangelicals and Catholics, including men studying for the priesthood, seem more open to the possibility that contraception is a sin. The pendulum may yet swing, she says.

"They are going to have a huge impact," says Smith, who holds an ethics chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. "They already are."

'Same view ... atheists have' » The Rev. Greg Johnson of Sandy, who is on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, says most evangelicals remain firmly in the contraceptive camp, even if some stress that it should not be used frivolously or to avoid children altogether.

A recent Gallup poll of the association and another of its board found 90 percent support for contraception.

Such statistics are disheartening for evangelicals such as Hodge and James Tour, a renowned chemist specializing in nanotechnology at Rice University in Houston, who believe contraception is not biblical.

Rather than heeding Christian theology to be "agents of life in the world," Christians have largely adopted culture's philosophic naturalism, which considers sex an itch to be scratched, Hodge says.

"They have the same view of conception that atheists have."

Evangelicals' dearth of understanding about sexuality and marriage explains why they have trouble arguing against gay marriage, he contends. Contracepted sex, in his view, is no different from gay sex: It's not life-giving either way.

Unlike Catholics, Hodge rejects NFP as just another way humans try to push God out of the bedroom. In that, his views are similar to those of the Quiver Full movement among Christians, which argues that people should be open to life at all times.

Tour, a Jew who converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager, endorses NFP but wonders if Christians ought to forgo even that measure of family planning.

He studied Christian sexual ethics and theology six years ago after hearing Smith's tape and ordering 200 copies to pass around.

Tour began speaking at his Baptist church and now has a six-part free lecture on human sexuality on his website, which helps explain why the site gets 10,000 hits per month.

He says young lustful men who have had unfettered access to their wives welcome a message of self-restraint.

"The women are looking for relief. The men are looking for relief," Tour says. "They're like, 'I want that. I want to live in peace. I want to live in fulfillment.' "

Throwing out contraception "is more trusting in God. It ultimately lets him decide what is the right number [of children]," Tour says.

"Protestants in 30 or 50 years are going to say, 'My God. What were we thinking in those generations?' "