Statement of the Hierarchy of England and Wales on Contraception, May 7th, 1964
Debates at the Vatican Council are no longer secret, but discussions in the Conciliar Commissions remain confidential. It is not yet possible, therefore, to disclose full details of the agenda for the session due to commence in September. But speeches of the Pope and some of the cardinals in Rome make it fairly clear that certain subjects are bound to be debated. It seems likely, for example, that the Council will issue a statement on religious liberty and on the Jews. Decrees on Christian unity will be promulgated. These are eagerly awaited in this country, since they will enable the Hierarchy to draw up rules for the guidance of clergy and laity in ecumenical work.
Ultimately the Council will debate the document: “The Church in Modern World To-day.” It seems probable that this will consider the problems of peace and war. The Hierarchy prefers to await decisions of the Council rather than make pronouncements on those moral problems affecting the universal church and, indeed, the whole world. The Fathers of the Council will have in mind the words of Pope John: “Justice, right reason and humanity urgently demands that the arms race should cease; that the stockpiles which exist in various countries should be reduced equally and simultaneously by the parties concerned; that nuclear weapons should be banned; and that a general agreement should eventually be reached about progressive disarmament, and an effective method of control.” — (Encyclical Letter “Peace on Earth,” 1963.)
Among the moral problems facing the Christian of to-day some are of an intimate and personal nature. The Council will doubtless reassure and comfort those bewildered by current attacks on the traditional teaching about Christian marriage. Difficulties in marriage are now openly discussed and solutions proposed with no regard for the moral law. The Church knows well that her children are undergoing a period of great strain. Their difficulties are only increased when it is irresponsibly suggested that the Council may produce a new moral code of married people.
It has even been suggested that the Council could approve the practice of contraception. But the Church, while free to revise her own positive laws, has no power of any kind to alter the laws of God. “Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offence against the laws of God and nature.” — (Pius XI, Encyclical Letter “Christian Marriage,” 1930).
The Pope, in saying this, was not introducing a new doctrine. Fifteen hundred years ago St. Augustine bore witness to the same belief and practice in the Catholic Church: “Intercourse is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented.” — (De Coniug. Adult. 11, 12). In our own day, Pope Pius XII has spoken with equal bluntness: “This precept is as valid to-day as it was yesterday, and it will be the same to-morrow and always, because it does not imply a precept of human law but is the expression of a law which is natural and divine.” — (Address to Catholic midwives, October, 1951).
While recalling the plain teaching of Christ, we nevertheless wish to express our fatherly compassion for Catholic husbands and wives who sometimes find themselves in a position of great difficulty. We know that sometimes there can be an agonising choice between natural instincts and the law of God. Our hearts are full of sympathy, but we cannot change God’s law. We must all — married and unmarried, priest and layman — realise that following Christ calls for sacrifice and self-denial. Holy Scripture, Ecumenical Councils and the Popes, are at one in declaring that, aided by Divine grace, all God’s children are capable of chaste living. “There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfil their duties faithfully and preserve purity in wedlock” — (Pius XI, Encyclical Letter “Christian Marriage,” 1930).
No method of regulating the size of families can be acceptable which ignores this fundamental Christian principle. Contraception, sterilisation and abortion are, as we know, officially encouraged in certain States, to halt what is called the population explosion. Recoiling from these pagan solutions, some Christians have begun to advocate the use of a new pill. But, as the Dutch bishops recently declared: “The new contraceptive pill now being advertised can be no more acceptable as the answer to the problem of married people than the contraceptive instruments hitherto in use.” — (Statement of Dutch bishops, August, 1963.)
Chemists tell us that they are engaged on producing pills to make the time of ovulation predictable. Their objective is to enable husbands and wives to have normal and natural intercourse even when they do not wish to increase the size of their families. On the use of a pill of this kind the Council may well be called upon to give guidance. Contraception itself, however, is not an open question, for it is against the law of God.
Many husbands and wives are troubled in conscience. They know that the Church is an infallible guide in matters of faith and morals. But doubts are shown in their minds by imprudent statements questioning the competence of the Church in this particular question. It is true that progress is made in the understanding of Christian doctrine. The Church is the Body of Christ and is always growing in wisdom and knowledge. But truth cannot contradict itself. The bishops feel bound to proclaim the unchanging nature of God’s law. We would be failing in our duty as pastors of souls were we to remain silent when so many voices are being raised to lead our people astray. The faithful are not incapable of the high degree of virtue which the observance of God’s law sometimes demands. Let them beware of false leaders: “If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.” — (Matt. XV: 14.)
What may appear too difficult for weak human nature is possible by the help of God’s grace. Grace is real and powerful. In the sacrament of holy matrimony it is God who joins together the bride and bridegroom. By the grace of this sacrament they are able to withstand all the difficulties of the married state until death shall part them.
We urge husbands and wives to deepen their spiritual lives. Let them pray together and receive Holy Communion more often. The wider choice of times for Mass now makes it possible for many more Catholics to become daily communicants. Thus will they be granted the strength they need and will enjoy the peace of a good conscience. For their consolation let them recall the words of Holy Scripture: “God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able.” — (1 Cor. X, 13).