The Pontifical Commission and How Birth Control Became Known as Intrinsically Evil

Anonymous is a practicing Catholic who writes for RH Reality Check on the church and contraception.

Half a century ago, the pope appointed a commission to study the morality of birth control. Multiple choice: What do you think their findings were?

A) Birth control is not “intrinsically evil.”

B) Married couples should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to use birth control.

C) Artificial birth control is an extension of methods of natural family planning already accepted by the Catholic Church.

D) All of the above.

You may be as astonished as I was to learn that the answer is “D.”

After I wrote my essay, “Why I Skipped Mass Today”, I decided to investigate my church’s historical attitudes toward contraception a little further. Let me start at the beginning, shortly after “The Beginning,” with a story from Genesis.

Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also. (Genesis 38:8-10, New American Standard Bible).

Onan: the first recorded coitus interrupter. I kind of feel bad for him; I am not sure I would want any of my sexual acts recorded for posterity. And can you imagine his Facebook page, if they had such things in those days? “Dude—heard you pulled out! WTF?”

Here is a fuller context of the story of Onan. Judah had another son named Er. God found Er to be, er, evil, and so God took his life. Judah turned to his other son, Onan, and commissioned him with the task of impregnating Er’s widow (Onan’s sister-in-law), thus continuing the family line. And it seems that although Onan enjoyed the act, he didn’t actually complete the job.

Many theologians point to this passage as evidence for God’s displeasure with contraception, specifically the phrase “wasted his seed,” because seed is not to be wasted. Every sperm is sacred! Indeed, Catholic theologians in the middle ages even examined whether or not sperm cells had souls! Their concerns about the sanctity of human life in sperm cells was fueled by some of the earliest illustrations of spermatazoa, which included fully formed humans, just waiting to be fertilized. Had they known that the average ejaculate contains about 300 million sperm cells, they might have really freaked out!

While Catholicism interpreted God’s displeasure with Onan as a story about forbidding deliberate pregnancy prevention, other theologians have interpreted this passage differently. Some view the matter as more about Onan’s selfishness—or disobedience—with respect to his intentional failure to produce a child for his brother, as was his traditional obligation at the time. If we want to take the analysis to another level, if the inherent wickedness is truly in seed-loss, then why does the Catholic Church prohibit masturbation in both men and women? No seed is lost for women! What about infertile men, can they masturbate? But I digress…

Let’s fast-forward to the 20th Century, and the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. I have to admit that I was rather astonished to learn that there even was such a thing, and I was simply dumbfounded by its findings. After the advent of the pill, Pope John XXIII appointed six lay people, referred to as the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, to study the morality of birth control and population issues. The pope died that same year, and his successor, Pope Paul VI, expanded the Commission, adding a substantial number of clergy, including Cardinals, bishops, and priests, and appointed an executive committee of 15 bishops to construct the final report. The commission voted overwhelmingly to encourage the Church to rescind its ban on contraception and declared it not “intrinsically evil.” The final votes included “yeas” from 30 of 35 laypeople, 15 of 19 theologians, and 9 of 12 bishops (3 bishops abstained).

Pope Paul VI, however, ignored the recommendation of his own pontifical commission, and released his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which took the polar opposite position.  I guess you get to do that when you’re pope.

So now the official position of the Church states that birth control is, in fact, “intrinsically evil.”  When I think of that phrase, certain images come to mind, like Adolph Hitler systematically exterminating millions of people. I think of terrorist plots to blow up innocent civilians. I think of clergy victimizing their flock. I don’t think of my wife heading down to CVS to pick up a pack of Ortho Tri-Cyclen.

Maybe it is time for a new pontifical commission to study what is truly “intrinsically evil.” Personally, I wonder if holding up access to health care meets this standard.

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  • veggietart

    Using contraception to prevent pregnancy, ending an unwanted pregnancy, or having a child you do not want and will not love–maybe even can’t afford to care for?

    As none of the men who decide contraception is evil will ever be faced with this question–not even as the supporting partner of someone who will have to make this decision–perhaps they should leave it to those who are.

  • waterjoe

    You can disagree with the Catholic Church’s position, but if you are going to attempt to address the reasons for the position you need to study more church history, ecclesiology, moral theology, and biblical studies.  

  • colleen

    We can’t help it, Joe. Our tiny little women’s brains can’t quite grasp the complexities of Catholic history, doctrine and Canon law. I suppose that’s why, in their wisdom, your clergy announced just last year that a Priest who spends his career raping small children is morally equivalent to someone who ordains women.

  • crowepps

    Nope, we don’t have to address their reasons for their position at all, because their reasoning is completely irrelevant.


    What we can do instead is say, the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States guarantees our individual religious freedom, and we are entitled to consider the moral issues concerning this matter and make up our own minds, without dragging in ancient history, without considering what some man’s opinion was 1700 years ago, without the interference of any bishop or professional religious leader, because as women we have agency and are entitled to make our own decisions and control our own bodies.


    Women in the United States have religious freedom, and ZERO obligation to be ‘obedient’ to a foreign head of state who claims God’s imprimatur for his pronouncements.  All tyrants and religious fanatics claim that God approves of their actions, and the Pope is no more likely to be right about what God wants than any other religious leader.  I’d note that Jim Jones, Fred Phelps, Warren Jeffs, Tony Alamo and Marshall Applewhite claimed exactly the same thing — that they were Authority and they knew what behavior God requires from everyone.

  • equisetaceae

    There is a great book by a wonderful Jesuit theologian that I think you would enjoy: Sacred Choices by Daniel Maguire.  I heard him speak at a Medical Students for Choice Conference in 2009 about the history of contraception and theology- he covered many of the same things that you are discovering and sharing in your article.  He is also a very interesting man- he was training for the priesthood when he realized that so much of the theology he was being asked to spout didn’t actually match the theology he had been encouraged to study and research.  He gave up the cloth and became a theologian instead.  He has written several books on reproductive rights and is an excellent (and VERY DRILY FUNNY) writer.