While most Americans were celebrating the first day of spring on March 21, protectors of life were noting the 70th anniversary of a day of infamy.
It was on March 21, 1931, that the Federal Council of Churches, the forerunner of today's National Council of Churches, voted to accept contraception as morally permissible for married couples.
The era known as the “Roaring ’20s” was marked not only by prohibition and speakeasies. The times also saw increasing promiscuity, much talk about free love and “companionate” (childless and non-permanent) marriages and the corresponding use of contraception by married and unmarried alike.
Protestantism's embrace of contraception had begun with some outspoken Anglicans who wanted to enjoy this carefree culture without feeling guilty. They pressured their church to change its teaching to accommodate their desires and, on Aug. 14, 1930, the majority of the Anglican bishops capitulated. Pope Pius XI responded with amazing swiftness. On Dec. 31, 1930, he reaffirmed the Christian tradition, clearly teaching that marital contraception constitutes the grave matter of mortal sin.
The March 1931 decision by the Federal Council of Churches came, in effect, as a response to these two pronouncements.
Much of the immediate reaction to the council's decision, even from the secular culture, was negative. An editorial writer for The Washington Post lost no time in pointing out the dire effects this decision would have on marriage. The very next day he wrote: “Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the death-knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality. The suggestion that the use of legalized contraceptives would be ‘careful and restrained’ is preposterous.”
Conservative Protestants were equally eloquent in their criticism. Dr. Walter A. Maier of the Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Louis wrote: “Birth Control, as popularly understood today and involving the use of contraceptives, is one of the most repugnant of modern aberrations, representing a 20th-century renewal of pagan bankruptcy.”
In the 1960s, Pope Paul VI reiterated Pius XI's teaching — and has, by now, become famous for the accuracy of his predictions in section 17 of Humanae Vitae, his 1968 encyclical that once again reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching against marital contraception. Paul warned against a number of looming dangers — among them vastly increased conjugal infidelity, a general lowering of morality, loss of respect for women with increased use of wives as instruments for sexual gratification, handing a dangerous weapon to the state, and the growth of an attitude that a person has absolute dominion over her or his body and can do with it anything she or he pleases. These predictions were ridiculed in 1968; today they are seen as prophetic.
What's interesting is how the culture responded to the popes — especially in light of the way it responded to others who made similar arguments against contraception.
For example, columnist Walter Lippmann wrote a stinging critique of the contraceptive mentality that gripped the West during the ’20s. In his 1929 Preface to Morals, he noted that one effect of removing the laws against the sale of contraceptives was that their use would spread to the unmarried as well. “Obviously that which all married couples are permitted to know everyone is bound to know. Human curiosity will make that certain. Now this is what the Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic, which oppose contraception on principle, instantly recognized. They were quite right. They were quite right, too, in recognizing that whether or not birth control is eugenic, hygienic and economic, it is the most revolutionary practice in the history of sexual morals.”
Walter Lippmann wrote extensively about the dire effects of contraception. (The Washington Post writer and some of the conservative Protestant critics of the Federal Council of Church used even stronger language than he did). Yet Lippmann went on to become a popular, nationally syndicated columnist, while Paul VI was vilified for his position from both within and outside of the Catholic Church.
What accounted for the vastly different reactions? Lippmann and other commentators offered their personal opinions. Their voices blended in with those of many others doing the same. Pope Paul VI claimed to speak on behalf of God as the Vicar of Christ. He had the weight of 19 centuries of Christian teaching behind him.
There's a big difference between the opinion of a pundit and the teaching of the Church. The culture seems to sense that fact even if it doesn't openly acknowledge it. Some things never change.
John F. Kippley is co-founder of the Couple to Couple League for Natural Family Planning. firstname.lastname@example.org