Prominent Protestants Rethink Contraception
WASHINGTON—It's not a statement one normally hears from evangelical Protestant leaders, even those in family ministries:
“Pope Paul VI was right about contraception.”
But this fall Mike McManus, president of Marriage Savers, a nationwide marriage preparation and renewal program, dedicated two of his “Ethics & Religion” syndicated newspaper columns to the evils of contraception and the effectiveness of natural family planning.
In doing so, he joins other Protestants who are more willing to consider the Catholic view of contraception.
McManus (no relation to this writer), a former Catholic, candidly admits his reasons for leaving the Church. “I became a Protestant at age 22 in 1963 in part because I did not believe in the Catholic Church's position on birth control,” he wrote in his columns of Oct. 23 and 30.
He continued: “Pope Paul VI predicted in 1968 that widespread contraception would lead to soaring rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, widespread abortion and even euthanasia. He was right.”
What precipitated McManus’ change?
“Talking to Christopher West, the director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Denver,” McManus said by telephone from his home in Potomac, Md., “he said, ‘Mike, I understand you used to be a Catholic and that one of the reasons you quit was birth control. I think you need to reconsider.’ He sent me a pile of stuff. The data is very compelling. Natural family planning is as effective as the pill.”
That data led McManus to write: “I'm not suggesting banning contraceptives, but I am supporting an alternative which is as effective as the pill or [other artificial methods]. ... This alternative is natural family planning.”
McManus isn't the only Protestant taking a second look at contraception.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family is questioning the abortifacient nature of some methods of birth control and is making natural family planning information available through his ministry while remaining tolerant of contraception.
According to Carrie Gordon Earll, bioethics analyst for Focus on the Family, “We are not opposed to married couples using contraception. Dr. Dobson's personal interpretation of Scripture does not lead him to believe that the prevention of pregnancy is morally wrong.”
Allan Carlson, a Lutheran historian, went a step further. “That a Roman pontiff would lead the opposition — often painfully alone — to contraception at the end of the 20th century is no small irony,” he wrote recently in a pamphlet.
“Perhaps the Catholic hierarchical model, reserving final decision on matters of faith and morals to a bishop whom Catholics believe is the successor of Peter, has proved more resilient in the face of modernity than the Protestant reliance on individual conscience and democratic church governance,” he said.
Carlson's report, called The Empty Promise of Contraception, was published by the Family Research Council, a think tank founded in Washington by evangelical Protestants.
Christopher West of the Denver Archdiocese hopes contraception's new doubters will come full circle.
“As soon as you see that contraception is wrong, you're on your way to the Catholic Church,” he said. “Inevitably, the honest man who looks at history and traces the problem, discovers contraception as a key contributor to what went wrong with marriage in our century. Then the light goes on. All Christian churches used to teach this. The Catholic Church is the only one still teaching it. Maybe the Church is on to something.”
Pope Paul VI predicted in 1968 that widespread contraception would lead to soaring rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, widespread abortion and even euthanasia. He was right.
John Kippley, founder of the Couple to Couple League, is disappointed that although McManus writes in his column that he agrees with the Church's opposition to birth control, in practice he isn't condemning contraception as inherently immoral.
“Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant,” Kippley said. “Contraception says, I take you for better — but not for worse, including the imagined ‘worse’ of pregnancy. It's intrinsically dishonest. Mike McManus is doing some good but not all the good that needs to be done. If you don't live according to truth, you can expect bad results, even if you're in good faith but ignorant. Nature bats last.”
While McManus is convinced that natural family planning is effective, he's not so sure it improves marriages on its own but only as part of a larger, religious view of marriage and life as a whole.
His columns praise the anecdotal and preliminary evidence of a low divorce rate (estimated at 2% to 5%) among those who plan their families naturally. But until McManus sees hard data, he said, it's unlikely he'll formally include natural family planning in his Marriage Savers program, which is active in 116 cities, 22 of which have seen dramatic declines in their divorce rate.
“I think it probably does [help marriages], but no one could send me a study,” he said. “The failure here is in the lay intellectual Catholic leadership which has been lazy. They need to work to make the case.”
McManus said he would “talk about” natural family planning in his ministry while sticking to his principal theme of mentoring for young couples by husbands and wives in well-established marriages.
“Christopher West told me that if I didn't include natural family planning, then my marriage-saving techniques aren't going to work that well,” McManus said. “That's the problem with people who are passionate advocates of this. They sort of see natural family planning as the only solution.”
While West welcomed McManus’ columns, he thinks McManus doesn't yet grasp the full significance of the issue. “That's understandable,” said West, “seeing how long it took me and many others to fully grasp it. This can be a long journey. I want to encourage Mike and support him along his path. Nevertheless, although communication skills are important, it's only by embracing the full truth of God's plan that marriages will truly be saved.”
West admitted that he is unaware of academic studies on natural family planning's link to low divorce rates, but he has no doubt that it improves marriages.
“It's common sense,” he said. “The very virtues that are necessary to practice natural methods are the virtues necessary for authentic conjugal love: self-control, honesty, willingness to sacrifice, open communication, trust, and an ability to say yes or no to a given behavior, which is freedom.”
Contraception, he said, distorts marriage at its core because it is a lie about who humans are and what marriage is.
“I'm relying on the insights of [Pope] John Paul,” said West, a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Washington. “In a dramatic development of Catholic doctrine, the Holy Father posits that married couples image the Trinity: ... one who loves, one who is loved, and the fruit of that love. Marital sexuality reveals something of this mystery. Contraception, therefore, is a manifestation of our rejection of being created in God's image.
“Natural family planning is not just a natural form of contraception,” West continued. “In fact, [it] is not contraception at all. Contraception is the intentional sterilization of an act of intercourse. Natural family planning couples never do this. If pregnancy does not result from their union, it's not because of anything they did. It's because of God's design of a woman's infertile period.
The Holy Father said that the language of intercourse is the language of the marriage commitment: fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children. When a couple contracepts, they contradict their vows.”
Una McManus writes from Columbia, Maryland.
For information on the marital teachings of John Paul II, call The Gift Foundation at (847) 844-1167 or visit www.giftfoundation.org.