Skip to main content
Toggle Banner
You can make an impact in the fight for reproductive freedom.
Conscience Magazine

A One-Sided Story

By Rosemary Radford Ruether January 26, 2015

BR-kalbian-coverIn her examination of contraception and the Catholic church, Aline Kalbian, a professor of religion at Florida State University, does not intend to argue for or against the morality of contraception. Rather, she intends to show the development of the moral arguments on which this tradition is based, as well as the historical developments that impel changes in church teachings. Kalbian does claim to write from a feminist perspective, however.

Her first chapter summarizes the history of the Catholic church’s argument on the immorality of contraception from the Church Fathers to the present time. This includes the Birth Control Commission that met from 1963–66 and its report to the pope recommending changing the teaching to allow all medically approved forms of birth control within marriage. This recommendation was rejected by Pope Paul VI, who issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the teaching against all forms of artificial contraception. This encyclical, in turn, was critiqued and widely rejected by Catholic moral theologians, laity and some clergy. In practice, Catholics largely ignore the official church stance on this issue.

Kalbian then details three contexts that have forced the Catholic hierarchy to add more nuance to its approach to birth control. One is on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV. In this case, condoms are not used to prevent procreation, but to prevent transmission of a disease. Yet the hierarchy was unwilling to sanction this use of condoms because it feared its earlier condemnation of condoms would be compromised. So instead, it offered a dubious argument that condoms were ineffective in preventing the transmission of disease.

Not arguing for or against the morality of contraception means the author primarily presents the official hierarchical teachings on the subject.

Catholic moral theologians and even bishops have questioned this claim, maintaining that condoms, even if not perfect, benefit society by preventing the transmission of disease, and thus should be allowed for this purpose. After Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010 that condoms were sometimes allowed for disease prevention, in 2014 Pope Francis once again depicted chastity as the key method for fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

The second context is the use of emergency contraception at Catholic hospitals in the case of rape. The hierarchy had argued that emergency contraception was unacceptable because it causes abortion, even though medical science disputes this view. But in the case of rape, the church came up with the view that rape was not marital sex, and so emergency contraception was allowed to a rape victim if she was not already pregnant.

Finally, Catholic teaching on birth control was challenged by recent concerns about overpopulation and the need to reduce population to create adequate living standards for all. Here, the hierarchy sought to expand the teaching on human development to encompass a holistic vision in which family planning, but not artificial contraception, was allowed for population control.

Kalbian tries to show the complexity of official Catholic teaching on sexual morality and its ability to address new issues related to violence and social justice. Yet her decision not to argue for or against the morality of contraception means she primarily presents the official hierarchical teachings on the subject. We get little sense of divergent arguments from Catholic moral theologians and the Catholic feminist and social justice movements that have brought about dissent from these teachings among many Catholics. Thus, in Sex, Violence and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church, the story of Catholicism and contraception is one-sided and incomplete.

Sex, Violence and Justice: Contraception and the Catholic Church
Aline H. Kalbian
(Georgetown University Press, 2014, 212 pp)
978-1626160484, $49.95

Rosemary Radford Ruether
Rosemary Radford Ruether

is an emerita member of the Board of Directors of Catholics for Choice. She is a pioneer in the field of feminist theology and a visiting professor of feminist theology at Claremont Graduate School and has held numerous academic appointments in her long career.