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Casti Connubii: 60 years later, more relevant than ever

John F. Kippley

The time has come for action and for the open reaffirmation of that great encyclical and compendium on marriage, Casti Connubii.

The sixtieth anniversary of Casti Connubii came and went the same way as its 50th anniversary-without fanfare or great symposiums. However, I suggest that the entire Church would benefit from a closer look at this landmark encyclical in the context of the historical circumstances that prompted it and the sexual revolution in which the Church struggles today.

Let us start with the unhappy realities that face almost every Catholic pastor today. The vast majority of Catholics in their fertile years are using unnatural forms of birth control, the most common of which, the Pill, has the power to cause early abortions. According to the latest National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), in 1988 only 3% of Catholics doing anything at all about family planning were using any form of Natural Family Planning; 32% of couples were sterilized, 34% were using the Pill, and 25% were using barrier methods, and 6% were using "other" which could mean withdrawal, mutual masturbation, or forms of marital sodomy. Is it really probable that all those nice looking people who volunteer as lectors and distributors of Holy Communion come just from that minuscule 3% of Catholics who practice what the Church teaches? On the contrary, I think it is safe to assume that typical parish volunteers are sterilized and using contraceptives and abortifacients pretty much in proportion with the above national statistics. The parish problem can be summed up with the realization that any one of those fertile-years women distributors may be saying "The Body of Christ" at the same time that her Pill is destroying the life of a new human being within her uterus. I think that's obscene, but that's the way it is in the Church in America today.

Or you can look at the typical parish situation from a different angle. Both those who accept Humanae Vitae and the dissenters are agreed that the acceptance of marital contraception leads logically to the acceptance if sodomistic behavior, whether by married couples or homosexuals. Anthony Kosnik and company have argued for the moral equivalency of married couples using unnatural methods of birth control and homosexuals committing sodomy.1 What that means is that, considering typical habits of marital behavior, it is highly probable that those nice looking fertile-years married people who are reading the Word of God and distributing the very Body of Christ have most likely engaged in either direct marital sodomy or its moral equivalent within the 72 hours preceding their formal sanctuary participation.

Lead the parish back
The pastoral problem is to lead the massively contracepting parish back to living the divine truth about human love. Here is where the events leading up to Casti Connubii can be helpful. Most parishioners have utterly no idea that before August 14, 1930, birth control was not a Catholic-Protestant issue. This isn't to say that before that time some theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, had not argued in favor of allowing marital contraception, but the formal teaching of all the Christian churches had held the line. I have found that the simple exposition of the relevant facts can be helpful in leading couples to understand better and then to accept the teaching of Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae. What are the relevant facts? I think it is helpful to explain that the modern sexual revolution did not start in 1960 but rather has developed over a period of almost two centuries. The first stage started with Malthus; the second with Margaret Sanger; the third with Lambeth of 1930; the fourth with the Pill, and the fifth with widespread dissent in the Catholic Church. Stage 1: Malthus. I credit the Rev. Thomas Malthus with starting the modern sexual revolution because he provided the scare-the fear that would cast out true love. In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus created the modern "population explosion" scare, saying that unless it were checked, population would outgrow food supplies and result in mass starvation. He recommended only moral means of family limitation, i.e., late marriage and sexual self-control, but his scare would outlive his morality. The discovery of vulcanization of rubber in 1839 led to the production of cheaper, more effective condoms, and armed with this technological breakthrough, the neo-Malthusians of the 1860s substituted condoms for the self-control of Malthus and beat the drums of the population scare. (Fear of the future generally provides a good rationalization for sins of the present.) I call this Stage 1 of the sexual revolution because at the time it was truly revolutionary to advocate separating the unitive and procreative aspects of marital relations.

In the United States, this led to a reaction led by a Protestant reformer, Anthony Comstock, who persuaded Congress in 1873 to legislate against the distribution and sale of contraceptive devices in federal territories. Many states followed suit, and the conglomerate of anti-contraceptive legislation became known as the Comstock laws. Here's what I find religiously interesting about these brief historical facts. During the first 400 years of the Reformation, birth control was not a Catholic-Protestant issue. Charles Provan has recently published a small book which contains the anti-contraceptive teachings of 66 Protestant theologians including Luther and Calvin.2 The Comstock laws were passed by essentially Protestant legislatures for a basically Protestant America, and they remained in effect until Christian unanimity about birth control was shattered in 1930.

Forerunner to Planned Parenthood
Stage 2: Margaret Sanger. In the years before World War 1, Margaret Sanger and others began to wage war on the Comstock laws, and about 1914 she founded her National Birth Control League, the forerunner of today's Planned Parenthood which she founded in 1939. The contraceptionists frequently advocated a whole new concept of marriage. They denied the divine origin and the permanence of marriage and made efficient contraception the technological cornerstone of "companionate" marriage-a serial polygamy consisting of legal marriage, efficient contraception, divorce when boredom set in, and then remarriage to start the process over. I can this Stage II of the sexual revolution because of the tremendous influence Margaret Sanger had on the practices and moral thinking of her day and even more so today. The pressures she generated were highly influential in removing the legal, religious and social barriers to contraception and then abortion. In fact, I will go so far as to say that as far as American Catholic married couples are concerned, many give more honor to Margaret Sanger than to the Virgin Mary, for while they may give lip service to the latter, they have adopted the practices and frequently the philosophy of the former.

Stage 3: Lambeth of 1930. Stage III of the sexual revolution was its embrace by Protestant Christianity. The key event is the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England in 1930. In 1908, the Anglican bishops had reacted to the neo-Malthusian pressures by reaffirming the teaching that it was immoral to use unnatural methods of birth control. So also at their Lambeth Conference of 1920. But the pressures of the 1920s proved too much for them, so on August 14 at their Lambeth Conference of 1930, the Anglican bishops reluctantly accepted marital contraception as morally licit. In doing so, they acknowledged that previously they had always taught the immorality of marital contraception.3 This marked the first time in history that a Christian Church had given its acceptance to using unnatural methods of birth control. Furthermore, they were warned by one of their own, Bishop Charles Gore, that accepting contraception would open the door to accepting homosexual sodomy, but Gore voted in the minority. We do not know what would have happened if the Church of England had kept the faith regarding marital love and sexuality. But we can certainly see in hindsight that this was an embrace of the sexual revolution, and today dissident Catholic theologians argue from the acceptance of marital contraception to the acceptance of sodomy. Anglican Bishop Gore was indeed a prophetic voice. In the United States, Lambeth of 1930 was quickly accepted by a committee of the Federal Council of Churches in March, 1931, when it endorsed "the careful and restrained use of contraceptives by married people." The general moral atmosphere of the times can be inferred from a March 22 editorial in the Washington Post:

"Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee's report, if carried into effect, would sound the deathknell 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."

However, it was carried into effect, and the deathknell was sounded. The promise of marital contraception in the eyes and mouths of religious-talking people has always been that with very limited family size and unlimited sex, couples would be happier and divorce would become almost unknown. In the light of current American contraceptive marriage with its 50% divorce rate, what can be said except that nature bats last?

Pius responded to Anglicans
It was to the Anglican resolution at Lambeth that Pope Pius XI made reference in his famous and immortal reply in Casti Connubbii on the last day of 1930:

Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupting Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: 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 offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin (par. 56).

Stage 4: The Pill. The fourth stage of the sexual revolution was the Pill. By 1960, the practice of contraception was well accepted by all the mainline Protestant churches and was more or less universally practiced by all "family planners" except Roman and Orthodox Catholics, some very conservative or fundamentalist Protestants, and, I think, Orthodox Jews. Certainly contraception was practiced by many Catholics in the fifties, but hard data is hard to come by. Large families were in vogue, and many couples were just letting the babies come as they might, and without the natural spacing of ecological breastfeeding (which, if practiced correctly, spaces babies an average of two years apart) many couples were having babies every year. There is data indicating that in 1965 rhythm was by far the most widely used form of conception regulation by Catholic "family planners"; trying to read that backwards is hazardous, but I would hazard a guess that before 1960 no more than half and perhaps only a third of Catholic couples in their fertile years were using contraception.

I call the arrival of the Pill in 1960 the fourth stage of the sexual revolution because it brought birth control to the front pages and made it seem all the more acceptable. Since it was totally different in approach from other methods, it was discussed in the papers and popular magazines just as a health matter, and every article conveyed the assumption that birth control was the modern thing to do, almost a social obligation. The morality of birth control as such was not a subject for public debate, but within the Catholic community, the Pill occasioned fierce attacks upon the traditional teaching against all unnatural forms of birth control, and such attacks went largely unanswered in the popular Catholic press: there was little real debate. The teaching of Casti Connubii was being seriously muted and undermined, and the result was that more and more Catholics accommodated themselves to the dominant contracepting culture. Thus by 1965, while rhythm was still practiced by 32% of Catholic "family planners," the Pill was being used by 18%, and barrier methods 24%.

Dissent furthered revolution
Stage 5: Catholic dissent. The dissent of 1968 and ever since has effectively removed the Catholic Church as a block to the progress of the sexual revolution. While Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the teaching of Cast Connubii in Humanae Vitae, he did not use the same strength of language. Furthermore, his language in 1964 (the magisterium is not "in a state of doubt at the present time, whereas it is rather in a moment of study of reflection") and his delay of two years after receiving the reports of the papal birth control commission had greatly prejudiced public and theological opinion within the Church against a reaffirmation of Casti Connubii. The effects of this dissent can be seen in the progressive NSFG reports. While "rhythm" (which means all forms of natural family planning in NSFG terms) was used by 32% of Catholic family planners in 1965, it dropped to 8.1% in 1973, fell to 6% in 1982 and plummeted further to only 3% in 1988. Predictions are rash, but I expect that unless dioceses start to get really serious about chastity instruction at all levels of education including marriage preparation, Catholic usage of NFP will fall another third or half and stabilize at two or even 1% of Catholic family planners. As to what percentage of Catholic families are not engaged in family planning of some sort, all a parish priest has to do is to look at his flock. Without any form of family planning including ecological breastfeeding, the babies will be coming about every 12 months, and with just ecological breastfeeding, they will be arriving at an average of every 24 months. Such families are indeed rare today. Another 10 to 20% will be infertile, some by reason of defects in nature, and some by reason of sterility caused by their own use of the Pill and/or the IUD or from sexually transmitted diseases-premarital, marital, and extra-marital.

Along with the vast increase in marital unchastity has come a vast increase in the number of Catholic divorces. I do not have hard data, but it is a matter of common knowledge that before the dissent of 1968, the Catholic divorce rate was well below that of the culture, while at the present time it is approaching the cultural average. Furthermore, as more and more priests told themselves that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with marital contraception and told the couples they counseled that there was nothing immoral about marital contraception in their particular circumstances, they seduced themselves. By saying and coming to believe that unchaste behavior of one kind was not really unchaste behavior in some circumstances, too many priests gradually came to believe that various forms of unchastity were not really seriously unchaste if there was a proportionate reason to do them, and apparently they found no reason to exclude priestly unchastity from this logic. I cannot offer any other explanation for the apparently vast increase in priestly unchastity at the present time.

A homiletic opportunity
I suggest that the 60th anniversary of Casti Connubii offers both homiletic and pastoral opportunities to begin a revival of the Church's traditional role as the promoter and the safeguard of chastity. The priest is free to criticize my suggestions as coming from one who has neither the privilege or the responsibility of the pulpit and pastorship, but regardless, here is what I think I would do if given the opportunity. First of all, I would give an instructive homily to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Casti Connubii. I would tell parishioners the basic historical fact of Lambeth of 1930, and then I would ask, "Before I told you that, how many of you adults realized that before 1930 no Christian Church had ever given its acceptance to contraception as being morally permissible? Please raise your hands if you already knew what I just told you." When no hands, or almost none, were raised, I would take the opportunity to restate the realities. "I'm not asking anything about your personal beliefs or practices. I'm only asking a question about your knowledge about a much forgotten part of Christian history," and I would re-explain and then re-ask the question. I would be prepared to see that almost no hands were raised the second time, and then I would go on to emphasize that before 1930 birth control was not a Catholic-Protestant issue. Then I'd probably read some of the half-dozen stimulating questions on the back of the Provan book. For example, "What theologian declared in the 1500s that birth control was the murder of future persons?" "What priest in the 1700s declared that taking 'preventative measures' was unnatural and would destroy the souls of those who practiced it?" "Who declared that birth control was sodomy?" (The answers are respectively John Calvin, John Wesley, and Martin Luther.) I would use that occasion to note that what Calvin, Wesley and Luther were saying in their own way was part of Catholic teaching for centuries that recourse to unnatural forms of birth control is the grave matter of mortal sin, and I would read the key passage from Casti Connubii (par. 56 above) to put it into the Catholic frame of reference. I would go on to explain some of the big differences between then and now-how much better Catholics have it economically than so many in 1930, the widespread knowledge and availability of natural family planning today compared to the bare rudiments of calendar rhythm at the time of the encyclical, the divorce rates (about 1 in 11 marriages in 1910, just before Sanger, versus 1 in 2 today, a 500% increase), and the general decline in the moral fiber of the country and within the Church since the practices of the old pagans have become so widespread among Christians.

Offer educative courses
Pastorally, I would be well read in the encyclical itself.4 I would initiate an adult education course to study Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae. I would offer instruction in chaste natural family planning; it is difficult to reaffirm the burden, so to speak, without providing the practical help to those who have a genuine need for pregnancy postponement or limitation. I would make attendance mandatory for all lectors, distributors, marriage ministers, and members of parish council, and I would certainly make a full course of NFP instruction (four meetings) a normal part of preparation for marriage. Then I would require a signed profession of faith and practice including the Church's teaching about love, sex, marriage and birth control from all those who wished to participate in the exemplary roles of sanctuary service, marriage ministry, and the governance of the parish. Such measures may sound tough, but I contend that the times and the conditions of the Church require an approach quite different from that of the sixties through the eighties. Let me put it this way. With a continuation of the status quo, a parish priest can expect that about 97% to 99% of his newlyweds will be using unnatural methods of birth control and therefore standing under the judgment of Casti Connubii. If he is not content with this, he has to do something. For years I have watched well-intentioned priests try to increase the acceptance of Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae through soft-spoken persuasion, largely in vain. Persuasion is no longer persuasive. The time has come for action and for the open reaffirmation of that great encyclical and compendium on marriage, Casti Connubii. To those who say that practical action to reaffirm Casti Connubii will lead them to be consigned to the diocesan boondocks, I say "Rejoice!" Look at what Fr. John Vianney did in the boondocks of Ars; look what Fr. Robert Fox is doing in the boondocks of Alexandria, South Dakota with his Fatima Apostolate. (In this case, he asked for a small rural parish, but the point still holds.) In Alexandria, a town of about 500, you can stand at the main crossroads and see the cornfields at the edge of town in each direction, but once a year, Fr. Fox has people from all over the country making a pilgrimage to his Fatima convocation for which he rents the city auditorium-gymnasium. In this article I have focused on only one part of the great encyclical, Casti Connubii, its reaffirmation of the Christian teaching against marital contraception. However, it is much more than that. It is truly a compendium on marriage. In fact, it is such a wonderful exposition of Christian marriage that I think Pope Pius XI must have been working on it for some time before Lambeth which probably hastened its issuance. Using Augustine's triplet of offspring, fidelity, and sacrament (indissolubility), Pius XI shows how these are the great blessings of marriage, and today we can see the challenges inherent in receiving these blessings. We can also see the tragedies that come from living a secularized version of marriage, and in that respect, Casti Connubii is even more relevant today than it was in its own time. Considering the current debate about voting for pro-abortion candidates, it seems fitting to conclude with the words of Pope Pius XI which might well appear in every parish bulletin once a month.

Natural Family Planning
It is sometimes alleged by sons of the Church that Casti Connubii was so strong a statement against birth control that it excluded-or almost excluded-natural family planning. The actual text does not support that allegation. Three paragraphs after the above quotation, we find Pius XI addressing this issue. "Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner, although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth." Reasons of time could be either menopause, pregnancy, early postpartum, or the infertile times during the years of normal fertility. It is almost impossible to believe that Pope Pius XI was unaware of the beginnings of the rhythm method, for Austrian Hermann Knaus had made his discoveries about ovulation and the infertile times of the cycle in the mid-1920s, and the word about such discoveries and their practical applications certainly must have been well known in the Vatican.

The Time Has Come
In 1964, Dr. John Rock wrote a book titled The Time Has Come-for the Catholic Church to accept contraception. He was dead wrong, but his title is right for today. The time has come for everyone in the Catholic Church to recognize that to accept marital contraception is to fully embrace the sexual revolution. Anthony Kosnik et al argued in their 1977 Human Sexuality that there was no moral difference between a married couple using contraception and homosexuals engaging in their forms of sterile sex. To accept marital contraception is to think that unchaste behavior is not unchaste or at least can be morally justified. I think that's the key to the most unfortunate but well publicized rash of priestly unchastity. In 1980 Archbishop John Quinn noted that 71% of the laity and 70% of the priests disagreed with Humanae Vitae. I submit that eventually thinking leads to action. Anglican Bishop Gore was right: accepting marital contraception logically entails accepting sodomy. The time has come to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Casti Connubii as a milestone in teaching the divine truth about human love. The time has come for a rebirth of the teaching of chastity on every level.

Those who hold the reins of government should not forget that it is the duty of public authority by appropriate laws and sanctions to defend the lives of the innocent, and this all the more so since those whose lives are endangered and assailed cannot defend themselves. Among whom we must mention in the first place infants hidden in the mother's womb. And if the public magistrates not only do not defend them, but by their laws and ordinances betray them to death at the hands of doctors or of others, let them remember that God is the Judge and Avenger of innocent blood which cries from earth to heaven (CC, par. 67).

  1. Anthony Kosnik et al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), "All else being equal, a homosexual engaging in homosexual acts in good conscience has the same rights of conscience and the same rights to the sacraments as a married couple practicing birth control in good conscience" p. 216.
  2. Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongalhela, PA: Simmer Printing, 1989).
  3. See John C. Ford, S.J. and Gerald Kelly, S.J., Contemporary Moral Theology, Volume II: Marriage Questions (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1964) esp. pp. 245-255.
  4. Inexpensive copies of Casti Connubii are available from the Daughters of St. Paul, 50 St. Paul's Avenue, Boston MA 02130. However, the "Official Vatican Text" reprinted by the DSP is not really so official (no fault of the DSP) and does not contain the famous "missing paragraph 24" which the initial translator omitted for reasons best known to God and himself. From another source, I quote that missing paragraph so that you can include it in any classes you might give on the encyclical. Par. 23 end with "as is proved by the example set us of many saints." Par. 25 starts with "By this same love, it is necessary." Par. 24 is as follows:


  5. "This mutual inward moulding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof."

Article was published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, June 1991.