The Pill is 40

IT IS EXACTLY forty years since the oral contraceptive Pill arrived in Australia. Much has been made of this anniversary by the media, who have treated us to a flow of predictable articles detailing the Pill’s emancipating effect on women.


In the midst of this, the Roman Catholic Church has received a fair bit of abuse for the supposed dampener it still seeks to place on the unrestrained expression of human sexuality, and its official stance against artificial means of contraception. Within as well as without the Church there are many who loudly criticise Humanae Vitae, although it must be said that after 32 years, very few attempt to engage seriously with its arguments. When Paul VI said that “Every marriage act must be open to procreation” (Humanae Vitae 11), that to block conception by unnatural means is gravely against the law of God, he was, in fact, affirming what the vast majority of Christians down to our own time have taught, that ” . . . the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance . . . are both inherent to the marriage act”. (Humanae Vitae 12)


It is true that since 1930 Anglicans and most other Christians have modified their stance on artificial means of birth control. Modern evangelicals speak of the prayerful way in which a Christian husband and wife should plan their family using the various means available today. The Orthodox churches encourage couples to consult with their priest and then make up their own minds.

Nevertheless Dr Janet Smith of Dallas, Texas, is devastatingly direct in her book, “Why Humanae Vitae is Right”. She considers the prophetic dimensions of what Paul VI wrote about the nature of married love, the relationship between the sexes, and male human nature at its worst. She notes the dehumanising policies of forced population control in some parts of the world. For Smith, a contraceptive society is a selfish society. Might it not be that Paul VI saw this more clearly than all his advisors put together?

It is of little concern to some Christians that the nexus between the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of sexual intercourse has been broken. For many liberals, once sexual intercourse is given a life of its own there is little reason for it to be restricted to marriage. For them, marriage exists primarily to nurture children in a stable environment. When procreation is put aside, sexual intercourse becomes primarily communication, or even recreation.


The state of marriage – and relationships in general – in Australia at the start of the new millennium is hardly a glowing advertisement for the new ways. Our culture’s supposed sexual “freedom” has certainly not brought us conspicuous happiness.

In justifying the widespread use of contraception, much is made of the need to control the world’s population. This argument sounds so selfless, so high-minded! But do we have a population problem in Australia?

Recently, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Rev’d George Pell, challenged the view that overpopulation is an issue for us. In Australia we actually face the opposite problem as we have been reproducing ourselves at well below the replacement rate for some time. This was confirmed last year by Parliamentarian Kevin Andrews in his speech to the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Andrews referred to a recent study of global fertility rates, quoting the demographer Peter McDonald who said that current levels of fertility are so low in many OECD countries that they threaten the future existence of the nations concerned. “In an era in which we have come to understand the momentum of population increase, it is remarkable that we are yet to appreciate that the same momentum applies to population decrease.”

Andrews pointed out that by the year 2020, many nations will be struggling to provide for their aged population. He said out that according to the OECD, the ratio of older people to those in the workforce in 1990 was 19 per cent, but that by the year 2030, this dependency ratio will double to 38 per cent across the OECD. Hence the present concern of the government to ensure sound superannuation and retirement investment for ordinary Australians.


The Pill has clearly made its impact on the Anglican Church. While nominal membership is declining gradually, that membership is aging rapidly, particularly in rural areas, a fact that became apparent to me late in the 1980s when I was rector of a parish in Ballarat Diocese. In the ecumenical arrangement of the time, I taught religious instruction to all the sixth grade (12 year old) classes in three schools for three years. Out of 170 or so children, only half a dozen each year would identify themselves as possibly being “Anglican”, “Church of England”, or (even more vaguely) “belonging to the big church at the top of the main street”. This is the other side of the rural crisis for our church in Australia. On top of that, Anglicanism produces many bishops and priests who are excellent at pastoral care, but very few who are evangelists. Yet without strong evangelistic ministry prepared to reach out to all the unchurched in those communities, and not just the aging nominal Anglicans, our church will die.


The Pill has, of course, affected the Roman Catholic Church in a different kind of way. A moderate Roman Catholic priest who is ambivalent about Humanae Vitae recently described the Encyclical as a “public relations disaster”, because “it goes right against what the majority of people think is sensible”. At one level he is right. Eighty per cent of practising Roman Catholic women of childbearing age are said to be on the Pill. They are becoming skilled at living in active dissent from the church’s teaching in a matter that affects their daily lives in the most intimate way. This obviously produces a general crisis of conscience and authority that spills over into other areas of faith and practice.


But there is a bright side.

Some time ago I was discussing this with a conservative Jesuit priest. He just laughed. He said that today’s liberal Roman Catholics would go the way of the Montanists, who eventually died out because they, too, weren’t in favour of having children. So, he said, there will not be a problem in 40 years time, for only those Catholics who are loyal to the Church’s teaching now reproduce in significant numbers.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Brisbane in the diocese of Brisbane.