Should Protestants be Concerned about Roman Catholic convictions regarding Birth Control?

Friday, February 10th, 2012

The new health care initiative, popularly known as “Obama-care,” has been one of the most controversial entitlements in recent memory.  A few months ago the debate was about whether it was constitutional for any government to force someone to “buy” anything, whether it be a lawn mower or a health care policy.  In the last week, the debate has focused on the mandate that all hospitals (if they are to receive any government funded health care) must provide access to birth control for those under their care.  As is well known, artificial contraceptives are not accepted by the Roman Catholic church.  This particular provision in the health care bill has created an uproar among Roman Catholics around the nation.  Letters from several prominent bishops were read in Roman Catholic pulpits across the country decrying this provision.

Historically, the Roman Catholic church has always opposed all artificial contraception or, for that matter, any orgasmic sexual act outside of marriage between a man and a woman.  Roman Catholic theologians have long argued that the church should guard against a wide array of disfiguring distortions of sex by insisting that sexual acts be, at least potentially, both unitive and procreative.   Protestant groups have generally made the use of artificial conception a matter of conscience for married couples, so we may not be following this particular struggle between the White House and the Roman Catholic church very closely.  So, let’s ask the question, “Should Protestants support our Roman Catholic friends in this struggle?”

The Answer is yes.  There are several reasons why we should support them in this fight. I will mention only two of them.  First, the Roman Catholic opposition to birth control is part of a much larger theological argument which links artificial conception to the sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage.  Though we may argue the particular case of birth control differently, we do share with Roman Catholics their deep concern for the sanctity of life and the importance of understanding marriage as between a man and a woman.  Don’t forget that some contraceptive devices are abortive and the heart of the same sex marriage debate is built around a view of sex with is neither unitive nor procreative.  So, it is not as easy as one thinks to separate these issues into tiny pieces.   Second, the deeper issue behind this struggle is the tension between personal freedom and religious liberty.  In the last few decades Americans have primarily focused on- and, indeed, have championed – personal freedoms.  However, America has historically protected personal freedom AND religious liberty with almost an equal fervor.  Today, the former has trumped the latter.  As Christians, it is important that we not forget the important principle of religious liberty.  Churches have the right to define their own boundaries and police their own borders.  The moment that is taken away, it is a sad day, even if it is done in the name of personal freedom.  It is wrong for the government to force the Roman Catholic church or Methodist or Presbyterian or some other to compromise a point of conscience which we consider part of our faithful Christian identity and witness.

Thus, although the United Methodist church officially supports “adequate public funding for family planning services” this should not be construed (in my view) as standing against our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in this time.  So, even if one might not agree with the Roman Catholic view on this issue, we can agree on the principle of religious liberty.  Contraceptives are, in fact, widely available for those who want them. It is hard to press this issue entirely into a “freedom of universal access” right.   Thus, I support the Roman Catholic church’s opposition to this provision in the health care bill and I hope that the government has the wisdom to understand the difference between personal freedom and religious liberty regarding this issue.


  • JAy. says:

    Well said, Dr. Tennent. While recently the Supreme Court has upheld religious freedoms (with regards to employee selection and alleged discrimination), Obama seems to be less concerned for the rights of our churches, whatever the religious persuasion. Hopefully the Protestants, Catholics, Jewish, and Muslim Americans will see the potential precedent that this action would set and will stand united against these kind of religious and theological intrusions from government.
    As it is commonly said, theology is as much what you do as what you say you believe.

    • Dr. Tennent – This posting you wrote was beautifully explained and presented in love. As I understand this, hospitals owned and operated by the Catholic church would have to provide abortions. This is appalling that the government would tell a privately funded hospital that they MUST offer anything that is against their core beliefs! It is shocking that our government has managed to get away with this and the people have not made their voices heard at the tops of their lungs.

  • It’s also worth remembering that ALL Protest-ants were against birth control until well into the twentienth century, and for good reason. It’s fascinating that Protestants have caved on every issue like this as time goes on. Notice how many young Christian couples cohabitate, and it’s ok; notice how many denominations now support homosexuality; notice how few Protestants are praying in front of abortion clinics and/or say abortion is ‘tolerable’ in some cases (why isn’t murder tolerable in some cases?). Yet the Roman Catholic Church stands tall on all of these.
    After a lot of prayer and study, God finally allowd me to see the light of truth of the Catholic Church and I left the world of protest. I have never looked back!

  • Mark says:

    Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical Humanae Vitae left many Catholics breathless with dismay as the Church, which seemed to be finally on the road to enlightened reform post Vatican II, upheld its ancient prohibition of artificial contraception — in 1968! The following excerpt shows that the Holy Father did accurately foresee much what we are facing now 40 years later, and why. The final sentence supports Dr. Tennent’s appeal to solidarity in the face of recent developments.

    “Consequences of Artificial Methods
    17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control.
    Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.
    Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
    Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”

  • Handy Moves says:

    Oh My God, this is a question of personal choice and I do not believe that any religion will have actually mind people plan their lifes!

  • It is really important for people all over the world to find courage and support in the institution of the church. Although all the other institutions are sometimes blind and deaf for people’s needs and problems, church should offer unconditional protection of human rights.

  • Lets just hope the government has enough quality perspective to appreciate the contrast between free will and religious liberty.

  • […] President of Asbury Theological Seminary Timothy Tennent tells us why Protestants should be Concerned about Roman Catholic convictions regarding Birth Control. […]

    • Ahmed says:

      Oct24 This is really a isquteon every Catholic should work through as a spiritual exercise. Like Liesl, I was baptized and raised Catholic, but as I grew into my late teens and twenties, i was challenged to make sense of my being Catholic. I didn’t want to just go through the motions, like I remember doing in high school, as though my Catholic faith was another requirement.The interesting thing I found in my own journey of owning my Catholic faith’, that helped me embrace it, was not the feel-good times it was in the times I couldn’t sense God’s presence, that made me realize what faith really is: it is believing without seeing (or feeling, for that matter). Truly, I reached a place I had to choose to believe in God and trust in Him. It was these moments that made me realize, faith, although explainable using the intellect, has an element about it that seems nebulous and can’t nail down in words; this part of my being Catholic (and, I will add to this, my reasons for consecrating my life to God as a religious) is something I cannot always fully articulate. Yet, the Church helps me daily to reconcile my intellectual understanding of God with that less articulate understanding, and together help me to walk ever more into the arms of God’s embrace.

  • Chris Hall says:

    Well said, Dr. There are times that I feel we have allowed a gap of support to exist between the Protestant faith and the Catholic faith. We serve the same God and find our roots in Catholicism. Beyond that, we are sure to find ourselves on the receiving end of similar issues in the future. Should we expect support if it is not given?

  • bright says:

    Don’t forget that some women are naturally prone to spontaneously abort and the heart of the same sex marriage debate is built around a view of marriage as a civil institution conferring rights and privileges under the law regardless of how one behaves in bed.

    There, fixed that for you.

  • Berk says:

    As to your heading which is a qtoeuisn: the answer is sadly yes, many Protestant churches are moving more toward Roman Catholicism and it’s only a matter of time before they openly embrace the same beliefs! Take a look at some Baptist church websites that bear this out! I used to go to one in Queensland which has steadily become more and more like a Catholic church. As shows, mysticism is the common denominator being used to unite Protestants back to Catholicism. We need to love the people in both camps as many are ignorant of the error. A time is coming when those who adhere to the Truth with be required to stand as did the saints of old. Are we prepared for this?

  • Yes John a very good point we should definitely work together more!

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