The Church and Birth Control


MINISTERIAL telephones buzzed busily for weeks after the close of the Lambeth Conference. Reporters were keen to track to his study any clergyman who was at home in August, and to ask his opinions on the findings of the conference. And on no subject were they so anxious for an interview as on the pronouncements of the council on birth control. It was a task demanding such skill to avoid reporters that inevitably one came to ask why the chase need continue. If there is so widespread an interest in any moral problem, however difficult, ought not the brave teacher of morals see his duty to declare his mind on the subject? If the conference was courageous enough to deal with so controversial a subject, why should any Christian leader decline an honest call for moral guidance?

The resolutions of the conference, it should be understood, are in no way binding save as they are generally accepted by the constituent churches. They are simply an expression of the reasoned convictions of the leaders of the Anglican Communion, with its colonial bishops as well as those of the mother Church of England, the Anglican Churches in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the Church of England in Canada, and the affiliated Episcopal Church in America. Indeed, the resolutions have no actual legal or canonical authority, even should they be generally accepted. The conclusions are simply expressions of the moral convictions of the leaders of the churches and are in no way legislative enactments.

The Lambeth Conference, held once every decade, is a consultative body which brings together bishops from every part of the world to discuss their problems, counsel with their brethren, and in a series of statements set forth policies approved by a majority, usually so phrased as to meet unanimous acceptance, although the resolutions on birth control showed about one fifth of the whole membership of the conference voting against the statement. Apparently this was the only summary of committee reports which brought out a division. There were 67 negative votes, about one fifth of the membership although one fourth of those actually voting at that session, since many of the bishops from other lands had departed for home.

Because the resolutions of the conference are carefully framed to secure general approval, the conclusions often call forth impatient criticism. They are alleged to be mere via media statements designed to be harmlessly inclusive in character. The encyclical letter issued by this year’s conference dealt with vexed questions, such as those of Christianity and war and of religion and science, or with questions of ecclesiastical order, church unity, the social gospel, and so on. Hardly had it been issued before its critics called it a ‘timid approach to more modern thinking.’

Such criticism is unjust. The truth usually lies between two extremes. Surely when men of many minds can unite in a statement with which all, or most of them, are content, some progress has been made, not toward compromise, but toward an inclusiveness of divergent views which fairly well expresses sound, sane thought on the subject.

To call such statements timid is manifestly unfair. The remarkable thing about them is the fact that they were issued at all, and, being issued, could have been framed with satisfactoriness and meet with almost unanimous acceptance. For those who are anxious that the Christian churches should face the problems of the age, it is tremendously encouraging to find the leaders of the Anglican Churches — naturally conservative because of their great responsibilities — not afraid to deal with questions bristling with difficulties, and everywhere, for the most part, actual centres of controversy. The Christian Church has been denounced again and again for conservative timidity. Repeatedly it has been accused of following with wary footsteps paths which others have broken, rather than assuming intellectual leadership and marching in the vanguard of truth. It has been called an institution for the preservation of a spiritual soporific. Men have said that at every new apprehension of truth it has first denounced, then trembled, then half-accepted, finally timidly sought to readjust old ideas to new ones which the rest of the world had already accepted and to which it was at last obliged to give embarrassed adherence.

As plain matter of fact, Christian leaders have often, if not usually, been ahead of their generation. The mass of church people may be overconservative. The masses at first are always conservative. On occasion, it is true, those who should lead have held back. One can never forget Galileo and the Roman Church. One may read with shame Wilberforce’s foolish attack on Darwin. One may react in mingled amusement and despair on reading the denunciations of modem science by extreme Fundamentalists such as William Jennings Bryan and his ministerial supporters. But, one cannot forget the attitude of many Christian leaders — among them, in the English Church, such men as the present Archbishop of Canterbury — in their prophetic utterances during the World War. One cannot be ignorant of the fact that the present movement for world peace has been due to the aroused conscience of professing Christians, or of the further fact that their war against war has been a spiritual combat, not a last desperate defense of Western civilization. One cannot be indifferent to the brave efforts of Christian prophets — such men as Bishop Gore, for example, and many of the leaders not only in the Church of England but in most Christian communions in America — in preaching the social gospel. One cannot but be proud of their courage in radical thinking— thinking which goes to the roots of the problems of the present social, economic, and industrial order, and is not content with merely superficial remedies for the maladjustments of modern life instead of seeking a thorough reformation of social injustice. One may remember that Christian teachers have done much more toward reconciling the truths of religion and science than have the one-track-minded scientists. One may rejoice in the knowledge that the assured results of Biblical criticism have not been accepted by, but actually been secured through, the frank and fearless study of honest Christian scholars.

To one who, for personal reasons, was unable to attend the Lambeth Conference, it has been inspiring, therefore, to find that its deliberations dealt with great questions which men all around us are debating to-day, instead of following the safer course of dealing only with problems of internal policies in the churches. It is refreshing to know that some subjects were even talked about aloud. One feels the same breath of relief which follows the decision of an American candidate for public office who determines to brave the denunciation and well-organized political opposition of the Anti-Saloon League by declaring his real convictions about the tragedy of attempting to reform the habits of its neighbors through statutory enactments, and to bolster up the attempt by intemperate denunciations of all who cannot accept its particular moral standards or support its efforts to impose such standards on those who honestly reject them.

The Lambeth Conference was not timid; it was daring. Its statements are not compromises; they are generously and sympathetically comprehensive.


In dealing with the subject of birth control, about which the newspapers have been specially anxious for further discussion, the conference certainly showed a courageous spirit. It is a problem which has been taboo in religious gatherings, although everybody knows, or ought to know, that it is under general discussion, more or less open, in other gatherings. Of course it is a difficult and delicate question to discuss publicly. But it is discussed by some who are overfond of frank speech; why should it not be open for less violent discussion by those who approach it from the side of morals and (being trained casuists) have a reasonable calmness of approach? Too often the mere suggestion of the subject leads to hysterical advocacy or stern denunciation, the only result being a casting of pearls before swine.

We all know that birth control is practised — and practised quite generally by those who profess and call themselves Christians. We know that the question of its rightfulness has so many angles that any effort to think it through is bound to thrust us against some sharp points. We know, for example, that teaching of contraceptive methods is apt to lend encouragement to certain practices which will be used by those who need them least. Physicians tell us, moreover, that some of these methods are harmful, and that these are most likely to be used by those for whom birth control may be necessary. We know, on the other hand, that lack of clear guidance works endless misery upon others who most need careful warning. We know that where guidance is necessary it ought naturally to come from competent physicians.

The literature on this practical side of the question is voluminous. It attacks the problem from every approach. It tells us of women made ‘martyrs to married lust.’ It points to earlier days when women died worn out with over-childbearing and gravestones told the tale of babies born but to die. It points to present social and economic conditions and demands that children shall not be brought into the world without some reasonable certainty of useful education and training for life and decent home care and neighborhood surroundings. It gives us tragic pictures of struggling mothers and hopelessly burdened wage-earning fathers. It paints the horrors of moronic, criminal, or low-type fecundity. It raises questions of sterilization for some such types.

On the other hand, advocacy of birth control involves serious problems such as the disappearance of cultured families and the choking off of American family life and leadership through foreign fertility; it tells of the threatening of ‘Nordic supremacy.’ It has its dark side in wild social experiments such as companionate marriage. It matches the tragic stories of overburdened and dying mothers with the equally tragic stories of childless (and often, therefore, loveless) homes. These discussions have been the despair of courts of justice, state legislatures, welfare organizations, public officials in general. Legislation is threatened against birth control; implored in favor of it. Some states have laws for the sterilization of the criminal and the insane; some have laws forbidding the teaching of contraceptive methods; some permit physicians to impart knowledge only when they believe that further childbearing for a woman will endanger her life. Female agitators demand the right to teach with all the fervor which the suffrage movement or women’s rights formerly engendered. Some teach with so little sanity and sense as to subject themselves to legal prosecution. Some write with reckless freedom and are arrested. When they write, they do so in forgetfulness of the fact that their writings fall most frequently into the hands of those who do not need their help and sympathy.

Meanwhile, if the religious teacher touches upon the subject, he hears a hissing injunction to hush. All this, despite the fact that the problem of birth control is at bottom a problem of morals in the broadest sense of the word, not merely a problem of social well-being or economic adjustment.

The Lambeth Conference dealt solely with the question as a moral question. Naturally, therefore, it condemned and recorded its horror of the sinful practice of abortion. Abortion is murder. Naturally, also, it strongly condemned the use of any method of birth control for reasons of selfishness, luxury, or convenience. When this had been said, the sphere of debate contracted.

Here are the further pertinent pronouncements against which there are 67 contrary votes: —

‘Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood the method must be decided on Christian principles. . . . The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the conference agrees that other methods may be used provided this is done in the light of the same Christian principles.’

While the conference admits that economic conditions are a serious factor in the situation, it ‘condemns propaganda which treats birth control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion.’

The conference calls for church councils to study the problems of sex and to see that boys and girls are properly instructed in their homes to prepare them for the responsibilities of adult life. It condemns irregular unions ‘in that they offend against the true nature of love, compromise the future happiness of married life, are antagonistic to the welfare of the community, and, above all, are contrary to the revealed will of God.’

In connection with rescue work on behalf of young people in sex matters, the conference ‘records its appreciation of the services of social workers throughout the world and of the women police of Great Britain and the United States.’

On the general subject of sex the conference ‘believes that conditions of modern life call for a fresh statement from the Christian Church.’ ‘It declares,’ this resolution runs, ‘that the functions of sex are a God-given factor in human life and are essentially noble and creative.’

The conference ‘believes that in the exalted view of marriage taught by our Lord is to be found the solution of the problems with which we are faced. His teaching was reënforced by certain elements which have found new emphasis in modern life, particularly the sacredness of personality, the more equal partnership of men and women, and the biological importance of monogamy.’


Admittedly, some of these statements are vague. What, for example, does the conference mean by declaring that methods of birth control must be ‘decided on Christian principles’? To interpret the language, one must have been not only a member of the conference, but a member of the particular committee which dealt with this special report, in whose meetings the discussion was fullest and the wording of the report most carefully considered.

In Jesus Christ’s teaching, emphasis is always placed upon the motive of an action, not on the action itself. Here the question is, Why, if ever, may birth control be permissible? Certainly not out of the motive which so largely calls for it — a selfish desire for ease, convenience, freedom; not because of an unwillingness to bear burdens and accept reasonable obligations; not that the desire of sex may be satisfied where there is continued unwillingness to pay the cost of sexual excitation; not for a thousand and one variations of these reasons. What is the motive of control — a selfish motive, or the driving power of necessity? Is it a question of health, and even life, or only a question of luxury? What is your real idea of marriage? Is it a form of legalized lust? Or is it for the propagation of life? Or is the latter a partial, not the exclusive, explanation of the marital relation ? Is the sexual excitation, apart from propagation, sinful? If it is desirable for competent reasons to avoid or limit parentage, does that of moral necessity call for complete sexual abstinence? Apparently the conference says, ‘No’; but the real importance of what it says is that the whole question should be settled as a matter of Christian principle, carefully, prayerfully, unselfishly, sincerely, honestly; the real plea of the report is for deliberate, earnest, conscientious thought on the marital relation — all that it involves, all it demands, all it forbids, all it permits.

The report urges, further, that only in the ideal of Christ, a monogamous marriage, can the purity of the sexual relation be preserved and the safety of society secured. There are hundreds of thousands, both men and women, who do not accept this view. They will regard the report as absurdly idealistic. They will not be eagerly engaged in settling any of the problems of marriage on ‘Christian principles.’ They will, however, triumph in the implied admissions which they may twist into a defense of their own practice.

There are hundreds of thousands of others who will be grieved at the suggestion of marriage relationship as anything other than a union of love, the one purpose of which is the propagation of new life. The facts and practices of the past are against them. In recognizing the ‘romantic’ side of sex, the conference has accepted what Christians of all ages have tacitly acknowledged. In frankly meeting a modern problem, it has accepted the romanticist’s view of marriage. To him marriage has other reasons for being than parentage. Usually he exalts these reasons at the expense of the one great reason for the marriage relationship; but even the English Prayer Book (which so plainly and bluntly emphasizes the duty of childbearing in marriage and so emphatically declares that marriage is not for the satisfaction of ‘carnal lusts and appetites’) speaks of ‘the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other’ in the relationship of husband and wife; and sex attraction may be a part of this tender and close union. To forbid it, save when there is the deliberate purpose of parentage, may be to forbid the very relationship through which marital love is sustained and the union of personalities strengthened. If that be true, much else follows. If that be true, abstention is not even a ‘counsel of perfection’; a forbidding of other methods is a demand carrying no moral compulsion for the most conscientious Christian husbands and wives should wisdom call for limitation of parentage.

That wisdom does call for such limitation, in many cases, cannot be denied. And not merely for those who are economically unable to bear an increased financial burden, or for those whose health is threatened by continued childbirth, but for others whose problem may be social or intellectual. Often unlimited parentage means so great a change of personality in the wife as seriously to threaten family happiness. Her attractiveness and charm are lost, her whole character wrecked. On the other hand, in avoiding such a tragedy by refusal, she may wreck her husband’s moral life. She may even ruin his intellectual life and cripple him in work for which he may be singularly gifted. Those who have read the recent novel of Mr. Norris, Seed, will find such a problem pictured and will recognize its parallels in their own immediate acquaintance and experience.

In such cases, it is for the individual to look diligently into her own, or his own, motives, and to ask what course must be pursued if the married companion is not to be alienated, if intimacy of affection is to be preserved and nourished, if both husband and wife are to live together happily and accomplish in full measure the work in life for which they are fitted. More children may mean more tragedy. Refusal may lead to alienation and the complete wreckage of the home. May not ‘deciding the problem on Christian principles’ justify what so many Christian moralists have long forbidden? The conference report seems to say so, though speaking cautiously where more direct precept might lead to abuse, and declaring that principle must be the guide and control, not moral injunction or law.


The conference, in fact, emphatically calls us away from precepts to principles. It does not lay down rules as to the wisdom of natural birth control, or the necessity of reasonable restraint, or the woman’s right to demand selfcontrol on the part of the man, or the man’s contrary rights. It does not deal specifically with ‘other methods’ than natural ones for control. It apparently makes a reasonable allowance for the claims of sex, while yet regarding marriage as providing the richest possible satisfaction for the parental instinct — which, ‘so far as its conscious realization is concerned, is much less urgent than that of sex, but biologically is deeply rooted and much less spasmodic in its operation.’

The plain ‘man in the street’ may perhaps feel that in asking adherence to principle, and not laying down definite precepts for action, the conference is ‘sidestepping’ the real issue. Is it? Is it not, rather, following the method of Christ, who never gave laws or laid down fixed rules, but always declared principles?

Opponents of the conference resolutions will declare that the bishops have ‘given the whole case away’ by an implied permission for other than natural control. Supporters of the resolutions will say that the conference recognized the facts of sex in marriage apart from parentage, while lifting it out of the realm of sordid desire by summoning marital companions to a realization of the spiritual side of their companionship in the development of attuned personality through the reasonably controlled exercise of marital relationship whether with or without parentage. Nothing is definitely enjoined or forbidden. Everything is left to the individual conscience under the guidance of spiritual motivation. Mosaic regulations are disregarded as aimed at specific evils and superseded by Christian principles. The mystery of sex is unexplained, though tacitly recognized. Conscience is to be the guide, but conscience quickened by Christian perception, alert to dangers, while endeavoring to lift the ordered sex impulse out of the realm of the carnal into the realm of a spiritual relationship in which, under reasonable control, the sex impulse is a permissible contributing element. Whether it is, or may be, such a contributing force is a problem for religion, psychology, and science to consider; though as plain matter of fact it has been so regarded by the great majority of people ever since the days when Saint Paul discussed the problem with a frankness which may excuse the boldness of present-day speech.

The whole subject is a delicate one to open up for public discussion; but why leave it as a subject for unhealthy, morbid introspection, or secret, furtive consideration? The spirit of the age demands frankness. It is impatient of lack of openness and boldness. So outspoken are most of us to-day that youthful or radical critics regard even the Lambeth pronouncements as an example of cautious timidity. On the contrary, is not the mere fact that judgment has been given a clear evidence of brave determination to bring to the light problems and questions which have been ignored by religious leaders and talked of only in whispers by the mass of folk? The judgment may, indeed, seem vague, as has been charged, and leave the individual conscience with slight guidance. In fact, however, moral decisions must always rest with the individual conscience; moral development comes through moral wrestling; it is strength acquired through one’s own exercise of his spiritual powers. I cannot always demand authoritative decisions from without; I must reach some decisions through my own hard thinking. Only so do I learn to ‘do always such things as are right.’

If it could be impressed upon men’s minds that Christ always taught by principle rather than by precept, it would save America from much moral confusion, give all of us surcease of sorrow by discouraging the pernicious activity of overactive moral reformers, lead to a discontinuance of the legislating and lobbying activities of some who would regulate by law the manners and morals of the community — or a nation of many communities of multiplied variety in life and habit. It would also solve many difficulties in adjusting the teachings of Jesus to conditions of modern life.

The average person, probably, thinks of the Sermon on the Mount, if in this age of religious ignorance he ever thinks about it at all, as a collection of precepts — definite, specific, precise. If it were, who could hope to obey its injunctions ? ‘ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth’; ‘Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away’; ‘Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’; ‘If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.’ Accept these as literal precepts,and they and similarteachings would discourage thrift, condemn all business and industry, do away with commerce, put a premium on idleness and beggary, encourage lawlessness and oppression, provoke further violence rather than subdue an angry assailant.

The truth is, these sayings were never intended as precepts; they state principles. They do not lay down regulations for individual conduct; they invite search for the truth imbedded in them. That is the reason they are so epigrammatic, vivid, paradoxical. Of course truth, when found, must be counterbalanced by other truth. Thus, if we are following principle, we endeavor to adjust duty to duty, right to right, truth to truth. Our own proverbs are like this — contradictory, yet each true; requiring keen thought to discover where one line of duty ends and another begins. For instance, ‘Look before you leap’; yet, ‘Nothing venture, nothing have.’ ‘Penny wise, pound foolish’; yet, ‘Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves.’

Life’s problems are usually concerned with a conflict of motives and duties. What the Great Teacher sought to do was to lay down principles upon which we must learn to act. When action arises, the simple problem may grow into the complex. Then the individual must learn to examine and analyze his own basic motives. When the single motives have been purified, the task of combining motives will call for further anxious, earnest effort; but for the various combinations there can be no rigid rules.

There are occasions when most people would like to have somebody tell them exactly what to do. It is not best that they should be told. It was not in this fashion that Christ taught His first followers. To have given precepts and regulations would have made of us moral automatons, not men and women of free will. In the teaching of Jesus there are no set lines, no clearly defined duties, no fixed prohibitions, no command that cannot be misinterpreted. His way is to make us think things out for ourselves. Only so does our sense of obligation increase, our moral insight become keener; only so do our bounds of service enlarge; only this method makes for spiritual strength, leads to enrichment of life, allows for moral growth.

So, the problems of sex present conflicts of duty which we must decide for ourselves. The question for each of us is: Are you honestly trying to ‘do that which is right in the sight of the Lord’?

Would that in other matters those who are anxious to uplift and purify us would allow a little personal freedom and permit some of us to pattern our own lives after standards we have for ourselves earnestly endeavored to frame and fashion, and, if possible, justify in the minds of others.