Even people who are not religious will be interested in an upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A few Catholic bishops brought the case against the federal government. They claim that their religious liberty is violated when they have to pay for government-sponsored health care for employees when this health care includes contraception or birth control.

According to the bishops, if they have to pay for such government health care insurance for female employees, then they themselves become complicit in sinful sexual acts and this forced sinfulness violates their religious freedom. 

Bishops here in Pennsylvania have been actively involved in this case from the beginning.

On the other side, a government spokesperson said that it has made special accommodations for Catholic employees, and that “the policy we have in place appropriately balances the need for millions of Americans to have access to birth control while also considering religious freedom, which is protected in our constitution.”

For many people, this court case comes across as strange. Why are celibate religious authorities involved in issues of marital sexuality? 

This involvement actually has a long history. Different forms of birth control have been in use forever. The moral position of Catholic bishops in the upcoming Supreme Court case also has deep historical roots. The bishops’ claim is that sexual relations without an openness to procreation are sinful. This moral claim actually comes from an opinion expressed by a fifth century Catholic bishop from North Africa: Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine converted to Christianity about 1,600 years ago. Before his conversion, he belonged to a religious community called Manichees or Manicheans. They believed that everything sexual and pleasurable is sinful and, therefore, imposed a complete sexual abstinence. In his criticism of this extreme group, Augustine argued for the morality of pleasurable sexuality in marriage, as long as the sex was open to procreativity. Because of his important place in Christian history and Christian theology, over time, Augustine’s response to Manicheans became the official Catholic moral stand, and the official Catholic sexual morality.

Modification and change in Catholic moral teachings does happen, but never quickly. Augustine’s enormous prestige as a saint and theologian is some explanation for why it has taken so long for normal evolutionary change to come about in Catholic sexual moral theology. It took until the 19th century for moral sexuality in marriage to be recognized as the fostering and the expression of love. 

Even then, however, the traditional Augustinean justification also had to be present. Not even the important and powerful expression of love in sex could dislodge the Augustinean requirement that sex be open to procreation. Understandably Catholic sexual morality was often criticized for being an unhealthy Puritanism.

Real change, however, did finally come in the mid-20th century, at the Second Vatican Council. Speaking of love in marital sex, council fathers said: “This love is singularly expressed and perfected by the proper work of marriage. The acts then by which the spouses intimately and chastely unite with each other are decent and worthy, and exercised in a truly human way; (they) signify and foster a mutual giving by which, with joyful and grateful spirit, they reciprocally enrich one another,” (Section 49, Scheme 13, On the Church in the Modern World).

This official council document finally gave moral sexual relations in marriage some independence from a fixation on procreation. The criterion for morally judging sexual relations in marriage was greatly broadened. Conjugal love finally reached its proper moral status independent of procreation.

Catholic married couples, today, have an important role in the ongoing evolution of sexual morality in marriage. They now have to help celibate Catholic bishops with no experience with marital sexuality to loosen up a little and to pay some attention to them. After all, they have the experience necessary to bring about further moral evolution in Catholic teachings on sexuality in marriage. 

Now, married Catholics also have official support in documents of the Second Vatican Council, and the moral thinking of most married theologians.

St. Augustine was reacting to a pathological Manichean extremism when he made his case for moral marital sexuality. After 1,600 years, and improved insight based on much more extensive experience, moral theological thinking has made an expression of love to be the moral core of marital sexual morality.

Pope John XXIII, who called together the Second Vatican Council, had previously established a commission to study marital sexuality. This commission made up of theologians and married couples moved sexual morality away from a fixation on Augustine’s fifth-century viewpoint, and toward a respect for the importance of love promotion, and for the extensive experience of good and decent married people themselves.

Contraception and birth control are sometimes an important aide for love and marital unity.

Recognizing this role of contraception and birth control for the promotion of love and unity in marriage makes possible a more reasonable and more respectable Catholic sexual morality. Catholic married couples, today, have to help certain celibate bishops accept this important and long-awaited evolution in official Catholic morality; a change that is much needed and has been a long time coming.

The James F. Drane Bioethics Institute of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania is named for Dr. Drane.

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