Graham Chapman, the actor who played the self-righteous Anglican Mr. Blackitt, was gay. In light of all that’s transpiring these days over gay marriage, I find that tidbit ironic.
That’s what being a Protestant’s all about. That’s why it’s the church for me. . . . I can go down the road any time I want and walk into Harry’s and hold my head up high and say in a loud, steady voice, "Harry, I want you to sell me a condom. In fact, today, I think I’ll have a French Tickler, for I am a Protestant."
— Mr. Blackitt in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Graham Chapman, the actor who played the self-righteous Anglican Mr. Blackitt, was gay. In light of all that’s transpiring these days over gay marriage, I find that tidbit ironic. I would even say there’s a certain poetic justice to it. The truth is that we would not be having a gay marriage debate today were it not for the widespread use of contraceptives, including among Christians.
For centuries it was understood that marriage was a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and it had two purposes: the unity of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. It was believed these two purposes were so intertwined that they couldn’t be separated without weakening the institution. Somewhere along the line, though, we changed the rules and decided that children were an optional add-on feature. The single most important invention that enabled this paradigm shift was contraception.
It’s a common fallacy that opposition to contraception has always been a Catholic peculiarity. The 1873 Comstock Law — which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or possession of contraceptives in Washington, D.C. — and similar laws in other states were written by Protestants for a largely Protestant America. Charles Provan, an Evangelical Lutheran, wrote a book called The Bible and Birth Control. In it he writes,
We have found not one orthodox [Protestant] theologian to defend birth control before the 1900s. NOT ONE. On the other hand, we have found that many highly regarded Protestant theologians were enthusiastically opposed to it, all the way back to the very beginnings of the Reformation.
Whether you think it’s prudent or foolish to outlaw contraceptives is not the point. What is the point is that it used to be the consensus of all Christians (Catholic and Protestant) that contraceptives were incompatible with marriage and a virtuous society.
That remained so until 1930 when the Anglican bishops (thank you, Mr. Blackitt) discovered in the penumbras formed by emanations of Sacred Scripture a divine right for husbands to put a rubber sheath on their John Thomas. The very next year, a majority committee of the Federal Council of Churches in the United States followed suit and endorsed the "careful and restrained use of contraceptives by married people."
The response in the media may surprise you. On March 22, 1931, the day after the report was released, the editors of the Washington Post opined:
Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report, if carried into effect, would sound the death-knoll 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.
How times have changed. A December 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that 62 percent of women (38.1 million) between the ages of 15 and 44 are using some form of birth control. Of those 38.1 million, approximately 80 percent identify their current religion as some Christian denomination (see table 60). Furthermore, the study reported that, of those women who identified their current religion as Fundamentalist Protestant, 41 percent relied on surgical sterilization. That’s higher than any other group.
It’s safe to say that a fair number of these women and their husbands consider gay marriage and gay sex to be morally wrong. But this is sexual schizophrenia. If gay marriage and sex is wrong because no life can come from it, how can a Christian married couple justify rendering their own marital embrace as sterile as homosexual sodomy through the use of contraceptives? Surgical sterilization is even worse. Here a Christian couple isn’t just closing their bedroom door to God; they’ve taken the extra step of bolting and welding it shut.
If I sound like I’m beating up on my Protestant brothers and sisters, I don’t mean to do so. My beloved Catholic Church isn’t off the hook, either. In all my years of attending Mass, I have heard one — count it, one — homily defending the teaching. That’s not exactly standing athwart history and yelling stop. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops supported the failed federal marriage amendment, which is all well and good, but one has to ask: Where were you guys in 1968 when Humanae Vitae was published?
As much as I disagree with the gay-marriage activists, how can I be angry at them when I see our duplicity? "Marriage for me but not for thee; and oh, by the way, I still want the pleasures of sterile sex." This double standard cannot endure. If Christians do not rethink their acceptance of contraception, time is on the side of the activists. Either we restore fecundity to its proper place within marriage, or we should admit that we have compromised our moral grounds in the gay marriage debate. I would love to see more of the former. Original sin being what it is, however, I’m not too hopeful.
If you told a married couple that they could only keep one of two things: their favorite electronic gadget or their contraceptives, it’s a fair bet that there would be a large pile of iPods on the curb with the morning trash. God help us all.