Children of the Reformation
A Short & Surprising History of Protestantism & Contraception
It is a reckless analyst who risks reopening sixteenth-century disputes between Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers. I do so in the interest of a greater good, but my purpose is not to say who was right or who was wrong. I would simply like to explore why the Protestant churches maintained unity with the Catholic Church on the contraception question for four centuries, only to abandon this unity during the first half of the twentieth century.
I write as a historian, not an advocate. (I am a “cradle Lutheran,” but one who believes Martin Luther was wrong about what he called the impossibility of lifelong celibacy; I have come to know too many faithful Catholic priests to accept that.)
Orders & Disorders
To understand the change in Protestant thought and practice, we need to understand the Protestant vision of family and fertility, particularly as expressed by Luther and Calvin, and how it has changed over the last hundred years.
Early sixteenth-century Europe was an era very different from ours. The late medieval Church claimed about one of every four adults in celibate orders, serving either as priests, nuns, or monks or in celibate military and trading groups such as the Teutonic Knights.
Over the centuries, the religious orders had, through bequests, accumulated vast landed estates and gathered in the wealth that came through this ownership of productive land. The trading orders held remarkable assets in land, goods, and gold. Many orders were nonetheless faithful to their purposes and vows and used this wealth to tend the sick, help the poor, and lift prayers to heaven.
However, in others, spiritual discipline had grown lax. Indeed, sexual scandals of a sort rocked the church of that era. I draw strictly on Catholic witnesses for this.
For example, the great Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus, while always loyal to Rome, complained: “Let them prate as they will of the status of monks and virgins. Those who under the pretext of celibacy live in [sexual] license might better be castrated. . . . [T]here is a horde of priests among whom chastity is rare.”
Philip of Burgundy, the Catholic bishop of Utrecht, admitted that chastity was nearly impossible among clerics and monks who were “pampered with high living and tempted by indolence.” This problem festered until the reform-minded Council of Trent convened in 1545.
Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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