National Affairs Rory Leishman

In “Christianity Lite” (First Things, February 2010), Mary Eberstadt traces the collapse of the mainline Protestant churches to Resolution 15 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, which broke with the hitherto universal and constant teaching of the Catholic church against any use of artificial means of contraception. Specifically, Resolution 15 provided that married couples who are faced with “a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood … and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence,” may make use of “other methods” of avoiding pregnancy. In an attempt to underline the intended narrowness of this exemption, the resolution added: “The conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury or mere convenience.”

The resolution was adopted on a vote of 193-67. Charles Gore, the Anglican bishop of Oxford, was one of the dissenters. He stood by the unqualified condemnation of contraception as reaffirmed by the Lambeth Conference just 10 years earlier in a resolution stating: “We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers – physical, moral and religious – thereby incurred and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the (human) race.”

While the bishops who supported Resolution 15 of the 1930 Lambeth Conference thought it would serve to sanction the use of contraceptives by the faithful in only a few hard cases, Gore saw that this supposition was naive. He pointed out that in the face of a difficult moral challenge, all of us are apt to think of our cases as hard. Given that the Lambeth Conference had “removed the taboo” on contraceptives, he predicted that the scruples of the faithful “will in many cases be silenced and the easier course taken.”

If “hard cases” can justify the use of contraceptives, can they not also sanction abortions? To discourage such thinking, the 1930 Lambeth Conference reiterated in Resolution 16: “The conference further records its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.”

Gore foresaw that Resolution 16 would have no impact. Having noted the high failure rate of contraceptives, he argued that where the use of contraceptives is widespread, “it is not unnatural that recourse is had, more and more widely in many lands, to the practice of abortion.”

Gore also predicted that a widespread resort to contraception and abortion would foster such a catastrophic drop in birthrates as to generate a panic over the survival of the national population. “Meanwhile,” he told his fellow bishops, “our aim should be to strengthen ‘the faithful remnant’ which will have its opportunity of witness when the day of panic comes. The lamentable fact is that the Anglican bishops have so acted as to weaken and not strengthen it.”

In many ways, Gore anticipated the arguments for condemning the use of artificial means of contraception that were advanced by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae. Time has proven them right: sanctioning the use of contraceptives has fostered an epidemic of abortions and a drop in birthrates that threatens the survival of nations.

Granted, many evangelical churches stoutly oppose abortion, yet also sanction artificial means of contraception. But does this compromise work? That, to say the least, is debatable. While the abortion rate among evangelicals is lower than among Catholics and other Protestants, it is still disturbingly high, accounting in recent years for close to 13 per cent of all abortions in the United States.

What, then, can be done? In the case of the mainline Protestant churches, they seem to have wandered so far from the faith once delivered to the saints that no conceivable reform can save them from an irreversible decline into theological and political irrelevance.

As for the leaders of the Catholic and evangelical churches, they face a daunting challenge: as Gore counselled, it is their duty to teach a faithful remnant of Christians to uphold the truth about the evils of both contraception and abortion. Otherwise, there can be little hope of reversing the catastrophic decline in birthrates that threatens the survival of what remains of our Judeo-Christian civilization.