Testimony to papal commission on birth control

Anthony Zimmerman
April 4, 1966
Reproduced with Permission

Father John Sasaki, Kobe, Japan (Submitted to members of the Doctrinal Committee, Papal Commission on Population and Family Problems, 1966. Prepared with the help of Fr. Zimmerman.)

1. In my notes submitted for the last general meeting, page 9, "Recommendations to the Magisterium" No. 3, 1 objected against the manner of speaking which, it seems to me, demands excessive caution on the part of parents before they decide to permit the birth of another child. Yet the general tone of the "Report on the 4th Session" and also the "Texte du Projet de Document Doctrinal" appears to demand excessive solicitude on part of parents in this matter.

2. Christ did not teach that we must make full provision for every eventuality of tomorrow before we are permitted to do what is normal in every day life. "Do not fret, then, over to-morrow; leave to-morrow to fret over its own needs; for today, today's troubles are enough" (Matt. 6:34). If the impression in given by a document coming from our Commission that conjugal partners would be practicing irresponsible parenthood if they proceed to bear children for whom they will have some trouble to obtain a decent rearing and education, the document would not create the genuine spirit of the Gospels. As Pope Pius XII said:

But God also visits large families with His Providence, and parents, especially those who are poor, give clear testimony to this by resting all their trust in Him when human efforts are not enough. A trust that has a solid foundation and is not in vain! Providence - to put it in human words and ideas - in not a sum total of exceptional acts of divine pity; it is the ordinary result of harmonious activity on the part of the infinite wisdom, goodness and omnipotence of the Creator. God will never refuse a means of living to those He calls Into being. The Divine Master has explicitly taught that "life is worth more than food, and the body more than clothing" (Matt. 6:25). If single incidents, whether small or great, seem to contradict this, it is a sign that man has placed some obstacle in the way of divine order, or else, in exceptional cases, that God has higher plans for good... (Address, "The Large Family" Jan. 20, 1958.)

4. Marriage partners with a great and abiding trust in Divine Providence can take what appears to human eyes to be great risks in regard to the future of their children, provided they do what they can, and are not manifestly and evidently imprudent. People with less trust may risk proportionately less, perhaps, but God will not fail to provide somehow for one who remains within the bounds of reason, does his best, and asks God for what is lacking.

5. In this connection, it might be good to make clear in the text that those parents who wish to plan their families in accordance with the law of God and in Christian prudence, charity, and generosity, do well; and other parents who wish to leave things in the hands of nature and of God, without taking account of spacing, Rhythm, watching temperature charts, etc., also do well so long as the limits of manifest reasonableness - which are very wide - are not overstepped. This latter method can also be called "family planning" in a broader sense, and responsible parenthood.

6. It would be useful to state that children of large families receive a certain kind of education in their homes which may more than compensate for a more costly education which can be provided where there are fewer children.

7. It may also be well to state that parents have an obligation to educate their children until they can care for themselves (St. Thomas, Pope Leo XIII) and that they need not be excessively concerned about providing college education and university education for all of their offspring. Since it is the community which will reap the benefits of the higher education of their offspring, the community should also pay the costs of this special education as well as it can; this is especially true If the children are deserving, and if they do what theycan towards paying their own share of the higher education costs.

8. There should be stronger statements about the duty of governments to institute laws and policies favorable to family life, and to make provision so that large families will be able to flourish without excessive difficulty. And that parents should not simply wait for the community to act, but also have a duty to make their needs felt in influential places. The present documents of the Commission appear to be too much of a supine surrender to the status quo: parents should not raise more children than they can educate; but we know so well that public policies can make it possible and relatively easy to raise a large family, or it can make this very difficult. Housing policies, family allowances, family wages, special loans, free education and transportation for members of large families - all are critical factors in this area. If we surrender supinely to the policies made by legislators who may wish to spread birth control in a nation by such policies asare very unfavorable to normal and large families, we fall to advise the world of its real responsibilities. I have seen all this so clearly In Japan, where birth control was not really necessary on an excessive scale previously. But after 1948 public opinion and national financial policies made birth control a seeming necessity for most couples.

9. We should also discuss what obligations parents have, as many in Japan, when houses are too small for more than two children, there are no child allowances, etc. etc. If they all bow to these "necessities" there is no real pressure from families upon the government to remedy the unjust situation. Practically the nation is now bogged down in a birth control policy which is mostly by abortion, and the net reproduction rate indicates that the population will be only half the present size in 240 years if things do not improve. Are parents to be advised that they cannot reasonably have more than two children? Or can we advise them that they are entitled to enjoy a more normal size family, and that they can shift the responsibility for later foreseen troubles upon the State?


Father John Sasaki, submitted the following to Members of the Doctrinal Committee.

1. Canon 1067 declares 14 and 16 the minimum age for valid marriage, whereas we know that civil codes frequently rule that contracts of minors are "Infirm" and subject to revision or annulment by parents and guardians. If this is accepted as a necessity because of the immaturity and weak judgment of minors, how can it be possible that the Church permits minors to make their most important contract in life at that age, and insist that it can never be annulled if valid and consummated between two baptized persons. Our Commission would do well to make stronger recommendations about a suitable age for marriage; suitable, that is, to the normal case in our present day world, rather than to the exception, for which special permission might be obtained.

2. Divorce is a frequent result of early marriage in a modern industrialize society. A study made by the Marriage Preparation Service group of the Archdiocese of Montreal, Canada, revealed that the rate of divorce among couples in which both boy and girl were under age 17 is 100 per cent. When both are under 18, chances for success are 15 per cent, for failure 85 percent. Senator Raymond Bares of the Minnesota State Legislature, USA, stated that 60 to 70 percent of girls who marry at 15 are headed for divorce within a year, and the divorce rate for teenage marriages in the United States is six times higher than for adult marriages. In the United States again, where the median marriage age is 2 years lower in spite of the longer schooling than it was in 1890, the rate of divorce is notoriously high. (In 1960 1,523,381 marriages, 393,000 divorces (estimated) @ 1divorce per 3.67 marriages.) The median age at marriage in 24 states, USA, was 22.9 for men, 19.9 for women. In Japan where the median marriage age is 27.2 and 24.4 (1960) there is still evidence of a higher rate of divorce among those who married below the median age than above it; even after ten years of marriage, the divorce rate is still higher among those who had married younger. We can suppose that there is more trouble in the families which do not experience divorce when they contracted marriage at a tender age. In Ireland the median age at first marriage is 30 and 26-5. and there is no legal divorce.

3. Divorce is not the only evil associated with early marriage. The great pressure for birth control, and the phenomenal rise in abortion in developed countries is, I believe, not unrelated to the age at marriage. Since the woman's most fertile years are ages 18-25, those who marry as teenagers can have 5-6 children by the time they are 25. Since there was so little time between the age of puberty and marriage to gain self control over the sex instinct, there is not much inclination to begin when there are six children in the family. Hence so much pre-occupation with contraception, so many visits to abortionists.

4. One indirect effect of improving family life through inducing a rise in the age at marriage would be a moderation of birth rates in the developing countries. Mr. S.N. Agarwala of India has estimated that the birth rate in his nation might drop from 40 births per thousand people per year, to 28, if the age of women at marriage rises from 15 to 19, and no woman is allowed to have a child before that age. The drop in the birth rate would occur during 20 years, he estimates. (I presume he means that 19 would be the minimum age.) If that be true, then it would be a far more effective method of moderating birth rates than contraceptive drives have proven to be; after ten years of effort in India, less than 1 percent practice contraception effectively. Father Albert Nevett, S.J., missionary to India, reported on his findings to the participants of the Belgrade World Population conference, which show that the marriages of Catholics are considerably higher in age than the marriages of the non-Catholics.

5. It is only natural that the median age at marriage should rise as a nation develops socially and economically. During the next decades, literally hundreds of millions of young people will make the transition from a rural subsistence type of socio-economic life to life in sophisticated urban industrialized surroundings. The extended family system gives way to the nuclear system; the land tiller becomes a wage earner, and his wife may work as well; the two need more emotional and financial security to make a success of their marriage, than they would have needed in the rural society. It would be better for them if they completed their education before marriage. In the rural surroundings there was not much formal schooling. It would also be better that they have some job experience before marriage, and are well settled when they make the contract, in order to minimize risks. (It is also advantageous to the economy if young men are mobile, free to move from place to place, from job to job; but this should occur before marriage, so that the family can settle in one place after marriage, and have a minimum of risks.) The two should also have gained control over sex instincts before marriage, sufficient to enable them to practice family planning without breaking God's law, should such planning prove necessary.

6. May I suggest that our group examine the question of what a suitable age at marriage is in our present day, and in various circumstances; and that suitable recommendations be included in the document, backed by the necessary data and knowledge. After all, this appears to be a question of major importance, which affects vast numbers; the question of contraception in exceptional cases, affects relatively few persons, and these are confined mostly to developed countries. The space devoted to these questions in our documents should be somewhat proportionate to the relative importance of the questions.


Father John Sasaki
(For Use of Members of the Doctrinal Section)
Written with help from Fr. Zimmerman

1. When examining whether papal teaching on contraception is reformable or not,it is necessaryto study the total impact such a change would have upon the confidence of the people of God in the Vicar of Christ and in the Church. If the total impact would be such as shake the confidence of the body of believers profoundly, and with good reason, in a matter intimately connected with eternal salvation, this would indicate that change is not possible, even though theologians might find that the teaching is not technically on the list of infallible teachings. For Christ's promise to remain with the Church until the end of time means that He will preserve it from error, not primarily that theologians will have a neat criterion for cataloguing fallible and infallible teachings, but primarily to light up for all the correct road to heaven.

2. A number of outstanding persons have told me that their faith in the Church would be profoundly shaken if she now changes the teaching on contraception; the list includes theologians, university professors, doctors, public officials, parish priests, persons engaged in family life work, and writers. A leader of the Seicho no Ie, a non-Christian religion in Japan, asked me anxiously whether I thought that such a change might be possible; he sincerely hoped not; and said that even if the Church would allow only the "pill" it would practically amount to permitting every effective form of contraception. I myself believe that the faith of a major part of the people of God would be severely tried by such a change; perhaps many would say: "I was deceived once, and that was the fault of the Church. If I am deceived again, it will be my fault." That is, any subsequent pronouncement of the Pope and of the Church would become suspect of error. People would reason that the Pope has said so indeed, but now they must study it to learn whether it is really true. Ultimately it would mean that Divine Providence does not guide the Church and that no one can have confidence in her teachings in the long run.

3. The reason for this fear is the simple fact that the entire world has known for decades that the Catholic Church teaches that this teaching is God's and nature's law, and that it is irreformable; hence they have been keeping the law no matter what the cost, for fear of eternal damnation. Like Christ Himself., this teaching has destined the rise and fall of many in Israel, and it was a sign plain to all the world which was being contradicted (cf. Luke 2, 34). Newspapers and magazines carried the message around the globe, not once but often; preachers announced it from the pulpit, catechism instructors made it clear to their pupils, pastors instructed prospective marriage partners and even refused marriage to some who would not who would not accept the doctrine which was on the standard list of the marriage questionnaire. Confessors spent weary hours persuading unwilling believers to comply, and refused absolution to the obstinate. Millions of Christians made heroic struggles to keep the law, and confessed when they failed to do so. Millions also stayed away from the Sacraments and perhaps departed from the Church completely because they refused to comply with the difficult demands. Perhaps some of us have received life because our parents felt bound by this law. Against opponents of the Church, writers would quote the teachings of the Popes, such as this passage from Casti Connubii by Pius XI:

But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose, sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious.

Since some have recently judged it possible to solemnly declare another doctrine regarding this question, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of Divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.

5. Pope Pius XII quoted the latter part of the above with approval in his address to Italian Catholic Midwives (October 29, 1951) a very widely used document, and added: "This precept is valid today as it was yesterday and it will be the same tomorrow and always, because it does not imply a precept of human law but is the expression of a law which is natural and divine." If after all this insistence on the part of the Church's authority and of her pastors, the people are now told: "Sorry, it was a mistake," what will be the reaction? Will not the people say: "We were blind and were led by the blind. We have been utterly betrayed." Those who have been keeping the law at great cost to themselves, the millions who have tried to follow the discipline of the Rhythm system, would say: "And all this in vain!" Divine Providence cannot allow that to happen.

6. The feasibility of a change in the doctrine cannot be judged simply by technical standards which have only remote relation to the reality of what would happen to Christ's flock. If the doctrine is changed, perhaps theologians would still be able to dig under the sand and find the solid rock of Peter's infallibility; but the body of Christians themselves would be inclined to think that they stand on sand when they rely on the Church's directions in very important matters of life; whether a rock exists deep underneath the sand would then matter little.

7. Some have argued that the Church doesn't know the reasons for her prohibition against contraception; she used false reasons in the past to bolster the teaching. Perhaps this itself is an indication of a very important fact, namely that the Church knows that the doctrine is true, and it is her primary aim to remain faithful to this message; how and why it is true is of less importance. Similarly, she teaches the truth about the Blessed Trinity, without knowing the intrinsic reasons of the mystery.

8. On page 40 of the "Report on the 4th Session" it is stated that the Church erred in the past in the parallel case of usury, because interest on a loan was condemned as contrary to natural law by three Oecumenical Councils and by several Sovereign Pontiffs. There are two important differences in the cases, however: first, the question of usury affected a relative minority of the believers, those who had money to lend, and in a matter of less importance than the use of marriage rights. There was no scandal of a proportionate magnitude when the Church adjusted her teachings to the reality of the situation.

9. Second, the change in doctrine has a line of continuity, whereas a change on the teaching about contraception would involve a break in continuity of the Church's public teaching. The abuse of charging excessive interest from people in desperate need was correctly condemned in the past as it is today. Due to the undeveloped economies of past centuries, money was being lent also for the sake of supplying funds to another so that he could operate a business at a profit. The loaner made his profit possible, but also shared some risk.

The Church correctly condemned the man who, preying on the grave need of another, seized the opportunity to enrich himself by lending funds at exorbitant rates of interest. This situation is possible even today in underdeveloped economies, and is as prevalent and as evil there as it was in ancient times. When a poor man needs money to pay funeral expenses, or to buy seed in spring, or to pay a dowry, he must go to a money lender to get the funds; the economy has not been developed to the point where there are local banks in which he can keep an account, or from which he can borrow at a reasonable rate of interest; there is no social security, no insurance, no "disaster" fund. The lender may charge such a rate of interest that the man cannot pay his debts, and must forfeit ownership of his field, or a right to part of the annual harvest. It is a crime which is justly condemned.

As economies developed, there was more and more need for funds to finance commercial enterprises. Perhaps the Church was slow in seeing the light, but with time it became clear that the charging of interest in such cases is not only licit, but is an integral part of a workable modern economy. In this case we say that the Church learned something new, rather than that she misled the masses by the teaching of error in the past.

Whereas in case the Church changes her ruling on contraception, there would be a clearly measurable break with past teaching: whereas she taught in the past that it was seriously wrong to do contraceptive acts and thereby enjoy the marital union without risk of pregnancy, she would now teach that such an act is not a serious wrong in certain cases; in the past she said "NO" to the same thing to which she would now say "YES." There would be a clear break in the continuity of public Catholic teaching. Such a break of continuity is a doctrinal impossibility because it would destroy the reasonable expectations of believers about Church teachings.


Unfortunately Catholic thinkers are not entirely at one in regard to the policy of the use of Rhythm in so-called over-populated countries. Some observers hold that families should limit offspring for the sake of national economic development, whereas the more general view is that Rhythm should not have reference to the national economy, but to the need of an individual family. When there are reasons within the family circle, such as health, poverty, hereditary disease, education of the children, and the reasons are not mere pretenses, but are proportionately serious, then to improve family welfare, child spacing or prevention can be done licitly through the employment of Rhythm.

A Catholic spokesman at a population conference at New Delhi gave an impression that the Catholic Church would encourage the general practice of Rhythm by the entire population for the sake of fostering national economic development. Immediately this was seized upon by a Dr. Philip Hauser of Chicago University, who declared that it had become clear that the Catholic Church had no objection against widespread birth control in developing countries to solve over-population problems. Although the Catholic speaker then protested that he was not a spokesman for the Catholic Church, and that he by no means wished to give the impression that the Church had changed her mind about contraception because in reality she continues to hold contraception as being intrinsically against the natural law, nevertheless some of the subsequent press dispatches and newspaper reports stated that "no religion any longer opposes birth control." The statement was then reflected in the media of Japan. We must therefore criticize ourselves for lack of clear unity in this very relevant Catholic teaching, and also for lack of cleverness and sufficient effort to bring the Catholic teaching to the attention people more forcibly.

It seemed almost, a shame to the free world that the one who spoke most forcefully in favor of the dignity of family life as opposed to regimented birth control was the delegate from. Russia. He said that government birth control policies were unnecessary and harmful and did not sufficiently regard the dignity and right of man; also that social and economic development should stressed and that eventually this development would make birth control promotion unnecessary. He came very close to the teaching of the Catholic Church as announced by the Popes that the economy exists for the sake of the citizens and not vice versa; that the national economic policy must be made to serve the welfare of family life, and not that family life should be sacrificed to foster national economic development.

In brief, I hold the opinion that it would be an inversion of the right order to wound family 1ife in order to solve national economic problems. On the contrary, our first duty is to foster sound family life; that is, to raise the economic, social, moral, and educational standards of families. Eventually this will contribute to national economic and social development, will tend to raise the median age of marriage, and thus contribute to the solution of national so-call over-population problems without need of direct birth control promotion.