July 28, 2010

(RNS) -- Is contraception a sin? The very suggestion made Bryan Hodge and his classmates at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute laugh.

As his friends scoffed and began rebutting the oddball idea, Hodge found himself on the other side, poking holes in their arguments. He finished a bachelor's degree in biblical theology at Moody and earned a master's degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Now, more than a decade later, he is trying to drive a hole the size of the ark through what has become conventional wisdom among many Christians: that contraception is perfectly moral.

His book, "The Christian Case Against Contraception," was published in November. Hodge, a former Presbyterian pastor who is now a layman in the conservative Orthodox Presbyterian Church, realizes his mission is quixotic.

In the 50 years since the birth-control pill hit the market, contraception in all its forms has become as ubiquitous as the minivan, and dramatically changed social mores as it opened the possibilities for women.

No less than other Americans, Christians were caught up in the cultural conflagration. In a nation where 77 percent of the population claims to be Christian, 98 percent of women who have ever had sexual intercourse say they've used at least one method of birth control.

The pill is the most preferred method, followed closely by female sterilization (usually tying off fallopian tubes).

"People are no longer ... thinking about it," says Hodge, 36, who had to agree with a Christian publisher who rejected his book on grounds that contraception is a nonstarter, a settled issue. "People don't even ask if there is anything possibly morally wrong about it."

For more than 19 centuries, every Christian church opposed contraception.

Under pressure from social reformers such as Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, the Anglican Communion (and its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church) became the first to allow married couples with grave reasons to use birth control.

That decision cracked a door that, four decades later, was thrown wide open with the relatively safe, effective birth-control pill, which went on the market in this country in the summer of 1960. Virtually every Protestant denomination had lifted the ban by the mid-1960s.

Even evangelicals within mainline Protestant and nondenominational churches embraced the pill as a way that married couples could enjoy their God-given sexuality without fear of untimely pregnancy.

"It was a reaction to that whole Victorian thing where sex was seen as dirty," says Hodge, who lives in Pennsylvania.

There remains one massive holdout among major Christian churches -- the Roman Catholic Church, which expressed its opposition in no uncertain terms in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

To separate the two functions of marital intimacy -- the life-transmitting from the bonding -- is to reject God's design, Paul VI wrote.

"The fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life -- and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman," Humanae Vitae proclaimed.

Janet Smith, a Catholic seminary professor whose writing and talks have been influential for two decades, puts it this way: "God himself is love, and it's the very nature of love to overflow into new life. Take the baby-making power out of sex, and it doesn't express love. All it expresses is physical attraction."

The church's ban on contraception stunned many, including one of the doctors who created the pill, Harvard's John Rock, a Catholic. By and large, Catholics went with the culture rather than the church.

A 2005 Harris Poll found 90 percent of adult Catholics support contraception, just 3 percentage points lower than the general adult population.