THE BLOG
03/22/2013 11:44 am ET | Updated May 22, 2013

Pope Promotes Birth Control

Recent media coverage of the papal transition has focused heavily on the past.

For example, when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, one of the points the media highlighted was the fact that he was the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Similarly, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, the media promoted the fact that he was the first non-European pope in 1,272 years.

Given the long history of the Roman Catholic Church and the rarity of both of these events, it isn't surprising that such stories would predominate. There is another papal anomaly, however, that also deserves our attention. This story, one which has largely been overlooked in all current reporting, also stretches back well into the past. Indeed, we need to reach back 737 years, to 1276, for the events in question.

On Sept. 13, 1276, Pedro Julião, the Cardinal-Bishop of Frascati, was elected pope following the death of Pope Adrian V. There are a number of interesting points that set Pedro Julião apart from the other 265 popes. He was Portuguese by birth, the only pope to be born in Portugal proper. He was also a well-respected physician and he served as Pope Gregory X's personal doctor. No other pope has had such medical expertise. Finally, when Pedro Julião ascended to the papacy, he elected to be called John XXI. What makes this odd is that the last pope to be called John was John XIX. For some reason, then, Pope John XXI decided not to be called John XX.

None of that, though, is the truly striking thing about Pedro Julião. While serving Gregory X, he wrote an extraordinarily popular work entitled Thesaurus Pauperum ("Treasure of the Poor"). The book was essentially a handbook of herbal remedies for people who could not afford formal medical attention. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the book "gives a remedy for the diseases of every part of the body" and mentions that the "book was widely used."

True enough, but the Encyclopedia's brief mention doesn't do justice to this amazing work. In fact, Pedro Julião offered numerous recipes for both pre- and post-coital contraception. Yes, Pope John XXI promoted birth control and he did so in a manner that suggests he thought about strategies that could be used by both women and men.

For women he offered numerous recipes to induce menstruation, a long-term euphemism for abortion. For men, among other things, he suggested applying a plaster of hemlock to the testicles before coitus.

Despite the work of John XXI, virtually every discussion of the Roman Catholic Church's position on contraception stresses that the position has remained unchanged throughout history. As an example, consider this portrayal from Catholic Answers: "The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of contraception are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching cannot be changed and has been taught by the Church infallibly."

Apparently not!

Pope Francis like so many, but obviously not all, of his predecessors, is opposed to contraception. His view is at odds not only with the opinion of Pope John XXI but with the sentiments of many Catholics. In the United States, for example, a recent Gallup poll found that 82 percent of Catholics felt that birth control was morally acceptable.

It is time for the Roman Catholic Church to reenter the 13th century on the topic of contraception. Voluminous research has shown that living conditions improve dramatically when women are able to take control of their reproductive decisions. With the world's population already exceeding 7 billion and on target for a 30 percent increase to 9 billion by 2050, we are experiencing catastrophic levels of environmental pollution and frightening levels of starvation; estimates indicate that currently 15 million children die from starvation each year. We also know that condom use will significantly slow the spread of AIDS.

Sadly, I'm not optimistic that Pope Francis will encourage his followers to care for the living and to plan for the future rather than worry about the spilling of seed. But I do believe it is possible that his followers will understand that they can remain devout while using birth control and that doing so is consistent with the writings of Pope John XXI.