The History of Contraception Teachings

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders

The following is a continuation of a series on marital love and artificial birth control.

A question for you regarding Catholics who practice artificial birth control: What is their status in the Church? Are they committing mortal sin? I feel that this is a much misunderstood question by most Catholics, including myself. To further muddle the issue, what is the Church's position when one's spouse does not want to practice NFP?—An ACH reader

In explaining the Church's teaching about artificial birth control, many people mistakenly think that this teaching is relatively new, something which occurred with "Humanae Vitae" in 1968. Other people, from a more fundamentalist bent, want to know if there is any basis in sacred Scripture for these teachings. In reviewing both sacred Scripture as well as the history of our Church's teaching in this area, one finds a very positive and solid foundation, as has been presented to date.

Concerning "What does the Bible have to say?" the very positive presentation concerning creation, marital love and covenant emerges from the texts of sacred Scripture. However, we also discover references to any violation of the unitive-procreative dimensions of marital love and to the divine consequences which followed.

In Genesis, we find the story of Onan, the second son of Judah, who married Tamar, the widow of his older brother, Er. (The Levirate law of Judaism prescribed that if the older brother died the next oldest, single brother would marry his widow to preserve the family line.) The Bible reads, "Onan, however, knew that the descendants would not be counted as his; so whenever he had relations with his brother's widow, he wasted his seed on the ground to avoid contributing offspring for his brother. What he did greatly offended the Lord and the Lord took his life" (cf Dt 38:1ff.) Here is a basic form of contraception withdrawal end clearly a sin in the eyes of God.

Interestingly, the Protestant tradition cited this story as a basis for condemning any form of contraception. Luther commented, "Onan ... spilled his seed. That was a sin greater than adultery or incest, and it provoked God to such fierce wrath that He destroyed him immediately" (Commentary on Genesis). In another work he wrote, "For Onan goes in to her, that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed" (Works).

Calvin also commented on the story of Onan: "The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born a hoped for offering" (Commentary on Genesis). Interestingly, two of the leaders of the Protestant movement both condemned a practice which suppressed the procreative dimension of marital love.

History further illuminates the Church's position on this subject. Anthropological studies show that means of artificial birth control existed in antiquity. Medical papyri described various contraceptive methods used in the year 2700 B.C. and in Egypt in the year 1850 B.C. Soranos (98-139 A.D.), a Greek physician from Ephesus, described 17 medically approved methods of contraception. Also at this time, abortion and infanticide were not uncommon practices in the Roman Empire.

The early Christian community upheld the sanctity of marriage, marital love and human life. In the New Testament, the word "pharmakeia" appears, which some scholars link to the birth control issue. "Pharmakeia" denotes the mixing of potions for secretive purposes, and from Soranos and others, evidence exists of artificial birth control potions. Interestingly, "Pharmakeia" is sometimes translated as "sorcery?" in English. In three passages in which "pharmakeia" appears, other sexual sins are also condemned: lewd conduct, impurity, licentiousness, orgies "and the like" (e.g. Gal 5:19-21). This evidence highlights that the early Church condemned anything which violated the integrity of marital love.

Further evidence is found in the Didache, also called the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, written about the year 80 A.D. This book was the Church's first manual of morals, liturgical norms and doctrine. In the first section? two ways are proposed: the way of life and the way of death. In following the way of life, the <Didache> exhorts, "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a new-born child. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods...." Again, scholars link such phrases as "practice magic" and "use potions" with artificial birth control.

In all, the Catholic Church as well as other Christian denominations condemned the use of artificial birth control until the 20th century. The first Christian denomination to approve artificial birth control was the Church of England, or the Episcopalian Church. At the August 14, 1930 Lambeth Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Church, a resolution was passed which allowed the use of methods to limit the size of families "where there is a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood." The "primary and obvious method" was considered "complete abstinence from intercourse ... in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit"; however, other methods could also be used, namely artificial means. Bishop Brent gave an impassioned plea stating that if the resolution passed, soon artificial birth control would be allowed for any reason and the decision would give way to selfish rationalization.

In response to the Church of England's approval of artificial birth control, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical "Casti Connubii" on December 31, 1930, stating, "Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, 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 her divine ambassadorship and through our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such away 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 a grave sin."

A renewed challenged to the Church's teaching came with the approval of the pill in 1960. This historical survey will continue next week.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the November 2, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.