Friday, March 16, 2007

On contraception.

"Any use of the marriage act, in the exercise of which it is designedly deprived of its natural power of procreating life, infringes on the law of God and of nature, and those who have committed any such act are stained with the guilt of serious sin."
(Pius XI, Casti connubii, 1930)[1]

A dear friend brought to my attention a document released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 14th, 2006. Entitled, "Married Love and the Gift of Life", it says this: "...contraception is objectively immoral."[2] This is pretty unambiguous, as befits a settled Church teaching. Unfortunately, this clarity is buried in emasculating verbiage such as a description of contraception as "...impoverished, even sad...". This is true, of course, it is sad. But it's more than just sad; it's an act which can land a soul in Hell. Or, so says the Church. Here are a few historical things our Bishops didn't mention in their letter.

Onanism, a somewhat archaic word for coitus interruptus specifically, but also for masturbation and contraception generally, is taken from the story of Onan, found in Genesis (Gen. 38:7-10). Onan, you may recall, was condemned to death by God for engaging in, well, onanism. The second century Didache[3] clearly proscribes contraception, and considers both contraception and abortion to be the equivalent of murder.[4] At about the same time, St. Clement of Alexander wrote, " tends toward sexual relations by it's very nature...(however) To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor."[5] St. John Chrysostom wrote in the fourth century, and he lacked a sense of nuance.[6] "Indeed, (contraception) is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents it's formation. What then? Do you condemn a gift from God, and fight with His law? What is a curse (here St. John is referring to infertility and stillbirth) do you seek as though it were a blessing? Do you make the anteroom of birth the anteroom of slaughter?"[7] It's also worth noting at this point that even from the earliest days, Church teachers made no distinction between abortion and contraception; they considered the two actions tightly interrelated, and crimes of equivalent gravity. St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote extensively against the practice of contraception, noting that "intercourse with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked whenever the conception of offspring is prevented." This led to the Augustinian dictum, "...the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage." [8] St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) observed, "Nor, in fact, should it be deemed a slight sin for a man to arrange for the emission of semen apart from the proper purpose of generating and bringing up children... Hence, after the sin of homicide whereby a human nature already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin appears to take the next place, for by it the generation of human nature is impeded."[9] It's interesting that St. Thomas isn't letting the man off the hook regarding this contraception business; another disappointment for those who claim that the Church is somehow "anti-woman." Pope Sixtus, in the late 1500's, condemned simultaneously contraception and abortion.[10] The Holy Office under Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) handed down several decisions condemning contraception, noting that the wrongness of contraception is a wrong against human nature. That is, it is not a "situational" wrong, but is a universal wrong against the nature of man, as is abortion and infanticide.[11] The Catechism of the Council of Trent[12] lists two main reasons as to why a man and woman should be married. The first is simply "companionship".[13] The second is this: "Desire of family."

"Not so much," continues the Catechism, "with a view to leave heirs to inherit our property and fortune, as to bring up children in the true faith an in the service of God... the Angel, when informing Tobias of the means of repelling the violent assaults of the evil demon, says: ...'Thou shalt take the virgin with the fear of the Lord, moved rather for love of children than for lust, that in the seed of Abraham thou mayest obtain a blessing in children."[14]

Children, the Catholic Church teaches, are a blessing from God. They are not a curse, neither are they are not an impediment. "It was also for this reason," the Catechism continues, "that God instituted marriage from the beginning; and therefore married persons who, to prevent conception or to procure abortion, have recourse to medicine are guilty of a most heinous crime - nothing less wicked than conspiracy to commit murder."[15] This indicates just how seriously the Church takes this issue: thwarting conception is thwarting the will of God.
Pope Pius XI's 1930 Encyclical Casti connubii is clear and succinct, that's why I put it up at the header. The most famous recent document, however, is Pope Paul VI's 1968 Encyclical Humanae Vitae.

"Similarly excluded is every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in it's accomplishment, or in the development of it's natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible."[16]

In 1995, 70% of all U.S. Catholic women of childbearing age used some form of contraception. Since 64% of all women, regardless of faith, use contraception, the proportion of Catholic women who contracept is actually slightly higher than women at large.[17] Do they not know? Have they not heard? Contraception is an intrinsic evil.[18] That means it is a sin against God, a grave matter which, if done with full knowledge and consent of the will, might - dare I say it - land a soul in Hell for all eternity. It's a good thing our Bishops are getting the word out.

This essay was first posted on Introibo ad Altare Dei on 16 November 2006.
[1] Denzinger ‘The Sources of Catholic Dogma’, para. #2240. 1955 translation by R.J. Deferrari of Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, 30th Ed. Reissued by Loreto Publications, Fitzwilliam, NH, Hereafter referred to as DNZ.
[2] "Married Love and the Gift of Life." Issued by USCCB, 14 Nov 2006. See "New Titiles" at
[3] W. A. Jurgens, Faith of Our Fathers Vol. 1 The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, WI, 1970. Section 1, The Didache. Hereafter referred to as FoF
[4] W. E. May Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. 2000 pg 143-145. I used these pages heavily in developing this section. Hereafter referred to as CB.
[5] The Catholic Catechism: A contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church J.A. Hardon, S.J. Image Books Doubleday NY, NY. 1981. Pg. 368. Hereafter referred to as TCC.
[6] The 33 Doctors of the Church Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. TAN Books and Publishers Inc. Rockford, IL 2000 See Ch. 9, "St. John Chrysostom". Hereafter referred to as DoC
[7] CB, pgs. 143-144. My emphasis.
[8] TCC, pg. 369.
[9] CB, pg. 144. My emphasis.
[10] ibid
[11] ibid, pg. 371.
[12] Catechism of the Council of Trent issued by order of Pope Pius V, 1566. English translation of 1923 by J. A. McHugh, O.P. and C. J. Callan, O.P. Republished by Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins, CO. Hereafter referred to as CCoT.
[13] ibid, pg.
[14] ibid, pg.
[15] ibid, pg.
[16] TCC, pg. 373
[17] Data from the National Center for Health Statistics, published in Fehring, R. and Schlidt, A.M. "Trends in Contraceptive Use Among Catholics in the United States: 1988-1995" The Linacre Quarterly - Journal of the Catholic Medical Association Vol.68 No. 2, May 2001. Pp. 170-185.
[18] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. Ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, U.S. Catholic Conference, Washington, DC, 1992. Para. #2370.

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