As generally used in Catholic theology, the employment of any of various mechanical, chemical, pharmaceutical, X-ray, or surgical means of preventing sexual intercourse from issuing in the generation of offspring. These means have been understood to include certain distortions of the coital act itself (as in coitus interruptus, or the use of a condom or pseudovagina) as well as other acts before or after intercourse, designed to prevent conception, such as the use of douches and the induction of sterility. Contraception is to be distinguished from the avoidance of generation by abstention from intercourse, as in the complete or periodic practice of continence. (see natural family planning.)
The reasons for this distinction may chiefly be discovered in history. Major techniques of contraception—coitus interruptus, potions, and pessaries—were known and disseminated, with the inaccuracy of early medicine, in the Greco-Roman world and in medieval Europe. The rule of the Church against contraception developed, in different historical environments, to protect the fundamental values of procreation, life, dignity, and love. Procreation itself was under almost constant attack in the first 1,300 years of Christian experience. In the first 3 centuries its value and dignity were denied by some Gnostic sects outside the Church and by some Gnostic groups within the Church whose sexual morals were attacked by the NT writers in 1 Cor 5.1–8, Gal 5.1–26, Jude 12 and 13, 2 Pt 2.17, and Rv 2.6–15. Alienated from the world and despising its Creator, the Gnostics rejected the OT, claimed an absolute freedom from moral law, and saw procreation as a senseless perpetuation of creation. Against a Gnostic group was written the sole passage explicitly approving procreation in the NT, which declared that "women will be saved by childbearing" (1 Tm2.15).
Gnostic Teaching. Gnostic currents, repudiated in apostolic times, continued to present a major challenge to the 2nd-century Church. Gnostics of the right, such as Tatian and Marcion, preached an extreme asceticism, prohibiting procreation for all Christians. Gnostics of the left, such as Carprocrates and Valentinus, preached an extreme libertarianism, encouraging sexual intercourse, but totally separating intercourse from procreation. Against both extremes, the first Christian school of theology, that of Clement of Alexandria, insisted that sexual intercourse found its measure in marriage, and that in marriage procreation was a good work of cooperation in the work of a good Creator. In this context, in reaction to the Gnostic denials, Clement adopted the Stoic rule set out by Musonius Rufus: the sole lawful purpose for initiating marital intercourse was procreation (Clement, Pedagogus 18.104.22.168). This rule became the dominant opinion of the Fathers and of the medieval theologians on the lawful use of marriage; it effectively excluded contraception.
St. Augustine's Teaching. The Gnostic trauma of the Church, which accounts for so much of the patristic commitment to the procreative purposes of marriage, was repeated and deepened by the Manichaean trauma. Armed with scriptures of its own, organized as a church with a hierarchy, equipped with a theology and a rule of conduct, manichaeism was for more than a century a formidable rival to the Catholic Church. A mind as theologically sophisticated as St. Augustine's could be attracted to it; and that Augustine was a Manichaean from the age of 18 to 29 is of great importance to the history of contraception.
The significant result of Augustine's immersion in Manichaeism was not, as some have asserted, that he carried Manichaean principles into Catholicism, but that his reaction to Manichaeism was so strong, so intense, and so overwhelming that he emphasized, to an extreme degree, the great point on which Catholic morality seemed to him opposed to Manichaean morality. Dualist like Gnosticism, Manichaeaism had for its central moral tenet: you shall not procreate. The difference between this position and that of the Catholics was proclaimed by Augustine in two books written immediately after his conversion, The Morals of the Manichaeans (De moribus Manichaeorum ) and The Morals of the Catholic Church (De moribus ecclesiae catholicae ). Unlike the Manichaeans, the Catholic Church, Augustine said, taught that marriage was good and that procreation was the purpose of marital intercourse. The several explicit passages of Augustine against contraception must be understood in the context of his reaction to the Manichaeans.
In ch. 18 of The Morals of the Manichaeans, St. Augustine denounced the Manichaeans for advising use of what physicians in antiquity thought to be the sterile period. He declared that this systematic avoidance of procreation made a wife no more than a harlot. In writing against his old friend, the Manichaean Bishop Faustus, Augustine accused the Manichaeans of practicing coitus interruptus in a "perverse" attempt to avoid imprisonment of their god (C. Faust. 22.30). In writing against the Manichaean Secundinus, Augustine asserted that the Manichaeans preferred prostitutes to wives because prostitutes "take steps not to conceive." In two later works, not written against Manichaeans, Augustine employed the same analysis of contraception he had adopted against his former coreligionists. In Marriage and Concupiscence (Nupt. et concup. 1.15.17), he condemned those who "although they are called husband and wife," avoid children and even abandon the children born to them against their will. "Sometimes," he said, "their lustful cruelty or cruel lust comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility." If these do not work they resort to abortion. In this specific denunciation of contraception in marriage, it is not clear whether Augustine condemns individual acts or only a practice of avoiding children. Finally, in a short treatise written in 419 on divorce and remarriage, Augustine made the first reference to the story of Onan by a Christian writer in connection with marriage. It is lawlessness and shameful, he said, to have intercourse with one's wife "where the conception of offspring is avoided: This is what Onan, the son of Judah did, and God killed him for it" (Adult. coniug. 2.12.12).
The Manichaean threat merged in the 5th century into the Priscillianist heresy, whose opposition to procreation troubled the western end of the Mediterranean world as late as the first council of Braga in 565, when St. Martin of Braga acted to oppose contraception [Opera, ed. C. W. Barlow (New Haven 1950) 142]. Manichaeism itself was still a problem in Africa, Sicily, and the Italian mainland for Gregory the Great, who insisted that procreation alone justified intercourse (Regula pastoralis 3.27).
Later Dualist Sects. Varieties of Manichaean and dualistic sects continued to exist in the East. In the 10th century, one of these dualist movements gathered momentum in Bulgaria under the leadership of a priest, Bogomil, and Bogomilism spread east to Constantinople and west to Albania. In the 11th century there appeared in northern Italy and southern France pockets of bo gomils, known in the West as cathari, that is, "The Pure." By the 12th century the Cathari were a major religious and social problem in western Europe, and from 1140 to 1240—that is, during the most creative era of medieval theology and common law—the Cathari presented a major challenge to the good of procreation.
Reaction to Catharism. Three ecumenical councils dealt with these heretics "denying marriage." From the Second Lateran Council in 1139 (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 21:532) to the Third Lateran Council (Mansi 22:476) to the anti-Cathar profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 22:982), the highest authority in the Church was concerned with the repudiation of procreation by the Cathari. While the order of St. Dominic was formed to convert them, secular rulers were urged to suppress them and finally to crusade against them with all the privileges of crusaders for the Holy Land. It was chiefly in this context of the defense of the good of procreation that Gratian inserted in his Decretum (22.214.171.124) the canon Aliquando, taken from Augustine's Marriage and Concupiscence, denouncing absolutely the use of poisons of sterility. It was chiefly in this context that Peter Lombard followed Gratian and made Aliquando a central text in the section of the Sententiae (4.31.3) dealing with marriage. It was chiefly in this context that Gregory IX enacted the first universal legislation by a pope against contraception. The first of these papal acts, Si conditiones (Decretals 4.5.7), declared null a marriage entered into with a condition to avoid offspring. The second, Si aliquis (ibid. 5.12.5), an ancient canon of uncertain origin, declared it to be homicide to prevent generation or cause sterility.
The Values Defended by the Church. It is possible to discern a number of distinct values the Church was concerned to safeguard in its legislation against contraception.
The Transmission of Life. Just as the popularization of the Ave Maria in this period was part of the ideological reaction to Catharism—no Cathar could say "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb"—so too were these canons against contraception largely adopted as part of a general program to save and to assert the goodness of the procreative act. If, since the 13th century, there has been no serious large-scale threat to this basic value, it is because the Church so thoroughly established that procreation was a value that must be honored. The absolute prohibition of contraception was part of the process of this defense of the transmission of life.
Life. Life itself, after conception, was a second value that the prohibition of all contraception protected. The defense of innocent life was first undertaken in a Greco-Roman world notoriously insensitive to infant and embryonic life, where the abandonment of young children to beasts or birds of prey or to slave dealers was not uncommon, where infanticide was not viewed as murder, where abortion with paternal consent was lawful. In this milieu the Christians insisted on the sacredness of human life at every stage of its development. In the NT, pharmakeia, the use of magical drugs, was severely condemned, and this condemnation may well have included the use of drugs to produce abortions or prevent conception (Gal 5.20; Rv 9.21; 21.8; 22.15). The same opposition to pharmakeia appeared in Didache (5.2) and the Epistle of Barnabas (20). Abortifacients and probably contraceptives were condemned by Minucius Felix in Octavius (30.2). It is clear that contraceptives were referred to in a condemnation in the early 3rd-century Elenchos (9.12.5), attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome.
The desire to preserve life revealed itself strikingly in the Christian extensions of the Roman terms for murder, parricidium and homicidium. Neither term legally applied to destruction of an infant. But the Christians applied them to infanticide, abortion, and contraception. In the words of Tertullian, "He destroys a man who destroys a man-to-be" (Apologia 9.8). Extension of the protection of life to include the interdiction of contraception was all the more necessary because it was impossible to be sure whether the drugs usually employed worked as contraceptives or as abortifacients (Soranos, Gynecology 1.19.60). Moreover, according to patristic and medieval belief, a fetus did not receive a human soul until at least 40 days after conception; it was, therefore, difficult to draw a sharp line between the embryo and the seed. To protect the embryo in its earliest stage, language had to be employed that was equally applicable to the seed. In this context the use of contraceptive potions was stigmatized as homicide by St. Ambrose (Hexaemeron 5.18.58) and St. Jerome (letter 22, To Eustochium 13). Their language, not intended literally, was directed against means that, when employed to prevent conception, often actually attacked existing life.
The same linking of contraception to an attack on life and the same association of contraceptives with evilly magical potions was maintained in the post-patristic period by St. Caesarius of Arles (Sermons 1.12) and by numerous penitentials, such as the Irish Collection of Canons ("Womanly Questions" 3.3) and the St. Hubert Penitential (ch. 56). This approach took definitive form in the decretal Si aliquis, already referred to, which from 1232 to 1917 was part of the legislation of the Church. In strong language the canon embodied a defense of life in a prohibition of contraception in any form.
Human Dignity. The prohibition of contraception was undertaken historically also as a defense of human dignity. In the Roman Empire, where slavery, slave concubinage, and easy divorce flourished, women could readily be regarded as objects for male exploitation. The teaching of St. Paul in 1 Cor 7.3–6 on the rendering of the debt of marital intercourse affirmed the fundamental equality of the spouses in sexual matters and in so doing affirmed the personal dignity of the wife. Although many of the Fathers were pessimistic in their judgments concerning woman, they also refused to let woman be considered as a thing. It might be supposed that woman would have been given greater dignity if freed from servitude to procreation, but this supposition does not take account of a milieu where the procreative function constituted a woman's chief claim to be treated other than as an object for pleasure. Anal intercourse was taken as a common occurrence by such Roman moralists as Martial. The Christians showed an abhorrence of such use of a woman. Justin Martyr testified with approbation to a Christian woman leaving her husband for this reason (Apologia 2.1). The Epistle of Barnabas (10.8) contained a vigorous repudiation of oral intercourse. The teaching of St. Augustine was that anal or oral intercourse was worse than fornication (Bon. coniug. 11.12). The monastic penitentials prescribed for such behavior penances more severe than for homicide (e.g., Penitential of Theodore 1.2.15). The teaching of Gratian and Peter Lombard was that such intercourse was worse than incest (Decretum 126.96.36.199; Sententiae 4.38.2).
These kinds of acts were rejected as "unnatural." It was not merely that the acts were not procreative. Intercourse with insemination where procreation was impossible, as in pregnancy, was considered sinful by a majority of theologians, but never rebuked with such vehemence. The characteristic of the acts stamped as unnatural was that insemination itself was avoided. It is possible to find the Christian teaching here focused on the religious significance that should characterize the sexual act: in this view, to have sexual relations where insemination was prevented was a most perverse profanation of what should be in some sense a sacred act. It is possible also to interpret the impulse at the core of this teaching as the impulse to protect and assert human dignity.
Marital Love. The fourth value historically defended by the prohibition of contraception was marital love. The practice of contraception in all ages has been commonly associated with fornication or adultery. It was contraception practiced by unchaste Christian teenagers that was denounced by St. Jerome in his letter to Eustochium. It was contraception practiced by prostitutes that was denounced by St. John Chrysostom ("Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans," Patrologia Graeca 60:626). The medieval writers often associated interrogation in confession about fornication with interrogation about contraception (e.g., Burchard, Decretum 19, "Interrogatory," Patrologia Latina 140:972). The strongest papal attack on contraception, the bull Effraenatam of Sixtus V, issued Oct. 29, 1588, is probably best understood as part of a papal campaign to repress prostitution in Rome.
As contraception has been so often linked with extramarital sexual behavior, its general prohibition as unnatural may in itself be seen as, in part, a defense of marital fidelity. Beyond that, a common scholastic argument against fornication was that it did injury to the potential child by bringing him into the world without definite parents committed to his education (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, De malo 15.2 and 4). If contraception were permissible in extramarital intercourse, the scholastic objection based on injury to the potential child would have less force. This belief, that a main point in the rational case against fornication depends on a prohibition of contraception, has influenced theological thought until recent times. Since 1925, beginning with Dietrich Von Hildebrand's In Defense of Purity and Herbert Doms' The Meaning of Marriage, a new theory of marital intercourse has made this argument seem less necessary to some theologians. The new theory stressed that the requirements of love of another person can only be met if sexual intercourse occurs within the stable union of marriage. This insight into the demands of love constitutes an objection to extramarital sexual acts that has made it possible to see that the prohibition of contraception is not a necessary part of the argument against fornication. Nevertheless, for centuries the prohibition of contraception had, paradoxically, served the cause of marital love by providing a basis for the condemnation of sexual acts outside of marriage.
Large Families. In addition to protecting procreation, life, personal dignity, and love, the rule of the Church on contraception, it might be argued, protected the value of the large family. There is one strain of Catholic thought that supports this argument. Duns Scotus declared that procreation was intended to restore the population of heaven, depleted by the fall of the angels (On the Sentences, Paris Report, 4.28). The bull Exultate Deo of 1439 referred to the Church being "corporally increased through matrimony" (Mansi 31:1054). The encyclical Casti connubii taught that Christian parents are not only to propagate the human race, but "to bear offspring for the Church of Christ, to procreate saints and servants of God, that the people adhering to the worship of God and our Savior should daily increase" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 22:544). This was not intended precisely as a plea for large families, but it was a short step in the thinking of many to conclude more or less without qualification that the more numerous the offspring the better.
This valuation of numerous offspring was, indeed, implicit in many Catholic criticisms of contraception in the 19th and 20th centuries. At the same time the normal Catholic judgment set higher store on the perfection of existing offspring than on the procreation of many offspring. Virginity outside of marriage and continence even for life within marriage were traditionally considered more valuable than procreation. Procreation itself was never separated from the duty of education. It has already been noted that the failure to provide education was long the common argument against procreating outside of marriage. A host of authorities taught that the procreation of children to be educated in the Lord is the only meritorious act of Christian progenitors as such (Clement, Stromata 3.11; St. Augustine, Gen. ad litt. 9.7; Peter Lombard, Sententiae 4.31; St. Thomas Aquinas, In epist. 1 ad Cor. 7.1). Accordingly, in the Christian view, procreation and education were inseparable. If there was a tension between the achievement of one at the expense of the other, this tension was built into the Christian position. The rule on contraception, although sometimes taken to endorse procreation at the cost of the perfection of existing children, cannot, in fact, be isolated from the traditional teaching on education.
The Modern Problem. The practice of contraception on a large scale was a phenomenon that began in France in the last quarter of the 18th century. It was first publicly advocated as a social good in England in 1822 by Francis Place. For most of the 19th century there was still general social, medical, and political hostility to the idea. The Church itself, however, took the position in France that confessors need not interrogate or correct Catholics practicing it in the mistaken good faith conviction that it was innocent, if reform of their behavior seemed unlikely. Contraception became general in France. Then, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Malthusian Leagues began an active advocacy of birth control. Often birth control was presented as a panacea for major social ills, and sometimes, as the name itself indicated, the control of birth rather than conception was the object of the propaganda. However, European governments at the same time were becoming increasingly conscious of the role of population in the European balance of power and tended, therefore, to look with disfavor upon the movement.
Reacting to the careless and crude oversimplifications of the birth control movement and encouraged by nationalist interest in population increase, Church authorities began a vigorous campaign against contraception. In a response dated March 10, 1886, the Penitentiary indicated that the confessor was under obligation to make prudent and discreet inquiries when there was a wellfounded suspicion that a penitent was addicted to the crime of onanism, and that he should warn the penitent of the gravity of this sin. The Belgian hierarchy under Cardinal Mercier took a strong and militant stand in a pastoral letter on the duties of married life and in instructions given to curés and confessors on the subject of onanism. This was followed by condemnations of contraception by the German hierarchy in 1913, by the French hierarchy in 1919, and by the hierarchy of the U.S. in 1920. The campaign reached its climax in Pius XI's casti connubii (1930), drafted largely by Arthur Vermeerch, SJ: "any use whatever of marriage, in the exercise of which the act by human effort is deprived of its natural power of procreating life, violates the law of God and nature, and those who do such a thing are stained by a grave and mortal flaw" (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 22:560).
The encyclical was a highpoint of opposition. In the next 35 years the theology of marriage underwent discussion and development. With fear of the population explosion and with the realization that, for some people, children were no longer an economic asset but an economic liability, questions arose as to whether the Church's teaching might change in light of changing socio-economic conditions. Some theologians argued that a newer understanding of man and of his control over his own biological nature required a revision or modification in our understanding of natural law and its requirements. There was also development and argument as to the means of contraception. In 1951 Pope Pius XII approved the systematic use of the sterile period for couples with "serious economic, medical or social reasons" as a means of birth control (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 43:859). He took a different stance regarding the anovulant and therefore contraceptive effects of progestational steroids, denouncing Catholic writers who suggested that possibly "the pill" did not come under the traditional ban on other forms of contraception. Pius XII in an address to hematologists in 1958 labeled such opinions erroneous and affirmed that these preparations are forbidden by the law of God when deliberately used as contraceptives or as temporarily sterilizing agents. With these and other questions in mind, John XXIII established a commission to study the matter and present information and opinions on anything pertinent to the question. In the meantime both he and his successor, Pope Paul VI affirmed that the teaching of preceding popes still held. Paul VI enlarged the commission established by John XXIII to include persons from even more competencies, with a promise to study whatever data they could supply. Addressing this commission on March 27, 1965, the Pope put to them a larger question: "In what form and according to what norms ought spouses to accomplish in the exercise of their mutual love that service of life to which their vocation calls them?" (L'Osservatore Romano, March 29, 1965).
Cardinal Julius Döpfner, the co-President of the Commission, presented the Commission's final report to Pope Paul VI on June 28, 1966. It concluded that the Catholic position on artificial contraception "could not be sustained by reasoned argument." Finally in July of 1968, 2 years after the commissions' recommendations had been submitted, Pope Paul issued his formal answer and judgment in his encyclical humanae vitae, again reaffirming the centuries-old teaching that the deliberate positive action of preventing a life-giving effect from a potentially life-giving act between husband and wife is against the law of God. In doing this he agreed with the minority report and rejected the recommendations of the majority statement of the commission as contrary to the teaching of the Church and unacceptable.
Bibliography: h. batzill, ed., Decisiones Sanctae Sedis de usu et abusu matrimonii (Rome 1944), a collection of Roman documents from 1816 to 1944. l. duprÉ, Contraception and Catholics (Baltimore 1964), critique of the unchangeability of the prohibition. j. c. ford and g. a. kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, MD 1958–63), v.2, Marriage Questions, a defense of the rule's unchangeability. s. de lestapis, Family Planning and Modern Problems, tr. r. f. trevett (New York 1961), sociological arguments against contraception. r. e. murray, SJ, An Historical and Critical Study of the Lambeth Conferences' Teaching on Contraception (Rome 1964). d. lindner, Der Usus matrimonii: Eine Untersuchung über seine sittliche Bewertung in der katholischen Moraltheologie alter und neuer Zeit (Munich 1929), a study of the development of teaching on procreative purpose in marriage. j. t. noonan, jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA 1965). c. curran, ed., Contraception: Authority and Dissent (New York 1969). j. e. smith, Humanae vitae: A Generation Later (Washington, DC 1991). p. hebblethwaite, Paul VI. The First Modern Pope (New York/Mahwah, NJ 1993).
[j. t. noonan, jr./eds.]
"Contraception." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contraception
"Contraception." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved January 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/contraception