Skip to comments.History of Catholic teaching on Contraception
Posted on 05/25/2007 12:24:43 PM PDT by Balt
[Back in the day, when online services and the Internet were still uncharted territory for most priests, your Priestly Pugilist was one of the first Catholic priests to have an online ministry. For four years, I worked as an independent contractor (without pay) for America Online, moderating the Catholic portions of their Religion and Ethics Forum, supervising a team of dedicated volunteers who moderated AOLs Catholic chat rooms and message boards. During this time, I also made myself available to answer questions about the Catholic Faith in an area of AOL which I had named Ask Father. My experiences in this endeavor where recounted in an article in the November, 1994, issue of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, entitled, Preaching on an Electronic Street Corner.
Fortunately, I kept every question and answer received and given in the Ask Father forum from 1992 though 1999, at which time I gave up the online ministry, having become pastor of my own parish for the first time. The following is a response I gave to a questioner who had intimated that Catholic teaching on contraception was invented by Pope Paul VI, and had no basis in Scripture and Tradition. I reproduce it here as a compliment to the two previous posts.]
First, we have to recognize that contraception is extremely ancient: Medical papyri describing contraceptive methods are extant from 2700 BC in China and form 1850 BC in Egypt.
Given the widespread contraceptive practice of the first century, euphemistically referred to as "using magic" and "using drugs," it is logical to see in the New Testament prohibition of "mageia" and "pharmadeia" an implicit condemnation of contraception. This is especially true in the context of Galations 5:20 and Revelation 21:8,22:15, which refer to sins against chastity.
The Didache (c. AD 100-150), which explicitly condemned abortion, also implicitly condemned contraception. This document, believed to be a compendium of notes made on the post-Ascension preaching of the Apostles, refers to - and condemns - the practice of using medical means to avoid conception because the failure of those means results in a temptation toward abortion or infanticide.
Before the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote the catechetical treatise "Paidagogos," which synthesized the pattern of Christian education in the East and in North Africa in the first generation after the Apostles. He defends the holiness of marriage and the goodness of marital intercourse, but is adamant on the right use of marital relations: "To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor" (II, 9-10).
In succeeding decades, St. Justin the Martyr and Origen, Lactantius and Epiphanius, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine repeated the Church's stand on contraception. It was wrong because it imitated the malpractice of the pagans; it placed carnal pleasure before the love that wants children; it profaned the generative act, which is sacred; it was indifferent to God's intention to create a soul as the normal aftermath to intercourse; it denied that God's grace will sustain a married couple who practice continence; it made those who practice it willing to commit murder by abortion if contraception fails; it was like the idolatry of those who offer up human semen to their obscene gods; it debauched the human person by making it subject to unnatural lust; it was an act of ingratitude to God, who offers the gift of human life; it was an injustice against the laws of God; and it was irrational to have sexual intercourse while excluding the desire to have children.
It is noteworthy that up to the beginning of the 5th century, most of the Church's spokesmen on the sinfulness of contraception were writing from the Near East and Northern Africa, rather than from the "juridical West." And in many cases they wrote so strenuously no only because it was a moral aberration but because, by then, it had become part of a heretical mind-set that had infected Christian circles, e.g., Manichaeism. It was St. Augustine who wrote most extensively on contraception, which the Manichaes had come to defend on ideological grounds (Pope Pius XII quoted extensively from this part of Augustine's works in his encyclical on Christian Marriage). Augustine points out that even the married can give in to their unruly passions, no less than the unmarried, the later by fornication and the former by contraception.
A list of declarations about contraception form the 4th century to the 12th would be interminable. In country after country and in every century, bishops and councils forbid "contraceptive potions," "herbs or other agents so you will not have children," "spilling the seed in coitus," "coitus interruptus," "poisons of sterility," "avoiding children by evil acts," "putting material things in the vagina [to] cause temporary or permanent sterility."
One document worthy of note, because it is so concise, is the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1148-1241). It defines contraception as any action taken to prevent generation, conception or birth; and declares all such acts to be homicidal in the sense that they intend to destroy life at any stage of the vital process.
In the late 16th century, Sixtus V passed a series of laws to curb the immorality of the day, including some directly concerned with both abortion and contraception. During the reign of Pius IX (1846-78), at least 5 decisions were handed down by the Holy See with regard to contraception. One of these specifically mentions that the practice is opposed to natural law, and authorizes confessors to question penitents if they have reason to suppose that contraception is being practiced. It also quotes Innocent XI's censure against those who theorize that contraception is opposed only to divine positive law and not to natural law.
In 1930, the Anglican Church allowed contraception (the first group of Christians ever to do so), which prompted Pope Pius XI to lament: "They urge married people carefully to avoid this burden, not by means of virtuous continence, which is permissible even in marriage with the consent of both parties, but by vitiating the act of nature." He then made two famous statements that have since made Catholic moral history: one on the essential sinfulness of contraception, and the other on the right of the Church in modern times, and over the centuries, to pronounce on the morality of human behavior.
Neither Pius XII, nor Paul VI, added anything new to the Church's teaching on this subject, but only restated what had always been so.
by Priestly Pugilist
Really excellent post. Thank you.
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