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The Catholic Tradition on the Morality of Contraception

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There are pressing reasons why a Catholic should know the history of the Church’s doctrine on contraception. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul appeals to the “landmarks in the human Christian vision of marriage,” and to the “teaching of the Church on the regulation of birth,” for declaring that artificial contraception is forbidden by divine law. To see some of these landmarks and the unbroken teaching of the Church is more than ever necessary today, when the papal pronouncement is called into question.

The authority behind the pronouncement is nothing less than Christ’s indwelling Spirit which He promised His Church “to teach you all truth.” What Humanae Vitae proposed has always been held in the Church of God.

The centuries-old teaching is irrelevant to those who are not Catholic and for whom there is no guarantee of certitude in the moral order. But Catholics believe this assurance is part of their faith and that a sound criterion of certitude is the unbroken tradition of the teaching Church.

Among the criticisms of the pope, the most facile is to charge him with being behind the times. Contraception is supposed to be a new phenomenon and therefore calls for a new morality. But historians of contraception show beyond doubt that the practice was widespread and deep-seated as far back as 1000 B.C. and reached its heyday in the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of the Christian era.

In fact, the most extensive treatise on contraception until modern times was written in the early second century. Soranos of Ephesus (98-138 A.D.) wrote on every phase of the subject. His monumental study On the Use of Abortifacients and of Measures to Prevent Contraception was not only remarkably scientific but contained ideas and methods that are still valid today.

Soranos regularly associated contraception with abortion, and thus reflected the general practice even today. Abortion was resorted to when contraception failed. In the passages that follow, the two practices are also commonly condemned together. Christians since the first century have been tempted to follow the example of their pagan contemporaries: limit one’s offspring by avoiding conception, and when this fails destroy the unborn fetus in the womb.

There have been several hundred witnesses to the Church’s attitude toward contraception, reaching back the earliest times. The sources given here were not taken at random but chosen on the basis of certain qualifications, namely, 1) patristic writers, 2) catechetical documents, 3) ecclesiastical legislation, 4) members of the hierarchy, and 5) statements of the Holy See.

In order better to appreciate Catholic teaching on the subject, it would help to read the standard book on the Medical History of Contraception by Norman E. Himes, New York, 1963. Through five hundred pages and an exhaustive bibliography, the author traces the parallel in medical history to the Church’s unbroken tradition in religious history.

From the dawn of Christianity, those who wanted to follow the ethical principles of Christ were in constant conflict with the ethos of a culture that has always been contraceptive. In fact, this is what distinguished the Christians from their contemporaries, an unwillingness either to destroy unborn life by abortion or deliberately interfere with the life process by contraception.

Himes’ thesis is that “contraception . . . is a social practice of much greater antiquity, greater cultural and geographical universality than commonly supposed even by medical and social historians” (p. xxxiv). Medical papyri describing contraceptive methods are extant from 2700 B.C. in China and from 1850 B.C in Egypt.

The Didache

As might be expected, Christians were faced from the beginning with the option of following the more difficult teaching of the Church or of conforming to their pagan environment.

While explicit and verbatim condemnation of contraception seems to have come toward the end of the second century, a passage in a first century document, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (dated about 94 A.D.) has been interpreted as the first reaction of the Church to the prevalent non-Christian custom of destroying unwanted human life or preventing it by physical or magical means.

Aristotle is a prominent witness to the common Greek and Roman attitude toward contraception. Writing in the Historia Animalium, he explains that “Since conception is prevented if the parts be smooth, some anoint that part of the womb on which the seed falls with oil of cedar, or with ointment of lead or frankincense, commingled with olive oil” (Historia Animalium, III, 3, 583a).

As stated in the Didache, the Christian is reminded that there are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, “and there is a great difference between the two Ways.”

For a Christian the first commandment is to love God with one’s whole heart and soul. It is in the second commandment, loving one’s neighbor, that the believer is told to respect human life, whether physically as already existing or sexually as in potentiality.

The operative words, to be quoted in context are: “Thou shalt not use magic (ou mageuseis); thou shalt not use drugs (ou pharmakeusis).” It is reasonable to conclude that the double prohibition refers to contraception and abortion because these terms (mageia) and (pharmaka) were understood to cover the use of magical rites and/or medical potions for both contraception and abortion. Moreover, the context in the Didache refers to sex activity and the right to life.

The second commandment of the teaching is this: “Thou shalt not commit murder; thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Thou shalt not commit sodomy; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic: thou shalt not use drugs; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide (Didache, II, 1-2).

Among other early condemnations of birth prevention are the first century Letter of Barnabas (X, 8) which denounces the practice of having intercourse while making conception impossible; and the mid-second century Apology of St. Justin the martyr who describes the marital problems of a young Christian convert. Her husband tried to satisfy his sex urge by copulating with her “against the law of nature and against what is right.” Her family prevailed on her to remain with the man for a while, but finally she could not tolerate his morals and left him. Justin praises her conduct in refusing to participate in the man’s “impious conduct” (Apologia II, 1).

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (150-215), teacher of Origin, was head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria. The Paidagogos from which the present selection is chosen, holds the central place in Clement’s teaching as a catechist.

This treatise represents the pattern of Christian education in the East and North Africa from sub-apostolic times.

It also reflects a very balanced attitude toward marriage. On the one hand, Clement defends marriage and marital intercourse as good and holy. Thus he says that “Love tends toward sexual relations by its very nature,” and “Sometimes nature denies them the opportunity to perform the marriage act so that it may be all the more desirable because it is delayed” (II, 9).

On the other hand, he was adamant on the right use of conjugal relations. Marriage was given to husband and wife to foster their mutual love. But let it be true love and not spurious counterpart. “If immoral pleasure mars the chastity of the marriage bed, desire becomes insipid and love grows old before the body does. The hearts of lovers have wings; affection can be stifled by a change of heart” (Ibid.) It is in this context that the following stricture of contraception was made.

Marriage in itself merits esteem and the highest approval, for the Lord wished men to “be fruitful and multiply.” He did not tell them, however, to act like libertines, nor did He intend them to surrender themselves to pleasure as though born only to indulge in sexual relations. Let the Educator (Christ) put us to shame with the word Exechiel: “Put away your fornications.” Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom should take as our instructor (Paedagogues, 2, 10; 95, 3, GCS, 12, 214).


Another early and explicit condemnation of contraception was made by Origen (185-254) in a work that is sometimes attributed to Hippolytus (170-236), a long treatise Against the Heresies. Its purpose was to refute those who claimed to be Christians but perverted the teaching of Christ to suit their own preconceived notions. The words are directed at women who call themselves believers but actually conform to the pagan unbelief around them. Soranos had recommended “it is safer to prevent conception than to kill the fetus” (H. Luneburg, Die Gynakologie des Soranus von Ephesus, Munchen: Lehmann, 1894, pp. 43-44).

There are some women of rank and great wealth, so-called believers, who began taking drugs to make themselves sterile; and then they bound themselves tightly to procure an abortion because they do not want to have a child born of a slave father or of a man of lower station (Contra Haereses, 9; PG 16c, 3387-8).

St. Epiphanius

St. Epiphanius (315-403) was Bishop of Salamis. Of his writings, the most important was his Panarion, commonly known as the “Refutation of All Heresies.”

The special merit of this work is that it described and refuted every heresy known to the author from the beginning of the Church.

In the present passage, Epiphanius recognized the liceity of pleasure in marital intercourse. But he denounced the search for unbridle satisfaction whereby conception is deliberately avoided.

Significantly Epiphanius included the practice of contraception among immoral actions that spring from erroneous belief, in this case the mistaken notion that conjugal relations may be indulged without reference to their natural purpose.

There are those who when they have intercourse deliberately prevent having children. They indulge in pleasure not for the sake of offspring but to satisfy their passion. To such an extent has the devil deceived these wretched people that they betray the work of God by perverting it to their own deceits. Moreover, they are so willing to satisfy their carnal desires as to pollute each other with impure seed, by which offspring is not conceived but by their own will evil desires are satisfied. Moreover, if a man should by mistake deposit some of his emitted seed and his wife becomes pregnant, listen to what further crime they descend. They remove the unformed fetus from the womb anytime they please and actually grind the aborted child (infantem) with mortar and pestle. Then to avoid the nausea they use pepper and other spices or ointments (Adversus Haereses Panarium, PG 41, 339).

St. Jerome

Jerome’s letter to Eustochium, quoted below, contains a typical patristic condemnation of contraception. It is associated with the defection from the Church of those women who find the Church’s position on chastity too demanding.

First he cites those who have intercourse out of wedlock, but make sure they do not become pregnant by taking appropriate drugs to prevent conception. Others become pregnant and then commit abortion to avoid exposure of their guilt.

Most pertinent is Jerome’s quoting such women as saying they see nothing particularly wrong about fornication, or contraception or even abortion. Their conscience approves what they are doing; so how can these be sins?

The final reference to food and drink points up the fact that these women are critical of those who practice mortification. Consistent with their attitude on sex, they argue that all of this is God’s gift—so why not use it?

It becomes wearisome to tell how many virgins fall daily; what important personages Mother Church loses from her bosom; ever how many stars the proud enemy sets his throne; how many rocks the serpent makes hollow and then enters through their openings. You may see many who were widowed before they were wed, shielding a guilty conscience by a lying garb. Did not a swelling womb or the crying of their infant children betray them, they would go about with head erect and on skipping feet.
But others drink potions to ensure sterility and are guilty of murdering a human being not yet conceived. Some when they learn they are with child through sin, practice abortion by the use of drugs. Frequently they die themselves and are brought before the rulers of the lower world guilty of three crimes: suicide, adultery against Christ, and murder of an unborn child. These are the women who are accustomed to say: “All things are clean to the clean. The approval of my conscience is enough for me. A pure heart is what God desires. Why should I abstain from foods which God created to be used?” And whenever they wish to appear bright and festive, and have drowned themselves in wine, they say—adding sacrilege to drunkenness: “God forbid that I should abstain from the blood of Christ.” And whenever they see a woman pale and sad, they call her a poor wretch, a nun, and a Manichean: and with reason, for according to their belief fasting is heresy (Letter 22, to Eustochium 13).

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom (344-407) denounced contraception as basically evil because it is a sin against human nature.

His witness should be seen within the larger framework of his teaching on marriage and the love that should obtain between husband and wife. A wife, he said, is “the source and occasion of all joy.” A husband ought to love his wife even to being willing to give his life for her. Commenting on St. Paul, he exclaimed, “You see how zealously he unites flesh to flesh and spirit to spirit. Where are the heretics? If marriage was something to be abominated, he (Paul) would not speak of spouses, nor exhort people to marry by saying, ‘A man shall leave father and mother.’ Nor would he have added, ‘I speak in Christ and the Church’” (Homily on Ephesians 5).

The present citation comes in a homily on Matthew in which Chrysostom is depicting the man of greed and showing to what lengths avarice will drive people in their disregard for everything, even human life—whether born or not yet conceived.

What of the covetous man? Is he not like this? For who will ever be able to bind him? Are there not fears and daily threats, and admonitions and counsels? All these bonds he burst asunder…
The covetous man is more fierce even than this, assailing all like hell, swallowing everything up, and going around as a common enemy of the human race. Why, if he could he would have no one else exist, so that he might possess all things.
He does not stop at this. While longing that all men should be destroyed, he longs also to mar the substance of the earth, and to see it all become gold …
To convince you that we have not finished describing his madness … let us ask him if he is not forever framing to himself such fancies as show him ranging in mind among all kinds of people with the idea (if necessary) to put them out of the way. This includes his friends and relatives and even his parents.
You do not have to ask them if they harbor such feelings. We all know that people who suffer from this disease are tired of their father’s old age. Moreover, what everyone else considers sweet and desirable, namely to have children, they consider a heavy and unwelcome burden. With at least this purpose in view, many have paid money to be childless. They maimed their nature not only by slaying their children after birth, but not even agreeing to conceive (to generate the beginning—phunai ten archen) (Homilia in Matthaeum 28, PG 57, 357).

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (354-430) is one of the classic authors quoted to trace the Church’s earliest tradition against the abuse of marital relations.

Yet he is often misunderstood. Basing himself on St. Paul, Augustine wrote at length on the dignity of virginity. Like Paul, however, he also knew that for most people marriage was their vocation in life and the means of reaching their heavenly destiny. The tribute to his mother Monica in the Confessions is an eloquent witness to how highly Augustine thought of marriage and conjugal relations.

In the passage here quoted, Augustine is not talking about Christians in general, but about those who have trouble with sex control. With St. Paul he tells them not to evade the responsibilities of marriage. “Better to marry,” he says, “than to burn with unbridled passion.” By this Augustine did not mean to universalize, as though marriage was only a remedy for passion.

Then he went on to tell these same people, whose passions are so strong, not to suppose that even marriage is an infallible means of self-control. Married people, to, can give in to their passions, no less than the unmarried—the latter by committing fornication, the former by resorting to contraception.

It is that weakness, namely, incontinence, that the Apostle wished to remedy by the divinity of marriage. He id not say: If he does not have sons, let him marry, but: “If he does not have self-control, let him marry.” Indeed, the concessions to incontinence in marriage are compensated for my the procreation of children. Incontinence surely is a vice, while marriage is not. So, through this good, that evil is rendered pardonable. Since, therefore, the institution of marriage exists for the sake of generation, for this reason did our forebears enter into the union of wedlock and lawfully take to themselves their wives, only because of the duty to beget children …
Why did the Apostle not say: If he does not have sons let him marry? Evidently, because in this time of refraining from embrace it is not necessary to beget children. And why has he said: “If he cannot control himself, let him marry”? Surely, to prevent incontinence from constraining him to adultery. If, then, he practices continence, neither let him marry nor beget children. However, if he does not control himself, let him enter into lawful wedlock, so that he may not beget children in disgrace or avoid having offspring by a more degraded form of intercourse. There are some lawfully wedded couples who resort to this last, for intercourse, even with one’s lawfully wedded spouse, can take place in an unlawful and shameful manner, whenever the conception of offspring is avoided. Onan, the son of Juda, did this very thing, and the Lord slew him on that account. Therefore, the procreation of children is itself the primary, natural, legitimate purpose of marriage. Whence it follows that those who marry because of their inability to remain continent ought not to so temper their vice that they preclude the good of marriage, which is the procreation of children (De Conjugiis Adulterinis 2, 12; CSEL 41, 396).

St. Caesarius of Arles

One of the most prolific writers on marital morality was Caesarius, Archbishop of Arles in France (470-542).

Each of the following texts is taken from one of his sermons. They treat of sexual morality in such detail that the passages deserve to be quoted in some detail.

In the first quotation, Caesarius is speaking of God’s providence, that women should respect. They should not try to outwit God, as it were, by tampering with nature either to use superstitious means of overcoming sterility or any artificial means of avoiding conception.

Note the distinction he makes between magical arts to induce conception and medical arts to prevent conception.

Significantly, Noonan tries to weaken this extensive testimony of Caesarius of Arles in his exhaustive book on Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists.

Therefore, those to whom God is unwilling to give children should not try to have them by means of magical herbs or signs or evil charms. It is becoming proper for Christians especially not to seem to fight against the dispensation of Christ by cruel, wicked boldness. Just as women whom God wants to bear more children should not take medicines to prevent their conception, so those whom God wished to remain sterile should desire and seek this gift from God alone. They should always leave it to divine Providence, asking in their prayers that God in His goodness may deign to grant what is best for them. Those women whom God wants to bear children should take care of all that are conceived, or give them to someone else to rear. As many as they kill after they are already conceived or born, before the tribunal of the eternal Judge they will be held guilty of so many murders. If women attempt to kill the children within them by evil medicines, and themselves die in the act, they become guilty of three crimes on their own: suicide, spiritual adultery, and murder of the unborn child. Therefore, women do wrong when they seek to have children by means of evil drugs. They sin still more grievoulsy when they kill the children who are already conceived or born, and when by taking impious drugs to prevent conception they condemn in themselves the nature which God wanted to be fruitful. Let them not doubt that they have committed as many murders as the number of the children they might have begotten Sermon 51, 4; CC 103, 229).

The second passage from Caesarius deals with abortion, but of a contraceptive kind. Some women took medication to destroy unborn life already conceived in the womb. Others took drugs by anticipation; they would not mind becoming pregnant, but provided that the child would not reach viability.

Does not the Devil clearly exercise his deceits still further, dearly beloved, when he persuades some women, after they have had two or three cihldren, to kill either any more or those already born, by taking an abortion draught? Apparently, such women fear that if they have more chlren they cannot become rich. For, what else must they think when they do this, except that God will not be able to feed or direct those whom He has commanded to be born? Perhaps some are killed who could serve God better or obey those same parents with a perfect love. Instead, by an impious, murderous practice women take poisonous draughts to transmit incomplete life and premature death to their children through their generative organs. By such an exigency they drink a cup of bereavement with the cruel drug. O sad persuasion! They maintain that the poison which has been transmitted through their drinking is unconnected with them. Moreover, they do not realize that they conceive in sterility the child which they receive in death, because it was conceived in their flesh. However, if there is not yet found a tiny infant that could be killed within the womb of its mother, it is no less true that even the natural power (of generation) within the woman is destroyed. Why unhappy mother—or, rather, not even the step-mother of a new-born son—why did you seek, from outside, remedies that would be harmful for eternity? You possess within you more salutary remedies, if you wish. You do not want to have a child? Settle a pious agreement with your husband; let him agree to an end of childbearing in accord with the virtue of chastity. Only the sterility of a very pious wife is chastity. (Sermon 52, 4; CC 103, 231).

The following quotation comes back to the same theme, with stress on the gravity of abortion and contraception. They are equated in moral guilt.

Again the recommendation to chaste restraint if they find that they cannot (for a time at least) properly take care of more children. The abstinence, in context, does not mean permanent abstention, but mutual agreement for a time, in the spirit of St. Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians.

No women would take potions for purposes of abortion, because she should not doubt that before the tribunal of Christ she will have to plead as many cases as the number of those she killed when already born or still conceived. Is anyone unable to warn that no woman should accept a potion to prevent conception or to condemn within herself the nature which God wanted to be fruitful? Indeed, she will be held guilty of as many murders as the number of those she might have conceived or borne, and unless suitable penance saves her she will be condemned to eternal death in hell. If a woman does not want to bear children she should enter upon a pious agreement with her husband, for only the abstinence of a Christian woman is chastity (Sermon 1, 12; CC 103, 9).

In this last passage from Caesarius, he reasons with women who are willing enough to have their slaves or servants have children, but unwilling to bear offspring of their own.

He returns to the idea that if children are that hard to rear, then give someone else a chance to adopt them; but do not prevent conception under any circumstances.

Worth pointing out is a familiar criticism of Roman matrons even by their pagans contemporaries. They practice contraception or abortion, but the slaves and the poor bring numerous children into the world.

No woman should take drugs for purposes of abortion, nor should she kill her children that have been conceived or are already born. If anyone does this, she should know that before Christ’s tribunal she will have to plead her case in the presence of those she has killed. Moreover, women should not take diabolical draughts with the purpose of not being able to conceive children. A woman who does this ought to realize that she will be guilty of as many murders as the number of children she might have born. I would like to know whether a woman of nobility who takes deadly drugs to prevent conception wants her maids or tenants to do so. Just as every woman wants slaves born for her so that they may serve her, so that they may serve her, so she herself should nurse all the children she conceives, or entrust them to others for rearing. Otherwise, she may refuse to conceive children or, what is more serious, be willing to kill souls which might have been good Christians. Now, with what kind of conscience does she desire slaves to be born of her servants, when she herself refuses to bear children who might become Christians? (Sermon 44, 2; CC 103, 196).

Council of Braga

The earliest extant document of formal Church legislation on the use of contraceptives comes in the sixth century. Its originator in canonical form was St. Martin, Archbishop of Braga in Spain (520-580). Drawing on previous episcopal synods of the East and West, he simplified the existing laws and codified them for the people of Portugal and Spain.

Martin’s condemnation of contraception first occurred in the famous collection Capitula Martini. It was later incorporated in the laws of the Second Council of Braga (June, 572), at which he presided at the head of twelve bishops.

His reference to earlier more severe penalties implies that ecclesiastical authority had condemned the practice long before the sixth century.

If any woman has fornicated and has killed the infant who was born of her; or if she has tried to commit abortion and then slain what she conceived; or if she contrives to make sure she does not conceive, either in adultery or in legitimate intercourse—regarding such women the earlier canons decreed that they should not receive communion event at death. However, we mercifully judge that both such women and their accomplices in these crimes shall do penance for ten years. (Second Council of Braga, Canon 77; Mansi IX, 858).

Penitential Books

The Penitential Books were sets of directions for confessors in the form of prayers, questions to be asked, and exhaustive lists of sins with the appropriate penance prescribed.

Of Celtic origin, some dating from the time of St. Patrick, they spread with the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon missions all over Europe.

Quoted here is a familiar prescription that occurs in other Penitential Books. This one is from the Penitential of Vigila of Alvedia and dates from the end of the eighth century. It is therefore of Spanish vintage, and corresponds almost verbally with other provisions in Ireland, England and elsewhere.

The difference between taking drugs “for the sake of chastity” and for contraceptive purposes is that in the first case a person takes drugs in order to stifle the natural rise of passion; in the second case, the purpose is to avoid having offspring.

He who drinks a potion for the sake of chastity shall do penance for two years.
He who does this in order not to have children shall do penance for twelve years (Poenitentiale Vigilanum, num. 79-80; PL 129, 1123ff.).

The Decretals of Burchard

Compiled by Burchard, Bishop of Worms in Germany (965-1025), this collection of canon law called the Decreta exercised great influence for centuries in the history of the Church.

Several features of the following legislation are significant. The penalty is less severe than it had been, i.e., ten years of penance instead of pardon only at death; abortion and contraception are equally reprehended; and a distinction is made in the culpability (always grave) of a woman who aborts or interferes with conception because she is poor, and a woman who does the same to avoid the humiliation of having a child out of wedlock.

Have you done what some women are accustomed to doing when they fornicate and wish to kill their offspring; they act with their poisons (maleficia) and their herbs to kill or cut out the embryo, or, if they have not yet conceived they contrive not to conceive? If you have done so, or consented to this, or taught it, you must do penance for ten years on legal ferial days. Legislation in former days excommunicated such persons from the Church till the end of their lives. As often as a woman prevented conception, she was guilty of that many homicides. It makes a great deal of difference, however, whether the woman in question is a pauper who acted the way she did for lack of means to nourish (her offspring) or whether she did so to conceal the crime of her fornication (Decreta, num. 19; PL 140, 972).

The Decretals of Gregory IX

Pope Gregory IX (1148-1241) was a personal friend of St. Francis of Assisi. He ordered St. Raymond of Penafort to collect all the papal decrees published until that time and edit them in systematic form.

Published in 1234 by order of the pope, the decretals are a summary of the Church’s legislation in the lifetime of Thomas Aquinas. Like the Summa Theologica they synthesize the Church’s whole past tradition.

Two things are noteworthy about the decree quoted: 1) it summarily and simply identifies as contraception whatever is taken to prevent generation or conception or birth; 2) it distinguishes between taking a drug out of lust (instead of abstaining from intercourse) and giving a drug from hostile motives; and 3) it calls all of these actions homicidal, in the technical sense of destroying life at any state of the vital process.

If anyone, to satisfy his lust or in meditated hatred, does something to a man or woman or gives them something to drink so that he cannot generate or she conceive, or the offspring be born—let him be held a homicide (Decretals, Book V, 12, 5).

A significant principle was also enunciated under Gregory IX on the validity of marriage. Already in the thirteenth century, a marriage was null and void if the couple had agreed (or even if one partner insisted) to marry but avoid having children. It was presumed they would have intercourse, but contraceptively.

If conditions are set against the substance of marriage—for example, if one says to the other, “I contract with you if you avoid offspring” – the matrimonial contract, as much as it is favored, lacks effect (Ibid., IV, 5, 7).

St. Thomas Aquinas

The teaching of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) occurs in several of his writings. In the passage here quoted, he is commenting on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (1100-1160), Bishop of Paris, whose chief work was approved by the IV Lateran Council in 1215 and became the standard textbook of Catholic theology during the Middle Ages.

Aquinas clearly distinguishes between legitimate pleasure in intercourse and the indulgences of passion when offspring is deliberately excluded.

He explicitly says that contraception is against the generative life-process and therefore against nature. His comparison between contraception and abortion is clear, as also his insistence that what makes contraception wrong is the means deliberately used to frustrate the purpose of nature.

St. Thomas’ teaching synthesizes the whole patristic period, according to which the use of contraceptive methods is a grave sin.

“Those who use poisonous drugs (venena) for sterility are not spouses but fornicators” (Peter Lombard). Although this sin is grave and to be classified as a crime and against nature; for even animals desire to conceive (expectant fetus); yet it is less than murder because conception could have been prevented in some other way …
“(Conjugal relations) are not to be changed to a use contrary to nature.” Marital relations are contrary to nature when either the right receptable or the proper position required by nature is avoided. In the first case it is always a mortal sin because no offspring can result, so that the purpose of nature is completely frustrated (Unde totaliter intentio naturae frustratur). But in the second case it is not always a mortal sin, as some say, though it can be the sign of a passion which is mortal; at times the latter can occur without sin, as when one’s bodily condition does not permit any other method. In general, this practice is more serious the more it departs from the natural way (In Libros Sententiarum, IV, 31, 2, 3).

Sixtus V

In the late sixteenth century, Sixtus V (1521-1590) passed a series of laws to curb the immorality of his day.

Among these laws was one that simultaneously covered abortion and contraception.

There is nothing new about the legislation, except the added solemnity of its being passed by direct order of the pope. Abortion and contraception are equally called crimes.

Who does not abhor the lustful cruelty or cruel lust of impious men, a lust which goes so far that they procure poisons to extinguish and destroy the conceived fetus within the womb, even attempting by a wicked crime to destroy their own offspring before it lives, or, if it lives, to kill it before it is born?
Who, finally, would not condemn with the most severe punishments the crimes of those who by poisons, potions and evil drugs induce sterility in women, so that they might not conceive or, be means of evil-working medication, that they might not give birth? (Bull Effranatum, Oct. 27, 1588; Bullarium Romanum, V, 1).

Pius IX

During the pontificate of Pius IX (1792-1878), at least five decisions were made by the Holy See with regard to contraception in one or another form.

The following was made by the Holy Office and approved by the pope. It touches on one type of contraception, but in doing so clarifies two important elements: that Onanism is against the natural law, and that confessors have a duty to inquire about this practice if they have a good reason to suppose that it is being done.

The question is asked what theological note the following three propositions deserve:
    1. It is permissible for spouses to use marriage the way Onan did, if their motives are worthy.

    2. It is probably that such use of marriage is not forbidden by the natural law.

    3. It is never proper to ask married people of either sex about this matter, even though it is prudently feared that the spouses, whether the wife or the husband abuse matrimony.
The officials of the Holy Office ordered the following to be stated:
    1. The first proposition is scandalous, erroneous, and contrary to the natural right of matrimony.

    2. The second proposition is scandalous, erroneous, and elsewhere implicitly condemned by Innocent XI: “Voluptuousness is not prohibited by the law of nature. Therefore if God had not forbidden it, it would be good, and sometimes obligatory under pain of mortal sin” (March 4, 1679).

    3. The third proposition, as it stands, is false, very lax, and dangerous in practice (Decisiones S. Sedis de Usu et Abusu Matrimonii, Rome, 1944, pp. 19-20; May 21, 1851).

Pius XI

The teaching of Pius XI is common knowledge. In the Encyclical Casti Connubii, he expressed in detail the perennial teaching of the Church on the sanctity of marriage which precludes deliberate interference with the life process.

The value of this papal declaration is manifold. It appeals to the constant teaching of the Church in its long history. It declares that contraception or sterilization is against a law of nature and therefore intrinsically evil. It is stated in such solemn terms that many have considered it (of and by itself) an exercise of the fullness of the magisterium. Its provisions have been imbedded in the sources to which II Vatican Council refers in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, II, 50). Finally Pope Paul VI bases his teaching in Humanae Vitae on the Church’s tradition over the centuries, with special emphasis as enunciated by Pius XI in Casti Connubii.

Turning now, Venerable Brethren, to treat in detail the vices which are contrary to each of the blessings of matrimony, we must begin with the consideration of offspring, which many nowadays have the effrontery to call a troublesome burden of wedlock—a burden which they urge married folk carefully to avoid, not by means of a virtuous continence (which is permissible even in marriage with the consent of both parties) but by vitiating the act of nature. This criminal abuse is claimed as a right by some on the ground that they cannot endure children, but want to satisfy their carnal desire without incurring any responsibility. Others plead that they can neither observe continence, nor, for personal reasons or for reasons affecting the mother, or on account of economic difficulties, can they consent to have children.
But no reason whatever, even the gravest, can make what is intrinsically against the nature become conformable with nature and morally good. The conjugal act is of its very nature designed for the procreation of offspring; and therefore those who in performing it deliberately deprive it of its natural power and efficacy, act against nature and do something which is shameful and intrinsically immoral.
We cannot wonder, then, if we find evidence in the Sacred Scriptures that the Divine Majesty detests this unspeakable crime with the deepest hatred and has sometimes punished it with death, as St. Augustine observes: “Sexual intercourse even with a lawful wife is unlawful and shameful if the conception of offspring is prevented. This is what Onan, the son of Juda, did, and on that account God put him to death.”
Wherefore, since there are some who, openly departing from the Christian teaching which has been handed down uninterruptedly from the beginning, have in recent times thought fit solemnly to preach another doctrine concerning this practice, the Catholic Church, to whom God has committed the task of teaching and preserving morals and right conduct in their integrity, standing erect amidst this moral devastation, raises Her voice in sign of Her divine mission to keep the chastity of the marriage contract unsullied by this ugly stain, and through our mouth proclaims anew: that any use of matrimony whatsoever in the exercise of which the act is deprived, by human interference, of its natural power to procreate life, is an offence against the law of God and of nature, and that those who commit it are guilty of a grave sin (Casti Connubii, II Dec. 31, 1930).

The foregoing statement of Pius XI rests the Church’s case against contraception finally not on any argument from pure reason, nor on any merely philosophical analysis of the purpose of marriage, nor on any mental construct of the natural law.

Contraception is authoritatively declared to be sinful because it openly departs “from the Christian teaching which has been handed down uninterruptedly from the beginning.”

On this basis the more recent statements of Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI are part of the same continuum.

The fact that Humanae Vitae aroused so much reaction and, in some circles, resistance is simply a commentary on the present age. For those who accept the full implications of the Roman Primacy, Pope Paul is teaching what the Church has believed since the dawn of its history, and on which it has always been challenged by those who feel threatened in the demands for sacrifice and the cross which Christ makes of His followers.

John A. Hardon, S.J.
Bellarmine School of Theology
North Aurora, Illinois

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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