Monday, July 2, 2012

2) The Morality of Birth Control - The means

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The means, techniques, or methods of birth control include 1) abortion and abortifacients 2) sterilization, 3) artificial contraception, which includes barrier methods such as condoms and hormonal methods such as “the pill,” 4) behavioral methods that limit sexual activity to infertile acts such as onanism, oral sex, et cetera, 5) periodic abstinence, the most effective method of which is known as natural family planning (NFP), and 6) total abstinence.

The Catholic Church has undertaken to evaluate morally each of these means of birth control. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Gaudium et Spes (GS), defends the competency of the magisterium of the Church to make this evaluation, stating: “Sons [and, presumably, daughters] of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (51.3). The teaching of the Catholic Church on the immorality of certain means is clear in forbidding all but the last two of the six methods listed above.

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium
depicting a pregnant woman and another holding some pennyroyal. 
Pennyroyal was historically used as an herbal abortifacient.
1) Direct abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life which began at conception and is an “unspeakable crime” (GS 51.3; CCC 2271). In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), which, from a Catholic point of view, is a foundational document on the issue of birth control, Paul VI writes “Direct abortion... [is] to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children” (14).

2) He continues, “Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary” (HV 14). Sterilization, which mutilates a healthy body with the intention of disrupting its natural healthy functions, disrespects bodily integrity and consequently is against the moral law (CCC 2297).

3) Regarding artificial contraception, Paul VI unambiguously writes, “Sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong” (HV 14; CCC 2370). The primary reason that these acts are immoral is their deliberate disruption of one of the two primary ends of sex in marriage. There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV 12). Contraception is a deliberate denial of the procreative significance of sex. While it is true that sex is not only for making babies but also essentially for making love, it remains true that it is also essentially for making babies and that God created it for this great purpose also. For this reason, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 11).

4) Recent documents of the Church have said little about behavioral methods of birth control. However, for exactly the same reasons as those presented against contraception, the consistent teaching of the Church opposes these methods as well. Their clear prohibition extends from biblical times into the twentieth century, as Pius XI demonstrated in 1930 in his encyclical Casti Connubii. Referring to patristic interpretation of the story of Onan in Genesis, he writes,
Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it" (Casti Connubii 55; Gen 38: 8-10).
Some exegesis is necessary at this point. The story of Onan is the only direct description of birth control in scripture, and the method described is behavioral: “when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground” (Gen 38:9). The story gives us both Onan’s means – coitus interruptus, sometimes also known as onanism – and his ends: “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his,” so he avoided conception, “lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also” (Gen 38:9-10). Why did the Lord kill Onan in this story? Both St. Augustine and Pope Pius XI believe that Onan’s crime was his means of avoiding conception. However, Onan’s reason for doing so was also immoral – he did not want to fulfill the conditions of a levirate marriage. He selfishly did not want to sire heirs for his deceased brother. So perhaps this was his crime. I think, however, that it is most reasonable and consistent with Christian tradition to consider that both his reason and his means – “what he did” – were immoral and that the Lord punished him for both of these reasons.

In its prohibition of these four methods of birth control, the Catholic Church is completely consistent with the fathers of the Church, who are universal in their opposition to such acts. However, the fathers went further than the Church does today and would also condemn what we now call 5) NFP. For the fathers, the only moral means of birth control was 6) total abstinence. I will examine the patristic thoughts on these issues in the next post.


Bro. David Hirt, OFM Cap. said...

I think an important part of the Onan story is also whose however many great grand-sires he was supposed to be. For the Jewish people Onan would have been the sire of the line of David. For Christians this would be Jesus through David. It would be consistent to think God knew this, being omniscient. It's interesting that the Torah only punishes the non-coital emission with temporary removal from the community and purification, not death. This leads me to think that my above point becomes a likely reason for the whole thing.

John R.P. Russell said...

Very interesting point, Br. David. I do agree that Onan's action is far more significant than simply being an immoral means of birth control. Your point, and the story itself, goes well beyond moral considerations. After all, if the gravity of Onan's action is to be interpreted by consequences unforeseeable to him, that gravity is not moral but ultimate. I wonder, would the story have the same poignancy if Onan had refused to lie with Tamar rather than choosing to spill his semen? His choice of means certainly makes him a more despicable character, wouldn't you say? His means makes him self-gratifying in more ways than one. Not only will he not honor his father and his brother, not only will he refuse to participate in siring David and Jesus, but he sure as hell isn't going to deny himself any pleasure in the process.

Bro. David Hirt, OFM Cap. said...

A good point. He is rather despicable. I wonder if he could have chosen not to. It also makes one wonder about all the other brothers who didn't do it either. I wonder what kind of power Tamar would have had to shame him if he didn't lay with her at all. I wish I knew more about the marriage customs and husband/wife relations of the day.

John R.P. Russell said...

Yes, me too. There is some good stuff about that in the book of Ruth.

bill bannon said...

Bro. David Hirt is in my opinion on the true trail. I studied this long ago by seeking all cases wherein God kills intimately in the Bible. It is always for sacrilege not for sex etc.... even in the case of David's son since Uriah had become sacred to God by contrast to the 72 descendants of Jeconiah whom God killed for not greeting the ark. Uriah would not go home to Bethsheba as long as the ark had no home.
God kills for sacrilege when the numbers of persons are small: Dathan and Abiram and their familiex for revolt against Moses...Achan for stealing the precious metals reserved to God...Uzzah for touching the ark... the sons of Eli for abusing the priesthood....the 42 children killed by bears at Eliseus' curse since they disrespected prophecy ( Aquinas ST)....the two groups of fifty who sought to harm Elijah...the sons of Aaron for using strange incense rather than that prescribed...the house of Ahab slaughtered by Jehu for idolatry which Jehu was anointed by the prophet to do just that...Acts 12 Herod is killed by the angel for accepting the title of "god"....Acts 5 Ananias and wife for lying to the Holy Spirit.
Onan was killed for the sacrilege of risking Christ not coming from the House of Judah from which He was destined to come....4 men...Judah and 3 sons composed the house of Judah at that moment in history.
Unwittingness didn't matter since Uzzah actually was using epikeia in trying to protect the ark from falling and God still killed him ( nothing to do with eternal judgement...I suspect Uzzah made it to heaven/ all to do with setting an example for others).
Augustine arrived at the Onan story with his history of not only fornication but a history of being a Manichaen all of whose laity practiced birth control because to give birth was to imprison the divine light in flesh for that heretical group. Hence Augustine did not look for Christ in this story and Augustine found Christ in every other story in the OT. But here, Augustine saw Augustine in Onan.

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