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.
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.