Tuesday, July 3, 2012

3) The Morality of Birth Control - A patristic understanding

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Contrary to Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, who writes in his book The Sacrament of Love, “In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised,” a study of the teachings of the early fathers of the Church quickly reveals that this controversy is nothing new and that the teachings of the Church on this issue have evolved over time (174). Sex, in the patristic view, is for making babies. For many of the fathers, this is not only its primary end, it is its sole purpose.

This utilitarian understanding of sex may have roots in the Old Testament's emphasis on procreation as well as in Stoic philosophy. At any rate, the patristic understanding more strongly echoes Stoic philosophy than it does Paul. (On this topic, see Roy Ward’s article, “Paul, How he Radically Redefined Marriage.” Bible Review 4:4 (1988) 26-31). When Paul writes, "It is better to marry than to burn," he is not talking about having children, but about having sex (1Cor 7:9). He never mentions children in this passage. Given the imminent eschatology of this letter, it is clear that Paul is not here concerned with progeny or posterity. This reveals that there is more to sex, in his view, than making babies. It keeps us who are weak from burning, whether this is from burning in sexual desire or burning in hell or both, he does not say. The point is that sex, for Paul, is a good thing in service of an end other than having children. The fathers of the Church did not maintain this New Testament understanding.

Icon of St. Justin Martyr, also called the Philosopher,
in the Katholikon of the Stavronikita Monastery.
With a clear preference for celibacy, St. Justin Martyr (c. 160) writes, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children” (ANF 1.172, emphasis mine). Similarly, Lactantius (c. 304-313) writes, “Whatever is sought beyond the desire of procreation is condemned by God” (ANF 7.143). Among these fathers, then, the distinction between artificial contraception and NFP is therefore moot. While they would generally prefer that people remain virgins and therefore not have any children, these fathers oppose any form of birth control within a sexually active marriage. At face value, Justin’s claim that marriage has no purpose other than the begetting and rearing of children would even render total abstinence within marriage an unacceptable behavior (the example of Mary the ever-virgin spouse of Joseph notwithstanding).

Other fathers may not oppose total abstinence within marriage as a means of birth control, but they do oppose limiting abstinence to the periods of fertility, à la NFP, and even require abstinence during periods of infertility. For example, Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 175) forbids sexual activity during the infertile period of pregnancy. Referring to this, he writes,
After throwing the seed into the ground, the farmer awaits the harvest. He does not sow more seed on top of it. Likewise, to us the procreation of children is the limit of our indulgence in appetite” (ANF 2.146).
In reference to the same issue, St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) writes, “To… a spiritual man, after conception, his wife is as a sister and is treated as if of the same father” (ANF 2.503). Two activities recommended by some NFP teachers are having sex during menstruation and during pregnancy, both of which the earliest extant Church canons, the Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390), specifically condemn:
When the menstrual purgations appear in the wives, their husbands should not approach them, out of regard to the children to be begotten. For the Law has forbidden it when it says: “You will not come near your wife when she is in her separation” [Lev. 18:19]. Nor, indeed, let them have relations when their wives are with child. For [in that case] they are not doing it for the begetting of children, but only for the sake of pleasure. Now a lover of God should not be a lover of pleasure (ANF 7.463).
It is interesting to note here that the two reasons for having sex acknowledged by the Apostolic Constitutions are procreation and pleasure, as opposed to contemporary Catholic theology, which generally recognizes unification and procreation as the two purposes of loving marital sex. There is no mention at all here of the expression of marital love as a purpose for sex. St. Augustine (c. 388) also understands sex in this manner. He offers a fairly accurate description of what we would now call NFP in his opposition to calculating and limiting sex to the infertile periods of a woman’s cycle, which was apparently a practice promoted by the Manichæans. He writes,
Is it not you [the Manichæans] who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time…? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion (NPNF 1.4.86).
Augustine here understands sex as done for pleasure only - “the gratification of passion” - if it is not done for procreation. This is typical of the patristics. He offers no mention of love or unification as aspects of the sexual embrace. Again, this is typical. For him, the pleasure of sex is tolerable only because of the good end of making babies. If that end is not present, sexual pleasure is reprehensible and he seems not to recognize the possibility of having sex with one’s spouse as an expression of love. The Church’s teaching about sex has evolved and, I believe, deepened.



John R.P. Russell said...

It has been brought to my attention that this post pays St. Augustine short shrift by ignoring his work on marriage and sexuality, "De Bono Conjugali." I hope to revise this in the future to rectify this.

bill bannon said...

I'm not so sure flattering Augustine is all that truthful. Augustine for example in that essay  " The Good of Marriage" sect 6...starts a negative error which was to haunt laity up til the mid 19th century in that he saw asking for the debt as venial sin if procreation was not willed:
" but to pay the due of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of begetting is a venial fault."
Aquinas 700 years later totally accepts this and passes it on to plague more zealous laity:
    Aquinas: Summa T., Supplement...question 49 art 5 “I answer that”: 
  “Consequently there are only two ways in which married persons can come together without any sin at
all, namely in order to have offspring, and in order to
pay the debt, otherwise it is always at least a venial
When the Vatican explicitly accepted the use of the infertile times in the mid 19th century, this older rigorist error was to cause criticism of the natural rythym use by largely clergy ( see John Noonan Jr.'s Contraception).

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