At a time when relativism has undermined the idea of objective truth, both philosophy and religion are challenged more than ever to defend the insights of reason and faith. Yet at the same time prudence continues to require examining, with courage and humility, any area in which the traditional view may have been mistaken. There is no more urgent example of such a matter than the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception, which has affected many billions of believers over the centuries. This essay, in four parts, is intended to contribute to that examination.
The formal position of the Catholic Church is that “artificial” contraception is “intrinsically evil.” That designation was made by Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930) and supported by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968). The 1997 Vatican instruction to confessors stated, “This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.” Those words recall the ancient saying, “Rome has spoken; the matter is closed.” But the history of the issue is not as clear-cut as either the ancient saying or the recent instruction would suggest.
The larger context of the Church’s view of contraception is its view of sexuality. That view was and remains strongly influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) whose thoughts on sex were shaped by his early association with Manichaeism. (The Manicheans associated sex with darkness and evil.) Augustine also endured a lifetime of struggle with sexual temptation. Both factors shaped his views on sexuality. The Augustinian Order that bears his name confirms this:
“Certainly, his sexual impulses were a great source of anxiety to him . . . He describes his sexual impulses by the images of disease, disorder, and corruption. Desire is mud, a whirlpool, chains, thorns a bubbling cauldron, and an open sore that must be scratched. His negative views about sexual matters influence his equating of them with original sin. This identifies Augustine as a major source of the negative attitudes on this subject in Western society.” [Emphasis added]
“Rather than talking about sexuality as an act, he talked about it as an interior state, a triumph of the carnal will over the spiritual will. He proposed that all sexuality, all sensual pleasure involved the triumph of the carnal will. Since sin was located in the carnal will and not the act, Augustine developed a rigorous puritanical attitude towards sexuality that would fixate European culture until the present day.” [Emphasis added]
The Augustinian website adds this: “The Manichaeans traced sexuality to “a biological weakness in human nature. This negative attitude to sexual matters marked Augustine for the rest of [his] life. It endured even when he was a Catholic theologian and bishop, long after he had rejected the Manichean doctrines. Julian of Eclanum, his Pelagian opponent, said that, in the matter of sexual morality, Augustine still thought like a Manichean.”
John T. Noonan, author of Contraception, the definitive work on the history of the Catholic teaching on contraception, says that for Augustine the only thing that makes sexual intercourse acceptable is “procreative purpose.” Noonan cites the sole passage in which Augustine referred directly to contraception. The passage suggests that using contraceptives produces a “hidden shame” which leads to “manifest cruelty”; moreover, that when contraceptives fail, the couple is led to abort the fetus. Husbands and wives who behave this way, Augustine declared, “are not joined in matrimony but in seduction.” If only one partner behaves this way, she is a “harlot” or he is an “adulterer.”
After Augustine’s time, Noonan notes, “sexual intercourse was clearly in a suspect position, stained by concupiscence, [and] forced to justify itself by a procreative purpose.” There have been times when theologians argued for a less strict view, for example in the late 15th century, as well as times when even stronger views were expressed, as in the case of Pope Sixtus V. (Interestingly, in 1880 Pope Leo XIII wrote a major encyclical on marriage, Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae, in which he discussed the duties of spouses but never mentioned contraception, let alone any duty to avoid it. For that matter, only one sentence, in paragraph 26, refers directly to procreation: “Not only . . . was marriage instituted for the propagation of the human race, but also that the lives of husbands and wives might be made better and happier.”)
Thus the jaundiced view of sexuality that shaped Augustine’s thinking on the purpose of marriage continued to govern the Church’s view for more than fifteen centuries and was renewed in Casti Connubii. The encyclical credits Augustine and cites the formula in the Code of Canon Law: “The primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children.” In modern times, the formula has been expanded to include secondary purposes, notably “mutual help and support of the spouses” and “a remedy for concupiscence,” the latter a direct reference to Augustine’s view of sexuality.
The latest edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) contains a similar reference. It speaks at length about chastity, which it says applies to all Christians, including married people (“married people are called to live conjugal chastity; others practice chastity in continence.”) This use of the term “chastity” concerning married couples is odd, given that most of its standard meanings concern refraining from intercourse. The only way such a reference makes sense is in the Augustinian view that even married sex is tainted with carnality.
In brief, there is in the Church’s historic view of marriage something profoundly and sadly ironic—the fact that it derives not entirely from orthodox Christianity but also, in a significant way, from the semi-pagan, heretical perspective of Manichaeism.
In the mid-twentieth century Catholic laypeople had strong reason to hope that the Church would embrace a more positive view of marriage and lift the ban on contraception. Part 2 of this essay will discuss how that hope was dashed.
Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved