The Catholic Church and Contraception, Part 3

The Catholic Church and Contraception, Part 3

Part 1 explained that Catholic teaching on contraception, and indeed its larger teaching on marriage, were based on St. Augustine of Hippo’s experience with Manichean heresy and was accordingly, exceedingly “puritanical.” Many centuries later, in the 1960s, there was cause for hope that Augustine’s influence would be overcome. Part 2 explained how that hope was dashed. Part 3 will discuss why the Catholic hierarchy have continued to remain silent about the division exacerbated by Humanae Vitae over half a century ago.

We have seen that the Catholic Church continues to claim formally, in the strongest possible terms, that (artificial) contraception is morally wrong. The clear implication is that it is at least impertinent and perhaps sinful for Catholics to question that judgment. But there is good reason to question that view.

As John T. Noonan noted in “The Development of Moral Doctrine,” the Church’s first judgments of moral issues, even when considered definitive at the time, often give way to very different judgments over time. He points out that for centuries Church doctrine held that charging interest to those who borrow money (usury) was a grave sin. That view, he says, “was enunciated by popes, expressed by three ecumenical councils, proclaimed by bishops, and taught unanimously by theologians.” Moreover, it remained in effect for over a thousand years. If it were not for honest and persistent inquiry about its validity by theologians and lay scholars, that doctrine would never have been discarded.

Others oppose probing the Church’s doctrine on contraception because they are convinced that if the doctrine is found wanting, the Church will lose credibility. That view is also mistaken, as the case of Galileo has made painfully, and shamefully, clear.

In the early 1600s, then-Cardinal (now Saint) Robert Bellarmine advised Galileo that he could advance the idea of a stationary sun and a moving earth as a hypothetical construct but not as a truth because it contradicted Scripture. Galileo ignored the advice and the Inquisition eventually pronounced him “vehemently suspect of heresy.” A specially selected group of theologians unanimously supported the finding, declaring the idea of a moving earth philosophically absurd and theologically heretical. Pope Paul V ordered Galileo to abandon his ideas, and all books on the subject were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.

It took about 140 years for the prohibition of such books to be lifted and about 240 more years for the Church to admit its error in the Galileo affair. In 1992, Pope John Paul II praised Galileo and said, “The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture. . . .”

Did the admission of the Church’s error create a scandal? Not at all. The real scandal lay in the length of time it took the Church to acknowledge the error. And far from diminishing people’s opinion of the Church, John Paul’s admission, coupled with the candor with which he offered it, arguably improved their opinion.

Asking whether contraception really is morally wrong is another way of asking what the objective truth about contraception is. Historically, this question has been dismissed out of hand on the grounds that it was answered definitively in the story of Onan in the Book of Genesis. In that story, Onan’s father directed him to have intercourse with his dead brother’s wife so that children would be born in his brother’s name. Onan had intercourse with her but spilled his seed on the ground, and the Lord struck him dead.

For centuries, the Church has embraced St. Jerome’s translation of that story, including the words stating why God punished Onan—“because he did a detestable thing.” Augustine, Jerome’s younger contemporary, based his condemnation of contraception on that translation, and Pius XI in Casti Connubii (paragraphs 54-55) cited both that translation and Augustine’s acceptance of it in reiterating the condemnation.

The problem is, as John T. Noonan has documented, Jerome’s translation took liberties with the original Hebrew text, notably in changing the reason God slew Onan from “because he did not please God” to “because he did a detestable thing,” thus putting the focus on the spilling of his semen on the ground. Not coincidentally, that change reflected Jerome’s personal view of contraception.

After discussing the various interpretations of the Onan story at some length, Noonan writes: “Was Onan punished for his disobedience, for his lack of family feeling, for his egotism, for his evasion of an obligation assumed, for his contraceptive acts, or for a combination these faults? Comparison with breaches of the later levirate law suggests that death was an improbable punishment for mere breach of this law. That contraception as such is condemned seems unlikely. There is no commandment against contraception in any of the codes of law.”

In light of Noonan’s findings, it is perfectly appropriate to ask whether contraception really is morally wrong. In fact, the possibility that centuries of doctrine could rest largely on a misleading translation of Scripture makes such questions not only legitimate but also imperative.

As I noted earlier, the historic Catholic view of marriage constructed by Augustine was strongly influenced by his early immersion in Manichaeism. The contrast between that view and the central message in the Gospel—love—could not be more striking. When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, He responded: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

If Jesus had been asked what help a woman would be to a man apart from procreation, he surely would not have answered “She has no other purpose,” but rather, “She could love him, and he could reciprocate.”

That, in fact, was the instruction St. Paul gave in Ephesians:  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church . . . Even thus ought husbands to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh; on the contrary, he nourishes and cherishes it as Christ also does the Church . . . .”

Incidentally, Noonan says of this passage in Ephesians: “Of all the New Testament texts on marriage, this passage most fully specifies the meaning of the general commandment to love in the particular case of husband and wife.” He also notes that neither this passage, nor St. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that wives and husbands have rights to each other’s bodies, nor any other New Testament reference to marriage, even mentions procreation.

Given the case made by John XXIII’s Papal Commission on Birth Control and reinforced by John T. Noonan, as well as the overwhelming acceptance of that case by several generations of married Catholics, why has the Catholic Church chosen to continue its condemnation of the practice? There are a number of likely reasons, notably the sainthood of St. Augustine; the force and longevity of his puritanical view of sexuality on Catholic teaching; the sainthood of his 20th century supporter, Pope Paul VI; and the hierarchy’s questionable fear that changing Catholic teaching on contraception would undermine the credibility of the Church more than the refusal to change has done.

Part 4 will examine how Catholic teaching would have been different if Manichaeism had not influenced Augustine’s perspective on marriage and sexuality.

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero