Friday, September 12, 2008


TURNING POINT by Robert McClory - Chapter 2

This chapter discusses the historical sources of the doctrine that opposes birth control.

Speaking from Scripture:

Nowhere in the Old Testament is there a condemnation of contraception. The only Old Testament citation that seemed to condemn it comes from Genesis 38. Onan was killed by Yahweh because he refused to conceive children with the widow of his brother. Though Onan had relations with the woman, said Genesis, "he let the seed be lost on the ground." Scripture scholars have long been convinced that Onan's capital offense was not coitus interruptus but disobedience toward his father, the evasion of an obligation, and a lack of family loyalty. The books of the Old Testament are replete with regulations regarding proper and improper marital activities. Intercourse during pregnancy, for example, was considered a crime on a par with adultery. Yet, Noonan pointed out, "There is no commandment against contraception in any of the codes of the law." (p. 9)

Need I mention that the conceiving of a child with the widow of a man's brother would today be considered to be a mortal sin?

McClory places the condemnation of contraception in the first century within the teachings of the Stoics.

Said Seneca, perhaps the best known first-century Stoic, "All love of another's wife is shameful; so too, too much love of your own. A wise man ought to love his wife with judgment, not affection."

Herein lay the seed for the early Christian doctrine on marriage. Sex was valid as a biological mechanism for reproduction, not for pleasure. Anything that deprived sexual activity of its generative function was by implication illicit and sinful.
(p. 9-10)

He believes the First Century Gnostics are a source of our present doctrine:

In one extreme form, Gnostics declared that intercourse anywhere, anytime, with anyone was not only permissible but even necessary for salvation. One subgroup recommends 365 acts of intercourse a year, with a different partner every day; another put a special, sacral value on oral sex. At an opposite extreme, other Gnostics declared that intercourse is the ultimate evil and must be avoided by any means necessary, including self-castration. On one point most Gnostics were consistent: marriage was an outmoded institution and the procreation of children should be strictly prevented. (p. 10)

In the Fourth Century Augustine enters the picture. Ironically Augustine, a Manichean in his early years, would have absorbed the doctrine that sounds a lot like the Lurianic Kabbalah prominent within Jewish communities today:

The Manichees claimed sparks of light created by the Father (the good god) had been imprisoned in humans and other worldly creatures formed by the Prince of Darkness (the evil god). Humans, according to the seven sacred Manichee books, could release the trapped light by various methods including sexual intercourse (often in ritual form), but for no reason whatsoever could humans cooperate in the conception of another human being, that is, another creature of the Prince of Darkness. (p. 11)

Did Augustine's later aversion to his early Manichee roots prompt his teaching on contraception?

The new Augustine attacked the Manichees for their sexual morals and especially for their hatred of procreation. Ironically, he also found them guilty of practicing rhythm. In one of his books he excoriated the heretics for recommending that conception could be prevented by avoiding intercourse during the fertile days of a woman's period as determined by Greek physicians. (p. 11)

Now, of course, recourse to this infertile period is the heart and soul of Catholic contraception in violation of Augustine's teaching.

But Augustine also rejected marriage outright as a lesser state, claiming "virginity as a better state than marriage" according to McClory.

He maintained that continence within marriage should be preferred over intercourse, telling his disciples, 'insist on the work of the flesh only in such measure as necessary for the procreation of children...

There is in Augustine's analysis no mention of love, noted Noonan. Marriage is instead seen as a legal contract designed for procreation...
(p. 12)

It cannot be said, therefore, that we adhere strictly to Augustine's doctrine. We have retained only a portion of it while jettisoning the rest.

Moving ahead to the Twelfth Century and the influences of Catharism McClory writes:

The movement occasioned an ecumenical council, the Fourth Lateran, which condemned the heresy. As before, the authorities relied on Augustine, arguing that carnal intercourse in marriage is licit, though only for reproductive purposes. Conjugal relations solely to avoid adultery or for the satisfaction of lust were regarded by some commentators as venial sins and by many as mortal. In the Canterbury Tales, Chauser's parson advises the faithful that marital relations not for children but "only for amorous love" constitute a mortal sin. (p. 13)

Obviously the rhythm method is a complete reversal of such a notion.

In the Fifteenth Century

In his book THE PRAISEWORTHY LIFE OF THE MARRIED, Denis the Carthusian (a monk) argued that marriage may not be as great a risk for salvation as many had supposed. And Martin de Maistre, a French academic...contended that the traditional doctrine, formulated without any input from married persons, set up unreasonable and intolerable burdens. (p. 14)

Moving ahead to the Sixteenth Century:

The relaxation of the condemnation of usury provided a precedent, but it was not applied to contraception. Through the centuries usury had been condemned in three different ecumenical councils and in language far stronger and more explicit than ever used against contraception. The doctrine was regarded as fixed and unchangeable. Yet within a relatively short period in the sixteenth century, everything changed. Without acknowledging past error, Church authorities found usury an acceptable, even praiseworthy practice. The development of newer economic systems, they said, required the reevaluation of an ancient doctrine. The shift was not strongly opposed because Church organizations, especially bishops and abbots, had a practical interest in the use of credit. (p. 14)

So it cannot be said that an historical doctrine cannot be changed if a council has backed it. And as McClory observes, celibates have no vested interest in issues of married life, which is what makes the lack of input of married persons on this Commission such a glaring deficiency.

Moving to the Sixteenth-Seventeenth Centuries McClory tells us that doctrine once again returned to the repugnance toward pleasure and the old link between sin and sex. He cites the teaching of Pope Sixtus V:

In his bull Effraenatum, Sixtus invoked all the penalties of homicide from both canon and secular laws against those who "proffer potions and poisons of sterility to women and offer an impediment to the conception of a fetus." This amounted to the strongest sanction ever against contraception, and it might well have resulted in massive prosecution were it not for the fact that Church and civil authorities refused to impose it and Church members declined to take it seriously. Effraenatum thus became a prime case of a doctrine "not received" by the Church, even though enjoined by its highest authority. (p. 15)

Sound familiar? Given that no life is conceived when a woman is sterile, this would have been a travesty of justice had it been implemented. In this situation the laity proved wiser than the Church.

Within three years of Sixtus's death, his successor repealed most of the penalties, saying the bull should be regarded "as if it had never been issued." (p. 15-16)

In the Eighteenth-Nineteenth Centuries:

St. Alphonsus Ligouri...founder of the Redemptorist religious order...strove mightily to temper the severe forms of the Augustinian tradition. He upheld the inherent value of marital coitus even in situations where procreation was not a desired goal, and he counseled confessors to preserve the good faith of penitents by not prying too intently into the marital habits. Such was Ligouri's reputation that he almost single-handedly moved the emphasis in marital morality away from the mechanics of the act and toward the concerns and needs of the persons involved in the act....

When Pope Leo XIII in 1880 issued a major encyclical on marriage, he did not even mention coitus interruptus or any other form of contraception....instead Leo stressed the holiness and sacramentality of marriage.
(p. 16)

Certainly a stress on the holiness of marriage is a reversal of the Augustine doctrine.

In the Nineteenth-Twentieth Centuries, "concern about a declining birth rate...prompted Church authorities to move agressively against contraception." A reversal of the prior leniency came about, but again the motivation is not the good of the married couple, but rather the good if demographics in the Church:

In 1886, for example, the Vatican Sacred Penitentiary said confessors who have "founded suspicions" should regularly interrogate penitents, instruct those found to be practicing birth control on the seriousness of their sin, and refuse absolution unless they promised to cease the practice. It remained unclear what "founded suspicions" meant. The order was virtually ignored.

Then in the early 1900s condemnations became explicit when the Jesuit moralist Arthur Vermeersch, who was to have great influence on twentieth-century morality of marriage, entered the scene. Through his writings and growing reputation, he persuaded the Belgian bishops to take the Vatican's strict directives more seriously. Eventually explicit condemnations of contraceptive practices were invoked by Church leaders in France, Germany, and the United States. In some diocese bishops required their priests to inquire into the practices of every married person coming to confession even if the priest had no foundation for suspicion.
(p. 17)

McClory tells us that Msgr. John A. Ryan attempted to modify the practice in America claiming that birth-control was a wide-spread practice of American Catholics whom he believed did not perceive it as a mortal sin. He recommended their good faith not be disturbed. Is this perhaps, the source of the practice mentioned by a commenter here that one did what was needed in marriage and told the world what the priests expected to hear?

It would appear from McClory that this controversy is long-standing and that input from married couples has never been sought. It also appears that married couples have long ignored the requirements of the Church. Our present upheaval over contraception is nothing new. But the Church's acceptance of rhythm does not go back to the Early Church, and in fact is a relatively recent development given the commands of Pope Sixtus V.

One question that has occurred to me more than once while reading the book is whether a certain aversion to sex must develop within the mind of men who consecrate their lives to celibacy, and whether this aversion has had a strong impact on the teaching on contraception throughout the centuries?

Something else has occurred repeatedly in reading this book...the passage from Acts 15:5-11. In the passage, which discusses the need for circumcision of the Gentiles who were converting to the faith, Peter asks: "Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?" I think that sums up the present situation that has an overwhelming majority of Catholics ignoring the prohibitions of the Church against birth control.

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