Project Canterbury

The Christian and Birth Control
by Edward Lyttelton, D.D.

"Great is the peace that they have who love Thy law;
And they are not offended at it."

London: SPCK, 1929.

contributed by the Reverend Edward L. Rix

Open Letter to the Bishops


A certain perplexity in modern life has lately arisen and assumed a form most acute and most urgent. It is intimately connected with the sanctity of Marriage, on which we agree that the stability of society depends, as also does the beauty and permanence of British home-life. I mean that far and wide, almost without exception in every section of our community, there is bewilderment about the right line of action in the restriction of the size of families, which has been forced upon us by the social and economic conditions of our time. From that bewilderment and symptomatic of it has arisen the problem loosely entitled Birth Control.

The acuteness of this problem is due to two facts. First, the general and increasing adoption of certain devices for ensuring the restriction without demanding a standard of conduct and self-mastery which is apparently too exacting for ordinary humanity, and which, further, is thought to threaten the harmony and concord of the marriage relation. Secondly, that among a very large and important group--those, namely, to whom moral considerations are paramount--the devices in question are instinctively felt to be wrong, futile, and repellent, not only being extremely I dangerous in their results, but in patent contradiction to the dictates of Conscience. There is the antinomy, the most baffling, perhaps, with which mankind has ever been faced.

In this perplexity the latter, the conscientious group, advocate and practise a manner of life involving what may be called a heroism of self-control; as to which agreement between man and wife is necessary and without agreement is unworkable. This and other difficulties help to bring about a rapid depletion of the conscientious section, which furnishes more and more recruits to the majority--i.e., to the multitude who heedlessly choose, as always, the line of least resistance.

But--and this is the most formidable fact of all-many of the scrupulous, in forgoing the effort to be heroic and joining the ranks of the lax, do so though they are unable to put away their scruples; and so their conduct affords them no peace of mind, no relief from perplexity. Some among them--it is to be feared a considerable number--contrive, by giving heed to the voice of the multitude, by degrees to lull their misgivings to sleep. True, the anodyne of public opinion is uncertain in its operation. Those who anxiously wait for consolation from that quarter cannot fail to catch from time to time echoes of voices whose tone is far from consoling. It is, in short, profoundly disquieting, and stirs in all but the most callous hearts something like dread and dismay. For by a law, which works in warning for our guidance, these persons find that the pleasures of self-indulgence, for which they have been bartering their souls, are but for a season: ere long they dwindle and decay. But even that is a trifle compared to the further fact: that along with the license in married life, which every day meets with less disapproval, there is spreading the contagion of indulgence among the unmarried. How could it be otherwise? The excuse for the one is equally plausible for the other. Anyhow, it is a fact that unchastity is openly preached; and, furthermore, the pretext on which it grows, that continence is difficult and painful, affords an excuse for the unnameable horrors of unnatural vice: the pestilence that still walks in darkness, but which at any moment may come out into the light as the need for caution is removed.

Elderly people often talk of the lawlessness of the rising generation. But this is a misuse of language. The lawlessness is not on their part, but on ours. Their conduct exhibits, not violation of law, but ignorance of it. They are beset by over-mastering natural desires inflamed by promptings from every quarter which, wholly untrammelled, gather volume day by day. If those to whom they naturally look as their guides and guardians of their moral life "keep silence, yea, even from good words" the result is a foregone conclusion. Who, then, are they that ought to speak? Who but the shepherds and bishops of their souls?

We are all being judged, tested, sifted, when on a great scale a free, but very difficult, choice of conduct is presented to the witnesses whom Christ has chosen. Especially is this true when there is divergence of opinion among our leaders, so that a strong unanimous affirmation seems to be impossible. But it is not impossible. I cannot believe that the divergence of opinion among your Lordships is fundamental. As a test, let this proposition be weighed. If contraception is not wrong, in many cases it must be right. Will any pastor of a flock say this from his pulpit? Will any Bishop "put his name to a document commending the practice, even to dwellers in the slums? Why not? Or will any ordained minister of God's Word and Sacraments avow in public that he is himself a contraccptionist? If not, why not? It is because the voice of conscience is still in many quarters believed to be the Voice of God.

It might be thought that a possible via media is open: Why should not the Bishops rely on the Resolution passed at the last Lambeth Conference and take no further action? Because that would be almost tantamount to answering the appeal of the multitude with "We cannot tell." I doubt if one in 20,000 of the population has heard of the Resolution. Anyhow, the general drift into laxity and contempt of the moral law shows that millions of our countrymen are ignoring it. Practically, then, your Lordships, hesitating to affirm, would actually deny that the matter is serious. That policy is open to every possible objection.

The position, I take it, is that in reality there are only two courses open to our leaders: Either a strong and practically unanimous re-affirmation of the sanctity of Christian marriage and the beauty of English home life, depending on it, coupled with a prohibition of contraceptive methods; or an utterance dealing with the subject in such a tentative, hesitating tone that it would go quite as far in sanctioning the practice as if you said nothing at all.

i. It would be possible to issue in every diocese a fly-leaf or short pamphlet to be given to every couple who come to be married in church. The document would affirm («) the indissolubility of marriage and the heinousness and horror of all forms of adultery; (b) the supremacy of the law of self-control, leaving the application of the law in the most difficult cases undetermined, and assuming that all parish priests would enforce the teaching obediently and with conviction.

The great objection to this action is that what would reach the people would be a divided and uncertain voice: almost as fatal in its effect as silence.

2. There remains the pronouncement of the ideal: that the paper of instructions to be distributed should prohibit all forms of contraception, and commend to each individual married pair, as the standard to be aimed at, perfect self-mastery and perfect trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to quicken the Church for the fulfilment of His Will. With a view to its permanence--as an official utterance--in the future, this pronouncement would be confined to the ideal. Hard cases would not be considered.

Herewith I venture to send a booklet giving a full discussion of the problem. The conversational form has been adopted in order to show that difficulties are faced with scrupulous fairness; though at the risk of the book losing what little attractiveness it might otherwise have achieved. For some kinds of writing there are qualities far more important than literary finish or dramatic truth: among them are candour and sympathy. My attempt to give these their due place may, of course, have failed. It has, anyhow, been made.

May I beg your Lordships, in conclusion, not to allow the presumption of my addressing your Lordships at all, nor the clumsiness of my statement, to obscure the cogency of the arguments I have ventured to put forward? The warrant I seem to find for so doing lies in the undeniable fact that next year the leaders of our branch of the Catholic Church will be faced with problems of unparalleled magnitude, urgency, and complexity. If any individual, however diffident, thinks that in regard to any one subject it has been given to him to see at all clearly the right line to take, he may be excused for advocating it, though the deep respect due to your Lordships' office would prompt him to refrain.

I remain, my Lords,
Yours in all sincerity and dutifulness,

Easter, 1929.

Project Canterbury