Project Canterbury

Is the Use of Contraceptives Ever Right?
by Francis J. Hall

American Church Monthly, volume 29, 1931, pp 63-72

IT IS, of course, a repellant task publicly to discuss this question, one that is only to be justified by grave and urgent reasons. But such reasons plainly exist at the present time; and in no other way can we meet a public propaganda calculated to bring moral and spiritual disaster to Christian society. With arguments which I shall consider in due course, it is urged that the use of "scientific" methods, by which sexual intercourse can be prevented from resulting in the conception of offspring, ought to be recognized as morally permissible; and, under certain conditions, should be encouraged.

This propaganda originated in non-religious circles, and has been widely supported in the interest of "free love." The religious world was at first horrified; but of late many sincere Christians have been moved by certain hard conditions of our time to condone, and even openly to defend, the practice in some cases, under due moral safeguards, and exclusively within the field of marital intercourse. This development has forced the question into the open among Christian writers; and its discussion by Anglicans has been made unavoidable by a pronouncement made this past summer by the Lambeth Conference--one which has startled the Church and caused grave anxiety.

I. The Lambeth Pronouncement

The Lambeth Conference meets once in ten years, and its eligible membership includes all bishops in the Anglican Communion who have not retired. Over three hundred of them attended the Conference of 1930. This assembly disclaims legislative authority, and its Resolutions do not bind any one of the Anglican Churches; but they necessarily have great weight and practical influence.

The Conference of 1920 had declared, in Resolution 68, "We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers--physical, moral, and religious--thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race."

The Conference of 1930, while plainly and weightily emphasizing the holy atmosphere and aims which should control the sexual relations of man and wife, has explicitly conceded the right, under exceptional conditions, to use contraceptives. Noting "that the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children, it believes that this purpose as well as the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control should be the governing considerations in that intercourse," the Conference proceeds to use language in Resolution 15 which demands full quotation:

"Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience."

This Resolution has the bracketed note appended "[Carried by 193 votes to 67]." Evidently many of the bishops did not vote, and the division of opinion thus openly recorded does not emerge in connection with any other Resolution of the Conference. In this case the opposition is said to have been emphatic.

When published to the world the language of the Resolution in question was generally and naturally interpreted to declare that, under certain circumstances, the use of contraceptives by married Christians is to be approved of on moral grounds. As it stands it plainly means this; and, as might have been foreseen by the bishops, the general public understood that the traditional belief in the moral wrongfulness of the act in question as such had been explicitly abandoned. The result was open rejoicing among the propagandists for contraceptives, and grave alarm among those who accepted the moral finality of the traditional Christian teaching, because of the disastrous social and spiritual results which appeared to be likely.

Some at least of the bishops who had voted for the Resolution were plainly taken aback at the interpretation placed upon it, complaining that the general context in which the Resolution appears had been disregarded. The fact remains, however, that an otherwise lofty appeal in behalf of the divine and holy purpose of marriage, coupled with condemnation of the use of contraceptives for hedonistic and economic reasons merely or for any reason inconsistent with Christian self-control, was robbed of its proper effect by approval of the exception referred to. The language I have quoted, as it stands, sanctions under exceptional circumstances a practice which Christians have hitherto regarded as necessarily impure and unholy.

But various subsequent episcopal disclaimers, both public and private, forbid us to attribute to all the voters for the Resolution the intention of sanctioning any use of contraceptives. What many of them, we trust the vast majority of them, seem to have intended was the expression of sympathy with married people forced to face acute sexual difficulties, coupled with explicit acknowledgment that the Church ought to deal tenderly and mercifully with those who prove unequal to the lofty Christian requirements of protracted self-denial under these difficulties. This, at all events, would account for the affirmative votes of those who cannot reasonably be supposed to approve of any use of contraceptives.

The question with which this article is concerned--a question which the present controversy compels us to face--is concerned with the moral justification under any circumstances of the use of contraceptives. I feel forced to express my conviction that the language of Resolution 15 is most unfortunate and misleading. But I am assuming that its literal meaning fails correctly to express the real mind of our bishops in general. In arguing for a conclusion opposed to the terms of their Resolution, therefore, and in combating certain arguments in the preliminary Committee Report, I am not intending to attack the Conference's intention and fundamental background, and am truly thankful to God for the lofty premises set forth in its general treatment of sex problems, and for various utterances of the Conference on other subjects, utterances which I have no space to specify here.

II. Traditional Christian Teaching

In order to deal intelligently with arguments advanced for the use of contraceptives I first reckon with the traditional Christian teaching ad rem. The Lambeth Committee which reported on the subject urged that the Catholic tradition "is not founded on any directions given in the New Testament," and "has not behind it the authority of any Oecumenical Council of the Church." This plea is narrowly legalistic, as if the absence from Scripture and Oecumenical documents of any specific law against the practice in question nullified the binding force of the admittedly "very strong tradition that the use of preventive methods is in all cases unlawful for a Christian." "Unlawful" does not mean exclusively the violation of a specific law; but in moral use describes any practice which is inconsistent with some general law or permanently binding principle. Specific prohibitions presuppose that the practices prohibited have developed sufficiently to challenge authoritative attention; and inasmuch as no such development had come to the attention of New Testament writers and the Oecumenical Councils, their silence concerning the practice is non-significant. One might as well urge that since neither Scripture nor any Oecumenical Council has specifically forbidden abortion, therefore it can be practiced in a lawful and Christian manner.

The general law, under which the specific Christian condemnation of the use of contraceptives falls, is that the sexual act may not be performed in a manner, or under conditions, which disregard and transgress the limits set by nature. Scripture, enlightened reason and experience alike teach that no indulgence of sexual appetite which violates this law can fail to imperil and ultimately to upset the subordination of that appetite to the requirements of personal purity, of both the primary and secondary ends of marriage and of social morality.

St. Paul plainly condemns changing "the natural use into that which is against nature" (Rom. i. 26-28); and such forms of unnatural intercourse as came to the attention of biblical writers are sternly condemned. One and all they violate the sanctity of the body as redeemed and made a temple of the Holy Ghost. In this connection, it is to be observed that an "unnatural" sexual practice means one which interferes with the natural result of sexual intercourse. Therefore the appeal to the permissible habit of confining such intercourse to those monthly periods in which conception is unlikely to occur is not valid; for this habit involves no such interference. It is a practice of self-restraint dictated in form by natural law.

The Church is the appointed teacher of Christian doctrine and practice, and began its teaching function before the New Testament was written. Its teaching authority is presupposed in the New Testament, and involves the principle to which Anglicans are historically committed that, in matters of necessary doctrine and practice, its interpretation of Scripture is to be accepted. Furthermore, precepts plainly deemed essential by the Catholic Church, whether given formal oecumenical definition or not, may not be set aside by provincial authority, Anglican or other. To declare the use of contraceptives to be permissible under certain circumstances is to reverse the Catholic teaching which every where came to expression as soon as the practice challenged attention, that any use of contraceptives is sinful.

The reference of the Lambeth Committee to Roman practice, as being inconsistent with an unqualified condemnation of contraceptives, is misleading, really non-relevant, and open to a damaging retort. The practice thus referred to is simply the exercise of reasonable discretion in taking "official cognizance" of suspected cases of sin--not as ever approving of the use of contraceptives, but as recognizing that inquisitional methods of discipline may in some cases hinder rather than promote the moral and spiritual interests involved. The retort invited is this: Inasmuch as Anglican bishops frequently ignore the gravest repudiations of doctrines and requirements explicitly set forth in the Prayer Book, the inference is reasonable that these doctrines and requirements are not meant always to be accepted as they stand. Needless to say, the laxity of Anglican discipline does not invalidate Prayer Book requirements; but it suggests caution in making the inference that I am criticizing. The fact remains that to approve of any use of contraceptives is to contradict the highest available authority in the subject on earth--that of the great Catholic Church.

III. Arguments

The previous state of the question in Christendom throws the burden of proof for Christians, especially for members of the Catholic Church, upon those who would justify any use at all of contraceptives. Happily sincere Christians generally will agree with the Lambeth Conference in "its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience." On the other hand, although the procreation of offspring is by divine ordering the primary end of marriage, sound reasons may arise that will justify the avoidance of its fulfillment, and even make such avoidance a duty. They arise when the circumstances make it morally certain that child-bearing either would fatally, at least seriously, injure the mother's health, would result in defective offspring, or would involve impossibility of their support and wholesome upbringing. This is not to be denied because, under modern conditions, many people fancy that such moral certainty exists when it does not, they being blinded by ambition for greater worldly advantages and freedom than due regard for marital responsibilities permits them to secure.

The question of resort to contraceptives properly arises only when there are adequate justifying reasons, such as above indicated, for avoiding the marital function of procreation. But even then, as the Lambeth Conference rightly says, "the primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit." The question before us is, Do any reasons, however exceptional, justify abandonment of this method and resort to the use of contraceptives? To put it in another form, Just what can rightly be described in Lambeth terms as "a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence," "in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit?"

(a) The most plausible reason, given in the Lambeth Committee's Report, is that, in addition to its primary end of having children, "intercourse has also a secondary end within the natural sacrament of marriage." The reference here is to the accepted biblical and Christian doctrine that marriage has the secondary, two-fold, end of cherishing mutual love and of reducing lust. "Marriage," however, is the New Testament term in this connection rather than "intercourse." It is true that marriage's primary end of procreation cannot be fulfilled without intercourse; but the secondary ends of affection and self-control can be, and frequently are, fulfilled in high degree by the grace given in Holy Matrimony and made effective by the bond of mutually accepted and sanctified purpose and self-discipline. On the other hand, a mutual affection which has to be cultivated by an intercourse made safe only by elaborate and unnatural precautions is certain to fall below the holy level of truly Christian marriage. And indulgence of sex appetite under such conditions is calculated to emphasize rather than to reduce the burning of carnal passion. My point is that, for really earnest souls, the grace of Holy Matrimony, utilized in mutual self-control, is sufficiently effective for joyously fulfilling the secondary ends of marriage, even when marital intercourse is precluded. Much experience in the ages gone by has proved this.

(b) All other arguments for the use of contraceptives likely to be thought worthy of serious consideration by earnest Christians are based upon certain acute and, it is alleged, unnecessary hardships and temptations involved in shunning their use. To the naturally passionate, it is urged, enforced abstinence from marital intercourse, when long continued, is likely to make the temptation to unfaithfulness and adulterous intercourse well nigh irresistible. There is also the case of a woman who will invite the gravest, even fatal, consequences to herself if she indulges in intercourse without the use of contraceptives, but whose husband brutally insists upon her yielding to his desires. She may be quite unable to help herself, or else she may have reason to anticipate his going elsewhere, if she does not yield to his wishes. She may also be confronted by the likelihood of defective offspring, and the temptation to resort to abortion. The fact also has to be reckoned with that the improved comforts and luxuries of modern life have created an atmosphere unfavorable to heroic fortitude, especially in cases in which many voices are proclaiming that its exercise is not obligatory.

These difficulties certainly do arise, sometimes in very tragic forms indeed; and cases occur which surely call for the most heartfelt sympathy on the part of pastors and guides of souls. I shall reckon with this point in due course, but now confine myself to saying that very merciful judgment should be passed upon those whose previous training and circumstances preclude their realizing the moral aspects of using contraceptives.

But the present question is not our attitude toward those who sin in ignorance, or under unusually acute stress. It is this: Is the use of contraceptives ever morally right? If truth requires us to hold that it is intrinsically wrong, then no hardships, however severe, and no temptations, however acute, can make it right. That it is intrinsically wrong, and therefore cannot be resorted to under any circumstances by enlightened Christians without sin, is certain, if the arguments I have employed are valid. Although not specifically mentioned in Scripture, biblical teaching as to conformity to nature in sexual intercourse, and its interpretation by the Catholic Church, absolutely exclude the moral permissibility of the practice in question.

This teaching is reenforced by the inevitable revulsion and sense of uncleanness which suggestion of the practice engenders among holy people, including those who feel no such horror of lawful marital intercourse, and are in no sense prudish. It is also reenforced by the dangers known to attend the practice. Competent writers assure us that nature cannot be thwarted often in this manner without inviting serious physiological consequences. Some even of its advocates declare every contraceptive method to be unsafe and of uncertain efficiency except one; and that one involves the expense of supervision by a physician, at least for several months, in order to be either safe or effective. Of course, if the method used is ineffective, the temptation to resort to abortion is liable to arise. And it appears that only the well-to-do can afford to use the comparatively safest method. What about the rest?

But it is especially germane to the moral nature of the question before us to reckon with the impossibility of sanctioning any use of contraceptives, however exceptional, and for any reason, however Christian it may be thought to be, without this sanction and the resulting examples being taken by millions of careless people as justifying the practice, within married life at least, regardless of the restrictive considerations emphasized by the Lambeth Conference. Having in mind the evil practice of "companionate marriage" its Committee says, "No course of action can be right for individuals which, if repeated and extended throughout society would cause grave damage, if not chaos." Surely the use of contraceptives is a course of action of this contagious kind, as Bishop Gore convincingly shows in his pamphlet on The Prevention of Conception (London, Mowbray).

Notice may well be taken at this point of the plea that a competent physician's advice may justify the use of contraceptives. Needless to say no human advice can justify wrong doing. It is right to be guided by the physician in considering the probable physiological effects of the wife's conceiving and child-bearing. But whether, in view of the opinion which he renders, contraceptives may be used is a moral question, to be determined by moral authority, and in accordance with Christian principles.

What is needed in a luxurious and pleasure-mad age like this, is not an encouragement of shrinking from hard obligations, but a ringing challenge from moral and spiritual teachers and pastors to all who will listen to endure hardness, to resist even unto blood in striving against sin (Heb. xii. 4). The notion that the call to martyrdom is limited to what is publicly recognized and glorified under such description is deadly heresy.

IV. Mercy

That the use of contraceptives under any circumstances is wrong, and that no consequences of avoiding it, however painful these may be, can make it right, is the only answer that Scripture as interpreted by the Church permits to be given to enquirers; and the contents of this article are dictated by my conviction that, in the present moral crisis, it should be given with unqualified clarity. But to end thus, without some reference to the dispensation of mercy which the example of Christ sanctions, would be to leave a false impression of Christian discipline, one calculated to drive those under stress into revolt from Christian restraints.

The story of our Lord's dealing with the woman caught in adultery (St. John vii.) runs not less truly with his attitude towards sinners because it appears to be an interpolation in the original text and because of his unqualified condemnation of the particular sin of which the woman was guilty. He came, and he sent his ministers, to seek and save sinners, not by condoning sin but by mercifully helping them to repentance and by affording them space for repentance before judgment. And his method was not inquisitorial, martinet, and unsympathetic. Indeed, he was too sympathetic towards the fallen in the judgment of the pharisees of his day, who failed utterly to distinguish between loving efforts to save the impure and condonation of their sins.

In his response to the adulterous woman's accusers, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," we should not limit the application of the phrase "without sin" to those specifically guilty of adultery. It applies to sinners generally, that is to all men, and reminds us that for any of us to condemn and deal judicially with sinners, unless duly appointed to such function, is a moral monstrosity.

Furthermore, inasmuch as Christ is the appointed judge of mankind, his words to the woman, "Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more," exemplify the merciful discretion which ought to be exercised by those to whom Christ commits disciplinary authority in his Church, even in relation to the gravest forms of sin. So it is that the Church, recognizing that it is charged with the ministry of saving all salvable souls, and that final judgment is postponed to the last great day, has developed a merciful pastoral rule.

In specific relation to the particular wrong doing with which this article is concerned, a priest should avoid inquisitorial methods, and should exercise discretion as to taking "official cognizance" of suspected cases, lest he make the blunder of driving imperfect souls at bay, and convert sins of either ignorance or weakness in exceptional stress into defiant and obstinate moral revolt. Even when obliged to reckon with a given case, merciful tact ought to be exercised. And, subject to the obvious limitations of not causing scandal and of avoiding sanction of, or connivance with, the practice in question, he will sometimes be justified in exercising reserve and merciful economy in private dealing with the subject.

The discretion to which I refer may not be exercised in such a way as to commit the pastor of souls to approval of the use of contraceptives. It can be, and in the tribunal of penance appears usually to be, exercised without such result. In any case, the fact that this discretion is widely exercised, justified by the Lord's method as it is, is not inconsistent with the Catholic teaching defended in this article, that the resort to contraceptives is always wrong.

O Holy Father, enable us always to think and pursue such things as are pure, lovely and of good report; that by Thy grace we may become fit to glorify and enjoy Thee forever; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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