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Contraception and the Church

Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologists and Canonists

by John T. Noonan Jr.
Harvard (Belknap Press), 390 pp., $7.95

The Pill

edited by Leo Pyle
Helicon Press, 225 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Priest: Celibate or Married

by Pierre Hermand
Helicon Press, 144 pp., $3.75

Catholics, Marriage and Contraception

by John Marshall M.D.
Helicon Press, 224 pp., $4.50

Today humanity is threatened from without by overpopulation and the possibility of thermonuclear destruction. It is threatened from within by the near collapse of any coherent religious system and the failure to regulate conduct in the light of agreed principles. Millions of people do not believe God exists. More millions reject Christianity as irrelevant to the human situation, as a religion whose residual traces are no more worth following than the tracks of a rabbit in the undergrowth. A large number, however, are in the position so aptly described by Anthony Padovana in his book, The Estranged God:

Modern man is the product of a world which has moved too quickly for him to assimilate, a lonely creature who wants so much to communicate, to have someone understand him, a rebel without a cause, a lover who finds no one to love. He is perplexed by his world, paralyzed with doubt, filled with fear, alienated from a God, grown it seems, silent.

In other words they are seekers, unable to live without a religion, unable to live with the one their cultural environment would most readily suggest. And what is happening? Confronted by the greatest challenge and therefore the greatest opportunity in her history, the Roman Catholic Church is convulsed by a controversy which has nothing directly to do with religion at all.

Dominicans, Franciscans, Redemptorists, Carmelites, Benedictines, Rosminians, and Cistercians are sitting with heads tied up in flannel, their apartments strewn with the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, Patrologia graeca, Patrologia latina, volumes of moral theology, collections of cannon law, and articles in French, German, and Dutch; highly intelligent people have convinced themselves that a solemn encyclical can be interpreted as meaning just the opposite of what it says. Perplexity disturbs the peace of the Confessional; talks to engaged couples falter; parish priests give interviews with journalists and are whisked off to do penance in the Campagna; the laity disclose how some of their children were conceived as a result of mistaken temperature readings due to a fault in an electric blanket; the correspondence columns in the Catholic press are filled with exhortation, reproaches, and heart-searchings; priests explain the difference between ovarian repose and temporary sterility; in the same month that an Archbishop tells his flock they must follow their consciences, a learned canonist announces that disobedient couples should not be admitted to Holy Communion: and after two years of anxious debate a papal commission is on the point of making a pronouncement. All this to decide, not if it is desirable to have as many children as God gives, but which methods to prevent their appearance are most pleasing to Him.

JOHN T. NOONAN, JR., is a Professor of Law at the Notre Dame Law School, Director of the Natural Law Institute, and editor of Natural Law Forum. He has already written a book called The Scholastic Analysis of Usury published, like his present volume, by the Harvard University Press. I have not read it, but I do know that usury, in the sense of taking profit from a loan, was condemned by General Councils, by individual Popes, and the unanimous agreement of theologians. Professor Noonan, then, is not only an historian and lawyer, but someone who interests himself in the implications which lie behind a theological volte face. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists is not only by far the most interesting book I have read on the subject but valuable in a wider context. “The key terms in my history,” the author writes:

are tension, reaction, option, and development. All these metaphors imply that a human process is going on, and what is happening is not the unilateral action of God making His Will increasingly evident… “Tension” and “reaction” are ways of signaling the existence of human choices which had to be made at the cost of suppressing some possible alternatives. The existence of these options is at the heart of the history of doctrine.

It is against this kind of evaluation that Professor Noonan gives us information on which any one who wishes (and I fear many will) to write yet another book on contraception must rely heavily. He starts with evidence for contraceptive techniques within the Roman Empire, which were far more sophisticated than one might imagine and included knowledge even of the safe period. The Old and New Testament attitudes are carefully analyzed. As Professor Noonan points out, the Old Testament, with its various and sometimes conflicting view of sex, provides a structure which is basic to our understanding of later Christian development. It was the teaching on virginity that marked the radical break between the Old Dispensation and the Primitive Church. But it is interesting to note that in his opinion the text of the Old Testament does not justify us in concluding that the Jews necessarily believed coitus interruptus or the use of contraceptives was immoral. The Gnostics, pagans, and the attitude of the Alexandrian Fathers are dealt with in considerable detail. The Manichean challenge, St. Augustine’s vigorous response, the grip of monastic theology, evidence from the Penitentials of the early Middle Ages, the revived Augustinianism that followed the Cathar denunciation of procreation as evil, are only an indication of the ground Professor Noonan covers in his successful attempt to show how extremely complex were the influences that went to make up the formulation of the doctrine.

In the later Middle Ages contraception, although by no means universal, was evidently practiced with some frequency. Chaucer refers explicitly to contraceptive pessaries. The author suggests its prohibition was not widely communicated, that the whole matter occupied an intermediate zone as a teaching destined for later development and the further rearrangement of values so soon to come at the Renaissance. Here, although the perspective changed, the rule was preserved. Pressure for doctrinal modification was never translated into relaxation. Why? Because whereas the prohibition against usury affected the clergy directly, “celibates” as Professor Noonan politely puts it, “had no identity of practical interests with the married laity.” Nor could they, like the bankers, form a pressure group. Those most concerned remained silent; the day of the articulate laity had not yet arrived. At the end of the eighteenth century two new features emerged: the decline in the French birth rate due to the wide-spread practice of coitus interruptus and, particularly in England and America, the open advocacy of birth control as a socially desirable habit. At first there was hesitancy; the prohibition itself being maintained but its dissemination, for a number of interesting reasons suggested by the author, half-hearted. The vigorous counter-attack began only in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when, paradoxically, the traditional view had already been undermined by the recognition that married couples might have intercourse with the deliberate intention of excluding children. The concluding chapters skillfully recapitulate the tedious debate about ways and means.

PROFESSOR NOONAN gives a summary of his argument at the end of each section, but if sheer bulk should tempt anyone to skip either the preceding pages or the footnotes he will be guilty of folly as well as indolence. I did not know, to take several random examples, that to suit his argument St. Jerome tampered with that perennial standby the Onan text; that the social consequences of the high death rate played such a little part in strengthening the prohibition; why, up to the twentieth century, apologists linked contraception so closely to abortion; that the first apparent Church legislation against birth control was in fact a spurious sixth-century canon interpolated by St. Martin of Braga into the decrees of an earlier Council and thereafter circulated as authentic; that a respectable number of theologians supported the practice of castrating boys to preserve their voices; that Sixtus V, who in Renaissance Rome made adultery a hanging matter, decreed in his bull Effraenatum that the giving or taking of contraceptives was to be treated literally as murder for all purposes of canon law and the law of the Papal States; or that the guarded approval of contraception by the Lambeth Conference in 1930 shocked Cardinal Bourne into denouncing the Anglican bishops as people who had forfeited any claim to be the authorized instruments of Christian morality.

After such good fare it seems ungracious to ask for more. Nevertheless, there remains a small void. Professor Noonan’s entire book is concerned with tracing the Christian prohibition of contraception from its origins to the present day. He recognizes that, although the reasons given for the prohibition varied, the condemnations themselves were recurrent. At the same time he quite rightly insists that teaching must be related to the environment within which human beings live. His concluding paragraph is excellent:

At the core of the existing commitment might be found values other than the absolute sacral values of coitus. Through a variety of formulas, five propositions have been asserted by the Church. Procreation is good. Procreation of off-spring reaches its completion only in their education. Innocent life is sacred. The personal dignity of the spouse is to be respected. Marital love is holy. In these propositions the values of procreation, education, life, personality and love were set forth. About these values a wall had been built; the wall could be removed when it became a prison rather than a bulwark.

However, on the strength of a sentence which, as it stands, flatly contradicts the evidence in his book—“the recorded statements of Christian doctrine did [do?] not have to be read in a way requiring an absolute prohibition”—Professor Noonan’s publishers claim: “A commonly held belief that the Roman Catholic Church has always had an immovable policy against contraception has been proved inaccurate by a Catholic scholar and lawyer.” The Catholic scholar and lawyer has proved nothing of the kind. What he has proved, if proof were needed, is something of far greater importance.

The real nerve of the contraception controversy has not been means or ends, but a desire to protect the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be mankind’s infallible arbiter of morals. Professor Noonan has made it perfectly plain that this claim cannot be literally sustained, and it is a pity that he does not round off his work by saying so. The Church has indeed been a constant witness to the two great commandments but in her application of them she is capable of error. In other words, what is infallible is not what precisely is said but the purpose behind what is said. This the author calls identity of principle, the truth which regulations drawn up in a very different context were intended to protect. Once this is frankly admitted, the contraception fuss should come to an end and with it the ridiculous attempts of theologians to make out either that the Church did not really forbid it or that artificial means can be reconciled with the letter of Catholic teaching.

IF,” PROFESSOR NOONAN remarks, “Madame de Sévigné wrote to her daughter on contraception, she did not write to Bishop Bossuet.” Cardinal Heenan enjoys no such immunity. In The Pill Leo Pyle has put together a selection from official statements, articles, and letters written at the time the birth-control controversy came right out into the open and Dr. Rock and Archbishop Roberts were news. It contains plenty of theological cliff-hanging, but one is struck by the fact that whatever other arguments the reformers put forward, their main contention is constant—they can no longer find a rational basis for the prohibition. The Pill includes pronouncements of Popes Pius XI and XII and the statement of the English and Welsh Hierarchy. Years hence it will be read as a Cautionary Tale.

When all is said it is not theoretical arguments but the disobedience of practicing Catholics which will determine the reversal of the Church’s teaching on contraception. In the same way, necessity may dictate the eventual Catholic acceptance of a married clergy. M. Pierre Hermand feels very strongly about the matter, so strongly that he asked to be laicized in order to be free to write The Priest: Celibate or Married. That the author was forced to go to such lengths to get his sincere and unsensational opinions into print is itself an adverse reflection on the whole system. So is the fact that he entered a seminary at thirteen.

In South Wind Norman Douglas laughs at the ascetic parocco who “enjoyed a reputation for perfect chastity which differentiated him from all the remaining priests and contributed more than anything else to his unpopularity.” M. Hermand does not laugh, but he thinks that sexual transgressions of the clergy are such that even Christians can no longer believe in the chastity of priests. I don’t know what goes on in South America or the Latin countries but in England, although lapses are by no means unheard of, the question is debated not because the clergy live scandalous lives but for the other reasons which M. Hermand discusses later on in his book.

The objections to clerical celibacy are obvious. It has accounted in great measure for the historical depreciation of marriage, the obsession of the Christian Church with sex, the fascination the minutiae of the subject exercises over theologians, the acute sensitivity of the clergy to sexual sins, and their comparative indifference to the wickedness of total war which has made such a mockery of Christian morality. It has resulted in the emergence of a divided culture, the fostering of a group of men stuffed at a very early age with a moribund theology and inflexible outlook, many of whom are emotionally immature and all separated from their flock by entirely different habits of mind and manner of living. If the author tends to overstate his case when he remarks that the clergy are characterized by “…a certain lack of humanity, of emotional warmth, a poverty of language often terrifying, an estrangement from real human problems. an incapacity to comprehend realistically the complexities of human life” there is a great deal of truth in what he says.

BUT I AM LEFT WITH a feeling of uneasiness. For have Protestant clergymen in fact been so much more successful than their Roman Catholic brethren in bringing Christ to the world? Of course it is wrong to force someone with a priestly vocation to live as a celibate, but does the value of voluntary virginity merit such little consideration? Where do Mr. Hermand’s ideas tend? Do they really leave room for a priesthood at all? In spite of his title, does he want the clergy to have a real sacerdotal office or to be cheer-leaders, welfareworkers, and ministers of the Word? And, if so, what word will be it Christianity should become more and more indistinguishable from secularism? The most urgent problems are not always the most fundamental. M. Hermand speaks out of the horse’s mouth, but it seems to me that until Christians can decide which is the cart and which the animal, any discussion of clerical celibacy is bound to be unsatisfactory.

Dr. John Marshall perceives none of these difficulties. His book, Catholics, Marriage, and Contraception is written firmly within the old theological framework. Granted a shattered premise, it is good-tempered, balanced, unevasive, and his historical sketch is, at a popular level, informative. But Dr. Marshall’s premise, of course, dictates his conclusion. He favors the rhythm method. So we are back once more with Ogino-Knaus, temperature charts, basal metabolism records, and electric-blanket babies.

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