(Personal confession: I never attended a Catholic school but, for reasons down deep in the unknowable caverns of the mind, I became highly interested in Catholicism while in college and my early medical school years. I did a lot of reading- still do- and took selected courses at St. Joseph’s Jesuit College in Philadelphia and eventually became a firm believer in the Catholic faith. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience, and I sorely miss the beauty and strength of it all. But even during my most deeply religious period I did not buy into the argument against oral or other acceptable types of contraception).
Because it appears that the issue of contraception and Catholicism is entering a phase of re-evaluation, I thought it would be helpful to describe its history and other points. Let’s begin by remembering the profound religious spirit of the Catholic Church’s position: It’s based on the love and the sanctity of life. Christ said that God loves each individual and he-she is more important than the entire universe. No matter who you are, it’s tough to deny that this is a wonderful, uplifting belief unless, of course, you wear unbudgeable emotional blinders because of lots of psychological childhood trauma.
Now the Church’s “rationale” holds that some type of “killing of life” is committed by artificially or unnaturally preventing conception with oral contraceptives. The same holds true with condoms and diaphragms, among others. It describes the natural sexual act in four stages: erection, penetration and semination and that which follows- conception. Any interruption of this act is in violation of the natural law.
The theological argument is largely based on a single biblical event and the writings of the early Church fathers. It begins in the Old Testament with Onan in Genesis and then mainly by the opinions of St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. Onan was making love to his brother’s widow and just before ejaculation he pulled out and “spilled his seed on the ground”. For this reason God killed him “because he did a detestable thing”. Catholic and, let’s not forget, other non-Catholic theologians viewed this as punishment for interrupting the natural sexual act which prevented the birth of a potential human being. Maybe they didn’t know or acknowledge what their Jewish colleagues believed. It was a Jewish belief that the brother of his deceased brother is obligated to try to marry and impregnate the widow.
Buying into the “pulling out” argument Augustine wrote, “Relationships with a wife, when conception is deliberately prevented, are unlawful and impure as the conduct of Onan who was slain.” Centuries later St. Aquinas wrote, “Next to murder, by which an actually existent being is destroyed, we rank this sin by which the generation of a human being is prevented.” (Though it bothers me to criticize this brilliant and good man, he did, for certain reasons and not pertinent to this commentary, reluctantly support the need for the profession of prostitution where primitive contraceptive methods were employed).
Since ancient times all kinds of contraceptive and abortifacient methods were used such as dried crocodile dung placed in a vagina suppository, a mixture of olive oil and cedar oil in the vagina, suppositories of cabbage, women drinking sheep’s urine and the one that really makes me think who thought this one up: a woman on her knees and then sneezes. In my notes, however, I have that she must also try to fart. Regarding men, the penis was immersed in onion juice. Condoms were also used made from animal intestines. Shakespeare called them a “Venus glove” and Casanova called them an “Assurance cap”.
Jumping forward to modern times, the Catholic Church, recognizing the obvious need and demand for birth control, came up with the rhythm system. The rhythm system uses the elevation of body temperature and alterations of physical properties of cervical secretions during the menstrual cycle in order to determine when a woman is ovulating and potentially fertile. My personal experience as a young endocrinologist supported by clinical studies is that in tightly controlled, highly motivated marital relationships it is an effective method but requires lots of discipline which many lack. Also, overall conclusions of clinical studies involving all types of folks report that oral contraception is more reliable and practical than the rhythm system.
Whatever your thoughts on the Church’s contraception teachings, it is undeniably founded on the noble sacredness of life. Jesus said that an individual is worth more than the entire Universe. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were true? Who knows?
But I believe that preventing the joining of a sperm with an egg doesn’t destroy life simply because it doesn’t yet exist. After all, the intent of the rhythm system and even abstinence, though “natural” is to prevent the birth of a child, artificial method or not. The intent is the same. Once, however, the sperm enters the egg- that’s another story.
Attempts at contraception occur in all cultures from Hindus, Muslim to Judaism but none treats it as a serious sin. In fact, Onanism is a long time Muslim practice.
We mustn’t forget we’re in an era where the value of individual human life is being inexorably diminished. The argument against contraception is an effort to maintain the sanctity of life, and if a couple believes in this, God bless them. After all, if you’re reading this post, it’s because your mom and dad did not or forgot to use contraceptives! Something to think about.