Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon)

Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon) October 27, 2017




St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom condemned contraceptors as “stand[ing]” with heretics (On Galatians 5, PG 61:668-669) and as doing the work of “murderers” (Homily 62 on Matthew 19, PG 58:599).

St. John is referring to castration. Castration is, of course, an extreme form of contraception–but it is nonetheless a form of contraception, one that has been fairly widely used during this century in population control, e.g., in India and China. In fact, sterilization is the most popular form of contraception in the world (according to the UN Population Division): 30% of contraceptors rely on female sterilization and 8% rely on male sterlization.

(1) Castration is a form of contraception.

(2) St. John was preaching in opposition to Gnostics who used castration precisely as a form of contraception.

(3) The Fathers and canons condemned self-castration because it was primarily a contraceptive method.

(4) St. John uses exactly the same language with regard to a pharmacological-type and other forms of contraception.

(5) Sterilization is simply surgical or chemical castration.

Sodomy is also contraception, a notion based on texts like Gen. 1:28 and Gen. 38:6-10. The whole rabbinical commentary tradition certainly [thought so]. See Jeremy Cohen, “Be Fertile and Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It”: The Ancient and Medieval Career of a Biblical Text (1989).

In any event, they are all forms of contraception, which is defined as the “use of any means of preventing sexual intercourse from resulting in conception.”–The Oxford Companion to Law, ed. D.M. Walker (1980), s.v. “Contraception.”

St. John also called the use of contraceptives “a murder before birth” (PG 60:626.50-51). This reference is to the use of “medicines of sterility”:

Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit? Where there are medicines of sterility? Where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. Do you see that from drunkenness comes fornication, from fornication adultery, from adultery murder? Indeed, it is something worse than murder and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you contemn the gift of God, and fight with His laws? What is a curse, do you seek as though it were a blessing? Do you make the anteroom of birth the anteroom of slaughter? Do you teach the woman who is given to you for the procreation of offspring to perpetrate killing? That she may always be beautiful and lovable to her lovers, and that she may rake in more money, she does not refuse to do this, heaping fire on your head; and even if the crime is hers, you are the cause. Hence also arise idolatries. To look pretty many of these women use incantations, libations, philtres, potions, and innumerable other things. Yet after such turpitude, after murder, after idolatry, the matter still seems indifferent to many men–even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks, invocations of demons, incantations of the dead, daily wars, ceaseless battles, and unremitting contentions. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 24 on the Epistle to the Romans [PG 60:626-27] )

Men who are avaricious and desirous to avoid children as a burden “mutilate nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live.”–St. John Chrysostom, Homily 28 on Matthew 5 (P 57:357).

The NPNF series translates this roughly as “prevent their being born,” contrasting infanticide with abortion.

Contraception in the Ancient World / Eastern and Western Patristic Views

For a more complete treatment of patristic thought on the subject, see John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), ch. 3.

The best study of Orthodox thought on sexuality is: Eve Levin, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989). Here is Prof. Levin’s conclusion about the Orthodox attitude to contraception based on extensive research in liturgical and canon law manuscript material:

Because only the birth of a child justified sexual intercourse between husband and wife, any attempt to prevent conception was regarded as evil. From the medieval Slavic perspective, contraception, abortion, and infanticide were similar offenses; provisions against birth control did not always distinguish among them. All three represented the same thing: an attempt to forestall the introduction into the world of a new soul. For that reason, all three offenses were sometimes called dusegube, literally, ‘the destruction of a soul.’ (Levin, pp. 175-176)

There was no lack of birth control in the ancient world. I don’t think that there is any type of contraception known today that was not known in the ancient world: pharmacological, barrier (both chemical and mechanical), coitus interruptus, sodomy, sterilization, etc. For a brief introduction to the subject by the foremost historian of the subject, see John M. Riddle, et al., “Ever Since Eve . . .: Birth Control in the Ancient World”, Archaeology, March/April 1994, pp. 29-35. We really do underestimate the ingenuity of our ancestors. While in the past these were far from always effective or reliable, people kept trying. See John M. Riddle:Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance (1992), and Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West (1997).

For centuries, historians paid no attention to ancient accounts that claimed certain plants provided an effective means of birth control. . . . Modern laboratory analysis of various plants [including silphium, asafoetida, seeds of Queen Anne’s lace, pennyroyal, willow, date palm, pomegranate, inter al.], however, gives us reason to believe that the classical potions were effective, and that women in antiquity had more control over their reproductive lives than previously thought. (Riddle, op. cit., p. 30)

There is a consensus in the Catholic Church. The Orthodox churches not in communion with Rome are outside of this consensus:

The propositions constituting a condemnation of contraception are, it will be seen, recurrent. Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick, and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hestitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, ‘Contraception is a good act.’ The teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever. (John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists [1965], p. 6)

The use of contraception was condemned by church fathers. The Penitential ascribed to John IV Nesteutes [St. John the Faster] considers it a form of infanticide, categorizing several kinds of birth control: application of ointment ([?] trimata) that is perceived as the least heinous; drinking a potion (pharmakon); and the worst–the use of a herbs to induce abortion (PG 88:1904C). Another text attributed to the same author (col. 1924A) required sinners to confess their desire to remain childless, induce an abortion, or use contraceptive herbs. [St.] John Chrysostom calls the use of contraception ‘a murder before birth’ (PG 60:626.50-51) and views it as harmful not only because it prevents procreation but also because it leads to involvement in contraceptive magic and idolatry (ibid., 627.6-8). The practice of contraception was usually limited to prostitutes and to women tempted to break their vows of chastity or of marital fidelity. Married couples, however, sometimes abstained from or restricted sexual intercourse after having produced a child or two [NFP, anyone?]. [St.] Epiphanios of Cyprus (Panarion 26.5.2-6) describes with indignation (and evidently with strong exaggeration) the habits of heretical Gnostics who did not wish to bear children but fornicated for the sake of pleasure, using coitus interruptus or abortion as a means of contraception; they are even reported to have ground up the embryo in a mortar, mixed it with honey, pepper, and other spices, and to have eaten it at their loathsome assemblies.

Byzantine medical writers, esp. Paul of Aegina in the 7th C., transmitted the theories and techniques of contraception outlined by the 2nd-C. Gynaikeia of Soranos, which recommended vaginal wool suppositories and the application of olive oil, honey, cedar resin, alum, balsam gum, or white lead to prevent sperm from passing into the uterus. Paul, however, provided only one herbal contraception recipe, whereas Dioskorides had 20. In the 6th C. Aetios of Amida recommended magical protection such as wearing an amulet of cat’s liver or a womb of a lioness in an ivory tube. (The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, ed. A.P. Kazhdan [Oxford, 1991, 3 vols.], s.v. “Contraception”)

Soranus of Ephesus, physician under Trajan and Hadrian (AD 98-138), studied at Alexandria and practised at Rome. He wrote around twenty books . . . [including] Gynaecology. The latter gives valuable information on gynaecology and obstetrics in the Roman Empire. . . . Although Galen was the more influential writer for gynaecology in the Latin west in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, sections of Soranus were translated into Latin and adapted for different audiences. In the Greek east, Soranus’ gynaecology survived in the work of the encyclopaedists. (The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. S. Hornblower & A. Spawforth [3d ed., 1996], s.v. “Soranus”)

A contraceptive differs from an abortive, for the first does not let conception take place, while the latter destroys what has been conceived. Let us therefore call the one ‘abortive’ [phthorion] and the other ‘contraceptive’ [atokion]. (Soranos Eph., Gynaeciorum libri, 1.60)

Soranos’ Gynaecology was probably the most widely circulated book on the subject in the classical and Byzantine world. See L. Berkowitz & K.A. Squitier, TLG Canon of Greek Authors and Works (3d ed., Oxford U. Pr., 1990), p. 367 (noting 42,426 (!) manuscripts of the work surviving).

[I]t has been argued that many of the remedies given as general gynaecological cures in the ancient medical tradition did in fact contain substances, mostly of plant origin, effective both as contraceptives and as early-stage abortifacients. Some substances were sued as barriers; for example, sponges soaked in vinegar or oil, or cedar resin applied to the mouth of the womb. These could have acted as spermicides. Others could either be taken orally or used as pessaries, and included pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, willow, and the squirting cucumber, which forcefully ejects its seeds. (Oxford Classical Dictionaryop. cit., s.v. “Contraception”)

The real issue is not how these herbs worked, but whether the ancients thought they did. The later issue is clear: they certainly did. The Fathers knew this, and they condemned the use of such things.

Concerning the Gnostics:

They exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption. (St. Epiphanios, Panarion 26.5.2 [GCS 25:281] )

The author of the Elenchos (c. 220-30) criticizes the concubinage of Christian free women and slaves when “on account of their prominent ancestry and great property, the so-called faithful want no children from slaves or lowborn commoners, they use drugs of sterility or bind themselves tightly in order to expel a fetus which has already been engendered”–Elenchos 9.12.25 (GCS 26:250). The author goes on to describe such conduct as “murder.”

There are canons and penitentials in the West that condemn contraception, beginning with St. Martin of Braga’s Chapters from the Synods of the Eastern Fathers, 77 (A.D. 572).

Masturbation in the sense of solitary sin, self-abuse, was generally not be considered contraceptive. Masturbation in the sense of coitus interruptusundoubtedly is contraceptive, and was so considered. And indeed, e.g., thePenitential of St. Hubert (c. A.D. 850) prescribes exactly the same penance (10 years of fasting) for intentional homicide, contraception by potion, and coitus interruptus!!! See Noonan, op. cit., p. 164. Cf. the Penitential of Vigila of Alvelda (c. A.D. 800), canon 45: “A woman, also, who takes a potion shall consider herself to be guilty of as many acts of homicide as the number of those she was due to conceive or bear.” Reprinted in Medieval Handbooks of Penance, ed. J.T. McNeill & H.M. Gamer (Columbia U. Pr., 1938), p. 291.

Crucial, Essential Distinctions Between Artificial Contraception and Natural Family Planning

The means of contraception and Natural Family Planning (NFP) – the latter accepted by the Catholic Church – are totally different: NFP involves studying the female body’s natural fertile cycle and abstaining from sexual intercourse, if necessary, during fertile periods. (Of course, it can be and is also used to assist in conception by indicating periods of highest fertility!) This is a wholly salutary thing.

Artifical contraception involves using a chemical or physical barrier, or other method, that thwarts the natural fertile cycle or otherwise blocks conception. Contracepted intercourse can then be had at will. Many Eastern commentators through the ages recognized that this also thwarted God’s will in preventing the conception and birth of new human beings–thus they analogized to murder.

The origins of NFP can be found as far back as 1845, based on the work of the French physiologist F.A. Pouchet. See Noonan, op. cit., ch. 14. NFP is based on modern scientific discoveries concerning natural infertile periods. NFP could be abused, if couples used it to avoid conception indefinitely or without good reason. That is a matter of their intention. It can also be used in a non-sinful way. The latter is never true with artifical contraceptives.

The simple, mutually-agreed-upon act of refraining from intercourse, though, cannot be objected to–otherwise celibacy would have to be condemned. The Church has never said that sexual intercourse must take place at any given time! Neither can the act of intercourse during natural infertile periods be condemned: the Church has never condemned intercourse during post-pregnancy anovulatory periods, or post-menopausally.

Any form of active contraception–interposition of a barrier between the couple, poisoning of the gametes, destruction or disabling of the reproductive organs, or sexual activity that does not conclude in coital consummation–is per se sinful. A cycle of periodic abstinence followed by intercourse during infertile periods is not, in itself, sinful. The condom, for example, interposes a barrier between the couple. NFPers are totally open to conception during their intercourse.

That conception does not usually occur is due to the female body’s natural reproductive cycle, not to the positive action of the couple. Or to put it another way, the NFPers are avoiding conception only when they are abstaining from intercourse, which, assuming it is not done indefinitely or for the wrong reasons, can never be blameworthy. You can’t force the female body to conceive when it won’t. And abstaining from intercourse (within reason) is not blameworthy. Use of a condom, however, always blocks conception.

It is the use of artifical contraception that is sinful and has always been condemned as such by the Church. Natural contraception, while not wholly unproblematic, is not in itself sinful. This is clear from the constant teaching of the Church that chastity, even in marriage, is a good. A fulfilled pledge of abstinence in marriage is clearly contraceptive, and yet that has been seen as a spiritual good, from the holy and chaste union of the Theotokos and St. Joseph, to 20/c worthies like Jacques and Raissa Maritain. (For a critical study of the subject, see Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton U. Pr., 1993).)

NFP takes up this insight in a limited fashion, i.e., by use of temporary, as opposed to perpetual, abstinence. The reason that abstinence, whether temporary or perpetual, is not in itself sinful, while being contraceptive, is that nothing is interposed between the couple–they remain open to conception, while recognizing their freedom not to have intercourse (by mutual agreement). There are purely natural ways in which conception could still result: irregular periods, periodic changes in menstrual cycle, exceptionally long-lived spermatozoa, etc.

NFP used as a long-term or permanent means of avoiding conception involves a sinful disposition. The use of continence as a means of contraception, though, is not in itself sinful. As the late Fr. John Meyendorff noted, “both the New Testament and Church tradition consider continence as an acceptable form of family planning.”–J. Meyendorff, Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective (3d rev. ed., St. Vlad. Sem. Pr., 1984), p. 62.

Orthodox observe approximately 180 fast days in the year, in which sexual intercourse is prohibited. At other times it is also not allowed for other reasons. Thus one Orthodox priest wrote that Orthodox do not need contraception — they only need to keep the fasts! This is certainly analogous, in principle, to NFP.

Orthodoxy on the Morality of Artificial Contraception

In the first edition, first printing (1963) of The Orthodox Church by Timothy (Kallistos) Ware – a widely-cited and authoritative source on Orthodox teaching -, the author states (page 302):

    Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.

The first edition, revised 1984 version of The Orthodox Church, however (New York: Penguin Books, page 302), states (italics added):

The use of contraceptives and other devices for birth control is on the whole strongly discouraged in the Orthodox Church. Some bishops and theologians altogether condemn the employment of such methods. Others, however, have recently  begun to adopt a less strict position, and urge that the question is best left to the discretion of each individual couple, in consultation with the spiritual father.

The second edition, revised 1993 version of The Orthodox Church reveals even further alarming departure from Orthodox and previously universal Christian Tradition (page 296; italics added):

Concerning contraceptives and other forms of birth control, differing opinions exist within the Orthodox Church. In the past  birth control was in general strongly condemned, but today a less strict view is coming to prevail, not only in the west but in traditional Orthodox countries. Many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers consider that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is not in itself sinful. In their view, the question of how many children a couple should have, and at what intervals, is best decided by the partners themselves, according to the guidance of their own consciences.

Or note another statement from a revered Orthodox Patriarch, in 1968:

We assure you that we remain close to you, above all in these recent days when you have taken the good step of publishing the encyclical Humanae Vitae. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God’s help to continue your mission in the world. (Telegram from Patriarch Athenagoras to Pope Paul VI, 9 August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. & trans. E.J. Stormon [1987], p. 197)


Photo credit: The Alchemist, by Joseph Leopold Ratinckx (1860–1937) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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