Dialogue: Why Did God Kill Onan? (Contraception)

Dialogue: Why Did God Kill Onan? (Contraception) January 30, 2018

God immediately judged Onan for the “anti-child” sin of contraception.


This discussion began as a result of a blog post from 9 February 2004: Why Did God Kill Onan? (The Bible on Contraception). I posted a section of my book, The Catholic Verses, and vigorous discussion ensued. I also make reference to the article (in both my book and this post): “The Sin of Onanism Revisited,” by Fr. Brian Harrison. My dialogue opponent was a self-described “liberal” Catholic. His words will be in blue.


Genesis 38:8-10 (RSV) Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” [9] But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. [10] And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also.

* * * * *

My friend Steve Ray made a marvelous remark once. He said that when people asked him what was harder to accept: the pope or the teaching against contraception, he answered immediately, “contraception, because I don’t have to sleep with the pope.” How true . . . how well I know, myself, too. But there is nothing like being obedient to the more difficult commands of God.

Simply amassing historical data indicating that an opinion was widespread does not make the opinion true.

Of course.

Many of the same people whom you site on contraception also thought Jews were pernicious Christ killers, slavery was in accord with God’s will, the sun revolved around the earth, etc.

Yes, but truth is also not dependent on its advocates, who happen to be wrong about other stuff.

Just because an error is old and widespread does not mean it is any less an error.

And just because virtually all Protestants and Catholics-in-practice believe in contraception does not make that right, either. You miss my point. I was not trying to argue that something is true because so-and-so believed it, but rather, I was making an historical point and seeking to educate folks as the the historical background in Church history, as many are unaware of it (as I was myself, till 1990).

I had a specific purpose in this book, which I can’t expect you to have known from that post alone, but which I can inform you of now. The Introduction reads in part:

My emphasis will be on the popular level (and especially Protestant-Catholic discourse on the Internet), but important and historically influential Protestant exegetes such as John Calvin and Martin Luther will be cited frequently, as well as other scholars, when a particular point needs to be backed up or illustrated with documentation.

The opinions of Luther and Calvin may not be considered exegetically relevant (although they always are when someone cites them in agreement), but they are historically important, and Protestants ought to become better-acquainted with their own heritage: even those parts of it which now appear (ironically) very “Catholic.”

Furthermore, part of my purpose (as stated several times in the book itself) was to cite instances of Protestant Founders agreeing with later Catholic views. The reason is obvious: this shows that some Catholic views do not stem from purely a Catholic bias, but rather, that they may also derive from a sola Scriptura perspective. It is the technique of quoting the “hostile witness.”

Second, you really need to read the scholars who maintain the sin of Onan refers to Levitic law first hand, and I don’t have space here to demonstrate all their arguments.

I dealt with it sufficiently, I think, to raise grace doubts about that theory.

Both liberals and conservatives know that we all have of reading our own meaning into a text written in another time and culture.

That’s right. And when we have a current interest in free sex, this mitigates against a ban on contraception and is an automatic bias, too. It is factor. I’m not saying all who argue for the practice do so because of this (don’t get me wrong — I would never make that dumb of an argument).

However, what we want to do is try to understand the intent of the author – and this cannot be discerned merely by quoting a list of people through history who interpreted a text a given way.

Of course not, but you are not interacting with my argument, because (as explained) that wasn’t why I cited Luther and Calvin. As for the exegetical arguments I gave, and Fr. Brian Harrison gave, you need to deal with them specifically and directly, rather than make these broad, general comments (if you really think you have a more reasonable and plausible and exegetically sound point of view).

. . . By simply quoting a litany of historical figures who agree with you, you are trying to bypass the actual arguments that convinced the consensus of Biblical scholars that the sin of Onan is NOT about coitus interruptus.

No, not at all. I am making a point that this is historic Christian teaching (which ought to mean something; particularly for Catholics, but also to Protestants, since I cite the founders of their own system). And I made exegetical arguments, too. If you disagree with them, by all means try to offer something better, rather than speak generally (and mostly about stuff I either already agree with, or that I wasn’t trying to argue in the first place).

In order to convince those of us who think otherwise, there needs to be a more serious engagement with the argument as it is presented by actual Bible scholars who read the original languages, etc.

That wasn’t (technically) the purpose of my book, which is written by a layman for the common man: not as a scholarly piece of exegesis (for which I am not qualified, anyway). I did cite, however, several Protestant reference works. It was not without scholarly arguments.

Third, in your litany of historical references, you overlook that many of the people you reference would have condemned contraception for reasons that you would not accept yourself. For much of Church history, it was thought that semen contained a fully formed human being that was planted in the womb.

Sure, but better to err on the side of the possible child than to assume it isn’t a human being even when it is moving around. They had reverence for life, and that is a separate consideration for the limitations of biological knowledge. In other words, they had many excuses we no longer have. But we slaughter these children, and we decide to prevent them from ever being conceived, while enjoying our sexual pleasures and separating what the natural order never separated. This is a grave sin. Do you agree?

Contraception and masturbation and homosexuality were considered by many theologians to be murder in the same sense as abortion!

They are all “anti-life,” “anti-procreation,” and contrary to natural law. I believe that is the underlying premise behind such thought. It’s easy to mock in hindsight, but these men were far closer to the truth than we are in our “enlightened” times, when we can’t even figure out that it is wrong to butcher a full-term baby by inserting scissors into its head and sucking its brains out.

Indeed, some medieval monastics required confession of murder for wet dreams!

You write more like an anthropologist than a Christian (let alone an historically-minded one). Are you a Christian, by the way? You haven’t said.

Now that we understand better how conception takes place, we find such reasoning absurd.

And I find the abortionist, anti-child and contraceptive reasoning absurd (insofar as it is based on reason at all, which is by no means certain). At least the medievals reasoned about things and didn’t follow the formerly pagan-based zeitgeist over against Christian tradition.

Thus, even if the text of Genesis referred to coitus interruptus as a sin, we need to ask if the reasoning of the author is really intended as God’s eternal word.

Again, I challenge you to engage my arguments directly. You have not done so. You have attacked my supposed method, but you clearly misunderstood (with all due respect) what my method was. It is not dialogue or rational exchange of ideas to do the following, as you have done:

Me: xYou: not x

(accompanied by speculations about my arguments for x which do not accurately represent the nature of my arguments in the first place).

Dialogue, on the other hand, based on reason and logic and the presupposition that a truth exists to be discovered, is the following procedure:

Me: x.You: the reasoning (a, b, c) that you produced for x is wrong because of variables d, e, and f. Therefore x is wrong and false, and alternate y is true because of g, h, and i.

Depending on whether the discussion is historical or exegetical or scientific or philosophical, the variables brought into play differ, but the basic procedural method of dialogue remains the same. See the difference? At least that is how I view dialogue, in my socratic approach, for better or worse.

The argument presented above is that the death penalty is nowhere else proscribed for a brother who refuses to carry out on the family line, therefore the sin of Onan cannot be that he did not carry on the family line.

The levirate law is clearly spelled out as part of the Mosaic Law, including its penalty (which is not death). Therefore, it makes no sense that Onan was killed for simply failing to follow this law. It is not an argument from silence; rather, it is an argument based on explicit biblical teaching elsewhere: by both proclamation and actual example-in-practice.

If this argument is a valid argument, it holds true for coitus interruptus as well. Nowhere else in the Bible is the death penalty prescribed for this sin either (if it is a sin).

The bottom line is that one has to explain why Onan was killed. If violation of levirate law is ruled out (on several grounds, as shown), then it is not unreasonable to speculate as to why he was killed. I have shown how traditional Protestantism perceived the import and meaning of this verse. Again, that is more history than exegesis. My goal there is to raise historical consciousness with regard to how and why this teaching was only rejected after 1930. No Christian group thought otherwise till then.

Does Christian history mean nothing? For those of us who believe that it does mean something quite significant, this ought to be a very disturbing realization. I know it was for me in 1990, and I was a Protestant then. But I was a Protestant who thought that Church history was important, and that it was utterly implausible for the “light to go on” in 1930 after the entire Christian Church had gotten this teaching entirely wrong for 19 centuries. Some things are simply ridiculous, and manifestly so.

Thus, by your own logic, the sin of Onan cannot be coitus interruptus. The most we can say about it is that we have no idea why Onan was killed by God.

I don’t know if you are talking about me, but this isn’t my logic.

But I prefer to say that the context of the passage does make it fairly clear that for some reason God made it clear that Er and Onan were supposed to carry on this line (maybe because the Messiah would come from this line according to Matthew). Indeed, God is so adamant that this line should be carried on that he permits Judah to be deceived into believing Tamar is a prostitute! The context of the passage is so clearly about the family line that this is the only thing we can be certain about,

This approaches a direct exegetical argument. It is to be devoutly wished that you actually respond directly to my exegetical arguments and Fr. Harrison’s now. Then it will be a true dialogue in the classic and medieval and “debate club” sense.

and the arguments that try to discredit that this is what the passage is about can be turned against those who say it’s about contraception (or masturbation, or anything else).

Then do it, rather than just talk about it. I challenge you . . .

And tell us what you believe about contraception yourself and what your religious affiliation is, because that is relevant, per my post on discussion, below. We all have biases, so you are no exception.

Thanks for your elaborate explanation. I am still holding out hope that you will be willing to do some comparative exegesis: to actually exegete the passage rather than talking about maybe doing so, and mentioning what some folks think, etc. If you have a Master’s in theology and I have no formal theological training, surely you are more than a match for me.

My name is Joe, and jcecil3 is simply my email handle. I am a Roman Catholic and I do NOT personally practice any form of contraception. My wife I DO want to have children. We have not been blessed with them yet. I DO accept that the Bible always speaks of children as a blessing from the Lord. I am also pro-life, and would not support the use of abortificient pills as a means of preventing birth.

Good. Thanks for the information. I have serious problems with what you argue later, but I agree with all this, as far as it goes.

I am also aware of the historical position of Christianity on this regard, and I do not deny that all denominations seem to have been officially against contraception prior to the 1930’s. I have completed all the coursework for a Masters in theology, which makes me no expert, but it also means I’m not a complete ignoramus either.

Delighted to hear it . . .

Since I don’t practice contraception and I agree the Bible always refers to children as a blessing, why am I arguing? Here’s my basic problem: I have a very hard time believing that 80% of Catholics and 90% of Protestants are in mortal sin on this issue.

Objectively they are; subjectively they may not be, according to Catholic moral theology. But the undeniable teaching (to which all Catholics — even liberal theologians — are bound) is that contraception is a mortal sin. We know from surveys how many Catholics are disobeying Church teaching in this area. You have a hard time believing they are all in mortal sin. So do I, in terms of subjective culpability, because so many Catholics are abysmally ignorant as to how Catholic authority works, and what it means to be a Catholic, as opposed to a Protestant. But objectively speaking, they are committing a serious, grave sin. Any way you look at it, however, we have a very serious problem.

Of course, truth is not determined by a democratic vote, and even what is hard to believe is possible, but I want to be more certain than the Onan passage permits before making such a judgment.

If you are going by Scripture alone (I don’t know if you are, which is why I said “if”), you are thinking like a Protestant, using private judgment and adopting sola Scriptura as a rule of faith. The Catholic obeys the Church and accepts that the Church is infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of such import, involving the possibility of mortal sin and potential eternal separation from God as a result.

Also, the Roman Catholic Church holds that while contraception is sinful, natural family planning is permissible within a marriage bond. In Catholic theology, a moral act must be judged according to the ends (the intent), the means, and the circumstances. What the Church seems to be saying is that there are times when the intent of sexuality in marriage is not to procreate – because NFP, done rightly, makes pregnancy impossible.

That is not what is evil; rather it is the direct attempt and the will to make procreation impossible, while still enjoying the sex that is required for conception. It’s not the family planning per se which is sinful (else NFP — Natural Family Planning — would be an absurdity and a misnomer), but the separation of procreation from sexuality, so that sexual pleasure becomes an end in itself; contrary to natural law and the deepest, most essential purpose of sexuality. This lowers us to the level of the beasts.

The circumstances justifying this act are that the act occur within the marriage bond (expressing unitive love). NFP is said to be permissible because it is natural, while a condom is said to be impermissible because it is artificial. This makes as much sense to me as saying I can’t eat Frosted Flakes because it has sugar and chemical preservatives. It’s not that I want to contracept or eat Frosted Flakes – I do neither. Rather, I have problems with the reasoning.

You have yet to understand it, so you are fighting a straw man thus far. Other posters have commented insightfully on this. It is not an “artificial vs. natural” thing at bottom, because coitus interruptus is completely natural, but it involves the contralife will which is at the very root of the sin. In that act (along with acts involving artificial contraceptives), Onan and anyone else who practice them say, in effect,

I refuse to allow God to have the opportunity to create a life from this semen if He should so will it, and I am deliberately separating the semen from that which is its primary purpose: procreation. I choose to enjoy the sexual pleasure in a selfish, hedonistic sense and make impossible the life-giving, other-directed consequence of the act. Thus, pleasure becomes my chief end, rather than loving someone else, with the potential of a new life and soul coming into existence ruled out from the outset.

I think it causes scandal to the Church and the Gospel to try to build a case against contraception on such tortured reasoning, and it leads to judgmentalism against people!

Christians are always accused of judgmentalism. The thing to do is follow God’s moral teaching, come what may. We are to be charitable at all times, of course, but there will always be offense taken at teachings which are not popular: where many people disagree, and (especially) where matters of sex are involved.

As for “tortured reasoning,” that is your opinion. You are saying, then, that teaching which is binding on all Catholics in the ordinary magisterium is based on “tortured reasoning,” which causes scandal and judgmentalism, etc. Why, then, are you a Catholic? I have never understood this. If you don’t believe that the Church is specially guided in what she teaches, then there is little reason to be a Catholic rather than a Protestant, because you are already reasoning like the latter vis-a-vis Church authority and the criteria of truthfulness pertaining to Christian morality and theology.

An orthodox Presbyterian grants far more authority to the Westminster Confession or the Synod of Dort than you grant to infallible (i.e., in the ordinary magisterium) papal encyclicals, grounded in the consistent, unchanging moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is how I explained Catholic reasoning on this in my book, Family Matters: Catholic Theology of the Family:

There is a real, legitimate, non-trivial, moral, philosophical and ethical distinction between contraception and NFP. Contraception has been compared to Roman vomitoriums. This is a more or less perfect analogy, for what do we think of a person who eats merely for the pleasure of it, and disregards nutrition (bulimia, vomitoriums, junk food junkies, etc.)? Likewise, how do we regard a person who goes to the other extreme, and eats for nutrition, with disdain for the pleasure (extreme health food nuts, Scrooge-types)?We intuitively sense a perversion of the natural order and of a rational approach to food and life in general. God gave us taste buds; he also ordered food as a necessary agent of bodily (and even psychological) health. We might call the two elements Function and Feeling . . . [see added clarifying note further below about the alleged Roman “vomitorium”]

Yet when it comes to sex, we wish to separate the two functions with impunity and utter disregard for the personal and societal consequences. Some Puritans, Victorians, and certain types of truly “repressed” Catholics and certain types of fundamentalist Protestants throughout history have minimized or denigrated the pleasure of sex, thinking it a “dirty,” “shameful” thing, apart from it’s procreative purpose. Some couples never even saw each other unclothed.

This was absurd and wrong, but of course, that is not our problem at all today. Now we have sex at will with no willingness to procreate at all, in many cases. We wink at this perversion, as long as it is confined to marriage. But this profoundly misunderstands the very purpose of marriage.

As soon as God made Eve (and hence began marriage), He told them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Luckily for the human race, Adam and Eve weren’t feminists or “progressives” who decided not to have children. These things used to be utterly self-evident, but they are no more. We also find the unitive element, suggested in Genesis 2:18,24-25 (cf. Song of Solomon). This is Catholic teaching: we freely and joyfully acknowledge both aspects.

All we are saying is that they shouldn’t be separated in ways which violate the natural order of nature. Nothing in Catholic teaching forbids sex at times when it is determined that the woman is infertile, or in the case of a post-menopausal woman, or one who cannot bear children at all, or a sterile man. That’s fine, because it doesn’t involve a deliberate decision to ignore fertility and frustrate its natural course.

I shall cite the reasoning of some moral theologians (this was central in my own change of opinion on this matter):

From: The Teaching of “Humanae Vitae”: A Defense, by John C. Ford. S. J., Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and William E. May, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988:—The following excerpts are taken from the chapter, “Every Marital Act Ought to be Open to New Life: Toward a Clearer Understanding” (pp. 35-116 – all emphases in original), by the last four authors above—

The Church has never taught that marital intercourse is good only if the couple desire to procreate; indeed, couples known to be sterile have never been forbidden to marry . . .

It is wrong for those who engage in marital intercourse to attempt to impede the transmission of life, which they think their act might otherwise bring about. For if they do try to impede that to which their act of itself might lead, they close it to new life . . .

‘Contraception’ signifies only the prevention of conception, but the contraceptive act seeks to impede the beginning of the life of a possible person. The distinction is only conceptual, but we think it is important, for the explicit reference to new life calls attention to the fact that contraception is a contralife act. [pp. 35-36]

While contraception is wrong for several reasons, it is wrong primarily and essentially because it is contralife. [39]

Contraception aims to impede both the initiation of life and the being of the individual whose life would be initiated if not impeded . . . They imagine that a new person will come to be if that is not prevented, they want that possible person not to be, and they effectively will that he or she never be. That will is a contralife will. Therefore, each and every contraceptive act is necessarily contralife. [42-43]

An essential condition of the immorality of deliberate homicide is that it involves a contralife will . . . deliberate homicide is immoral primarily because the contralife will that it involves cannot be a loving heart . . . Our thesis is that the contralife will that contraception involves also is morally evil, although we do not claim that it usually is as evil as a homicidal will. [45-47]

Objection: Contraception does not attack a real person; it only prevents a merely possible person from coming to be . . . Answer: . . . All human acts affect only the future. Homicide does not destroy the victim’s entire life; the past and present are beyond harm. Homicide only prevents the victim from having a future. The homicidal will, like the contraceptive will, is only against life that would be, not against life that is . . . homicide is wrong not only because it involves an injustice but also because it carries out a nonrationally grounded, contralife will – a will that the one killed not be. That is why deliberate suicide is wrong. [61-62]

We concede that NFP can be chosen with contraceptive intent. But we hold that NFP also can be chosen without the contralife will that contraception necessarily involves. [81-82]

The choice of NFP need not be immoral. It is merely a case of something common in human life: choosing not to realize something one has a good reason to choose to realize, but whose realization would conflict with avoiding something else one has a good reason to avoid. [86]

There is a real and very important difference between not wanting to have a baby, which is common to both [1. contraception] and [2. the noncontraceptive use of NFP], and not wanting the baby one might have, which is true of (1) but not of (2). [89]

So, when I point this out to fellow Catholics, they say, “What about the sin of Onan?” They get this because a Pope quoted that passage in an Encyclical called Casti Conubii.

I have given you plenty of reasoning, both exegetical (which you have not directly dealt with) and philosophical. I haven’t quoted a papal encyclical yet. I’m getting into reasoning which is prior to the encyclicals, and assumed in them.

An encyclical is not considered an infallible document, but is considered “the official teaching of the Church” until she says otherwise.

It is infallible in the ordinary magisterium if certain conditions are met. Casti connubii (Pius XI: 1930) clearly meets those conditions; so does Humanae Vitae (Paul VI: 1968). All Catholics are bound to accept their teaching, and no dissent is allowed (which would rule out the massive public dissent from liberal theologians which occurred).

And I just sit here scratching my head.

Yeah, me too. I know the feeling well.

Honestly, I don’t see that this passage clearly condemns contraception no matter how many people before us say that it does.

Then please deal with the exegesis produced by myself and Fr. Harrison. Do I have to beg you? Bribery?

There are many things in Genesis that are difficult to understand. I have no idea why or how Abraham was supposed to discern God’s will by cutting apart an animal and burning it. I find it hard to believe that Abraham was really commanded by God to kill Isaac,

I see; so you don’t believe in biblical inspiration? Or you do, but don’t believe that God has the power to preserve the text for us today and allowed such interpolations to become part of the text? Note that the command to kill Isaac is not just a matter of being hard to understand for you. You doubt that it occurred at all.

and regardless, I see that as no indication that we are to kill our children today.

Correct. It was an isolated incident early on, with a particular point. It also has a parallel to Calvary, of course.

Abraham had multiple wives. To take the Onan passage as indicative of an eternal decree against contraception is to read more into the text than is there.

Does Judas hanging himself give any indication of an “eternal decree” against suicide? Did Herod’s end indicate any disapproval by God? Or how about Saul’s, which was predicted by the prophet Samuel? Something is going on in this passage.

Of course, I want to believe that the Word of God is meaningful today, and that we can draw some sort of moral principles form the text.

Good for you. But wait! You only “want” to believe this? You don’t believe it of agape already, as a fundamental tenet accepted by all Christians? That’s odd . . .

However, I tend to also believe that we should interpret those passages that are less clear in light of those passages that are more clear.

Sure. I have no problem with that.

In light of the clear condemnations against Pharisaic rash judgment in the New Testament, I believe there is simply too much room for error in using the ambiguous passage of Onan to create a universal principle.

I don’t know why you think it is ambiguous unless you show me specifically how Fr. Harrison’s reasoning fails.

If I interpret the passage more broadly as referring to what the context does clearly imply (carrying blood lineage), then the moral principle for today is respect for family, and I’m not reading into the text what isn’t clearly and unambiguously there.

That reasoning falls flat, because that was exactly what the levirate law had to do with. But we know that the penalty for disobeying it was not death. Therefore, something else that Onan did was punished by God. It went beyond a simple non-fulfillment of his duty to raise offspring for his dead brother.

The argument you present against my position is that the levirate law does not call for the death penalty. All that this argument does is force me to say I don’t know why God killed Onan.

Or consider that we may be onto something that you had not previously seen . . .

It is simply not clear that coitus interruptus itself is the reason.

It was to many, many theologians and commentators down through the centuries. Why do you think that is? Because they were biased and biologically unsophisticated? Then why couldn’t I reason that commentators today are just as adversely affected by the jaded, perverted sexual practices of our times? There is a reason why the entire Christian Church opposed contraception till 1930.

This is no more clear than saying the passage is about masturbation or something else. If it were clearly about coitus interruptus, I would expect some further clarification in the remainder of the revealed witness.

What more do you need, for heaven’s sake? With all due respect, I find this objection quite silly and frivolous. The text is about as explicit as can be imagined, coming from that culture and time (or any time, for that matter):

Genesis 38:9 (RSV): “when he went in to his brother’s wife[um, that is intercourse, not exploratory surgery or dentistry]

he spilled the semen on the ground.”

[ahem; tough to spill it on the ground if the, er, “dispenser” of it is still “in” the woman, wouldn’t you agree? Therefore, this is undeniably coitus interruptus]

Nor is it rocket science to see that this is precisely why God killed Onan. Hence, J. D. Douglas, editor of the New Bible Dictionary, in its article on Onan, states (p. 910): “Onan . . . took steps to avoid a full consummation of the union, thus displeasing the Lord, who slew him.”

And The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary concurs:

. . . whenever Onan and Tamar had intercourse he would spill his sperm on the ground to prevent her from conceiving; for this the Lord slew him.Onan’s tactic of withdrawing before ejaculation . . . costs him his life. (pp. 781, 653)

They seem to think it is quite clear, but you don’t see it in the text, and you won’t fill us in as to the exact reasons why. You simply state your agnosticism over and over as if that is any sort of argument, let alone a persuasive or compelling one.

To address your historical argument, even the quotes you provide from Luther indicate that Luther probably believed that contraception was murder – which was the main reason the early fathers opposed it.

This is closer to the truth than the espousal of contraception. As I wrote before, at least the medievals and fathers had the excuse of biological ignorance. We do not, so we are even more at fault in adopting these morally monstrous and hideous practices, which lead to the much greater evil of abortion: the sacrament of the sexual revolution and radical man- and family-hating feminism.

The change in the mindset for the Protestant Churches in the 1930’s (and Catholic theologians, as opposed to hierarchy) was that we discovered in the nineteenth century that conception occurs through sperm and egg, and that there is not some little human being inside of semen.

But of course this has no bearing whatsoever on the actual reasoning lying behind the ban. People knew how babies were made, even if they didn’t know biochemical details. And that was the point. It is an instinctive knowledge of the moral law and natural law that intercourse belongs in marriage and that it should be open to offspring, not merely used for selfish hedonistic ends.

This discovery was not merely some “wish” to be sexually free. We simply discovered that many of ancestors had a mistaken view of sexuality.

Would that we would discover that many folks today also have a mistaken view. How long will that take, I wonder?

Even if contraception is wrong, it is not wrong for the reasons that most of our ancestors in faith thought it was wrong.

They were closer to the truth than liberal theologians today. You’re barking up the wrong tree with this.

In the whole contraception argument, I do think that the Catholic Church is onto something in pointing to a broad general principle. The general principle is that children should not generally be thought of as a disease to be prevented by medication or removed by surgery.


However, given that even the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are times when it is appropriate to intend no children in married sexual intercourse, and to even effectively carry out this intent (as permitted by NFP), I believe that it is up to the couple to decide how they will prevent conception.

This ignores the crucial moral distinctions that I noted above.

Again, I do not condone abortificients, which do not prevent conception.

Most birth control pills today are abortifacients. They cause the death of a newly-conceived soul and person.

I simply believe married couples can decide for themselves whether they wish to use condoms, NFP, abstinence, hormones or some other method.

Then you are advocating mortal sin.

If God had intended us to consider this a sin, he would have made it much more clear in his revelation, and the reasoning behind it would be much more lucid.

It is fairly clear in the Onan passage — contra your agnosticism — it is indirectly clear in many such passages concerning the blessing of children (which you yourself accept). It is crystal-clear in Catholic tradition, and Orthodox and Protestant tradition prior to 1930. What more do you need?

Coitus interruptus is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible per se, which is exactly my point.

It doesn’t need to be. One clear mention and disapproval by God is sufficient. The Virgin Birth is only mentioned two or three times itself, yet all orthodox Christians consider it a crucial bedrock tenet of Christianity. The Two Natures of Christ is scarcely mentioned in any explicit way in Scripture, but it is at the heart of Chalcedonian christology. Sola Scriptura can’t be found in Scripture at all, yet the Protestant rule of faith is built almost entirely on this chimera. The canon of Scripture is not itself a biblical teaching. It isn’t part of revelation. Etc., etc.

What I am saying is that Dave’s argument rest on the fact that the idea of carrying on a brother’s line is mentioned in only one place, and the punishment for failure is not death.

That’s not true. It is mentioned or alluded to in several places: Deut 25:5-10, Ruth 4:17, Lev 18:16, 20:21. The Sadducees bring it up in Mt 22:23 ff.

Therefore, it cannot be the case that the passage refers to the leverate law of carrying on the brother’s blood line.

I didn’t argue that. My argument was that the levirate law was indeed in play, but additionally, contraception was involved, and that was why God killed Onan: not the violation of the levirate law, since the penalty for that (we know from other passages) was not death, but rather, public humiliation and shunning.

In response, I am saying, OK. Fine. If that’s true, the law does not command the death penalty for coitus interruptus either, and therefore the passage cannot refer to coitus interruptus as the reason for God’s killing Onan.

Yours is the argument from silence. Mine is not.

Bottom line is that we don’t know why God killed Onan anymore than we know why God killed Er!

Bottom line is that God killed Onan for some reason. The only plausible reason we have from the text itself is contraception. A straightforward reading of the text lends itself readily to that interpretation (though not absolutely of logical necessity). And so I shall now cite Fr. Brian Harrison, from my book: The Catholic Verses:

Catholic scholar Brian H. Harrison made an analysis of the Onan text and how it has been variously interpreted. I shall summarize his brilliant exegetical and historical arguments (interested readers are strongly urged to read the entire article):1. The ancient and classical Jewish commentators thought the Onan passage condemned unnatural intercourse and masturbation. This new view would require a belief that:

. . . the ancient author of Genesis 38 was a lone ‘liberal’ who, in contrast to every other known Jewish commentator until recent times, was unaccountably permissive about unnatural sex acts . . .

2. If indeed God punished Onan merely for “refusal to give legal offspring to his deceased brother,” it is very unlikely that the “crass physical details” of his contraceptive act would have been spelled out in the text. Scripture is restrained in its descriptions of married intercourse (Gen. 6: 4; II Sam. 16: 22; I Chron. 23: 7 . . . Gen. 4: 17; Luke 1: 34). When it uses explicit language, “the reference is without exception to sinful, shameful sexual acts.”3. Jewish culture abhorred another form of “wasting the seed” – sodomy and homosexuality, even prescribing the death penalty for it. Thus:

. . . it would be not only exegetically unwarranted, but quite anachronistic, to suggest that the Genesis author, in line with the ‘political correctness’ of late twentieth-century Western liberalism, would have taken a relaxed, indulgent view of Onan’s method of preventing conception . . .

4. Onan’s sin, according to modern revisionist exegesis, was one of omission. He didn’t commit a sinful act, but refrained from doing a good act. Harrison asks:

. . . why, in that case, does the text describe Onan’s sin as a positive action (“he did a detestable thing”)? Coming directly after the author has mentioned what is certainly an outward act (i.e., “spilling the seed”), these words in v. 10 plainly indicate a causal link between that sexual act as such and the wrath and punishment of God.

5. If “wasting the seed” violates the natural law (cf. Rom. 1: 26-27; 2: 14), “this will explain perfectly why Onan’s sexual action in itself would be presented in Scripture as meriting a most severe divine judgment: it was a perverted act — one of life-suppressing lust.”6. If the author was completely indifferent to Onan’s contraceptive act, we would expect him to express himself quite differently: “spilling the seed” would likely not have been mentioned, as it is irrelevant to the moral judgment of God:

Instead, we would expect to be faced with an account stating more discreetly that even though Onan took Tamar legally as his wife, he refused to allow her to conceive, so that God slew him for his “hardness of heart,” his pride, or perhaps his avarice . . .

7. Harrison concludes:

The witness of Christian as well as Jewish tradition on this point should be emphasized in conclusion. That Onan’s unnatural act as such is condemned as sinful in Gen. 38: 9-10 was an interpretation held by the Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church, by the Protestant Reformers, and by nearly all celibate and married theologians of all Christian denominations until the early years of this century, when some exegetes began to approach the text with preconceptions deriving from the sexual decadence of modern Western culture and its exaggerated concern for ‘over-population.’

I understand that y’all are arguing that there must be something in this specific act of Onan’s that is the cause of God’s wrath, and Dave is stating that the clearest indication is the act of coitus interruptus. I am simply responding that this is not as clear as he is stating. Why not? Because it rests on the assumption that the passage is either about contraception or the levirate law, and the Biblical scholars who reject that the passage is about contraception state their argument more along the lines of “We’re not sure what Onan did, but the simplest explanation is that it is about carrying on the family line”.

That makes no sense, based on my arguments about the levirate law, whereas the traditional interpretation makes perfect sense and requires no forced, strained interpretation of the text.

I stated in the beginning that I don’t have space here to look at everything,

You could start with Fr. Harrison.

but people like Gerhard Von Rad and numerous other scholars have demonstrated that in extra-biblical witness, carrying on the family line was considered important to semitic people’s, and the context of the passage makes it very clear that this was a priority to YHWH.

Of course it was. But that does not knock down my argument. It was part of the backdrop. If it is evil to prevent offspring while having intercourse and enjoying its pleasure, then it is evil to prevent one’s brother’s offspring (in the understanding of the levirate law), too. Not rocket science. One evil is simply a subset of the larger, more categorical one.

But there is a deeper problem here in the way Dave is arguing, and it is the either/or approach itself. There is an underlying presumption that there must be an eternal principle in here somewhere, and maybe there’s not.

If a man is killed for doing a particular act, it stands to reason that there was a moral principle involved, according to God, does it not? In the same way, Uzzah was killed when he reached out to prevent the ark of the covenant from falling (1 Chronicles 13:7-10). It seems like an innocent mistake to us, and indeed it probably was: but the principle was that the ark was holy: so much so that no one could touch it. Likewise, men are not dogs, so when they mess around with the very sources of the generation of life, as if they were the relatively meaningless equivalents of a garden hose or vomit or excrement, this is an evil thing.

I alluded to the way that Abraham discerns God’s will by cutting apart an animal and burning it. This is recorded in Genesis 15. What is that about? Is this an eternal law for discernment?

It is obviously (once one understands the nature of the Mosaic law and God’s covenant with the Jews) a precursor of the formal system of animal sacrifice as a means of atonement for sins: which in turn was a precursor of Jesus sacrifice on the cross for us. This is spelled out in Scripture time and again. See, e.g., Hebrews 9:11-28, among many other passages.

The entire circumcision command is not seen as morally binding on Christians.

Correct, but the underlying principle was continued on in baptism: an analogy that St. Paul himself makes (and which Calvin also commented on at length).

Onan’s sin is that God has made it clear that this line is to be preserved (perhaps because the Messiah will come from this line, as we learn from Matthew). Onan does not obey God’s will, and that is why God killed him.

The text doesn’t say that. The text mentions the spilling on the ground, then being slain. The most straightforward reading in English is that he was killed for that act: “he spilled the semen on the ground . . . what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.” As Fr. Harrison pointed out, he was killed for what he did, not for what he didn’t do.

If this is not true, why was Er killed in the same passage? Er did not even lie with her!

All we know is that he was “wicked” (Gen 38:7). That is more than reason enough for God to slay him, for God is judge. Ever hear of Noah’s Ark? Or the Second Coming? Lots of judgment going on there . . . We don’t know specifics for Er, but we have very explicit specifics for Onan. Again, why bother to mention the coitus interruptus if he was killed for simply failing to fulfill the levirate law? Your position is quite incoherent.

Even if this is not the correct exegesis from a God’s eye point of view, we cannot be certain that coitus interruptus is the sin.

You go on in your uncertainty; we will follow what we will think is clear teaching in Scripture, backed up by a massive consensus in Church history. That is more than enough epistemological warrant for any obedient orthodox Catholic.

And even if coitus interruptus is the sin, we cannot draw the conclusion that all forms of contraception are morally wrong. The passage doesn’t say that.

It doesn’t have to, and we wouldn’t expect it, as it is historical narrative at a very early period, where moral theology was scarcely developed at all. The principle, however, is nevertheless evident: non-procreative sex with a contra-life intent is evil. Men may have not known the moral law as clearly as they do now, but God did all along, and He was the one who killed Onan.

Furthermore, if is morally offensive to God because it intentionally prevents contraception, I would argue that the very same logic makes NFP morally offensive to God – at least as it is taught on pre-cana programs.

Then you need to read up on the moral difference between the two. I would recommend the book I mention above by Ford et al.

With coitus interruptus, there is at least some possibility of procreation. With NFP, procreation can be made literally impossible.

That is no sin, if there is sufficient reason, as long as couples abstain during the fertile periods.

You can measure mucus, take temperatures, and use ovulation kits to confirm the absolute impossibility of pregnancy in a sexual act, and the Church permits this!

Of course, because the Church doesn’t teach that all Catholics have to have 20 kids and leave all to nature. It is a much more sophisticated position than that. The contra-life will is the evil, not family planning. Separation of the two purposes of sex which ought to not be separated is the evil.

The fact that Church permits this demonstrates that another point of Dave’s is basically overstated or mistaken. The Church does not teach that separation of individual acts of sexuality within a marriage bond from procreation is always wrong. Paul VI explicitly says in Humanae Vitae that there are morally legitimate reasons for a couple to wish to express the unitive dimension of married love without the intent of procreation.

That’s correct, but it is beside our present point.

His concern is not with the intent. His only concern is with the means.

This is untrue. Paul VI writes in Humanae Vitae:

. . . this love is total . . . husband and wife generously share everything, without undue reservations or selfish calculations. (9)In the task of transmitting life, therefore, they are not free to proceed completely at will, as if they could determine in a freely autonomous way the honest path to follow; but they must conform their activity to the creative intention of God, expressed in the very nature of marriage and of its acts, and manifested by the constant teaching of the Church. (10)

. . . each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. (11)

There are many other such passages in the encyclical . . . Pope Paul VI uses terms in referring to the contraceptive act which presuppose the will: “every action” (14), “conjugal acts made intentionally infecund” (14), “a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest” (14), etc.

It is precisely this piece that liberal theologians do not understand.

There are a lot of things that they don’t understand, unfortunately . . .

We are not so much saying it is definitely wrong as saying his reasoning makes no sense.

I see. But you have not explained to me why. Perhaps you will in due course.

It really does seem to us that the discussion about artificial means verses natural means would lead to saying that eating Frosted Flakes is a mortal sin. Brian says this is obviously not what the Church intends, and we’re merely saying that if she doesn’t intend this, she needs to explain herself better.

It has been explained over and over. Read the book I mentioned, by moral theologians. Look at some of the links on my Life Issues Page. If you really want to better understand the reasoning behind it, the opportunity is there for you.

In the meantime, given the Gospel warnings about the seriousness of rash judgment, and the Church’s own teaching on the primacy of conscience (confirmed in Genesis),

Conscience is not to be exercised against the Church’s clear teaching. To do so is to adopt the Protestant position.

and the lack of clarity in the Scriptural witness, we would recommend that such a controverted issue should be left to conscience.

Become a Protestant then. Get consistent. What restrains you? Sentiment? Convenience?

What about the argument from tradition? When we look at the reasoning used prior to the 1930’s, we find that married sexuality in the Catholic tradition was treated with near absolute silence about the unitive dimension.

I agree it should have been stressed more. Much of that was related to modesty and cultural norms. I would go back to that period in a second, though, if I could have a choice to leave this decadent, morally-bankrupt age.

Furthermore, married sexuality was often considered, even by saints, to be somehow dirty and tainted by original sin. Thus, celibacy was called a “higher calling”, which even JP II affirmed in FC 16 (I don’t agree with him on this – the highest calling is the calling God gives you as an individual).

There was an imbalance in this area, yes, I agree. But that is, again, beside our present point. Celibacy is a higher calling because it allows undistracted devotion to God. It is a heroic sacrifice and renunciation of some of life’s pleasures for the sake of the Kingdom. But one must be called to it.

Furthermore, as I have already stated, we see that most people prior to the nineteenth century thought that masturbation, homosexuality and contraception were forms of murder because they did not understand how conception occurs!

You can keep stating it, but that makes it no more relevant to our present subject.

Thus, even though many people believed contraception wrong throughout Christian history, we would argue that their reasoning is obviously false, and this should probably be relegated to dust-bin with ancient attitudes to slavery and so forth.

I would love for liberalism to be relegated to the dust-bin. There are many signs of that happening, praise God. Thanks for the input and good conversation.

I understand the distinction between objective and subjective guilt. If a five year old accidently shoots and kills his little brother, he’s not guilty of the sin of murder. For that matter, in another example, though suicide is a gravely immoral act, there may exists a chemical imbalance in the brain that mitigates personal guilt. Nevertheless, taking the life of another is gravely wrong, and taking your own life is gravely wrong. I used the words “mortal sin” in the phrase you quote because Dave used it in his article. We can never judge that a person is in mortal sin, even Saddam Hussein. All we can do from outside the subjectivity of another is judge the gravity of the act.

I agree. Usually, when Catholics are discussing mortal sin, they mean in the objective sense: “murder is a mortal sin,” “adultery is a mortal sin,” etc. The subjective thing is understood and the unspoken assumption.

Nevertheless, in taking the position that use of contraception within a marriage could be a mortal sin, we are saying that the act is gravely disordered and offensive to God, others, and self.

As indeed it is.

If this is true, we would expect that rational people in good conscience would be fairly easily persuaded that the act is grave.

Not necessarily. There are widespread blindnesses that affect each age. Slavery was one in the past, among oftentimes otherwise good people. Racism continues to be such a blindness. Attitudes toward women in many cultures and places is another. Abortion is another such blindness today, and — more and more — all sorts of immoral sexual practices previously widely understood as immoral: fornication, homosexuality, co-habitation, and contraception too. So this argument fails, I think, in light of history and human nature.

Furthermore, in matters of sex, everyone who is sexually active (or desires to be) has a motivation and vested interest for wanting freer, easier sex. It is very easy to rationalize in these areas. We see it all the time. I’m not saying you are doing this, but we know that it is undeniably a definite factor. There is a reason that — both culturally and in the Church — the teachings which are always resisted and made “flagships” for liberal innovation are sexual ones: contraception, priestly celibacy, feminism, divorce. These things are self-evident.

The Catechism states in paragraph 1789 that the golden rule applies in all moral decision making, which confirms Christ’s own words in Mt 7:12 and Lk 6:31. If contraception truly violates God’s will, I would like to see the Church frame an argument that explains how it does so that employs the golden rule. How does contraception within a marriage hurt someone?

Briefly, by making them a mere means to an unworthy end: selfish sexual pleasure. It fosters an attitude of women being sexual objects and sex itself being divested of its deepest, most beautiful meaning. It takes away the self-giving which is so profoundly beautiful in the marriage relationship (rightly conceived). So that is not desiring the best for the other person, which is fundamental to the nature of agape love, and presupposed in the Golden Rule.

And such an argument should make sense to the secular world just as much as the faithful,

Not necessarily again, because more and more, the secular world (along with many Christians in bed with the world) fails to understand Christian morality and theology, and — beyond that — even fails to understand what was formerly taken for granted even in the secular or pagan worlds. Ronald Knox made that point with regard to contraception. Malcolm Muggeridge and G. K. Chesterton have written about how in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when they were growing up, divorce was an unspeakable scandal in the entire culture: apart from the Christian moorings of marriage. This was understood by all. But one by one, these cultural norms are being eroded by massive propaganda, the mass media, liberal theology, peer pressure, etc., to the point where we can’t even comprehend why people in the past opposed such things. It is incomprehensible.

Where homosexuality, e.g., was seen by virtually everyone as an unnatural perversion (almost instinctively) now it is accepted based on no particular reason other than a bogus notion of “tolerance” and “political correctness” and the silly, absurd myth that opposing a sinful practice is somehow necessarily a sinful judgment and hatred of the person committing it. So I profoundly disagree with you. I can make the arguments in secular terms (I often utilize sociology and historical analysis for this purpose), but whether it will be understood, let alone accepted, is entirely another question.

otherwise, I’d wonder if the argument isn’t relying more on authority than natural reason.

It depends on who I am talking to, in terms of my own methodology. So you’ll note that once I found out you were a Catholic, I appealed to Church authority and asked pointedly why you remain a Catholic if you are not willing to accept its authority in these matters? And I asked whether you accept biblical inspiration when you speak of the Bible as you do. With a Protestant, I would appeal to history, sociology, moral principles, and Scripture, without ever citing a Catholic document (unless asked for some reason).

The Church clearly states that use of contraception violates “natural law”, and therefore if this should be true, the reasoning should be in accord with natural reason, as well as being clearly confirmed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

It certainly is, as I have been trying to explain. Let me ask you: is homosexuality contrary to natural law? If you say yes, why? And if so, didn’t you know that instinctively without having to construct elaborate logical rationales for it? But today, people in greater numbers don’t see that truth anymore, in the way they might see that pederasty or bestiality are clearly contrary to natural law. Some things are obvious. People formerly understood instinctively that contraception and getting married while deliberately not having children was evil.

Now, Catholics don’t even have children at a rate greater than the general population. Europe can’t even reproduce itself. Muslims, however, continue to understand traditional sexual morality and they practice it: they still have children. I admire them for that. The average Muslim understands the fundamentals of the purposes of marriage and sex better than the average Catholic and Protestant.

It seems to me that instead of natural reasoning, we rely on much poetic metaphor requiring faith and an acceptance of authority (a theology of the body).

Catholics can do so, because that is how Catholic theology works.

Instead of the clear meaning of Sacred Scripture,

Scripture isn’t always clear and explicit (why would you think it has to be, or is, in the first place?). This is why Sacred Tradition is so necessary.

we proof-text from the Onan passage in a way the author did not likely intend.

Then why did Jewish commentators always interpret as they did, until they had their own liberal crisis in this century?

Then we throw in lots of historical references to demonstrate Tradition without examining whether our ancestors in faith used valid arguments we would accept today.

Then our dialogue opponents continually refuse to offer a better exegesis of the text and explain in detail why ours doesn’t fly . . .

Then we put the icing of papal authority on it all to make it palatable – but it is only palatable to Catholics, which should have us going back and re-examining everything.

Catholics understand a lot of things better than the general public does, especially in matters of morality. This is a major reason why I am a Catholic today. This is the glory of the Catholic Church, and why I am so proud to represent Her as one of Her defenders.

But let me re-emphasize too that I agree that the Bible and Sacred Tradition do clearly speak of children as a blessing from the Lord. All married couples should be open to child-bearing.

Good. How many children do you plan on having?

I am not arguing for a total separation of sexuality from procreation (as Dave implies in his article). Rather, I am arguing that since the Church does already recognize that there are instances within a marriage when a couple can legitimately seek to express unitive love with no intent to procreate, it should be left to the couple to discern how they wish to do this.

Not where immorality is involved (explained previously).

Think of it this way: I’m saying an all-male celibate clergy should stop trying to micromanage marriages.

Nice liberal boilerplate. I’m saying that individuals who profess to be faithful Catholics should stop micromanaging the Church and their own beliefs. That is Protestantism, and I will never cease pointing this out when I run across it. I used to believe that, but I was consistent when I did. When I no longer accepted Protestant epistemological principles, I became a Catholic (without having to reject all the wonderful things I learned in Protestantism).

If you don’t accept Catholic epistemology and authority, you ought to become a Protestant, so you aren’t living this huge contradiction of calling yourself a Catholic but operating on Protestant principles. Nothing personal; I’m just calling it as I see it. If you can say the entire Church is so unreasonable in this area and gives absurd reasoning, certainly I can critique your individual beliefs. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

A fellow Catholic asked me to clarify one of my arguments:
***I have a question about the food analogy. I agree that it is a natural analogy to use, but I am curious about how far it can be carried. The example you gave is that we may not intend every act of eating to be explicitly for nutritional purposes, but eating to satisfy hunger does not frustrate that purpose.

As with all analogies, it isn’t perfect, but close enough. The main thrust of it is to show that we naturally think people are weird if they frustrate nutrition and go for taste only, or conversely, if they minimize the tastebuds and go strictly for nutrition. The interesting questions is: why do we instinctively know that is weird, yet we don’t (many of us, anyway) have this reaction to contraception?

So where does that leave the warm butter-rum bundt cake with a scoop of ice cream I had for dessert?

In your belly and in my envious desires. LOL Seriously, it leaves it in the same place as sex with my wife when she is infertile. The teaching is not that there is never a time when pleasure can take place to the exclusion of procreation (for it does in sex with a post-menopausal woman, and I am unaware that the Church teaches couples to abstain after menopause, or, say, after an accident or disease leaving one or both partners infertile).

Rather, it is forbidden to separate what would be together, but for an artificial, contrived method or contraption to achieve an end that is unnatural and contrary to natural law. Having sex during a fertile period by using devices meant to frustrate natural processes and purposes is doing that, and it is sinful. The couple using NFP in a legitimate, non-frivolous, non-selfish use of family planning doesn’t do that. They abstain during the fertile periods. This is the difference. One practice violates natural law, the other doesn’t.

Secondly, even junk food has some nutritional value and use in the body. We need sugar (though I would argue that most of the sugar we eat is unnaturally robbed of nutrients by man and is not the way God intended it –the same applies to white flour). I’m a great natural foods advocate, but I still have a sweet tooth. So almost all food will have some carbohydrates, fat, protein and minerals and vitamins of some sort. Thus it is useful.

It is only the extremes which bolster the analogy: the vomitorium, etc., where the nutritional aspect is utterly rejected in favor of the taste or some bizarre pleasure of spitting it up again. Thus, contraception would be most analogous to the vomitorium, not a sweet snack after dinner. But even those who enjoy sweets overmuch usually try to have some meat and vegetables at dinnertime, whereas people who contracept can decide to go their entire (married) lives and deliberately refuse to have children.

[Later Note: I discovered that a separate room in ancient Rome solely for vomiting (a “vomitorium”) is a myth; however, some Romans still participated in “ritual vomiting,” so to speak, and that certainly backs up the point I was making:

Stories of Roman orgies with the participants throwing up during the meal are described in Roman courtier Petronius’ Satyricon, from the 1st century AD, but no specific room is designated for the act. Cassius Dio in his Roman History and Suetonius, secretary of correspondence to the emperor Hadrian, in his On the Lives of the Caesars also provide plenty of stories of imperial excess and vomiting while dining. (“What was really a vomitorium?,” Archaeology.Wiki, 1-27-17) ]

It is hard to argue that nutritional needs are being met.

They are, as explained; just not to the extent as with other foods (say, a tuna casserole or steak dinner with all the works or something).

The best I have come up with is that just as every conjugal act need not intend life, every thing eaten need not supply nutrition. Eating becomes disordered, however, when my desire for sweets takes over and I start popping bon bons for dinner. In other words, I am seeking the pleasure of eating to the exclusion of the nutritional (life-giving) purposes. Does that work or is it too much of a stretch?

Well, your latter explanation fits in with how I reasoned with regard to the food analogy. I hope I have made myself a little more clear. Thanks for the question.

The distinction you [someone other than me, commenting on my blog] make between “frustrating the act” and abstaining is interesting, and I’ve heard it many times, and I confess it’s a better way of putting it than making a distinction between “natural v. artificial”. Nevertheless, the question becomes “Why?”

I think I have given adequate answer to that.

Turning back to Dave, you asked why a Catholic would remain Catholic if either following sola scriptura or denying the authority of the Church. I do not believe in sola scriptura. I’m way too Catholic on that one. I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture and in Sacred Tradition and in natural reason.

But you have often reasoned in individual instances exactly how a Protestant would reason: e.g., Scripture is not clear and explicit on thus-and-so, so we cannot draw any particular conclusion.

Regarding Sacred Tradition, I make a distinction between what is defined infallibly through the use of extraordinary magisterium, and what is defined as authoritative through ordinary magisterium.

This is incorrect. The ordinary magisterium is also infallible if what is proclaimed is done so according to the constant teaching of the Church. The ban on contraception is a very clear example of this. There is not just one level of infallibility (Vatican I / ex cathedra, etc.).

I also believe that Tradition develops, like a good conversation. I believe the Holy Spirit guides the process of this development. For example, it is impossible that saint Luke understood “full of grace” to mean Mary was immaculately conceived when Luke did not know how biological conception took place. However, as theologians discussed the meaning of “full of grace” through the centuries, the notion of the immaculate conception came to be understood as God’s revelation and was solemnly defined through extraordinary magisterium.

I fully agree.

However, ordinary magisterium has sometimes held things authoritatively that turned out to be false. Pope Honorius I was condemned as a heretic by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon because he held monothelite views as Pope.

This is incorrect on several levels. First of all, the Honorius case had nothing to do with “ordinary magisterium” whatsoever because the texts in question were private letters (as all sides agree): not at all anything public, let alone binding on all the faithful.

Secondly, it is not at all certain that Honorius even held these views. Catholic historians differ. It may have been simply a confusion of terminology or imprudent expression.

Thirdly, he was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 681, not Chalcedon in 451 (which would have been quite an interesting phenomenon since it occurred over 100 years before he was born).

Fourthly, the condemnation was for negligence in fighting the heresy, not actively promulgating it.

Slavery was once thought to be in accord with natural law and God’s will, but Vatican II condemns it as contrary to human dignity.

Another issue . . .

The issue of contraception has never been defined through extraordinary magisterium, and I believe that the Holy Spirit has intentionally left the issue open for further development.

It is defined infallibly in the ordinary magisterium and no Catholic is at liberty to dissent from it. Mortal sins in Catholic theology do not “develop” into perfectly acceptable, non-sinful practices. That is not development but corruption, revolution, and overthrow. You suffer from a fundamental mis-application and misunderstanding of category and the definition of legitimate development of doctrine.

If contraception is wrong, the Holy Spirit is calling the Church to come up with a clearer and more cogent reason that is inherently more persuasive to people.

Well, hey, that is my role: apologetics. I think the Church has done a fine job. People either don’t grasp its reasoning on this, or don’t want to because it is difficult to live out. But I don’t see that as the Church’s fault. Contraception is like Chesterton’s saying about Christianity in general: it “has not been tried and found wanting, but rather, it has been found difficult and left untried.”

If it is right in certain circumstances, the Holy Spirit is using people like myself (or Curran, McBrien, etc…) to help the Church come to grips with this.

I would listen to Balaam’s ass long before I would trust either of these clowns to shed insight on an issue which is already crystal-clear in Catholic tradition.

Either way, the voice of dissent is a necessary step in the process.

In the liberal and secularist mindset, but not in Catholic theology and ecclesiology.

Rather than leave the Church, I see that I have a role in the Church as the “loyal opposition” who spurs the discussion.

Just as all liberals think. I couldn’t disagree more, but I appreciate your transparent honesty, at least.

It is important to note that while a topic is still not infallibly defined, even saints have been in error. Saint Thomas Aquinas rejected the doctrine of immaculate conception. He was also wrong on the exact moment human life begins.

Of course. Nothing new there.

Of course, people criticize me for discussing this with laity who may not have taken graduate courses in theology.

Why in the world would they do that? Are they too good and superior to the rest of us lamebrains? This is delicious . . . you’re making all my critiques for me.

This is where my original concern comes into play. I am very concerned about the judgmental attitude that can occur when a person can say that 80-90% are doing something gravely immoral, and the issue is so understandably questionable.

It’s not questionable at all. It’s very clear in Catholic teaching. And why is it judgmental to say something is wrong when it is wrong? Is it “judgmental” to tell an alcoholic that he is drinking himself to death and must stop or to tell a woman that an abortion is a grave sin and will wreck her life? Quite the contrary; this is a profound form of love: you love a person so much that you will tell them a “hard truth” that may make them angry at you, because you are concerned for their welfare and what is best for them.

Most homosexuals will die fairly young, either of AIDS or of several diseases which were greatly disproportionate among homosexuals before AIDS was ever heard of. But according to them it is “judgmental” to urge them to stop what they are doing (which might also land them in hell, if they know God’s commands and deliberately disobey them). You call that judgment; I call it love.

I continue to go back to the clear warning in Scripture about making such a judgment – especially if there is good reason to doubt the veracity of the claims of the Vatican.

Incoherent . . . silly . . .

It is more important to warn against judgmentalism than to worry about whether married couples are contracepting.

Not according to the Church. But it fits in well with political correctness, the sexual revolution, and postmodernism.

I think we are near the end of our discussion. As so often, it really boils down to a willingness to accept the Church’s teaching or not. You have made it very clear that you are not willing to do so in this matter, and on inadequate grounds, in my opinion. And it is a loving thing for me to tell you this, not a judgmental thing, since you want to be a Catholic in good standing, and I am simply telling you what that entails in this regard.


(originally 2-13-04)

Photo credit: The Meeting of Tamar and Judah (c. 1558), by Tintoretto (1519-1594) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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