Dear Father, A friend recently said that since the Church has changed other teachings in the past it is just a matter of time until it changes the prohibition of contraception. Is this the case?
It is most certainly not the case. The use of contraception goes against the very purpose of marriage and therefore against the natural law, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 (cf. HV 4).
What is more, this teaching is not new but has been there since the beginning of the Church.
In this column I will write about the attitude to contraception in the early Church and in the next about the teaching in modern times.
As early as the year 191 AD St Clement of Alexandria wrote that “to have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature” (The Instructor of Children 2:10, 91, 2).
A few years later, in 225, St Hippolytus decried the fact that “[Christian women with male concubines], on account of their prominent ancestry and great property, the so-called faithful want no children from slaves or lowborn commoners, [so] they use drugs of sterility or bind themselves tightly in order to expel a foetus which has already been engendered”
(Refutation of All Heresies 9:12).
In the year 375 Epiphanius of Salamis also condemned the use of means to prevent conception. Speaking of certain Egyptian heretics, he wrote: “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” (Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5, 2).
A few years later, in 391, St John Chrysostom spoke strongly against spouses who prevented the conception of children: “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 only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well … 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 condemn the gift of God and fight with his laws? … Yet such turpitude … 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” (Homilies on Romans 24).
Writing in 419 St Augustine too was scathing in his criticism of spouses who engaged in marital intercourse while preventing conception. He said they were not really spouses at all: “I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed.
Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame.
Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility… Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction. If both are not like this, I dare to say that either the wife is in a fashion the harlot of her husband or he is an adulterer with his own wife” (Marriage and Concupiscence 1:15, 17).
A century later St Caesarius of Arles wrote in a similar vein: “Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion so that she is unable to conceive or condemns in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides will she be held guilty, and, unless she undergoes suitable penance, she will be damned by eternal death in hell. If a woman does not wish to have children, let her enter into a religious agreement with her husband; for chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman” (Sermons 1:12).
As is clear, from the earliest centuries the use of contraception was looked upon as contrary to the very purpose of marriage.
It is a teaching that cannot be changed.