Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Biblical Evidence Against Contraception

By Dave Armstrong (5-3-06)

The following is a portion of my upcoming book, The One-Minute Apologist (Sophia Institute Press; 2007). All biblical quotations in my book (as usual) are from the RSV, unless otherwise noted:

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The Catholic ban on contraception is an arbitrary, unbiblical restriction
It's just one of many areas where Catholics are out of the mainstream

Initial reply

The prohibition of contraception was commonly accepted by all Christians: Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, until 1930. It is a biblical and patristic belief.

Extensive reply

Here is the classic biblical passage having to do with contraception:

Genesis 38:8-10: "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.' 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. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also."
This involved what is known as the "levirate law": the duty to produce offspring with the wife of a dead brother. But this is not why God killed Onan, since the penalty for that was public humiliation and shunning, not death (Dt. 25:5-10). Context also supports this interpretation, since immediately after this (Gen. 38:11-26), is the story of Onan's father Judah refusing to enforce the law and allow his other son, Shelah to produce a child with Tamar, his daughter-in-law. He was afraid that Shelah would be killed like Onan and his other wicked son, Er (38:7,11). Judah acknowledges his sin in 38:26: "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah." He wasn't killed, so it is unreasonable to contend that Onan was judged and killed by God for the very same sin that Judah committed (in the same passage). Onan was judged for contraception (sex with the deliberate intent to unnaturally prevent procreation).

There are a host of other biblical passages which exalt fertility and the blessing of many children, and the curse of none:

1) Married couples are to "be fruitful and multiply"; this is a blessing (Gen. 1:28; 9:1,7; 28:3; 35:11; Dt. 7:13-14; Ps. 107:38; 115:14; 128:1-4; Prov. 17:6; Ecc. 6:3).

2) Barrenness is contrary to blessing and "glory" (Ex. 23:25-26; Jer. 18:21; Hos. 9:11).

3) Procreation is central to marriage (Mal. 2:14-15).

4) Childbearing is so sacred that women are even said to be "saved" by it (1 Tim. 2:15).

5) It is God Who opens and closes wombs and causes a conception to occur (Gen. 20:17-18; 29:31; 30:2,22; Josh. 24:3-4; Ruth 4:13; Ps. 113:9).

6) Children are a gift from God (Gen. 17:16,20; 29:32-33; 33:5; Ps. 127:3).

But it is unreasonable in this day and age, in urban environments, to have ten or fifteen children. This is an outdated understanding of the meaning of marriage and parenthood. It may work on a farm or a desert, but not in cities and towns.

Reply to Objection

The Catholic Church doesn't force married couples to have ten children! But it does require them to agree to be fruitful and always open to life as the deepest meaning and purpose of marital union (thus ruling out artificial contraception). The problem today is not the refusal to have ten children, but the (often selfish or cynical) decision to have none at all, or very few, so that in Europe, most countries are below zero population growth, meaning that couples are averaging less than two children (while Muslims continue to have lots of children). This is an "anti-child" mentality. Children are often viewed as a mere inconvenience or a burden (even to the point of being slaughtered before they are born). The Bible, on the other hand, clearly states over and over that children (and many of them) are a blessing. Yet, sadly, millions of Christians today are far closer in outlook to secular (or ancient pagan) culture than the biblical worldview:

1 Chronicles 25:5: "All these were the sons of Heman the king's seer, according to the promise of God to exalt him; for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters."

Psalm 127:3-5: "Lo, sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them! . . ."

Martin Luther (the founder of Protestantism)

But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works.

(The Estate of Marriage, 1522; Luther's Works, Vol. 45, 46)

G.K. Chesterton

It has been left to the last Christians, or rather to the first Christians fully committed to blaspheming and denying Christianity, to invent a new kind of worship of Sex, which is not even a worship of Life. It has been left to the very latest Modernists to proclaim an erotic religion which at once exalts lust and forbids fertility . . . The new priests abolish the fatherhood and keep the feast - to themselves.

(The Well and the Shallows, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935, 233)


R. N. said...

Please, can you answer that objection? From Humanae Vitae:

"Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies."

It is not the case to say that "it is never lawful to do what is intrinsically evil", because in this alternative view one single act of contraception is not evil. Consider a couple that is waiting for the husband get a job, make use of contraception (for it is more effective than the natural methods) for some mouths, and then begin to have children. Why consider that each single act of contraception is a sin?

I´m from Brazil and my english is not perfect. Thank you.

Dave Armstrong said...

It's intrinsically sinful because by its very nature it deliberately frustrates the natural functions and separates the unitive and procreative functions of sexuality. It transgresses the natural order.

If a couple does not want to have a child at a particular time, for the proper reasons, then they can morally accomplish that end through NFP, by abstention.

My many papers and dialogues on contraception get into this in much greater depth. I'll have to refer you to them, for lack of time.

R. N. said...

Dave Armstrong,

But we know that in every women not ALL sexual relations are open to reproduction (it´s because of the infertile periods in woman´s cycle). So, why consider that this openness to reproduction must be verified in every single ACT of sexual relations, rather than in TOTALITY of married life?

I agree that in the majority of cases today, contraception is a sin. But why not considerar the reasonableness of some exceptional cases? It seems to me that catholic moral theology teaches "more geometrico" that the prohibition of contraception applies to each single ACT of sex. But that is in contradiction with nature of woman´s cycle.

I´m catholic, but Im having serious doubts in some questions in Moral Theology.

Dave Armstrong said...

I've made all the arguments I know of in this regard in my various papers on contraception. I'll have to refer back to those, for lack of time.

But the short answer is that the intrinsic evil lies in the "contralife will." By preventing any particular sexual act from being open to life we violate the very nature of it, and the natural law. We play God. That's why it is wrong.

R. N. said...

Thanks, mr Dave. Im reading your texts.

Now I am convinced of this doctrine (in Humanae Vitae). To be more sincere, I accept this doctrine, because of its reasonableness and because the authority of Catholic Church, but, if I were Pope Paul VI, my decision could be different (in fact, I think that my argument is not answered). But Im trying to understanding it. And Im happy that in Catholic Church personal opinions does not prevail.

Your blog is the best apologetic site in english language (my english writing is ridiculous, but I can read perfectly). God bless you.

Dave Armstrong said...

I guess that's good news, huh? Thanks for your very kind words.

AD said...

I am a practicing cradle-Catholic while my wife became Catholic before we got married 5yrs ago. I accept the teachings of the Catholic Church whereas she does not on the topic of artificial birth control. Our differing views have resulted in the removal of the sexual act from our marriage and is having negative consequences on it. We have 2 kids, please advise me on how to handle this. Thank you.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hello AD,

You need to reach a reasonable compromise. This is very serious, and shouldn't continue as it is now. If she is willing to learn NFP, then there could be common ground.

You can't have sex with artificial contraception involved. But she could during non-fertile periods, if it comes down to that.

I would recommend contacting the Couple-to-Couple League in your area:

Catholic Defender said...

About the question of abstinence, remember St. Paul's warning ( 1 Corinthians 7:3-5). Let mutual understanding and the love of each other be the goal of all.

marco said...

1... Judah's son was wrong because the woman's husband died and it was his position as the brother to give her a child to carry on the name of his brother... Using that scripture you would also have to force people to marry when a woman's husband dies then his brother or closest kin MUST marry her.. That was a cultural law, not a 10 commandment universal Law. And the transgression was for denying her a child, when it was his duty to provide offspring in the name of his brother...
2) using "be fruitful and multiply" would also mean it is sin to not be married, which we know is WRONG out of the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself who said some are given the gift of singleness to serve God and multiply the Kingdom of Christ... Sex is a gift for Marriage, and the Marriage bed is undefiled- but adulterers and whoremongers God Will Judge.