Thursday, January 04, 2007

Debate on the Morality of Masturbation (Onan) (vs. Steve Hays)

By Dave Armstrong (1-4-07)

Steve Hays' words will be in blue. Comments of others besides myself will be in green, and my words cited are in purple. As everyone knows, I normally don't try (for various reasons) to dialogue with anti-Catholics, anymore, as a matter of policy (I decided this after ten full years of hair-pulling futility). But Steve's statements on this topic were so outrageous that I felt compelled to comment on his blog, and then, sure enough, it became a little "exchange" (at least Steve has the courage of his convictions, unlike virtually all other anti-Catholics I have encountered). So be it. I will always call sin sin, when it is necessary.

* * *

I didn't say I approve of masturbation. I don't approve or disapprove. From what I can tell, Scripture is silent on the issue, so I'm not going to condemn something as sin unless it falls under the condemnation of Scripture.

That doesn't mean I commend it. It means that I have no firm opinion one way or the other.

2.What I do object to is an extrascriptural scrupulosity that is stricter than the Bible itself.

. . . There's a question of how to interpret the apparent silence of Scripture on the subject of masturbation. On the one hand, Scripture is very specific and even explicit about naming sexual sins. On the other hand, masturbation is extremely prevalent.

If masturbation is a sin, then it's a little odd that Scripture would leave the believer guessing about its moral status.

. . . At the risk of stating the obvious, the lack of an erotic outlet for single men in their sexual prime is, itself, a source of lust and sexual tension. In that context, masturbation is a way of releasing the pent up, psychological preoccupation with sex.

This may be good or bad, but if we're going to frame the morality of the act in terms of lust, we need to keep in mind that the objection to masturbation as lustful actually cuts both ways.

At the risk of stating the obvious, how do we teach our kids about sex (whether homeschooling or private Christian education) without visuals of one sort of another? Since premarital sex is illicit, the only licit alternative is either diagrams or an active sexual imagination.

(2 January 2007)

I'm not proposing that masturbation is a substitute for marriage. The question, rather, is whether it's a sexual safety value for singles - especially younger men (once again, I don't presume to speak for women).

"Masturbation is inherently self-centered."

You might as well say that eating an ice cream cone is inherently self-centered.

But, then, maybe you think that ice cream is intrinsically evil.

. . . I'm not going to guilt-trip Christians for doing something that isn't condemned in Scripture - as far as I can see.

Both in Catholicism and certain legalistic Protestant denominations, there is a tradition of going way beyond Scripture to amend the Decalogue with a string of additional "Thou shalt nots" that you can't find in Scripture.

. . . JimmyV said:

"Instead of relying on Steve and his 'wisdom' gained over the past 40 years, let's use the 2,000 year history of our Church."

1. Which church would that be?

2. What about using 3500 years of Biblical wisdom instead?

3. Are celibate clergy experts on sex?

"The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose."

The deliberate use of the nose and ears as a platform for glasses is essentially contrary to their auditory, olfactory, or respiratory purposes.

"To form an equitable judgement about the subject's moral responsbility, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety, or other psychological or social factors that can lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability."

So a 5-year-old who wears glasses is not as culpable as a 25-year-old.

What about the use of the lips and lungs to play a trumpet in order to derive musical pleasure? Is that a venial or mortal sin?

(3 January 2007)

* * * * *

Scripture certainly does condemn masturbation (and contraception by the same token). 
This is precisely the reason why there was a consensus on both contraception and masturbation among all Christians: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, until very recently, when theological liberalism, higher criticism of the Bible, and the sexual revolution, bore their pathetic fruit.

This is why Luther and Calvin both wrote with extreme disdain for Onan and his sin, whereas many of today's Protestants have a ho-hum or neutral attitude about these grave sins:

Martin Luther:

Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed . . . He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him . . . That worthless fellow . . . preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.

(Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44; 1544; LW, 7, 20-21)

John Calvin:

It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is doubly horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born . . . Moreover he [Onan] thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime.

(Commentary on Genesis [38])

* * *
I find it equally remarkable that in 32 comments on masturbation and Scripture, not a single mention was made of Onan thus far. Yet his story was understood very widely as dealing with both masturbation and contraception, for many centuries.
It's amazing indeed, but (sadly) not surprising. This is what liberalism brings about. Even otherwise conservative Christians caving in on grave mattrs of sin such as these. I chided James Dobson (whom I admire very much) for compromising on this, too.

The tide is slowly turning, thank God. I recently noted that some prominent Protestants are re-examining the question of contraception.

* * *

"I'm surprised by your neutrality with regard to masturbation and single males. First of all, God created sex to involve two parties, 'He made them male and female'."

i) This is a good example of how our reading of Scripture is unconsciously conditioned by extrascriptural assumptions.

Juan defines masturbation as sex. But the Bible doesn't define masturbation as sex. And the Bible doesn't define it as sex for the simple reason that the Bible doesn't discuss masturbation at all.

So his appeal is circular. He classifies a certain behavior as sexual, although the Bible is silent on this specific behavior, and then he plugs that extrabiblical definition into the Biblical framework of sexual sin.

ii) Aside from the above stated circularity, there is also a basic incoherence in his definition. If the Bible defines sex as a two-party transaction, and masturbation is a solo behavior, then, by definition, masturbation wouldn't qualify as sex.

iii) Juan is half-right. Wherever the Bible talks about either licit or illicit sex, it's a two-party transaction, whether premarital sex, extramarital sex, marital sex, sodomy, or bestiality.

So, one could agree with his premise, but draw a different conclusion. Since the only forms of sexual sin targeted in Scripture involve two-party transactions, masturbation doesn't fall under the operating definition.

Again, I'm not saying that masturbation isn't sex. And I'm not saying that masturbation isn't wrong.

I'm simply noting that, as of yet, the critics of my noncommittal position aren't coming up with very good arguments.

Instead, they're importing extrascriptural assumptions into the text of Scripture, as well as resorting to very slipshod forms of reasoning.

This is well-meaning, but it illustrates the fact that they really haven't thought through the issues before rushing to judgment.

("Onanism," 1-4-07)

I find it equally remarkable that in 32 comments on masturbation and Scripture, not a single mention was made of Onan thus far. Yet his story was understood very widely as dealing with both masturbation and contraception, for many centuries.As this is a textbook example of why tradition is an unreliable guide to exegesis.

i) In context, Gen 38:8-10 is describing coitus interruptus rather than masturbation. These are hardly equivalent.

Onan was having sex with a woman. That is how he achieved a state of sexual climax.

Is that interchangeable with masturbation? I don't think so.

I anticipated this response and should have issued a "preemptive strike." The two are ethically similar if not identical insofar as they both separate ejaculation from its proper sphere (in the context and act of intercourse, open to procreation, which is its deepest ontological purpose). Onan deliberately removed himself from proper sexuality and "interrupted" it with de facto masturbation.

Homosexual sex, or sodomy, is another instance of the same. They are all essentially the same on a moral plane because they deny the divine purpose of sexuality: procreation, and even the accompanying purpose of the unity and oneness of a man and a woman in lovemaking.

Besides, most Protestants are no more opposed to contraception than (many) are to masturbation. You may say this is solely contraception and has no bearing on masturbation at all, but even if one grants that (I don't, per the above) you still have to explain how the Bible explicitly condemns it and Onan winds up dead. Theories about his failure to do the levirate duty, etc., fall flat with cross-referencing, as I showed, particularly in my longer paper.

So you are in a position of defending a sexual morality that is explicitly condemned in the Bible, in the case of contraception (specifically an old variant of it: coitus interruptus). Any way you slice the cake, the Protestant who has (knowingly or not) caved into the sexual revolution in part, has severe biblical problems to contend with.

Talmudic literature draws a clear distinction between contraception and masturbation

Cf. E. Ullendorff, "The Bawdy Bible," BSOAS 42 (1979), 425-56.

One may abstractly or conceptually distinguish the two, but it doesn't follow that:
1) they were not both condemned by the ancient Jews,


2) that Genesis 38 has no bearing on masturbation at all.
Fr. Brian Harrison did a huge study on ancient exegesis of Genesis 38: "The Sin of Onan Revisited". He showed that your overall contention is incorrect and that the Talmud also associated masturbation with the condemnation of Onan:
In the parable of the sower, the idea of seed which falls upon the ground, rather than in it, symbolizes a fundamental sin: rejection of the Word of God (cf. Lk. 8: 5-6, 12-13). In Hebrew poetic thought a woman's body in its capacity for fruitfulness and motherhood is sometimes alluded to under images of a "garden" in which seed is to be sown (cf. Song of Songs 4: 12-16; 5: 1; 6: 1-2). Indeed, the very fact that in Hebrew the same word (zerah) is used for both 'semen' and 'seed' suggests that the potential for fruitfulness is understood as essential to any sexual activity."

"The Encylopedia Judaica (Vol. 4, p. 1054, article "Birth Control") states: "Jewish tradition ascribed the practice of birth control to the depraved humanity before Noah (Gen. R. 23: 2, 4; Rashi to Gen. 4: 19, 23)." (For further confirmation of Jewish views on this point, cf. H. Hirsch Cohen, The Drunkenness of Noah [University of Alabama Press].) The Encylopedia article adds that on the basis of Gen. 38: 9-10, "the Talmud sternly inveighs against 'bringing forth the seed in vain', considering it a cardinal sin (Nid. 13a). . . . Strictly Orthodox [Jews], . . . for religious reasons, refuse to resort to birth control." In the same Encyclopedia, under "Onanism" (Vol. 12, p. 1495), it is stated that the act of Onan "is taken . . . by the Talmud (Yev. 34b) to refer either to unnatural intercourse or (cf. Nid. 13a) to masturbation. The Zohar [a 13th century work] expatiates on the evil of onanism in the second sense." Other works by Jewish authors corroborating this tradition include D. Feldman, Marital Relations, Birth Control and Abortion in Jewish Law (New York: Schocken Books, 1974) and J. Cohen, 'Be Fertile, Increase, Fill the Earth and Master It' (Cornell University Press, 1989).
Fr. Harrison summarized:
The classical Jewish commentators - who can scarcely be accused of ignorance regarding Hebrew language, customs, law, and biblical literary genres - certainly saw in this passage of Scripture a condemnation of both unnatural intercourse and masturbation as such. A typical traditional Jewish commentary puts it thus: "[Onan] misused the organs God gave him for propagating the race to unnaturally satisfy his own lust, and he was therefore deserving of death." And this is undoubtedly in accord with the natural impression which most unprejudiced readers will draw from the text of Genesis 38.
So it's Armstrong's interpretation which is anachronistic.

Hardly, as just shown. Moreover, Joseph Schenker is the Professor and Chairman of the Department Of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Hadassah, University Medical Centre, Jerusalem, Israel, wrote:
The collection of semen can present problems because of the prohibition against masturbation and "seed wasting". Masturbation is strictly condemned by the rabbinical sources: "Thou should not commit adultery, neither by hand, nor by foot". Coitus interruptus, or withdrawal, and the use of condoms are generally prohibited on the basis of the Biblical injunction against "spilling of the seed needlessly".
See the texts in the Babylonian Talmud itself: Niddah 13a / 13b.

iii) He also rips the verse out of context in another way:

"It refers to the levirate law of antiquity (the Latin levir means 'a husband's brother') . . . Here and elsewhere (Deut 25:6; Ruth 4:10) it is for the preservation of the dead brother's name and family. In addition, the law is one of inheritance so that the dead mans' property will remain in the extended family. Finally, it is for the protection of the widow so that she should not have to sell herself for debt or have to marry outside the clan," J. Currid, Genesis (Evangelical Press 2003), 2:209.

"Onan apparently does not want to father a son who will prevent him from receiving his deceased brother's inheritance," V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Eerdmans 1995), 436.

"Onan's refusal is explained by his knowledge that the son will not be his (38:9). We need to recognize, then, that there is a birthright issue here. Er was the firstborn and entitled to the birthright. If he has no offspring, the birthright will transfer to Onan. If, however, Tamar bears a son that is considered Er's, the birthright will pass to that son. We can therefore conclude that Onan is punished by death for preserving his inheritance rights by disposing of the competition," J. Walton, Genesis (Zondervan 2001), 668.

Not at all. I already dealt with the "comeback" of appealing to the levirate law, in both my short and long articles. Here is my response in the shorter one, which is actually a chapter in my soon-to-be-published book, called The One-Minute Apologist:
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).
Does Catholic moral theology endorse bigamy? Does it sanction a married man cohabiting with his sister-in-law to keep the property in the family?

If not, why is Armstrong appealing to the tribal custom describe in Gen 38:8-10? It either proves too much or too little for his own purposes.

To the contrary, Onan was not killed for violating this law (nor was anyone else), but for the sin of contraception, which is essentially similar to the sin of masturbation. You are the one who is out to sea here in your exegesis (and your history).

Since the morality of masturbation is debatable, there's nothing wrong with entertaining doubts.

It only is debatable in modernistic Christianity and biblical interpretation; this is the problem. Fancy that!: Steve Hays: the victim of modernism and liberalism in both sexual morality and hermeneutics. How ironic . . .

Some of our feelings are irrational or unjustified or exaggerated. But that's the thing about feelings.

It's like a phobia. Fear of heights. It may be irrational, but you can't suppress or eradicate the feeling, so you just learn to live with it and work around it.

That's right. The liberals make the same exact argument about kids having sex: they'll do it anyway and can't control themselves so we must let them do so and no longer say it is wrong. This reduces human beings to the level of the brute beast. Nice going there.

They give them condoms: you wink while little boys play with themselves and arouse fantasies and improper sexual feelings. Let 'em do it. This is pure sexual revolution thinking, through and through. It's not traditional Christian or biblical teaching, by any stretch of the imagination.


Tom said...

Isn't Onan's sin not so much the masturbation, but his refusal to follow the law and marry his late brother's wife? While I am a baptized Catholic, I'm afraid I have to agree with the Protestants on this one, Dave. On a related issue, contraception, it has seemed to me for a very long while that our Church's position on that question has been confusing at best. Pope Paul VI ignored the advice of his own commission in determining to continue with the Church's blanket condemnation of the practice. Seems to me a more nuanced position is called for -- perhaps one which rejects only those forms of contraceptive that cause an already fertilized egg to be expelled from the woman's body?

Thanks for your blog; some very good things here.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Tom,

I think your counter-argument fails.

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.

I get into that consideration in greater depth in my paper, "Why Did God Kill Onan? Luther, Calvin, Wesley, C.S. Lewis, & Others on Contraception"

Glad you like my blog. I have lots of arguments against contraception on this web page:

Phil said...

I have put your argument against masturbation to a certain person who puts forth the following objection:

"Armstrong is so caught up in Old Testament law that he completly overlooks the love of Christ. The morality of acts is not dependent on external signs (e.g the spilling of seed outside the vulva) but on internal thought and feeling. If somebody masturbates with loving intent then it is not a sin. Armstrong has a legalistic absession. Instead of reading the church fathers on masturbation he should turn to John Paul IIs theology of the body."

Phil said...

"his rigiity reflects judgementalism and prejudice that is not Christian and contrary to the gospel."

Dave Armstrong said...

Right. So now masturbation is fine and dandy, huh? Where and how did this big change in Christian moral teaching occur? Calvin and Luther were just as strongly opposed to it as Catholics are.

Maroun said...

Hi guys.
I would like to quote also the words of saint Augustine , on adultery and unchastity...
If we look at 5 different persons which have not commited adultery or unchastity , we as humanbeings would say that they were all chaste and pure,but when we look at the reasons why each one of them didnt commit adultery or unchastity then things change dramatically.
The first one didnt commit adultery because he couldnt,and the second didnt commit adultery because he didnt have the chance , and the third didnt commit adultery because he is afraid of being caught in the act , the fourth didnt do it because he tried and didnt succeed , and the fifth didnt do it because as an obedient son of God , he loved God`s commandments and trusted His heavenly Father and obeyed Him...Now for God only the last one was chaste and pure and didnt commit adultery .
So when we speak of masturbation , again it`s the same thing,that person is unchast and not pure and he is or she is commiting adultery or something else like unpure desires in his or her heart .So no matter how we try to justify the act of masturbation , it is a sin and never as something positive or indifferent.
So i cannot see how anyone could ever say that masturbation is not a sin or not condemned in scripture?because remember that even to think of anything evil or desire anything lustful is already a sin,check for example the ninth commandment.

Phil said...

Your point exactly Dave, and I said the same thing. That all Christian denominations have held to the ban on masturbation and contraception until the mid twentieth century, and that one has to account for this.

They said that it is impossible to comply with this rule since "all men masturbate", "not to masturbate causes desperation in men" and "many would laugh in your face if you told them not to do it". I asked them to explain how then many cultures placed tabboo on the act, and that it was widely condemned in the Middle ages, even though men and their sex drive have remained mostly unchanged through history. It was replied that in the Middle ages people married earlier leaving less time for them to experiment. I then asked them to explain the medical condemnations of masturbation from the 18th century. They said that even if doctors condemned it in the 1700s, most men would still ignore it and thus proved nothing. It was then told me that for a man, to not masturbate is to "castrate himself".

The scenario was then put to me of someone "masturbating out of love for another person". I asked how this could be and it was replied that "if one is madly in love with an unnatainable person, sometimes masturbation is the only solution".

Phil said...


After I mentioned Dave's citation of the Jewish and Early Christian idea that all spilling of seed outside of the Vulva was a sin, it was said that "Dave had an old testament legalistic obsession of the same kind that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees" and "what's he gonna do? Become a Jew or something?".

An analogy was drawn. They granted that even if Masturbation was sinful and unhealthy, it was still not wrong. They compared it to an obese person who eats incessantly and is harming himself. It was asked "Is this guy sinning?", I said "If he is aware of the harm then, yes", it was answered "no he isn't,even if he harms himself it is the thoughts and feelings that count. For Jesus saw into people's hearts and said that only there can the sin be found." "And if a man kills his agressor to defend himself is it a sin?", "No", I replied", "therefore", came the answer, "If one masturbates with love it is not a sin."

Dave Armstrong said...

Well, I don't waste my time with special pleaders who have a direct emotionally-based interest in what they are advocating. That's neither rationality nor true discussion and inquiry. It's emotionalism, will, and sophistry. Add to that a built-in prejudice against both Christianity and any semblance of moral tradition, and it's hopeless.

Phil said...

How was it special pleading?

Dave Armstrong said...

If someone is truly interested in debating a point, they will cease and desist from immediate judging of the opponent, as happened here. That's a tactic used to avoid rational discussion from the outset.

It's special pleading because obviously these people aren't interested in actually discussing the matter. They're too busy rationalizing away how any sane adult could believe it was wrong.

I can spot the mentality in two seconds, from over 30 years experience of intense discussions on theology, etc.

Jarrett said...

Thanks for this blog Dave. It is fascinating to me the evidence you have brought to this issue from old testament law and morality and I almost laughed out loud when someone rebutted that you should turn to JPII's Theology of the Body, as if that somehow justifies masturbation (unless I misunderstood their intent). Anyway, I'm sure someone as well read as yourself is familiar with the Theology of the Body, and I also understand that you're confining and directing your argument to specifically towards whether or not the old testament forbids masturbation, but wouldn't some of the arguments present in the Theology of the Body be useful in explaining why masturbation is wrong in light of the true beauty of sex and sexuality? I only think that someone would be much more ammenable to such a restriction (which is what you are proving does exist) if they understand it is for the sake of true and pure love, total gift of self.

Dave Armstrong said...

Yeah; that would be a good approach. My emphasis in my apologetics, however, is usually on the Bible, because of the need to convince Protestants, who are the Scripture Alone folks. It's my favorite way to argue anyway. I love delving into the Bible. It's always an exciting adventure of discovery.

Hannah said...

I don't mean to in any way advocate masturbation, but I'd like to point out that the commentary in the Catholic New American Bible actually seems to agree with Hays's interpretation of Onan.

""Preserve your brother's line: literally "raise up seed for your brother." The ancient Israelites regarded as very important their law of levirate, or "brother-in-law" marriage; see notes on Deut 25:5; Ruth 2:20. In the present story, it is primarily Onan's violation of this law, rather than the means he used to circumvent it, that brought on him God's displeasure (Genesis 38:9-10)."

Dave Armstrong said...

That is one reply, but I think it fails when exegetical and cross-referencing factors are taken into consideration. I refuted it in another paper of mine:

Dialogue: Why Did God Kill Onan? Why is Contraception Condemned by the Catholic Church?

The NAB footnotes are notoriously liberal. I wouldn't place all that much confidence in them in the first place, myself.

Hannah said...

Well, that brings up another issue. If the footnotes in the officially sanctioned New American Bible really are overly liberal compared to the actual teaching of the Catholic Church, isn't that a serious problem for millions Catholics who use it as their source of Scripture?

Maroun said...

Hannah said..
I don't mean to in any way advocate masturbation, but I'd like to point out that the commentary in the Catholic New American Bible actually seems to agree with Hays's interpretation of Onan.

""Preserve your brother's line: literally "raise up seed for your brother." The ancient Israelites regarded as very important their law of levirate, or "brother-in-law" marriage; see notes on Deut 25:5; Ruth 2:20. In the present story, it is primarily Onan's violation of this law, rather than the means he used to circumvent it, that brought on him God's displeasure (Genesis 38:9-10)."
Maybe and i am not trying to explain what they meant,but in my Jerusalem bible,it`s both,it was breaking the levitical law , and God condemns both his selfishness ( Onan ) and his sin against the divine law of marriage.
So i believe that you are right,when you wonder why?
The least i could say , is that what they said is not enough and i wonder why?
Thank you for pointing it out for us and GBU

Dave Armstrong said...

If the footnotes in the officially sanctioned New American Bible really are overly liberal compared to the actual teaching of the Catholic Church, isn't that a serious problem for millions Catholics who use it as their source of Scripture?


Constantine said...

DA wrote:

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.

In response,

But the flip side is that given the extensive and explicit condemnations of other sexual acts in the OT - including the requisite penalties - the absence of same with regard to masturbation and contraception is a strong argument from silence. In fact, that is the point made by the preeminent Catholic scholar on this topic:

“It can scarcely be surmised that there was no occasion to legislate on contraception…There is explicit post-Exilic legislation (Lv 18:22, 20:13, 20:15-16, Dt 23:18). If these acts had to be prohibited by law, it seems unlikely that, in the absence of clear prohibition, the Jewish people would have believed that coitus interruptus or the use of contraceptives was immoral…These considerations – the lack of any commandment, the contrast with other explicit regulations on marriage, the evident need to restrain other forms of sexual misconduct – support the view that contraception is not the act for which Onan was killed. The story nonetheless furnished a striking example by which later commentators, Jewish and Christian, could demonstrate the sinfulness of contraception.” Noonan, John T., Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 35 ff.

For anyone really interested in this topic, I highly recommend Noonan’s book. It is written by a Catholic Ph.D. (Catholic University in America), and it uses Catholic sources. It is prohibitively expensive to buy, but may be available at local seminary libraries. It also dispels the misconception of anything like a “uniform teaching” on this topic in the Christian era. And it documents the wide and divergent uses of Genesis 38 – including its abject avoidance in the Catechism – throughout church history.


Dave Armstrong said...

Noonan (I have his book) is a liberal who doesn't accept the Church's dogmatic teaching on contraception. It was forbidden by the early Church and even by the early Protestants (and indeed by all Protestant bodies until 1930):

Contraception: Early Church Teaching (William Klimon)

Contraception and the "Fewer Children is Better" Mentality: the Opposition of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Other Protestants