Contraception and Covenant

Contraception and Covenant: How the History of

the Contraception Debate in Moral Theology Can

Be Understood Within the Context of a Covenant-

Centered Ethic

Kevin E. Voss, MDiv, DVM, PhD (candidate)

Since the mid-20th century, Christian debate over artificial contraception has been a lively one, particularly after Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning the use of artificial means of contraception.[1] Conversely, many Protestant denominations have allowed the use of contraceptives within marriage. Protestants might wonder how the Catholic Church came to its determination regarding contraceptives and what arguments could be used concerning its use in marriage. The history of Catholic moral theology played an important role in the writing of Humanae Vitae. The development of doctrine regarding contraception was, in most instances, a reaction to historical circumstances or prevalent heresies of the day. Strict observance of the teaching by the masses waxed and waned in intensity from one era to the next.

This article will be published in two parts.  This first part will discuss how commitment to procreation was the central moral teaching separating Augustine from the Manicheans. Theologians and monks of the middle ages served to make Augustine’s condemnation of contraception a deep-seated part of Christian moral teaching. Thomas Aquinas judged the rectitude of the sex act in accordance with laws of nature. In the mid-20th century, when new birth control measures were invented, Protestants began to rethink Catholic presuppositions that led them to oppose the use of artificial contraceptive techniques.

The next part, published in a succeeding edition, will argue that, for those who accept a biblical, covenantal view of the relationship between God and humankind, the covenant-centered ethic of Paul Ramsey provides an insightful counterbalance to the position taken by traditional Catholic moral theology regarding the contraception debate because it emphasizes the relational aspect of marriage. Ramsey stresses the spheres of love and procreation rather than individual acts.

1.         Introduction

There is perhaps no practical aspect of moral theology in which the line between Catholic and non-Catholic thought is more clearly drawn than that of contraception.[2] This does not mean, of course, that all Catholics live according to the teaching put forth by the magisterium, nor does it mean that all non-Catholics disagree with what the Roman Church teaches. In fact, a study by Althaus showed that there was little difference among Protestants and Catholics in overall contraceptive prevalence.[3] The reasons for this are complex, but include the fact that the official teaching is neither preached by clergy nor accepted by laity.[4]

Today few other Christian churches stand with the Catholic Church on this issue.[5] This article will examine when this variation in teaching occurred. It is the goal of this paper to trace the historical moral teaching on contraception and then compare similarities and differences between the Catholic teaching and Protestant sexual teaching as typified by Paul Ramsey.

“Contraception” is a term that could be applied to any behavior that prevents conception, the joining of the ovum and sperm in the female reproductive tract. This paper will deal chiefly with the use of certain sexual practices and medications whose purpose is to prevent pregnancy in marriage. The use of the term “contraception” or “abortion” will generally here not include the rhythm method (i.e., natural family planning, or use of the non-fertile period). To make an accurate comparison between covenant ethics and Catholic teaching, it is first necessary to trace the history of the contraception debate in moral theology.

2.         Shaping of the Doctrine (Bible and Early Church)

The idea of using various techniques to prevent pregnancy is not a new idea. Ancients already knew about the use of coitus interruptus (withdrawal before ejaculation), potions, pessaries (vaginal suppositories), spermicides, genital salves, postcoital exercises, and the sterile period. Some contraceptives were crude, such as drinking “root potions,” as mentioned in the Talmud; vaginal placement of soft wool to absorb as much of the ejaculate as possible; and the use of pulverized crocodile dung in fermented mucilage. From circumstantial evidence, an inference may be drawn that contraception was a common social phenomenon in the Roman Empire.[6]

The Old Testament provides a structure basic to understanding the development of a Christian sexual ethic. The structure may be resolved into four propositions: woman is a person like man, marriage is good, fecundity is good, and not all sexual acts are necessarily good.[7] Basic themes are seen in the two accounts of man’s creation as found in the first two chapters of Genesis. The procreative aspect of marriage is emphasized in Genesis 1:27-28a: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’”[8] We find the relational aspect of marriage emphasized in Genesis 2: “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’” (vv. 22-23). The most obvious message of the Old Testament is that God blesses marriage and the procreation of children. However, there is no commandment against contraception in any of the codes of law given in the Old Testament. The closest thing we find to such a prohibition is recorded in Genesis 38, where Onan, who was a member of a privileged line, was condemned to death by God for spilling his semen “on the ground” during intercourse (sometimes called “onanism”) to keep from producing offspring for his brother. A question remains whether Onan was punished for his disobedience, his selfish disregard of his deceased brother’s interests, or for the act itself.[9] Nonetheless, this story fueled arguments against contraception for many future Jewish and Christian commentators.

Many passages of the New Testament helped develop the Christian teaching of marriage and favorably compared the relationship between man and wife to that of Christ and the church. It is evident that procreation as the primary purpose of marriage was not emphasized as it was in the Old Testament, and, again, the subject of contraception is not explicitly discussed. Any doctrine on the subject had to be constructed from inferences based on New Testament texts and the Old Testament teachings that were retained.[10]

The Jewish understanding of the purpose of intercourse may have influenced the early church. The Halakah consistently interprets Genesis 1:28 as a command to have children. Philo expressly condemns intercourse that is not specifically for procreation. With such an attitude present in Judaism, it is not surprising that many church fathers had similar views.[11] Even today, the Jewish attitude toward birth control accepts practices that least interfere with the natural sex act; therefore, oral contraceptives are most preferred as the least objectionable method of birth control.[12]

With all this as background, Christian writers felt a need to respond to two major attitudes prevalent in the Greco-Roman world: (1) the religious position of the Gnostics, which was hostile to all procreation, and (2) a secular attitude that was indifferent toward the preservation of embryonic and infant life. “Gnosis” was a Greek word meaning “knowledge.” Gnostics claimed to have a special knowledge higher than that of ordinary Christians. An influential branch of Gnostics was antinomian, believing that Christians were free of all moral law. This antinomian current devalued marriage, deprived marital relations of any particular purpose, and valued sexual intercourse as an experience in itself and not for the procreation that might follow.[13] There was also indifference toward early life in the secular Roman world of the first few centuries; the conventional Roman attitude on fetal and infant life was callous. Infanticide, abandonment, and abortion were all permissible. Christian moralists reacted rigorously against this established attitude. They taught that all life was sacred and charged that even the disruption of the life-giving process was homicide and parricide.

To answer questions forced on Christians by Gnostics and the secular world, second-century intellectuals had three resources: the New Testament, the Old Testament, and the law of nature. The requirements of love, as portrayed in the New Testament, may have seemed inappropriate for polemical use against the Gnostics. The Old Testament came under constant Gnostic attack. Therefore, writers placed great reliance on a Stoic argument, the law of nature.[14] Love was viewed as being totally distinct from sexual desire or procreation. The procreative function of intercourse was vigorously defended so contraception was considered sinful if it prevented the possibility of fertilization. Condemnations on abortion by the early church were striking and clear. However, although it opposed taking “medicines,” the church never explicitly addressed the sinfulness of a single contraceptive act by married persons with reason not to have more children. It is hard to decipher whether “medicines” were rejected because they were abortifacients, contraceptives, or associated with the occult and fornication. Noonan reflects: “If abortion is so often castigated, and contraception so little, contraception cannot have been regarded generally as a major offense against God.”[15]

Several Christian writings from the first to fourth centuries do give possible condemnations of contraception. The Didache sets out a Way of Life and a Way of Death. The Way of Life is filled with sins, one of which is the taking of “medicine,” another is the use of magic arts. The evil men who follow this way are “murders of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God.”[16] The Epistle of Barnabas contains similar wording.[17] Another possible reference to contraception occurs in the Octavius of Minucius Felix. He contrasted the chaste behavior of Christians with those who “extinguish the source of a future man in their very bowels” with the use of drugs. [18] The first clear reference to contraception by a Christian writer (possibly Hippolytus) is in the Elenchos written between 220 and 230 A.D. The writer condemns those who use drugs of sterility or bind themselves tightly in order to abort a fetus.[19]

In the fourth century, Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, but the need to oppose a Gnostic reading of the Gospels regarding sexual freedom became even more acute. For Christian writers, Gnostic sexual practices were the antithesis of Christian marital conduct, the ultimate separation of the procreative and relational aspects of marriage. In 384 A.D., Jerome writes to Eustochium, telling her about some of the despicable contraceptive practices of Christian high society in 384 A.D.: “Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception.”[20] Here in unmistakable language, contraception was described as homicide.

Another threat to the church appeared in the third and fourth centuries. Manicheans believed in two opposing and eternal principles, light and dark. Man’s soul linked him with the kingdom of light, but his body brought him into bondage to the kingdom of darkness. Sexual activity and procreation were seen as evils. Augustine was a disciple of the Manicheans for twelve years and was influenced by them to some degree, but, after his conversion, he devoted a great deal of energy refuting it.[21] For Augustine, Manicheans were the archetypical advocates of contraception. He condemned them because they had sex without procreative purpose:

This proves that you (Manicheans) approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore, whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage and makes the woman not a wife but a mistress.[22]


As an aside, the method of contraception practiced by these Manicheans was the use of the sterile period as determined by Greek medicine. It is ironic that this pronouncement against contraception by one of the most influential church fathers is a vigorous attack against the one form of contraception now deemed morally acceptable by the Catholic Church.[23]

Manicheans believed that marriage was sinful because humans born within it are children of the dark side. Pelagians, on the other hand, thought that the marital state was not sinful because mankind is not born in sin. To them, Augustine replied that marriage is good, yet man, born of “carnal concupiscence,” contracts original sin.[24] Marriage was shown as good, concupiscence as evil, and marital intercourse as a mixture of the two.[25] In the only passage by Augustine expressly dealing with artificial contraceptives, he writes concerning the Pelagians: “Sometimes, indeed, this lustful cruelty, or, if you please, cruel lust, resorts to such extravagant methods as to use poisonous drugs to secure barrenness; or else, if unsuccessful in this, to destroy the conceived seed by some means previous to birth. . . . Well, if both parties alike are so flagitious, they are not husband and wife.”[26] This passage, often referred to as Aliquando (Latin for “sometimes”) later provided canon law with its term for contraceptives, “poisons of sterility,” and was to become the classical medieval policy on contraception. Here Augustine unequivocally condemned the practice of contraception by the married. He condemns the use of the sterile period and poisons of sterility as destructive of marriage. He cites the punishment of Onan as a warning and example.[27]

3.         Condemnation Ingrained (Middle Ages)

Peter Lombard made Augustine’s Aliquando familiar to every medieval student of theology. Gratian made it known to every student of canon law. However, Augustinian sexual pessimism gave way to a monastic code even more severe. Monks did not use the Augustinian analysis of contraception as being destructive of the goods of marriage. Instead, it was Jerome’s analysis of the contraceptive act as homicide that was employed.[28]

The penitentials transmitted the teaching of the monks, but indisputable evidence of this did not come before the eighth century. Early Anglo-Saxon penitentials speak of abortive practices, but not expressly of contraception. For example, in the Penitential of Theodore (archbishop of Canterbury, 668-690 A.D.), he writes, “A woman who conceives and slays her child in the womb within forty days shall do penance for one year; but if later than forty days, she shall do penance as a murderess.”[29] Likewise, The Old Irish Penitentials only provided penance for that which “has become established in the womb.”[30]

Caesarius and Gregory, monks who became bishops, were among those who opposed contraception in the early middle ages. The first bishop to exhort an entire province to turn against contraception was Caesarius. He had been a monk at Lérins and eventually became bishop of Arles, the primatial see of Gaul, a meeting point of German and Roman culture. In 522, Caesarius wrote:

Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion [an oral contraceptive] so that she is unable to conceive in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides she will 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.[31]


It is noteworthy that only women are spoken of as being guilty of committing contraception. Gregory I (590-604), the first strong medieval pope, also took a solemn and austere view of marriage morals, which “out-Augustined Augustine.”[32] In his writings, Stoic distrust of pleasure was pushed to the limit. Only the procreative purpose was considered pure. This is a significant development in Catholic sexual teaching, in contrast to that of the covenant-centered ethic.

The single most influential legacy of this period for the doctrine on contraception is a text of unknown authorship called Si aliquis. It incorporates Jerome’s view of contraception: “If someone [Si aliquis] to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink, so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.”[33] With the inclusion of Si aliquis in a collection of authoritative decrees assembled by Raymond of Pennaforte for Pope Gregory IX in 1230, the official opposition to contraception reached a pinnacle. A strong reaction against the Cathari, a Manichean sect flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries, is seen in Gregory’s selection of Si aliquis over Gratian’s choice of Augustine’s Aliquando. Gregory’s new decretals became the law of the Catholic Church for the next 685 years. In them, the orthodox commitment to marriage was reaffirmed by the assertion that procreation was an absolute in intercourse, and contraception was once more condemned without exception.[34] The discipline of the penitentials had become the code of the papacy.

Following natural law, Aristotle’s reproductive theory, and the Irish Penitentials, Thomas Aquinas considered sins against nature (contra natura) to be more serious than sins in line with nature (secundum naturam). In his Summa Theologica, the “lustful” is a kind of human wickedness, “whereas unnatural sin is a sort of beastliness, as is clear from Aristotle, and not of human lustfulness.”[35] For example, Aquinas considered “self-abuse” to be a worse sin than rape insofar as rape was in line with nature, i.e., the seed ended up in the right place. He assumed that God instituted natural intercourse, and man should not alter the natural order. The focus of the church fathers, including Augustine, appeared to be on the uprightness that procreative purpose conferred on the sexual act, rather than on the achieved goal.  However, Aquinas shifted the theological perspective of the church fathers when he stressed the importance of the biological basis of morals and law when evaluating a sexual act, e.g., “unnatural sin is an act from which generation cannot follow.”[36] This is a second significant development in Catholic sexual teaching as compared to that of the covenant-centered ethic.

However, what finally became the medieval position against contraception consisted of the teaching of the penitentials and the work of Augustine. The bulk of the penitentials had been pared down to a single text, Si aliquis. When these words of uncertain authorship were inserted into Gregory’s decretals, it became universally authoritative. As for Augustine, he was the enemy of all forms of birth control. To summarize, contraception was condemned thus far on three grounds: (1) it was homicide, (2) it was against nature, and (3) it destroyed the marital relationship. But, “the doctrine on contraception cannot be said to have been fully, freely, and generally known and accepted by the Catholic laity; neither can it be said to have been known only to the literate clergy.”[37] It was a doctrine destined for fuller development by a better-instructed laity and by future theologians who were aware of values other than those associated with the condemnation of contraception.

4.         New Attitudes and Analysis (Reformation to the 18th Century)

St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:9 that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Near the time of the Reformation, the lawful non-procreative use of marriage to avoid fornication changed from a minority opinion to that of becoming a dominant theory. Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), the leading moral theologian of the day, adopted this non-Augustinian view in a work directed to confessors,[38] and the Roman Catechism of 1566 enumerated three purposes for marriage on an equal basis: (1) partnership, (2) procreation, and (3) avoidance of sins of lust. The Catechism does not, however, go so far as to say that the three principal causes of marriage are all legitimate purposes for intercourse. The decline of Augustinian pessimism concerning original sin and the sex act is likely a reaction to the use of Augustine by Calvin and Luther in their doctrine of the total depravity of man. The Lutheran Reformers saw concupiscence as sin rather than as just a defect.[39] To counteract this view, Catholic theologians minimized the importance of Augustine and relied more on the rationalism of St. Thomas. The Augustinian synthesis of doctrine on intercourse, concupiscence, and original sin was therefore weakened. This separation of concupiscence from the transmission of original sin marks a “development of doctrine” for the Catholic Church.[40]

In addition, during the time of the Renaissance there had been no serious threat to separate procreation from marriage since the demise of the Cathari. There would be no important groups from outside the church urging birth control until the 19th century. Therefore, this was a time when a few high quality intellectuals were willing to reconsider the traditional position that procreation was the only legitimate reason for initiating intercourse. Thomas Sanchez (1550-1610) introduced love as a value that is increased through some sexual acts. Sanchez takes this position: if one is in the state of grace and does not intend an evil end, one virtually refers what one does to God. A married person in this state of mind, who seeks intercourse, acts virtuously. Sanchez defends the sexual contacts of spouses apart from coitus and, in doing so, proclaims love as a virtue.[41]

Alphonsus Liguori (1697-1787), who was to become the most influential Roman moral theologian of the 19th century, quoted the position of Herman Busenbaum, S.J., (1600-1668) that there was no sin in intercourse “to avoid danger of incontinence in oneself or one’s partner.”[42] Noteworthy is the fact that in Liguori’s Moral Theology nowhere is contraception linked to homicide or related to the provisions of Si aliquis.[43] “With St. Alphonsus the homicide approach ended its theological life.”[44]

By the middle of the 18th century, contraception was no longer viewed as homicide, but as a violation of the purposes of marriage. This diluted the stringent teaching of canon law and the Roman Catechism. Official directives from Rome during the period from the restoration of the Church in France to the end of the reign of Pius IX (from 1816 to1878) showed no special concern to combat birth control.[45] Cooperation on the part of the wife in coitus interruptus received limited toleration, and father confessors were admonished not to examine penitents too closely in matters involving contraception so as not to offend consciences of the ignorant. These trends moved the Catholic Church away from the tough medieval position on intercourse. Contraception was still condemned, but by the end of this period the reasons for opposing contraception and leveling sanctions against it seemed to lack the urgency of the denunciations of the past.[46]


A vigorous attack on birth control began in the last years of the 19th century in the pontificate of Leo XIII. The birth control movement moved from infancy to adolescence so inquiry in confession was urged and cooperation by spouses was denounced. Jone’s Moral Theology reflected this change in attitude: “Questioning the penitent is of obligation as often as there is a well-founded suspicion [of onanism].”[47] The battle reached its climax with the encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930, which was, in part, a reaction to the bishops of the Anglican Church. At the Lambeth Conference of 1930, the Anglican Church no longer absolutely prohibited contraception: “Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the conference agrees that other methods [than abstinence] may be used.”[48]

The reaction to the Anglican position by Casti Connubii guided Catholic action on contraception for the next 34 years: “The conjugal act is of its very nature designed for the procreation of offspring; and therefore those who in performing it deliberately deprive it of its natural power and efficacy, act against nature, and do something which is shameful and intrinsically immoral.”[49] Pius XI insisted on two points that, in the theology of the day, were not easily connected together. The first is that marriage has an essential orientation to children, but secondly, he also highly valued mutual love and aid between spouses (the unitive aspects). They have an importance not adequately expressed by only calling them secondary ends of marriage.[50]

In the 1940s and 1950s, Pius XII referred to contraception in his addresses to various learned societies, but he was not defending a teaching under attack. At that time there was no movement within the Catholic Church calling for change.[51] On October 29, 1951, Pius XII spoke to the Italian Catholic Society of Midwives. The Pope chose this occasion to make the fullest statement on marriage since Casti Connubii. For the first time rhythm was referred to as a method open to all Christian couples. Once attacked by Augustine, the use of the sterile period to avoid procreation was now fully sanctioned. However, Pius repeated the Church’s rejection of artificial contraception and added that this moral teaching was valid for all time, a law that is natural and divine.[52]

The first hint that a change in Church teaching might be needed occurred during the late 1950s when the contraceptive pill began to be considered safe and effective. In 1963, Dr. John Rock, a devout Boston Catholic, published his seminal work The Time Has Come.[53] In the late 1950s, he and his co-workers developed estrogen-progestin combination pills for the purpose of assisting infertile couples in accurately pinpointing the time of peak fertility to enhance their fertility. These same pills could also be used for contraception. Rock argued that a “pill-established safe period” would seem to carry the same moral implications as the natural family planning method.[54] With the opening of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII convened a small commission to advise him on these questions. After John’s death, Pope Paul VI greatly expanded what was called the Commission for the Study of Problems of Population, Family, and Birthrate. Eventually it grew to about 60 members, including married couples. Karol Wojtyla (who became Pope John Paul II) was a member of this commission but was unable to attend the meetings.[55] Paul VI instructed the council not to pronounce on the question. He himself would announce his decision after studying the report of the commission. Scholars disagreed with this caveat. They said dialogue on these matters should occur on the merits of the argument. Otherwise, authority is served but not necessarily the truth.[56]

In June 1966, the commission reported its findings to the pope. Nineteen theologians and a number of experts on the commission had signed what came to be known as the “majority report,” which we will see in the second half of this article is similar in tone to the conclusions of Ramsey’s covenant ethic. The report advocated a change in the Catholic official teaching to allow contraception in some cases. The majority report insisted that the union of spouses was not to be separated from the procreative finality of marriage. It took its moral direction, not from consideration of an individual sex act, but from a consideration of what is good for the marriage as a whole (referred to as “totality”). Totality would allow contraception in certain cases as long as all sexual acts in a marriage are oriented toward procreation. If contraception in a particular situation helps the union of the couple, it indirectly serves the procreative end of marriage. Specific rules for contraceptive activity in particular situations are not values that endure for all time. As conditions change, so may the church’s teaching with regard to this level of values. The majority report cautioned that marriage as a whole should be procreative, but the opinion did not judge contraception as being an intrinsically morally evil. It expected couples to make up their own minds about what was best for them in their particular situations.[57]

Another document, signed by four theologians on the commission who disagreed with the majority report, was the so-called “minority report.” John Ford, SJ, and the other three members of the “minority” could not find an argument in natural law against contraception. Rather, tradition and authority were crucial for the four authors. The Catholic Church had traditionally rejected each act of artificial contraception as gravely wrong and could not have erred on so important a matter. The four theologians based their case on church authority and the fear of the consequences of change to both that authority and to sexual morality.[58]

In August 1968, more than two years after receiving the commission reports, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae. It began by acknowledging that current events had given rise to questions that necessitated a reexamination of the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on contraception. Much of what he says agrees with the majority report. Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained for the procreation and education of children. Paul VI then proceeds to rule out the use of artificial contraception and repeats the traditional teaching that each marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life: “Consequently it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”[59]

The pope argued that marriage and conjugal love have both a unitive and procreative meaning, the two essentially bound together. This encyclical reaffirms the positive value of the marital act as expressive of conjugal love; such valuation was not at all common before Liguori or even before Pius XII and Vatican II.[60] Marital sexual relations should preserve the full meaning of conjugal love, and so should combine both unitive and procreative meanings. Contraception prevents this from happening. However, Paul VI allowed periodic abstinence for avoiding pregnancy. He argues that this is significantly different from contraception. The former makes use of a natural process, whereas the latter impedes the development of a natural process.[61]

On the nature of love and marriage, Pope Paul seemed to agree with the majority report. The difference lies in two opposed ways of applying general norms to particular cases. Paul VI held that contraception is intrinsically evil and can never be allowed, this rules out any argument from the totality of marriage to justify it in particular cases. Some authors, such as Gallagher, deduce that the appeal to tradition and magisterial authority seems to be the primary reason for his conclusions concerning contraception.[62]

When Humanae Vitae appeared with its total condemnation of contraception, the cries of protest were immediate and aggressive. Never before had a papal encyclical met with such generalized opposition.[63] One of the signatories to the commission’s report described the immediate aftermath of the encyclical’s appearance as “the month of theological anger.”[64] According to Mahoney, controversy in the Catholic Church following the encyclical centered on three particular topics: the manner in which the pope had reserved final judgment on the issue to himself, the intrinsic force of the arguments from natural law and tradition which were used to justify the pope’s conclusion (despite the finding of the majority opinion), and the binding force of that conclusion on the church. Rather than utilize theologians of the church to research a matter and make informed pronouncements, they were charged with defending an authoritative magisterial position. As a lasting legacy of the encyclical, Mahoney states that the entire methodology of moral theology was put into question, the relationship between the theologian and the magisterium became strained, and the moral authority of Rome became greatly diminished.[65] In summary, one could say that the Catholic teaching against contraception seems to be the teaching most difficult for non-clergy to accept and the one theologians are most reluctant to defend.[66]

5.         In the Next Issue

While the prohibition against contraception continues to be debated within the Catholic community, Protestants generally have taken a different course. For example, in contrast to the Catholic position, Lutherans—who are often seen as being the closest theologically to Catholics and have a common heritage with them—see “no objection to contraception within a marital union which is, as a whole fruitful.”[67] In the next issue, we will examine one Protestant view concerning contraception—that of the covenant-centered approach taken by Paul Ramsey. It is the thesis of this paper that a covenant-centered ethic is an insightful counterbalance on the issue of contraception that will be especially compelling to those who accept a biblical, covenantal view of the relationship between God and humankind.


[1] Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae (1968) Nn. 14-18,” in Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1968), n.14.

[2] Gerald Kelly, “Catholic Teaching on Contraception and Sterilization,” in Medico-Moral Problems (St. Louis: Catholic Hospital Association, 1958), 149.

[3] F. Althaus, “U.S. Religious Groups Vary in Patterns of Method Use, but Not in Overall Contraceptive Prevalence,” Family Planning Perspectives 23, no. 6 (1991): 288.

[4] Mary E. Kambic, “The Science of Natural Family Planning,” Ethics & Medics 25, no. 5 (2000): 1.

[5] Anonymous, “Birth Control,” Catholic Answers,

[6] John T. Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Enlarged ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986), 29. Evidence includes the prevalence of more brutal forms of population control, fragmentary indications of population decline, the presumed psychology of slaves, and the great interest of imperial law in encouraging members of the more successful classes to raise at least three children.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Scripture passages quoted in this paper were taken from the New International Version, copyright 1984 by the International Bible Society.

[9] Kelly, “Catholic Teaching on Contraception and Sterilization,” 160.

[10] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 45.

[11] Charles E. Cerling, “Abortion and Contraception in Scripture,” Christian scholar’s review 2, no. 1 (1971): 45.

[12] Fred Rosner, “Contraception in Jewish Law,” in Jewish Bioethics (New York: Sanhedrin Press, 1999), 114.

[13] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 68.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 105.

[16]Didache, or the ‘Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’,” in Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutuions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 379.

[17] Barnabas, “The Epistle of Barnabas,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 149.

[18] Minucius Felix, “Octavius,” in Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 192.

[19] Hippolytus, “Elenchos, or Refutation of All the Heresies,” in Fathers of the Third Century, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 131. Scholars dispute that Hippolytus has written Elenchos.

[20] Jerome, “Letters,” in Jerome: Letters and Selected Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 27.

[21] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 100.

[22] Augustine, “The Morals of the Manicheans,” in Augustin: The Writings against the Manicheans, and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 86. Written in 388 A.D.

[23] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 120. Augustine writes: “It is not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul be entangled with the flesh?” Augustine, “The Morals of Manicheans,” 86.

[24] Augustine, “Marriage and Concupiscence,” in Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 264.

[25] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 133.

[26] Augustine, “Marriage and Concupiscence,” 271.

[27] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 138.

[28] Ibid., 144.

[29] Theodore, “The Penitential of Theodore,” in Medieval Handbooks of Penance, ed. John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938), 197.

[30] The Irish Penitentials, ed. Ludwig Bieler (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975), 272.

[31] Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 1:12, cited in Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 146.

[32] Ibid., 150.

[33] Regino of Prüm, Churchly Disciplines and the Christian Religion 2.89, cited in Ibid., 168.

[34] Ibid., 193.

[35] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 60 vols., vol. 43, Temperance (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 245. 2, 2, Q154, 11, 2.

[36] Ibid. 2, 2, Q154, 11, 3.

[37] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 274.

[38] Ibid., 313. The work by Cajetan was Little Summa of Sins, “Matrimonii peccatum.”

[39] Evangelical Lutheran Church, “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 39.

[40] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 316.

[41] Ibid., 325.

[42] Alphonsus Liguori, Moral Theology 6, “Marriage,” cited in Ibid., 320.

[43] Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia Moralis : Secundum Doctrinam S. Alphonsi De Ligorio, 2 vols. (Torino: Marietti, 1956-58).

[44] Noonan, 364.

[45] Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 404. This refers to many responses to inquiries from the Penitentiary and the Inquisition.

[46] Ibid., 383.

[47] Heribert Jone and Urban Adelman, Moral Theology (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1957), 541.

[48] The Lambeth Conference, 1930, Resolution 15, cited in Noonan, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, 409.

[49]Pius XI, “Casti Connubii (1930) Nn. 53-56,” in Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1930), 57.

[50] John Gallagher, “Magisterial Teaching from 1918 to the Present,” in Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 75.

[51] Janet E. Smith, “Humanae Vitae at Twenty,” in Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, ed. Janet E. Smith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 503.

[52] Gallagher, “Magisterial Teaching from 1918 to the Present,” 80.

[53] John Charles Rock, The Time Has Come : A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control (New York: Knopf, 1963).

[54] Ibid., 168-75.

[55] Smith, “Humanae Vitae at Twenty,” 503.

[56] Daniel C. Maguire, “Morality and Magisterium,” in Readings in Morality No. 3: The Magisterium and Morality, ed. Charles E. Curran and SJ Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 62.

[57] Gallagher, “Magisterial Teaching from 1918 to the Present,” 84-85.

[58] John Mahoney, “The Impact of Humanae Vitae,” in The Making of Moral Theology (New York: Oxford, 1989), 266.

[59] Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae (1968) Nn. 14-18,” 59-60.

[60] Bernard Häring, “The Inseparability of the Unitive-Procreative Functions of the Marital Act,” in Dialogue About Catholic Sexual Teaching, ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 154.

[61] Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae (1968) Nn. 14-18,” 60-61.

[62] Gallagher, “Magisterial Teaching from 1918 to the Present,” 88.

[63] Smith, “Humanae Vitae at Twenty,” 508.

[64] Mahoney, “The Impact of Humanae Vitae,” 271. Comment by Philippe Delhaye.

[65] Ibid., 301.

[66] Smith, “Humanae Vitae at Twenty,” 509.

[67] Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Human Sexuality: A Theological Perspective (St. Louis: The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, 1981), 19.

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