Contraception, NFP, and Humanae Vitae in Christian Historical Thought and the Orthodox Church

In the following video, we explore the patristic witness concerning contraception, natural family planning, and birth control in general. The full version of the video can be found on our SubscribeStar page found here

On July 25th, 1968, Pope Paul VI, the same Pope who gleefully ransacked the traditional Latin Mass and replaced it with what is essentially a Lutheran Sunday service, issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The encyclical came after roughly a century of debate on the topic of contraception. Now, there are several key passages in Humanae Vitae. First, couples are allowed to space out their children, quote: 

“With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 10

Second, it states that sex which is infertile due to causes of nature is acceptable, quote:

“The sexual activity, in which husband and wife are intimately and chastely united with one another, through which human life is transmitted, is, as the recent Council recalled, “noble and worthy.” It does not, moreover, cease to be legitimate even when, for reasons independent of their will, it is foreseen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed. The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws. The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 11

The encyclical states that sex has two purposes: both for procreation and for the strengthening of the bond between husband and wife, quote: 

“The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 12

In light of chapter 11, chapter 13 can be understood to condemn artificial birth control, quote: 

“[…] they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 13

Chapter 14 contains a more direct condemnation of sex which is infertile due to non-natural means, quote:

“[…] We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children. Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary. Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 14

At the same time, there is this fairly odd section in which the contraceptive aspect of artificial contraception is allowed if it is merely the byproduct of medical treatment for a different health issue and the intention is not to prohibit birth by its usage, quote:  

“On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 15

It leaves one wondering how evil is contraception if it can be benefitted from so long as the intent is not there so the issue seems to come down not so much to the act itself as the intent behind taking contraception. This is ironic because in chapter 20 of Humanae Vitae, it specifically allows one to use infertile periods to gain the same end result: no children. Quote:

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 20

If the sin of contraception is not in its use per se but in the intent behind its use, that being the intent is to avoid pregnancy, then there appears to be little, if any reason why sex during infertile periods should be allowed. In fact, and we will delve into this shortly, having sex during infertile periods was forbidden by those Church Fathers who commented on it. But Humanae Vitae skirts this issue by mentioning it without actually addressing it, quote:   

“Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided to them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 16

In other words, a married couple, so long as they abstain from sex during fertile periods, are welcome to indulge during infertile periods, whether those be the majority of the month, or during pregnancy, or extending out lactation as women are largely infertile, especially for the first six months, while breastfeeding and this is the main problem with NFP and Humanae Vitae: it falsely claims it is carrying on the teachings of the Church tradition while simultaneously ignoring not simply the witness, but also the rationale used by those Church Fathers who rejected contraception.

Humanae Vitae also makes this rather odd claim:

“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Humanae Vitae Ch. 17 

Judging by the fact that sex slavery is at an all-time low in the developed world and that prostitution is no more common now than during the American Civil War, the Middle Ages, or during the golden age of the Roman Empire, the prediction is inaccurate as it reflects a highly idealized and heavily sanitized reading of history. 

But Humanae Vitae was not stating anything new in terms of Catholic teaching on contraception as Pope Pius XI had published the encyclical Casti Connubii in 1930. In the 59th chapter, it states, quote: 

“Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin. Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.” Casti Connubii Ch. 59

So we see, even in 1930, the Catholic Church was officially advocating for what has commonly been termed “natural family planning.” Prior to this, Vatican teaching on contraception was sparse. In fact, even Casti Connubii was so vague that Humanae Vitae had to be issued nearly four decades later. 

Now, it is often pointed out that various Orthodox Christian hierarchs praised Humanae Vitae and this is true but that does not mean that it reflects our dogma on the issue or even that we have a teaching on it as most, if not all of these hierarchs were speaking unofficially. In fact, a number of years ago, a famous Orthodox cleric and author in the English speaking, and we will not name him out of respect, authored a pamphlet on contraception and in it he claimed our Church has a teaching on it and that the teaching is in accordance with Humanae Vitiae, which, he claimed, followed the patristic consensus. None of those are correct – not even remotely. The fact of the matter is, we do not nor have we ever had anything akin to an official universal teaching on it but rather various conflicting rulings from local synods. Further, as we will delve into this shortly, Humanae Vitae lacked patristic support, which is why it primarily utilizes Scholastic natural law theory, not patristic witness. 

Considering the plentitude of canons addressing abortion, suicide, homicide, and euthanasia over the centuries while simultaneously knowing that contraceptive techniques were one of, if not the most popular categories of medical knowledge passed on in the ancient world, one would expect that conciliar literature in the form of canons would have at least addressed the topic of contraception but the closest thing to it is a forgery by St. Martin of Braga in the 6th century. 

In those authors who do comment on contraception, most of them state outright that sex is purely for the purpose of procreation. We see this with St. Justin Martyr, quote: 

“But whether we marry, it is only that we may bring up children; or whether we decline marriage, we live continently.” St. Justin Martyr, “Apology for the Christians” 1.29 

This is echoed again by St. Athenagoras of Athens, quote:

“Therefore, having the hope of eternal life, we despise the things of this life, even to the pleasures of the soul, each of us reckoning her his wife whom he has married according to the laws laid down by us, and that only for the purpose of having children. For as the husbandman throwing the seed into the ground awaits the harvest, not sowing more upon it, so to us the procreation of children is the measure of our indulgence in appetite.” St. Athenagoras of Athens “A Plea for Christians” Ch. 33 

Clement of Alexandria lays it out quite directly when he writes, quote:

“That the Law intended husbands to cohabit with their wives with self-control and only for the purpose of begetting children is evident from the prohibition which forbids the unmarried man from having immediate sexual relations with a captive woman. If the man has conceived a desire for her, he is directed to mourn for thirty days while she is to have her hair cut; if after this the desire has not passed off, then they may proceed to beget children, because the appointed period enables the overwhelming impulse to be tested and to become a rational act of will.” St. Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata” 3.11.71

In another famous work of his known as “Paedagogus” or “The Instructor” which was considered so explicit that large swaths of it were initially not translated into English, Clement repeats this writing: 

“Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor.” St. Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.10.95 trans. CUA 

Moving on to Clement’s famed and highly respected student, Origen of Alexandria, despite later being condemned, he expresses a belief consonant with other writers in this collection, quote: 

“There is no one who does not know that this member, in which the foreskin is seen to be, serves the natural functions of coitus and procreation. If anyone, therefore, is not troublesome in respect to impulses of this kind, nor exceeds the bounds set by the laws, nor has known a woman other than his lawful wife, and, in the case of her also, makes use of her in the determined and lawful times for the sake of posterity alone, that man is to be said to be circumcised in the foreskin of his flesh.” Origen of Alexandria, Homily 3 on Genesis, sect. 6; trans. CUA

Lactantius, known commonly as the quote “Christian Cicero” for his eloquent Latin states, quote:

“For they are pleasure lovers when they mate with their wives not to procreate children and perpetuate the race, but like pigs and goats in quest of the enjoyment which such intercourse gives.” Lactantius, “The Special Laws” 3.20.113; cited in Noonan “Contraception” p. 87

St. Epiphanius of Salamis, commenting on a Gnostic group he encountered in his youth, castigates them for their misuse of sex. 

‘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.” Panarion 26.5.2; cited in Noonan “Contraception” p. 97

These are guilty of satisfying lusts because their desire for sex is not specifically aimed at producing children. Being quote “open to life” is not enough for him or any of the writers mentioned so far. Instead, one must specifically intend to have children in order for sex to be justified. The same line of thought is found in the Didascalia from late 4th or early 5th century Syria, quote: 

“And fornication is the destruction of one’s own flesh, not being made use of for the procreation of children, but entirely for the sake of pleasure, which is a mark of incontinence, and not a sign of virtue.” Didascalia 6.28 

We have St. Augustine of Hippo who, when writing against the Manicheans and pointing out their aversion to childbearing writes: 

“The doctrine that the production of children is an evil, directly opposes the next precept, “You shall not commit adultery;” for those who believe this doctrine, in order that their wives may not conceive, are led to commit adultery even in marriage. They take wives, as the law declares, for the procreation of children; but from this erroneous fear of polluting the substance of the deity, their intercourse with their wives is not of a lawful character; and the production of children, which is the proper end of marriage, they seek to avoid. As the apostle long ago predicted of you, you indeed forbid to marry, for you seek to destroy the purpose of marriage. Your doctrine turns marriage into an adulterous connection, and the bed-chamber into a brothel.” St. Augustine “Against Faustus 15.7 

In fact, in his work “On the Good of Marriage,” St. Augustine repeatedly argues that sex that does not explicitly intend to create children is a venial or pardonable sin that can be expiated via extra almsgiving. He states it outright so many times that only a few examples will suffice, quote:

“For intercourse of marriage for the sake of begetting has not fault; but for the satisfying of lust, but yet with husband or wife, by reason of the faith of the bed, it has venial fault: but adultery or fornication has deadly fault, and, through this, continence from all intercourse is indeed better even than the intercourse of marriage itself, which takes place for the sake of begetting. But because that continence is of larger desert, but to pay the due of marriage is no crime, but to demand it beyond the necessity of begetting is a venial fault, but to commit fornication or adultery is a crime to be punished; charity of the married ought to beware, lest while it seek for itself occasion of larger honor, it do that for its partner which cause condemnation.” St. Augustine of Hippo “On the Good of Marriage” Ch. 6

St. Augustine continues later on, quote: 

“Nor let them on this account think themselves better than the first holy fathers, who used marriage, so to speak, after the fashion of marriage. Forsooth the use of it is such, as that, if in it there has taken place through carnal intercourse anything which exceeds necessity of begetting, although in a way that deserves pardon, there is pollution. For what does pardon expiate, if that advance cause no pollution whatever?”  St. Augustine of Hippo “On the Good of Marriage” Ch. 31

At another point St. Augustine castigates women who approach their husbands for sex without the intent of procreation by stating they are worse than a concubine who is faithful to her man and desires children when she has sex, quote:

”For, if a man should take unto him any one for a time, until he find another worthy either of his honors or of his means, to marry as his compeer; in his soul itself he is an adulterer, and that not with her whom he is desirous of finding, but with her, with whom he so lies, as not to have with her the partnership of a husband. Whence she also herself, knowing and willing this, certainly acts unchastely in having intercourse with him, with whom she has not the compact of a wife. However, if she keep to him faith of bed, and after he shall have married, have no thought of marriage herself, and prepare to contain herself altogether from any such work, perhaps I should not dare lightly to call her an adulteress; but who shall say that she sins not, when he is aware that she has intercourse with a man, not being his wife? But further, if from that intercourse, so far as pertains to herself, she has no wish but for sons, and suffers unwilling whatever she suffers beyond the cause of begetting; there are many matrons to whom she is to be preferred; who, although they are not adulteresses, yet force their husbands, for the most part also wishing to exercise continence, to pay the due of the flesh, not through desire of children, but through glow of lust making an intemperate use of their very right; in whose marriages, however, this very thing, that they are married, is a good. For for this purpose are they married, that the lust being brought under a lawful bond, should not float at large without form and loose; having of itself weakness of flesh that cannot be curbed, but of marriage fellowship of faith that cannot be dissolved; of itself encroachment of immoderate intercourse, of marriage a way of chastely begetting. For, although it be shameful to wish to use a husband for purposes of lust, yet it is honorable to be unwilling to have intercourse save with an husband, and not to give birth to children save from a husband. There are also men incontinent to that degree, that they spare not their wives even when pregnant. Therefore whatever that is immodest, shameless, base, married persons do one with another, is the sin of the persons, not the fault of marriage.“On the Good of Marriage” Ch. 5 

Now, lest anyone accuse us of being alone in this understanding, The Catholic writer, 9th district judge, and scholar, John T. Noonan, whose work “Contraception” is considered the standard work on the topic of contraception in the history of Christian thought agrees stating: 

Pure Augustinian doctrine stated that only a procreative purpose freed marital intercourse from sin. Intercourse to avoid committing fornication was venial sin. This position, established in the twelfth century with only a few dissents, was reaffirmed by the classical canonists and theologians of the thirteenth century. The most influential of all, St. Thomas, took this stand in his work on the Sentences (, reply to obj. 2).” Noonan, “Contraception” p. 248 

So not only does Augustine’s influence spread to Aquinas but we also see it in other prominent Christians thinkers such as the prolific St. Caesarius of Arles whose massive register of sermons has come down to us in three volumes, quote:

“In fact, a good Christian should not only observe chastity for a few days before he communicates, but he should never know his wife except from the desire for children. A man takes a wife for the procreation of children, not for the sake of lust. Even the marriage rite mentions this: ‘For the procreation of children,’ it says. Notice that it does not say for the sake of lust, but ‘for the procreation of children.’ I would like to know, dearly beloved, what kind of a harvest a man could gather if he sowed his field in one year as often as he is overcome by dissipation and abuses his wife without any desire for children. If those who are unwilling to control themselves plowed and sowed repeatedly their land which was already sown, let us see in what kind of fruit they would rejoice. As you well know, no land can produce proper fruit if it is sown frequently in one year. Why, then, does a man do with his body what he does not want done with his field?” St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 44.3  

Pope St. Gregory the Great, also adopting the views of St. Augustine is outspoken in the view that sex is purely for the procreation of offspring and that the pleasure of sex is what makes is sinful, quote:

“Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring; and, when, giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure, to consider that, though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock itself they exceed the just dues of wedlock. Whence it is needful that by frequent supplications they do away their having fouled with the admixture of pleasure the fair form of conjugal union. For hence it is that the Apostle, skilled in heavenly medicine, did not so much lay down a course of life for the whole as point out remedies to the weak when he said, It is good for a man not to touch a woman: but on account of fornication let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. For in that he premised the fear of fornication, he surely did not give a precept to such as were standing, but pointed out the bed to such as were falling, lest haply they should tumble to the ground. Whence to such as were still weak he added, Let the husband render unto the wife her due; and likewise also the wife unto the husband. And, while in the most honourable estate of matrimony allowing to them something of pleasure, he added, But this I say by way of indulgence, not by way of command. Now where indulgence is spoken of, a fault is implied; but one that is the more readily remitted in that it consists, not in doing what is unlawful, but in not keeping what is lawful under control.” […] to wit, when the married have intercourse with each other even incontinently, they still avoid lapse into sin, and are still saved through mercy. For they find as it were a little city, wherein to be protected from the fire; since this married life is not indeed marvelous for virtue, but yet is secure from punishment.” Pope St. Gregory the Great “Pastoral Rule” Book III, Ch. 27 

But regardless of how clear these statements are, those defending Humanae Vitae will argue that these quotations only forbid sex that is quote “not open to life”. Now, this phrase is usually misunderstood to mean that one is doing nothing to hinder conception or is at least using the least obstructive method possible to control fertility. When this is misunderstood, opponents will typically bring up the fact that, over the course of a year, a couple using condoms according to the manufacturer’s directions typically has around a 3% rate of becoming pregnant while, with the most effective forms of natural family planning – and there are various forms of it – generally claim that number drops down to as little as a 0.3% or 0.2% rate. But that is a strawman as the phrase “open to life” does not refer to that. As Noonan points out, quote:

“[…] the temperature method of regulating conception is not any more ‘natural’ and not any less of a human intervention to produce sterile intercourse than other methods. All methods of having intercourse without conception depend on human intelligence and are ‘artificial.’ What the encyclical [Humanae Vitae] condemns is not the artificial nor the intelligent nor the prudent and the human, but the deliberately willed disassociation between the conjugal act and the natural rhythm of fertility. No such disassociation is intended here.” Noonan, “Contraception” p. 551

In other words, according to the Catholic Church’s understanding of the phrase “open to life,” neither the procreative nor the pleasurable part of sex can be disassociated from the other, both must be present. But this is not what these early Christian writers were stating and so even by this standard for the phrase “open to life,” the Catholic Church’s teaching on birth control as contained primarily in Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii fail the patristic standard it claims to represent and defend. These ancient writers were stating that pleasure in sex is bad and sex outside of fertile periods is sinful because sex is purely for the begetting of children, we know this because they prohibit sex during pregnancy, quote:

“For this reason you could not point to any place in Scripture where one of the ancients approached a pregnant woman; later, after the child is born and weaned, you might find that marriage relations of husbands and wives were resumed. You will find that Moses’ father kept this principle in mind. After Aaron’s birth three years passed before Moses was born. Again, the tribe of Levi observed this law of nature given by God, although they were fewer in number than any others which came into the promised land.  For a tribe does not easily grow to great numbers if their men have intercourse only within the legal marriage relationship and then wait until the end not only of pregnancy but also of breast-feeding.St. Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata” 3.11.72

In a rather long passage in his work Paedagogus, St. Clement repeats this, quote:

“In fact, he says: ‘Do not touch anyone, except your wedded wife,’ because she is the only one with whom it is lawful to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh for the purpose of begetting lawful heirs. This is to share in God’s own work of creation, and in such a work the seed ought not be wasted nor scattered thoughtlessly nor sown in a way it cannot grow. As an illustration of this last restriction, the same Moses forbade the Jews to approach even their own wives if they happened to be in the period of menstruation. The reason is that it is wrong to contaminate fertile seed, destined to become a human being, with corrupt matter of the body, or to allow it be diverted from the furrow of the womb and swept away in a fetid flow of matter and excrement. He discouraged the ancient Jews, also, from having relations with a wife already with child. Pleasure sought for its own sake, even within the marriage bonds, is a sin and contrary both to law and to reason. Moses cautioned them, then, to keep away from their pregnant wives until they have delivered. In fact, the womb, situated just below the bladder and above the part of the intestine known as the rectum, extends its neck in between the edges of the bladder, and the outlet of this neck, by which the sperm enters, closes tight when the womb is full, opening again only when delivered of the fetus. It is only when it has become empty of its fruit that it can receive the sperm again. (It is not wrong for us to name the organs of generation, when God is not ashamed of their function.) The womb welcomes the seed when it yearns for procreation, but it refuses the seed when intercourse is contrary to nature; that is, once impregnated, it makes immoral relations impossible by drawing its neck tight together. All its instincts, up to now aroused by loving intercourse, begin to be directed differently, absorbed in the development of the child within, cooperating with the Creator. It is wrong, indeed, to interfere with the workings of nature by indulging in the extravagances of wantonness.” St. Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.10.91-93 trans. CUA

In his fifth homily on Genesis, Origen recounts the story of Lot and writes: 

“Let the married women examine themselves and seek if they approach their husbands for this reason alone, that they might receive children, and after conception desist. For those women [Lot’s daughters], who appear to be proven incestuous, when they have attained conception, do not later assent to copulation with a man. But some women, for we do not censure all equally, but there are some who serve passion incessantly, like animals without any distinction, whom I would not even compare to the dumb beasts. For even the beasts themselves know, when they have conceived, not to further grant opportunity to their males. Origen of Alexandria, Homily 5 on Genesis, sect. 4; trans. CUA

So here we see it: once conception is achieved, further sex is inappropriate because it is not for the purpose of procreation. This is also repeated by the Didascalia from the late 4th or early 5th century Syria. The Didascalia places sex during pregnancy on par with sex during menstruation, quote:

“When the natural purgations do appear in the wives, let not their husbands approach them, out of regard to the children to be begotten; for the law has forbidden it, for it says: You shall not come near your wife when she is in her separation. Nor, indeed, let them frequent their wives’ company when they are with child. For they do this not for the begetting of children, but for the sake of pleasure. Now a lover of God ought not to be a lover of pleasure.” Didascalia 6.28 

St. Caesarius of Arles also forbids it and like the Didascalia, condemns it along with sex during menstruation, quote:

“Above all, no one should know his wife when Sunday or other feasts come around. Similar precautions should be taken as often as women menstruate, for the Prophet says: ‘Do not come near to a menstruous woman.’ If a man is aware that his wife is in this condition but refuses to control himself on a Sunday or feast, the children who are then conceived will be born as lepers, or epileptics, or perhaps even demoniacs. Lepers are commonly born, not of wise men who observe chastity on feasts and other days, but especially of farmers who do not know how to control themselves. Truly, brethren, if animals without intellect do not touch each other except at a fixed and proper time, how much more should men who have been created according to God’s image observe this? What is worse, there are some dissolute or drunken men who sometimes do not even spare their wives when they are pregnant. Therefore, if they do not amend their lives, we are to consider them worse than animals. Such men the Apostle addresses when he says: ‘Everyone of you learn how to possess his vessel in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who have no hope.’ Because what is worse, many do not observe proper chastity with their own wives, they should give abundant alms, as I said above, and forgive all their enemies. Thus, as we mentioned, what has become defiled by dissipation may be cleansed by constant almsgiving.” St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 44.7 

Now, as sex during pregnancy and menstruation were forbidden due to their lack of procreative potential, it would go without saying that sex outside of fertile periods is also forbidden. This is important because Natural Family Planning is based entirely on having sex only during infertile periods in order to avoid pregnancy, but, as Noonan points out, the first categorical condemnation of birth control listed by any saint is the very one that the Catholic Church permits: the rhythm method. Concerning the rhythm method, St. Augustine of Hippo writes, quote:  

Is it 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 should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you 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.St. Augustine “The Morals of the Manichees” 18.65 

Concerning this, Noonan points out the irony writing simply: 

“In the history of the thought of theologians on contraception, it is, no doubt, a piquant that the first pronouncement on contraception by the most influential theologian teaching on such matters should be such a vigorous attack on the one method of avoiding procreation accepted by twentieth-century Catholic theologians as morally lawful.Noonan, “Contraception” p. 120

This is backed up by Fr. Mahoney, a leading moral theologian in the Catholic Church. He writes:  

“Thus it was that Augustine roundly condemned as a satisfaction of lust the abstaining from intercourse during fertile periods, which the Manichees had advocated as a means of avoiding the production of offspring in which spirit would be imprisoned.” Mahoney “The Making of Moral Theology” p. 61 

These are significant statements as the influence of St. Augustine on Catholic theology cannot be understated. In fact, we will later come back to the fact that because the views in Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae could not be justified by the standard of patristic thought, the Catholic theologians had to work from the argument of natural law instead.  

Because of the expressed rationale behind the prohibition on sex during pregnancy and during menstruation, it should come as no surprise that St. Augustine also condemned sex during infertile periods. As we saw earlier, he counted it as a venial sin that required extra prayer and almsgiving to atone for. Further, it would appear that sex past childbearing age is also unacceptable or at least heavily discouraged. In a long quotation from his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, St. Ambrose of Milan states that not only should youth only have sex for the purpose of procreation but also those who have aged past childbearing years are best off if they desist from sex due to their inability to procreate. He writes:

“The saints have a very great sense of modesty, so much so that they can even feel a kind of shame regarding what they have prayed for – as we see here in the case of Saint Elizabeth. She certainly wanted to have children, yet she hid herself for five months. Why would she hide herself, unless she felt some shame? The reason is that for every function there is the appropriate and suitable time, what is becoming at one time is not becoming at another time, and difference in age quite alters a situation. Even within marriage there is a certain period of time during which it is honourable to give birth: in the vigour of one’s youth when it is natural to expect offspring. Example shows that this is the time of life authorised for child-bearing: this is the time of life when marriage is to be desired. But once a person has reached a more advanced age, an age more apt for instructing children than for giving them birth, there is a sense of shame in presenting the outward signs of a marriage that has been consummated – however honourable and legitimate that union may have been. There is, I say, a kind of shame about bearing the burden intended for a more youthful person, and carrying in the womb fruit that is out of season. Old people tend to refrain from conjugal intercourse, feeling that it is unsuited to their advanced years and rightly fearing that they might appear to be lacking in self-control. Even young people often put forward the excuse that they want children. They think to hide the heat of their desires by protesting that they desire to have a family. If, therefore, young people blush to admit openly their passion, how much greater must be the shame that old people feel! Yet, even among the young you will find some so filled with fear of God that they are able to rule and moderate their hearts. People such as this, once they have had a family, refrain from further intercourse. Is this so surprising in human beings, seeing that even the very animals tell us silently by their example that they, once they have conceived offspring, cease to copulate? Once they feel their womb grow heavy with the seed that has been implanted in them, they give up physical intercourse. They no longer abandon themselves to passion but devote themselves to the care of their little ones. But as for humans, they have regard neither for their children nor for God. The former they defile, and the latter they provoke to anger. […] Moderate your passions, therefore, by considering that your Creator’s hands are at work – so to speak – fashioning a human being within the womb. He is at work, and do you dare to profane the sacred mysteries of the womb by your lust? At least imitate the animals, or have respect for God. But I need not confine my remarks to the animals. The earth itself often takes a rest from the labour of bringing forth new life; and if the farmer, in over eager haste, loads it with more and more seeds, the earth punishes him for his impudence. She turns her fecundity into sterility. Therefore the elements themselves, and the beasts of the field, are deterred by a natural shame from interfering with the process of gestation. […] Women feel that they are looked down on if they fail to produce the fruit of wedlock – seeing that the sole reason why they marry is in order to have children. […] All this would make one suppose that the couple had ceased to have conjugal relations. For if she had not blushed to have intercourse with an old man, she would not have blushed to bear his child. Yet we know that she did blush to find herself with child, not knowing the sacred mystery of this conception.” St. Ambrose of Milan commentary on the Gospel of Luke

First, in the footnotes on this passage, Noonan points out that St. Ambrose uses the term “senex” to describe the old and that this term typically meant 40 or older. Second, St. Ambrose starts out with what seems like encouragement and making it merely a matter of shame, but then moves to how it is a precept of nature that one should avoid sex during pregnancy and past childbearing years. The same logic is present in St. Clement of Alexandria, he states, quote:

“Why, even unreasoning beasts know enough not to mate at certain times. To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor. Her wise directions concerning the periods of life are meant to be obeyed; I mean that she allows us to marry at any time but after the advent of old age and during childhood (for she does not permit the one to marry yet, the other, any more).” St. Clement of Alexandria Paedagogus 2.10.95 trans CUA 

The “certain times” St. Clement is mentioning are later clarified as “the advent of old age and during childhood.” In other words, during childhood and also during old age mating is prohibited as it is incapable of conception and therefore immoral.

Now, when a woman breastfeeds, especially for the first six months, only rarely will she conceive as women typically stop ovulating during that period. For that reason, we find Pope St. Gregory the Great forbidding sex until the child is weaned. He writes, quote: 

Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after an evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that, even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sicknesses; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.” Pope St. Gregory the Great, Epistles 11:64 

At the end of the 9th century, the Khan of the Bulgars, Boris, wrote a letter to Pope Nicholas with a list of questions about Christianity. One of those questions was in regard to whether or not women could have sex before weaning their child. Pope Nicholas replies in the negative and then quotes Pope St. Gregory the Great on the topic writing:

“For how many days after a woman gives birth to a child a man should abstain from her, is stated not by our opinions but in the words of the Roman Pope and apostle of the English nation, Gregory of blessed memory, who, when he writes to Bishop Augustine, whom he had sent to Saxony, says among other things: A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.” Letter of Pope Nicholas to Khan Boris of Bulgaria Ch. 64. 

Closely linked to this is the question of appropriate positions during sex. The comments on it are sparse but Noonan points out that the Irish penitentials condemned any position that was not the missionary position. This is rarely mentioned in other texts but this prohibition is carried into the second millennium with the Scholastics. Noonan comments: 

“An objection may be raised to this analysis of the sin against nature, since the term was also applied to departure from ‘the fit way instituted by nature as to position’ (St. Thomas, On the Sentences 4.31, ‘Exposition of text’; Summa theologica 2-2.154.11). The ‘fit way’ was with the woman beneath the man. Theologians following Aquinas attacked deviation from this position as unnatural and as mortal sin.Noonan, “Contraception” p. 238 

In the same work, Noonan later follows this up with, quote: 

“The givenness of the generative process was supported by the assertion that the generative use of sexuality is what ‘nature has taught all animals.’ Yet the scholastics, like the Fathers, appealed to animal behavior only selectively, to confirm views already held. Where the natural posture in intercourse is at issue, human behavior is contrasted with animal behavior, and ‘animal’ becomes a dirty word.” Noonan, “Contraception” p. 241 

Surprisingly, coitus interruptus, more commonly referred to as the quote “pull out method” was rarely mentioned. Unsurprisingly, when it was, it was condemned. 

It appears that only Sts. Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome, and Augustine of Hippo condemn it outright but as Noonan points out, it was mentioned by hardly anyone in relation to Genesis 38 where the story of Onan is told. Even in the Irish penitentials, known for their severity in regard to sexual sins, it’s never mentioned. Quote: 

“In over a hundred quotations from the Bible in the various Irish penitentials, there is no citation of Genesis 38. The greatest scriptural scholar of Anglo-Saxon England, Bede, made no reference to marriage in his commentary on this text in Genesis, following instead Augustine’s allegorical treatment of Onan as a type of useless human being who did not contribute what he could (On the Pentateuch, PL 91:266). The absence of more widespread allusion to Onan argues an absence of widespread use of his method of contraception.” Noonan, “Contraception” p. 161 

It seems odd that what was probably the most common form of birth control was left relatively unaddressed by patristic writers. It is addressed even less often than the taking of herbs and potions to procure sterility. Far more often, and we will cover this later in this video, the condemnation of herbs and potions occurs in the context of abortions and is linked with the practice of magic, or what we would now call “witchcraft” and “voodoo.”

Closely tied with the topic of contraception is ensoulment. Often when patristic quotations regarding contraception are presented, they are spoken of in terms of “murder” and one wonders whether abortifacients and contraceptives were distinguished – they often times were, but before moving onto that topic and explaining why contraception was spoken of as murder, it is worth covering the topic of ensoulment in the patristics. 

The term “parricide” refers to the murder of a close relative in general but specifically to the murder of a parent. St. Ambrose of Milan uses it in relation to contraception but applies it in a way that would not qualify as murder in our understanding, quote: 

“Even the wealthy, in order that their inheritance may not be divided among several, deny in the very womb their own progeny. By the use of parricidal mixtures they snuff out the fruit of their wombs in the genital organs themselves. In this way life is taken away before it is given.” St. Ambrose of Milan “Hexameron” 5.18.58 trans. CUA 

Notice the last line: life is taken away before it is given. St. Caesarius of Arles also speaks of children not conceived as being murdered, quote:

“Is anyone unable to warn that no woman should accept a potion to prevent conception or to condemn within herself the nature which God wanted to be fruitful? Indeed, she will be held guilty of as many murders as the number of those she might have conceived or borne, and unless suitable penance saves her she will be condemned to eternal death in hell. If a woman does not want to bear children she should enter upon a pious agreement with her husband, for only the abstinence of a Christian woman is chastity.” St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 1.12 trans. CUA  

Later on, in this 44th sermon, St. Caesarius repeats this line of thought that contraception is murder stating: 

“No woman should take drugs for purposes of abortion, nor should she kill her children that have been conceived or are already born. […] Moreover, women should not take diabolical draughts with the purpose of not being able to conceive children. A woman who does this ought to realize that she will be guilty of as many murders as the number of children she might have borne. I would like to know whether a woman of nobility who takes deadly drugs to prevent conception wants her maids or tenants to do so. […] Otherwise, she may refuse to conceive children or, what is more serious, be willing to kill souls which might have been good Christians.” St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 44.2 

In a sermon in which he is discussing the castration, St. John Chrysostom speaks in similar terms describing castration in terms of murder, quote: 

“For this intent therefore He brought in those others, even that He might encourage these, since if this was not what He was establishing, what means His saying concerning the other eunuchs? But when He says, that they made themselves eunuchs, He means not the excision of the members, far from it, but the putting away of wicked thoughts. Since the man who has mutilated himself, in fact, is subject even to a curse, as Paul says, I would they were even cut off which trouble you. And very reasonably. For such a one is venturing on the deeds of murderers, and giving occasion to them that slander God’s creation, and opens the mouths of the Manichæans, and is guilty of the same unlawful acts as they that mutilate themselves among the Greeks. For to cut off our members has been from the beginning a work of demoniacal agency, and satanic device, that they may bring up a bad report upon the work of God, that they may mar this living creature, that imputing all not to the choice, but to the nature of our members, the more part of them may sin in security, as being irresponsible; and doubly harm this living creature, both by mutilating the members, and by impeding the forwardness of the free choice on behalf of good deeds.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 62 on Matthew

St. Jerome is also included in this category when he writes: 

“Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder.” St. Jerome, Letter 22.13 

Notice how St. Jerome contrasts the two situations: one is contraceptive, which he defines in terms of murder and the other is abortive, which he also defines as murder. But Noonan translates it more accurately writing, 

“Others, indeed, will drink sterility and murder a man not yet born.” Noonan, “Contraception” p. 100

The translation from the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers collection attempted to smooth out what appears to be a contradiction: how making oneself sterile kills a man not yet born but Noonan provides a better translation and one that makes sense in terms of ensoulment as well as later Western canon law in regard to abortions prior to ensoulment. 

This becomes clearer in letter 121 of St. Jerome in which he argues that abortion is not homicide until the human is formed, quote: 

“… seeds are gradually formed in the uterus, and it is not reputed homicide until the scattered elements received their appearance and members.” St. Jerome Letter 121.4 in Noonan p. 90

The issue centers around the understanding of Exodus 21:22, quote:

“Divergent theories apparently underlie two versions of an Old Testament verse. In Exodus 21:22, according to the Hebrew text, if a man accidentally causes an abortion, ‘life is given for life’ only if the mother dies; the death of a fetus is not treated like the killing of an adult human being. It seems to be supposed that the fetus is at no point a man. In the Septuagint version of Exodus 21:22, the text prescribes the penalty of ‘life for life’ if the embryo is ‘formed.’ By ‘formed’ may be meant what Aristotle means. This view is adopted by Philo. A third theory appears in Tertullian. He argues that the embryo, after conception, has a soul, and that it is a man (homo) when it attains its final form (Tertullian, The Soul 25.2, 37.2). Jerome’s translation of the Old Testament followed the Hebrew in Exodus 21:22 and opened the possibility of treating the fetus as at no point of development human. The prevailing Christian understanding, however, seems to have followed the Septuagint in distinguishing between an unformed and formed stage. This view was evidently held by Jerome himself.” Noonan “Contraception” p. 90 

St. Augustine chimes in on the topic in his work “Questions on Exodus.” In question 80, he straight out says abortion prior to ensoulment is not an abortion, quote:

“Here the question of the soul is usually raised: whether what is not formed can be understood to have no soul, and whether for that reason it is not homicide, because one cannot be said to be deprived of a soul if one has not yet received a soul. The argument goes on to say, ‘But if it has been formed, he shall give soul for soul.’ … if the embryo is still unformed, but yet in some way ensouled while unformed … the law does not provide that the act pertains to homicide, because still there cannot be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation, if it is in flesh not yet formed and thus not yet endowed with senses.” St. Augustine, “On Exodus 21.80” in Noonan 

But this opens the confusing situation: how could contraception be murder when one is simply prohibiting life from starting but an abortion prior to ensoulment was not murder? 

This is, of course, another issue in which St. Augustine is just wrong. More often than not, we hear Catholic apologists make claims like “But St. Augustine believed in the Filioque!” or “You can’t just say one half of the Church was wrong on this issue!” but here, we see that one half of the Church could be wrong because while the greatest theologian in the West could be fine with early term abortions, the East was exemplified by St. Basil the Great in his famous statement that: 

“The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice inquiry as to its being formed or unformed.” St. Basil the Great, Canon 2.

The Council of Trullo later repeats St. Basil in its 91st canon – the distinction St. Augustine and St. Jerome make in formed and unformed is irrelevant to the East: life starts at conception and the purposeful ending of that life is murder. There are no exceptions given to this judgment.

Here ends the first half. The second half of this video can be found here.

One thought on “Contraception, NFP, and Humanae Vitae in Christian Historical Thought and the Orthodox Church

  1. Kari

    As a NFP instructor, I find joy in helping women to open themselves to the blessing of life. My favorite students are the super earnest and highly educated professional women who think they will have a path that is different from their great grandmothers who had seven or eight children and fir whom motherhood was a vocation. I have yet to find the young woman I cannot persuade to be intimate with her husband when she is most likely to conceive. I have persuaded a medical student, a pharmacist, and multiple nurses all to be intimate with their husbands near ovulation and to conceive within three months of starting to work with me. All of them now have large families and do not work outside the home and parish. The most fun are the women whose willpower to abstain I just wear down. They are so surprised when I encourage them to make love when they are ovulating that they are defenseless. Sometimes I have to get creative and “misinterpret” a chart to make sure she’s timing intercourse perfectly for pregnancy. It’s so much fun when a newlywed is stgibg with abstaining and you tell her “it’s probably okay but there’s a teeny tiny little risk and you watch her face as she struggles with her libido and the person who is supposed to be helping her is urging her to “bend” the rules “Judy a little bit” because I’m “pretty sure” it’s okay.


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