Recently I've been involved in debates at the Catholic Answers Forum
about the issue of contraception/family planning, a subject which I've blogged about here before
. The exchanges there, the actual rationale for the support of the Humanae Vitae
position as argued, and reading the pseudo-patristic arguments of people there, have left me convinced now, more than ever, that the position taken by the Orthodox Church on this topic is the correct and pastorally reponsible one.
The idea that the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) hasn't changed it's way of thinking on this topic is a conceit, as are attempts to confound it's current stand with those taken by the ancient Fathers of the Church (who both Orthodoxy and Catholicism lay claim to.)
For example, some Fathers teach that sexual relations with marriage are only for procreation. The use of these teachers as authoritative by the RCC is dishonest, when they teach quite plainly that this is not their belief - the fact that Pope does not impose strict continence upon the infertile (whether due to medical problems or age) is proof enough of this. That it considers so called "Natural Family Planning" (which is basically a high-tech version of the old "Rhythm Method") morally neutral in many circumstances (so long as it does not totally exclude childbearing for reasons of selfishness) is doubly proof of this.
I've concluded that there are many reasons why Fathers like St.Clement of Alexandria or Bl.Augustine taught along these lines. There is a logic to it - obviously sex is fundamentally for procreating, just as eating is fundamentally for nutrition. This in turn is wedded to an obvious evangelical ideal - total self mastery, or put more correctly, dispassion
. Such a state has always been considered desirable, and is the goal of ascesis. Far from making us into cold, Vulcan-like robots, it is essential for true freedom, and the ability to love in a 100% pure, unmercenary way.
However the reality
that the Church has to deal with, is that for most people, sexual desire does not disappear simply because the ability/desire to have children is not present. Also, there is another thread in ancient Christian thought, going right back to St.Paul, which also needs to be paid heed to - and this is that it is that it is better to be married (and have this as the sanctioned outlet for such things) than "to burn" with, and be overwhelmed by sexual desire (to the point of fornicating, which lacks the commitment necessary to foster selfless love or the bonds to ensure the upbringing of Godly offspring.) Thus, while it may not be ideal, marriage as a "vent" for sexual passion is totally legitimate and God has given His blessing to this.
This is beside the fact that not all of the Fathers held that married sex was "pointless"/barely-tolerable were it enjoyed save for the express purpose of "making babies." St.John Chrysostom is most often pointed to for his teaching in this area, and rightly so, for he was quite clear on this point.
It was this pastoral consideration which has probably motivated most confessors to not burden the conscience of elderly couples or the infertile with accusations of sin, though it would seem at times this has happened. It is also undoubtedly this consideration which led the RCC, beginning with Pope Pius XII, to unambiguously teach the permissability of things like the "rhythm method."
But what about what the RCC would term "artificial", but still non-abortifacient methods of family planning? This is where another strain of thinking comes into play. The major concern of the ancient Fathers is with abortion. Almost every "proof-text" you'll see on an RC-Apologetics website about this topic, will be speaking about trying to "foil nature" by killing the offspring while it is still being formed in the womb. It is this, and not "contraception" as we now understand it, which the Fathers considered worse than killing a newborn, as many RC's falsely attribute to Patristic thought. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how they can say such a thing anyway - as if it were the case that the Vatican itself teaches such foolishness. To my knowledge, getting an abortion if you're a Roman Catholic will get you excommunicated; "using a condom" will most likely (if the priest even cares about what Humanae Vitae
has to say) get you a Rosary for a penance, if that.
Where the Fathers do speak on a remotely related note, has to do with the "wasting of the seed". If pastoral/moral-theological positions are going to be formed (and formed they are on topics like this, since this is definately not a matter dealt with by Divine Revelation) on the basis of natural-law (which understands the natural order to be a form of revelation) then the correctness of your rulings can't help but be relative to your understanding of nature. And the fact of the matter is, the common understanding of procreation in the ancient world is at best, pseudo-scientific.
According to the great naturalist-philosopher Aristotle, the male seed (the semen - he would have had no clue about "sperm cells", that only one of them is needed for conception, despite the fact that tens of millions are ejaculated every time a healthy man climaxes) is the formal cause of a child, while the mother is the material cause. There was no concept in the ancient world that the woman had her own "seed" (ovum/egg), and that both this egg and a sperm cell only each contained half of the genetic information necessary for conceiving a child. Putting it bluntly, the semen was understood to be a homoculi of a child, and taking this thought paradigm seriously, was fundamentally not much different than a newly conceived fetus. It would be the difference between an acorn falling from a tree, and an acorn embedded in soil.
This perspective was, as far as I can tell, near universal. But it is incorrect.
So if one is going to form pastoral policy on the basis of natural law, this kind of incorrect information ought not be used. Why would any lover of souls use the power to "bind and loose", to tie people's consciences to something, to create an impediment to their salvation, unless it was absolutely necessary
; unless there was absolutely an essential good that needed to be protected and an inherent evil to be avoided?
While Humanae Vitae
rests upon this incorrect natural-law argument, it seems obvious to me that the RCC itself has moved beyond this. Very few now will bother trying to offer this as a thoughtful defence - such is left to RC Apologist-Hucksters and other such non-hierarchal/theologian activitists. Instead we've seen the emergence of Pope John Paul II's whole Theology of the Body
, part of which becomes an argument against "artificial" forms of family planning.
While there is much in this aspect of the late Pope's teaching on marriage which is edifying and even quite Orthodox (ex. gender as a revelation of God, and marriage as a teaching about the economy of salvation), it's argument against "Artificial Birth Control" ("ABC") is very weak and judgemental. I say "judgemental" not because I'm some whiney liberal who can't stand anyone who so much as attempts to make moral distinctions - no, I mean to condemn this precisely in the way the Holy Scriptures condemn it. The basic argument of the late Pope, is that ABC is wrong because it requires that the couple using it be incapable of "giving themselves wholly and entirely" to one another.
I have two problems with this. First, as I said, it assumes way, way too much
; both of those who use ABC, and of those who use NFP (Natural Family Planning). Second, if consistantly applied, this reasoning would require that any married sexual activity not rooted in some profound expression of love be called a mortal sin. As a married man, I don't think I'm being presumptuous in saying that such thinking is fantastical - the reality is, that there are going to be many times, for many (no, most
) married couples where one or both partners simply want to have sex because (to put it euphemistically) "they've got the itch". So unless the Vatican is prepared to issue encyclicals against married couples having "a quickie" or a husband laying down with his wife to anything less than three scented candles and a nice bottle of wine, I find this manner of argument to be pretty lame. It also shoots to hell the teaching I've found in every single Roman Catholic moral theological source (old or new), that it is an objectively grave sin against justice
for one spouse to refuse sex to another for anything but very serious reasons (ex. abandonment, infidelity, grave medical issues, etc.) IOW. the RCC teaches that it is quite possible (and even necessary) for a spouse to have sexual relations with their partner without being particularly "into it" - nay, they may even downright not want to
This idea also seems to contradict the Apostolic/Scriptural teaching, that the venting of sexual passion is a legitimate use of marriage
On the whole then, the RC teaching on ABC seems to be a pastoral stand in search of a justification. That is a terrible grounds for telling people they're enemies of grace, and not welcome to approach the Chalice.