Contraception — A Historical Sketch

Scripture attests to the condemnation of contraception in the following two passages:

Genesis 38:8-10 — Onan is killed for practicing contraception. (In conjunction, see Deut. 25:7-10, the penalty for refusing to keep up the family lineage is only shame, not death.)

Galatians 5:20 — The Greek word translated as “scorcery” is pharmakeia. Pharmakeia denotes the mixing of potions, and Scripture scholars believe this includes contraceptive potions.

In the Tradition, contraception has been condemned since the beginning of Christianity; as early as AD 80 such is found in the Didache (Didache, II, 1-2).

Down through the ages there are numerous condemnations of contraception. This can be seen in the writings of: Clement of Alexandria (215), St. John Chrysostom (407), St. Augustine (430), St. Caesarius of Arles (542), The Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1241), etc.

Even the Protestant Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Wesley viewed contraception as a sin.

All Protestant denominations agreed with the Catholic Church’s teaching condemning contraception as sinful until the Seventh Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church in 1930, which allowed contraception under certain circumstances (see Resolution 15). This opened the door to greater and greater use and acceptance in the Christian populace.

The Catholic Church’s response in 1930 to this decision of the Lambeth Conference was the encyclical by Pope Pius XI Casti Connubii. In no uncertain terms, the Catholic Church reaffirmed her condemnation of contraception and appealed to the long standing Christian tradition on the issue: “Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question… [The Catholic Church proclaims] any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who do such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.” (CC, #56, emphasis mine).

A renewed challenge to the Church’s teaching came with the advent of the anovulant pill in 1960. In 1968, Humanae Vitae was promulgated which once again reaffirmed the Church’s condemnation of contraception. (HV, #14).

It was reaffirmed again in 1981 in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio by Blessed Pope John Paul II. (FC, #29-33).

In 1997, contraception is again reaffirmed as an intrinsic evil in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2370.

In 2009, A Pastoral Letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops titled,Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, states “Deliberately intervening, by the use of contraceptive practices, to close off an act of intercourse to the possibility of procreation is a way of separating the unitive meaning of marriage from the procreative meaning. This is objectively wrong in and of itself and is essentially opposed to God’s plan for marriage and proper human development.” (pg. 18).