Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Contraception and the Informed Conscience

The question was recently raised:

"Can anyone tell me (authoritatively) whether or not artificial contraception is a sin?"

Since we are addressing this question in an Anglican environment, I must begin with the short answer, "No." There is no one who can answer that question "authoritatively", nor should there be, or at least not in the way the term is usually meant. Our larger sister church, that of Rome, tends to conflate the teaching role and the role of judgment, to the extent that, among them there is no inconsistency, for example, in adjudging the eating of meat on a summer Friday to be mortal sin one year and perfectly acceptable another, the sin being not in the eating, but in the denial of the authority that so defines sin. Our bishops and clergy do not (or at least lack the authority to) make pronouncements of this nature, but rather are commissioned to teach the Word of God as faithfully as their ability, guided by the Fathers, by the whole of Christian Tradition, and, of course, by the Holy Spirit, can enable them to do.

Obedience to divine Law is, of course, required of all Christians; but that is an entirely different matter from obeying whatever rules Bishop so-and-so or Father thus-and-such may put forth, simply because they have declared disobedience to be sin. What God requires of us is that we obey Him because it is His will, out of a desire to please Him. No lesser motive is even acceptable.

How, then, do we know His will, if not simply because someone in authority should tell us? There is that faculty that we call "conscience", that inner voice that gives us an awareness of right and wrong. Christians believe that God has given us this faculty to hear him and to know his guidance, but we also know that conscience can end up being very wrong indeed. It is probably true that the hijackers of 9/11 were very highly principled and flew those planes into those towers at the direction of conscience, and we firmly believe that they were tragically wrong. We know this, but how?

Conscience has the ability to hear God, but it also has the ability to listen to other voices. In Genesis, chapter 3, we see the First Couple, who have heard God's Word as to what is expected behavior, nonetheless listening to another voice, a voice that tells them that they can eat the forbidden fruit and come to be able to judge good and evil for themselves, thus, merely by their own desires. They took control of their consciences from their Creator and determined to set out on their own, without His instruction. That decision is the very nature of Original Sin.

Conscience needs to be formed. It needs to be fed with God's Word and brought into conformity with God's Word, and that is not an easy thing. How is a Christian conscience properly formed? God's law, ethics, and morality are taught and learned, in a variety of ways, all of which work together. It is the clergy's teaching of the Word of God, our own exposure to the written Word, the handing down of truth from parents to children, the life within the believing community, constant participation in truth-filled liturgy, commitment to personal prayer, and such influences that we need to submit ourselves to, to hear, learn, and inwardly digest. On the other hand, we are surrounded by voices we cannot heed, the world, the flesh, and the devil we promised, at our Baptism, to forsake. The tastes, desires, and common "wisdom" of secular society are, all too often, attempting to do the same thing the voice of the serpent accomplished back in Genesis - to lead us to hear them rather than the voice of God.

The Christian conscience is formed when we have determined to find God's will and to follow it because it is God's will, whether it seems pleasant, whether others (yes, even religious leaders) try to lead us otherwise, even should it lead to the bearing of a Cross. Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane points the way. He recognized in his humanity a desire to avoid the coming pain, and expressed that desire to His Father, but ended the prayer with, "Not my will, but thine be done," and that is just what He instructed us to pray, and just what we do pray (at least in words) in every service we attend.

As I wrote before: "I think it rather good that I, as a layman, have been asked to speak to such a serious issue. As such I do not speak with ecclesiastical authority, but with the conviction that I do not avoid sin because of the pronouncements of men speaking for the church, but out of a desire to know and do the will of God. At least that is what a Christian conscience is supposed to impel me to do. I need to know the Word of God, both by the teaching of the Church AND by my own learning and internalization of the Scriptures. As Anglicans and Catholics we know ourselves to be responsible for the formation (by the Holy Spirit) of our consciences from Scripture, with the guidance of the Church, not merely from directives from above."

Now, as a layman, I will attempt, very briefly, to show what it is that seems to inform my conscience in this matter of contraception. This will be a scriptural discussion, though I won't be larding it with quotes, but rather asking the reader to search the Scriptures and to internalize their assumptions, their way of thinking, more than looking for proof texts.

I approach the subject with questions. What, in Scripture, is the primary purpose of sexual intercourse? Is pleasure the main thing to be sought in such an act? Pleasure is certainly a major and God-ordained part of sexuality, but is it the reason for its existence? Is the purpose, perhaps, found in the very first of all commandments: "Be fruitful and multiply?" Is there any case in Scripture where a sexual act is spoken of with approval when a child is not desired? What is the Scriptural attitude toward children? Is it not one of fervent desire for the coming of new life? Where does the line come between preventing the inception of a new life moments before conception and killing it moments after? I know, the common "wisdom" of this society declares children to be a liability, and even looks on large families with a scorn that sometimes approaches hatred, but, when common "wisdom", even if it looks logical, points in a direction opposite to what God has revealed of His heart, which should be forming our conscience?

I have no authority to pronounce on such questions, and can only share what I have come to see, even against my own will. I believe that I speak in accord with the Scriptures and in accord with the unbroken tradition of the Church until very recent times. My position is the same that Anglicans held without question until the 1930s. There's something terribly wrong with engaging in this supremely creative act while at the same time attempting to prevent its intended fruit. I cannot manage to see how artificial methods of contraception can be compatible with a conscience formed by the Holy Scriptures, and, while unwilling to judge any individual, I simply cannot understand how such an act can be other than sinful. I am far from infallible, but I don't think I have failed in this. May God direct us all.

ed pacht


Anonymous said...

Dear Ed:
I always enjoy reading your posts and especially this one.
Many times I have heard or been involved in this type of discussion and one thing always seems to come up.
Should the couple discontinue sexual relations when past the child bearing years ? If the act cannot be for the sole purpose of procreation then what ?
Always appreciate hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

grrrrrr...cant seem to get my password working

Sandra McColl said...

'Should the couple discontinue sexual relations when past the child bearing years ?'

Abraham and Sarah didn't.

poetreader said...

If sex were for the sole purpose of procreation, that would follow, but that is merely the leading reason, not the only reason. The problem comes in when the attempt is made to frustrate the principal purpose.

Did Abraham and Sarah quit? or Elizabeth and Zecharias? If God had not provided a miracle. would they have been sinning? Somehow I think not.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

I told Ed he had hit a home run with this post.

If we must find a way to make Lambeth 1930 compatible with the Fathers (St.John Chrysostom in particular), the question is, what compelling reason may lead a Christian to use artificial contraception? Consider the exact words I have given, what compelling reason...?

The answer cannot be any of the following:

1. Economic security. Why? Because God promises to provide for us.

2. Luxury

3. Convenience

This leads to genuinely compelling reasons that may be considered.

1. A Christian woman must hold her family together (with a husband who does not share her faith with the same commitment), but has not the physical strength or health to bear children.

2. A Christian husband knows that marital intimacy is necessary for emotional and psychological reasons, but that pregnancy presents a "real and present danger" even with the advances of modern medicine, because his wife is exceptionally frail.

I think this was the kind of things the bishops faced in 1930. They never meant to give license for convenience and selfishness, or lack of faith. Did it backfire on them? It certainly did.

What we ought to discuss is this: What may constitute morally compelling reasons?

Anonymous said...

To Father Hart's reasons, I would have to add that contraception would be wise in the case of those who are emotionally, or psychologically, unable to nurture and raise children.

As a retired teacher, I witnessed too many cases to recount of vicious child abuse suffered by children who were brutally beaten, sexually molested, etc. by parents who were emotionally and pyschologically unfit to be parents. In many of these cases, such parents knew they shouldn't be parents, and were prone to harm a child, but their spouse insisted that they have children, often because of religious reasons where a spouse insisted they have children.

Child abuse, molestation, are learned behaviors, that, sadly, repeat generation after generation after generation.

The only way to stop such a vicious cycle is for such people, who are prone for such violence, not to have children.

I have witnessed such things as a first grader who came to school, his facial skin turned a horrible shade of green from severe bruises, with the visible imprint of a brick wall on his face, where his abusive parents slammed his head into a brick wall. Other students come to school with blood-stained jeans (still bleeding) from their fathers having raped them. This is not an exception. It's much more common than people wish to admit.

Not only should people, who are in danger of doing such things, should using contraception not be considered a sin, in my opinion, it might keep them from doing the sins of abusing their own potential children.

Further, in cases of generations of abuse or molestation, I believe responsible social workers, clergy, physicians, etc. should encourage the use of contraception. Intervention by law enforcement/social workers after the fact doesn't erase the scars on children. Prevention is the key. Contraception can be an important part of prevention.

Retired Teacher

poetreader said...

In "retired teacher's" scenario, I would have to say that the couple in question has an absolute obligation to be seeking counsel and treatment. I would have to ask whether using a questionable procedure such as contraception instead of dealing with the inner cause is a case if actually harboring serious unrepented sin. By our Lord's standard (of St. Matt 5) the sin is just as real, even if there are no actual children.


Bruce said...

Thank you, Ed. Also thanks for the broader discussion of informed conscience. I’m sure as I contemplate your words I’ll have more questions.
You’re right about scorn towards big families. We took a lot of flack just for violating the modern commandment of “thou shalt not have more than 2 children.” Now we’re at five with a lot of fertile years left. We get lots of negative comments (our kids are well cared for and well behaved, it’s clearly the “quantity” they’re reacting to) but we do get some positive ones to.
To the earth-worshipers, they’re just more “carbon footprints.”

poetreader said...


Your testimony is a valuable one. If we are to get our minds operating in concert with God's, and thus to have a truly informed conscience, we need to consider such attitudes as that of Psalm 127:

3 Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.

4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.

5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.


Anonymous said...


Dealing with the inner cause of such emotional, psychological problems is indeed an important thing. But, sadly, many of these problems are incurable, short of a miraculous intervention from God.

The risks of bringing children into such a situation, especially when one of the persons knows they are likely to abuse or molest,or were a victim of such things as a child making them statistically likely to repeat the behavior, is far too great to just hope that the behavior can be stopped.

In such a case, having children, and then abusing or molesting them, or being an enabler who stands by and allows a spouse to abuse or molest, is a far more serious sin than contraception.

Retired Teacher

Anonymous said...

The Canon Law of the Anglican Catholic Church doesn't directly address contraception from what I can find. I have been searching through the whole massive stack of paper, too.

In "Title XV - Christian Family, Marriage and Sanctity of Human Life", I can find nothing that specifically speaks to contraception. The closest, is perhaps "Canon 15.1.01 Deliberate Abortion Is Murder", in which it says:

"The deliberate and wilful abortion, directly procured, of any unborn child at any time from the moment of conception, is always an act of grave sin not only to the person who procures the same, but also by such person or persons who effectuate the same or acquiesce therein."

I think the key phrase that would give us some moral guidance here is the phrase "at any time from the moment of conception".

It would seem that the Canon Law of the ACC is saying the use of condoms, and other methods that actually do not allow conception to happen, are not sinful.

It would likewise seem clear that "morning after" pills, IUDs, and other methods that kill a newly-conceived fetus would be sinful. Actually, these things are wrongly labled as contraception, and are really abortions in a moral sense.

I think that any time a couple feels that they are incapable of being loving, nurturing, stable parents, who can properly nurture a child, the use of condoms, or other methods that do not allow conception, and do not result in killing a conceived life, would not be sinful.

Retired Teacher raises some very valid points. Many times, abused children are the results of people having children who knew down deep they were incapable of being parents before they had those children.

BCP Catholic

EG said...

I have read information that abused children are more often than not "planned" pregnancies, so I do not know that just because a parent doesn't plan to have the child that the child has a greater likelihood of being abused.

EG said...

As a mother of ten, I have been very interested in nutrition for expectant mothers. In my research over the past twenty years, I have uncovered much evidence for the superior health and "nutrition equity", as I call it, in many mothers of the pre-1930's childbearing years. Dr. Weston Price, Dr. Pottenger, and many others have documented specific cultural trends, results of inferior nutrition on childbearing women and animals. It seems that women today are much less able to bear many children easily, as we have less "nutrition equity." So what may seem a decrease in family size due to only "selfish" reasons, may in fact, more commonly be modern health anomalies, many of which are not even recognized by doctors any longer, because they lack a sense of what is historically a healthy cultural norm.

poetreader said...

Retired Teacher,

I don't essentially disagree. However, I was very intentional is stating an absolute obligation is such cases to seek help. If there is not repentance and a seeking for healing, then there is grievous sin whether children result or not. In cases of real repentance, moral law does rightly defer to weakness in seeking the lesser harm. It would not make contraception objectively right, but as St. Peter said, "Charity covereth a multitude of sins."


Anonymous said...

Well said, Ed.

I thought we were in some agreement. I felt I needed to clarify my statement, as much as adding to yours.

My heart has bled so many times for horribly abused children. And, so often, the laws protect the abusers, not the abused children.

I think that if either male or female knows that they might have a chance of being an abuser, especially if they were abused themselves, then refraining from having children is perhaps a way of avoiding sin.

Retired Teacher

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The abusive people described by the retired teacher are not capable of having any normal relationships, including marriage. They belong behind bars, locked away.

When I raised the question of morally compelling reasons, I meant that to be taken literally. For a married couple to engage in marital relations while refusing to be fruitful and multiply as far as nature allows, requires a morally compelling reason, and that is not the same as an excuse (age not being a factor, because of the Biblical precedents cited by Sandra in her comment).

Mark said...

From the RC perspective - Ed wrote:

"... not merely from directions above"

I've come to appreciate such directions from above, I see them forming an organic whole with the Scriptures and Tradition. Magisterium can also be seen as a gift, and not merely as an arbitrary exercise of power.

At any rate, I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of this article. For those interested, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church provides these "directions" regarding contraception:

"2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil:

Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality."

RC Cola said...

John Paul II's Theology of the Body is worthwhile reading for all Catholics, Roman or not.

Of course, the passage from the CCC that Mark cited has John Paul's fingerprints all over it.

Fr. John said...

Try viewing this from the perspective of the child as a reality and not just an idea.

I am reminded of something Brother Dave Gardner said back in the 1960's. He said, "I was born in west Tennessee, my parents were ignorant, couldn't read, knew nothing about birth control and had nine kids. I thank God for that every day!"

poetreader said...


I'm a firstborn, but my baby sister (now 63) was the fourth child, and has been one of the truly important people in my life. "They" would insist that she should not have been born. Thank God "they" didn't have the say. Another real child example: my late wife grew up with a constantly repeated family joke that she was the result of a failure of 6he preventive apparatus. Imagine how that made her feel.