Recently I was brought into a post on a friend’s Facebook where questions were being asked about why Catholics believe that contraception is against God’s will. Most Protestants believe that it is just fine to contracept and that this is between God and the couple. According to the Catechism (paragraphs 2370 and 2399), contraception is a violation of the 6th Commandment meaning it is a mortal sin.
Modern birth control methods were unknown in Bible times, and the Bible is, therefore, silent on the matter so why do Catholics believe that using birth control is a sin?
While it is true that modern birth control methods were unknown in Biblical times, this does not necessitate that it was not ruled out. Most would agree that assisted suicide is a sin yet chemical injections would also be unknown during Biblical times. Besides, contraception was not foreign during Biblical times at all. For instance, in the Roman Empire sheepskin was used as a contraception (this method is still in use today!) and potions were used to abort babies, as contraception and even to sterilize. While the exact methods were not necessarily used, this does not mean that we cannot have a moral judgement on it at all.
Whether the Bible is silent on the matter:
God gave Adam and Eve the command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” He also commanded Noah to do the same in Genesis 9:7, “be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.” Surely these commands would overrule the thought of exclusion or even the reduction of offspring. This is a positive command to do a certain, something. Preventing the possibility is a certain rejection of this command.
Why Catholics believe that using birth control is a sin:
Catholics belief of marriage is intertwined with the view of contraception. As CCC 1601 states:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
With contraception this partnership is not a giving of the fullness of each other in words nor in body. When one contracepts they are saying to their spouse, “You cannot have this, life giving, procreative act from me.” In this case, they are not expressing the one flesh that Scripture says that we become in marriage. Marriage binds the two spouses together in its openness to new life and love.
The closest that the Bible comes to condemning birth control is in Genesis 38 where God punished Onan for being selfish and not fulfilling his duty according to Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
While it is true that Onan did not fulfill his duty of perpetuating his brother’s name and was selfish, we must look a bit further in Deuteronomy 25 to understand the punishment. The next 4 verses tell us what the punishment for this is:
“And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders, and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him, and speak to him: and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, The house of him that had his sandal pulled off.”
None of this mentions death. In fact, the worse part of the punishment is that the wife gets to spit in his face! Now since our God is a just God, we can assume that His sentence will also be just. In this case, if Onan was simply guilty of not perpetuating his brother’s seed then the sentence of death is excessive and not “just” since His law decreed a lesser punishment should be enacted. There must be something additional in order to warrant death and there certainly is. Onan spilled his seed (semen) on the ground in order to prevent a pregnancy. In other words, Onan withdrew (in the middle of intercourse), masturbated (we can assume) and spilled his seed on the ground in order to prevent a child. It is these actions which contravene God’s plan and displeased the Lord. One would need to argue that God is unjust in order to argue that Onan’s death was simply for Onan not perpetuating his brother’s name.
Well Onan’s motivation was his selfishness of not wanting to share his inheritance with his brother’s children and that is why God killed him.
While this is true, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. For instance, even with the same Levirate Law, Onan would have been selfish in not taking Tamar as his wife as the command says. This selfishness was not punishable by death so there is no reason to think the same selfishness (Onan’s withdrawal) would be punishable by death, instead it is the act which is punished and the act is contraception. One could blame his death on selfishness but it surely is not the selfishness of not wanting to share an inheritance but the selfishness of taking the pleasure of intercourse without allowing for the life giving action.
Well that was the Old Testament where God killed a lot of people for things done under the Law. There is no justification in the New Testament for not using contraception.
Indeed Onan was in the Old Testament but his death, along with many other deaths, prefigure our own spiritual deaths in the New Covenant. God does not do things without a purpose to teach us.
I would disagree that there is no justification for not using contraception in the New Testament. In fact, if we need evidence in the New Testament to prove our case there is a burden of proof needed in order for us to use contraception and this burden cannot be met with Scripture or Tradition. St. Paul speaks quite strongly against contraception and abortion in Galatians 5:19-21. The Holy Spirit, through St. Paul says, “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit.” We are quick to skim over this and not think anything about what the Holy Spirit means with this list or that we could possibly even be committing these sins ourselves. However, when we take a look at the Greek we see a word that most of us can make out into an English word, pharmakeia (meaning medication/pharmacy). This word is often translated as “sorcery” or something similar but we have to understand what it meant in that time. People who mixed herbs were what we today call pharmacists which is the meaning behind the word “pharmakeia.” Surely the Holy Spirit is not condemning pharmacists, as we know them today, or even good medicines! Instead, we should look to see what bad potions or medicines were being made at the time. Well obviously you had poisons but you also had potions that would make you abort babies, those used as contraception and even sterilize you. All three of these we see present in today’s society even if not in the same form. It seems that these choices are most likely the bad potions that the Holy Spirit was speaking about. Since pagan pharmacists were popular in idolatrous cultures and their rites typically ended in sexual orgies, this seems to point to the potions being used for the last three (abortion, contraception and sterilization).
Soranos of Ephesus used this same word to describe potions used for abortion and contraception as well so it appears that this would be the primary meaning to the word during St. Paul’s time period (Soranos lived in the 1st/2nd century AD).
In addition, the Holy Spirit, through St. John, uses the same word in Revelation 9:20-21. It is mixed in between murder and sexual sins so it appears here as well to have the connotation of yet another sin that is equal and similar to killing and sexual impurity. Since abortion is murder, murderous potions and idolatry are already covered, the only remaining options, according to usage by Soranos, for the use of pharmakeia are sterilization and contraceptive which both have the same end.
The Biblical basis against contraceptive is not clear upon first glance but can be deduced with the help of proper understanding of Scripture. Contraception had been condemned unanimously by all Christians throughout history until 1930. Today, only the Catholic Church continues to stand strong in this condemnation while the denominations waffle about and pay little mind to the historical evidence or Biblical reasoning to our Lord’s condemnation. Since acceptance of contraception, abortions, divorces, infidelity, premarital pregnancies have all risen. The Christian ideal of a family has deteriorated to the point that Christians are no better off than their non-Christian counter parts. That in itself should be quite telling.