Friday, February 17, 2012

Is the Catholic Church teaching on contraception a "tradition of men?"

A frequeently heard phrase these days is the assertion: "Jesus never preached against contraception so isn't this another 'man-made' tradition of the Catholic Church?" Op-ed pages and blogs have been a-buzz with this question. It is a fair question, so what is the answer?

Christians in the evangelical world may or may not agree with the church teaching on contraception however they are rallying around people like Chuck Colson and Mike Huckabee who yesterday said "we are all Catholic now." While addressing the scribes and pharisees and Mark 7: 6-8 Jesus has some harsh words: "Well did Isaian prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts...You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition. He went on to say, 'How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition." There is a similar reference in Matthew and references in Paul to the "traditions of men."

So, are Catholics guilty of following "the traditions of men?" The answer is no. For Catholics it is important to realize that we follow two pillars: the pillar of the Word of God and the pillar of Sacred Tradition. One cannot be juxtaposed against the other. If something is not explicitly stated in scripture that does not mean the teaching is not may have been part of the living tradition of the church for centuries. Catholics do not believe in "Sola Scriptura." Scripture evolved as a process. As Catholic apologist and baptist convert Steve Ray asserts, at the Ascension Jesus did not yell down "don't forget to read my book." The Apostles would have looked amongst themselves: what book? It was only in years following the death and resurrection of Jesus that the church decided upon a canon of scripture. The operative word in the last sentence is "Church". Unlike Born Again Evangelicals who have to rely on their own interpretation of Scripture, Catholics realize that it is "the church" that is, as St. paul says " the pillar and foundation of truth." (1 Tim 3:15). Because of the promise of Jesus to Peter " you are rock and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (MT 16:18)Catholics can rest assured that the teaching magesterium of the church will preserve the truth about Jesus Christ. And indeed it has. As I mentioned in an earlier post every Christian denomination held that contraception was evil until the Lambeth conference in 1930. On his facebook page today Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong shared this following quote from the leader of the Protestant Revolution: Martin Luther-"Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed...He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred...Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him...that worthless fellow..preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother." Harsh words indeed. Martin Luther expresses here his contempt for the anti-birth mentality of Onan. One parenthetical comment here, the Catholic Church presentation of teaching in this area is much more positive today.

But I digress....the key issue is authority. The Catholic Church has the authority, because of Peter, to speak definitively on these issues and it has with Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae. But lets go back to Jesus. Although he did not expressly express opposition to contraception he certainly laid the groundwork for what we now know to be Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Let's consider again that account in Mark 7: 6-8. In this passage Jesus was admonishing the Jews for their surface approach to their religious practices. Jesus is going after the heart. Later in this section he notes:"'Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?' (Thus he declared all foods clean.) "But what comes out of a person, that is what defiles. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from within and they defile." Ouch! Is anyone standing after that list? Notice, he references "unchastity." Contraception would fall into the category of "unchastity" although it is not explicitly stated. Jesus also says "Blessed are the pure of heart in the beattitudes." Purity of heart does apply to contraception because Pope Paul VI warned in Humanae Vitae: "I can also be feared that the man who becomes used to contraceptive practices, may in the end lose respect for his wife, and no longer care about her physical and psychological well being, will come to the point of considering her a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion."

Further developing the argument that the Catholic Church position on contraception is not a "tradition of men" consider the following words from Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life: " No less critical in the formation of conscience is the recovery of the necessary link between freedom and truth. As I have frequently stated, when freedom is detached from objective truth it becomes impossible to establish personal rights on a firm rational basis: and the ground is laid for society to be at the mercy of the unrestrained will of individuals or the oppressive totalitarianism of public authority." Sound familiar? (HHS mandate?) Pope John Paul II also states: "The work of educating in the service of life involves the training of couples in responsible procreation. In its true meaning, responsible procreation requires couples to be obedient to the Lord's call and to act as faithful interpreters of this plan. This happens when the family is generouly open to new lives, and when couples maintain an attitude of openness and service to life, even if, for serious reasons and in respect for the moral law, they choose to avoid a new birth for the time being or indefinitely. The moral law obliges them in every case to control the impulse of instinct and passion, and to respect the biological laws inscribed in their person. It is precisely this respect which makes legitimate, at the service of responsible procreation, the use of natural methods of regulating fertility. From the scientific point of view, these methods are becoming more and more accurate and make it possible in practice to make choices in harmony with moral values. An honest appraisal of their effectiveness should dispel certain prejudices which are still widely held, and should convince married couples, as well as health care and social workers, of the importance of proper training in this area. The Church is grateful to those who, with personal sacrifice and often unacknowledged dedication, devote themselves to the study and spread of these methods, as well as to the promotion of education in the moral values which the presuppose." I do not think to many people have read or heard those words. As our country debates contraception and abortion it is heartening to hear such clarity of truth.

One last note. Catholics and Protestants both believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and is One with God. If Jesus is the Son then certainly He must have been there when God created the world and spoke the words in Genesis 1: 28, "And God blessed them and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves over the earth." Children are always a blessing of God. Mother Teresa once said, "how can you say there are too many children, that is like saying there are too many stars in the sky!"

Do we have the faith that God will provide all our material and emotional needs if we are open to life? Who knows, maybe another Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs is out there just waiting to be born....just waiting for a wife and her husband to say "yes" to the God of Life!


  1. It's a constant struggle. It's like my marital path has been caught in a tug of war. The more God beckons us with a "yes" the more the world screams at us with a "no!" And my husband and I...And our beautiful and innocent children are caught in the middle...
    All for you Lord, all for you...

    1. The sruggle is the cross...but the struggle is so worth it. We are born sel-centered children and we grow to become like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son...arms open to all...willing to allow a child to wish us dead and then welcome that child back and give them the fatted calf. Boy do I have a long way to go and grow in love