Contraception Nonchalance

Pagan and barbarian cultures had no problem with contraception and abortion. Christians always maintained strict prohibitions against such practices. This “Christ-against-culture” model reflected the Christian duty to “be fruitful and multiply” and respected the created order where sex, procreation, and marriage are bound intimately in one institution of holy matrimony. It also did something to attract pagans and barbarians to the Christian family form. 

No more. 

Few Protestants even know the Christian argument against contraception. I have never heard a sermon or even a mention of contraception in my very conservative Lutheran synod. Until I read Catholic books on marriage I never even thought of contraception as a moral issue. If surveys are to believed, nearly all Protestants think using contraception is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue at all.

Why? Scripture is silent on the issue. Therefore, many are tempted to think of contraception as nothing more than a “useful tool.” Pastor Doug Wilson illustrates this point, when he distinguishes between yuppies who use contraception to postpone procreation so they can “spend time surfing together in Argentina first” and a “seasoned married couple with six kids” who have their “covenantal hands” full. For Wilson, contraception is not itself a problem, but rather the selfish use of it. Or at least that is the Protestant lullaby, at its best. 

Protestants have staked out a position that is pro-contraception and pro-marriage. Is such a position coherent? 

Few in the tradition thought so. All thought of marriage as a deep communion between a man and woman, enduring for life. A deep communion on sex required, according to St. Augustine, an openness to offspring. A “baneful sterility,” he writes, enabled either through contraception or abortion, means that sex is carried on not “for honest wedlock, but for impure gratification; if both are not party to these deeds, I make bold to say that either the one makes herself a mistress of a husband, or the other simply the paramour of his wife.” Few dissented from this position prior to the 20th Century.

During the 20th Century, the idea that contraceptive sex produced relationships of mutual use instead of marital love became the sole provenance of the Catholic Church. It is found in encyclicals like Casti Connubii (1930) through to John Paul II’s works on the theology of the body

Protestant nonchalance assumes precisely what is at stake in the debate over contraception. Does nonchalance plus availability make us the type of people who are not prepared to be mothers and fathers?

Technologies are hardly morally neutral tools. Social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat shape the minds of young girls—so they are not, simply speaking, just tools. They shape the moral environment. Electricity and clocks change our attitude toward time itself—and hence they transform the human experience. 

The easy availability of contraception transforms the nature of sex and therewith the character of men and women by elevating the importance of sexual pleasure as a human good. 

The earliest Christian advocates for contraception recognized that birth control shapes culture, but there was disagreement about how. Arguments concerning birth control (or nonchalance) show Christians caving to the zeitgeist. The result was that  Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), later founder of Planned Parenthood, shaped the teaching of Christian churches more than the teachings of Scripture. 

Sanger’s Pivot of Civilization (1922) made two separate arguments in favor of birth control. First, contraception would be necessary to prevent the reproduction of the “feeble-minded,” the impoverished and other undesirables so that the stock of human beings would improve. Such arguments inspired sterility laws across America in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, Sanger objected to “conscripted motherhood.” She hoped to increase sexual satisfaction and boldness among women once sex was divorced from procreation and ultimately from marriage itself. 

The origin story of Protestant and non-Catholic denominations embracing birth control is, like a crazy uncle, normally kept in a dark closet for no one to see or hear. Many Christian denominations partnered with Sanger’s American Birth Control League to prevent Anglo “race suicide.” These early eugenics advocates were mostly from urban, northeastern, well established denominations like the Congregationalist Church (liberalized in 1931). The Methodist Episcopal Church (1931), the Presbyterian Church in the USA (1931), and the Protestant Episcopal Church (1934) also supported contraception for eugenicist reasons in the 1930s.  Such arguments, for obvious reasons, disappeared after World War II.

Sexual liberationist arguments predominated after the war. The Anglican Church had become the first trinitarian church to bless the use of birth control at the Lambeth Conference (1930). While the Lambeth conference condemned believers who avoid conception from “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” it embraced contraception for those with “clearly felt moral obligations to limit or avoid parenthood.” No standards for such clearly-felt obligations were offered. No church discipline would hence be possible for those who used contraception from condemnable motives.  

Denomination after denomination followed the Anglicans. All joined in believing that the link between sex and procreation was hardly necessary. Some found good lifestyle reasons for husbands and wives to avoid having children. Some found the unifying purpose of sex to be so important that abstinence or self-control in sexual matters need not be so inflated in importance. Nearly all denominations found reasons to sign up with the liberationist zeitgeist.

What is more, the worries from the Lambeth conference are nowhere to be seen among today’s Protestant churches. The Episcopal Church, for instance, as of 1994 advocates affordable “family planning,” without any worry about why one is seeking to avoid children. Episcopalians commend contraception for those concerned “to improve the quality of life for all.”  

This is the pattern in nearly all Protestant denominations today. The United Methodist Church (1976) claims that “each couple has the right and the duty prayerfully and responsibly to control conception according to circumstances.” 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (1980) too hopes that “every conception would be mutually desired” and that both partners “should be prepared to provide emotionally, spiritually, physically, and socially for the child”—never considering whether the use of contraception encourages such preparation. It even adopts the language of avoiding “unwanted pregnancies.” 

The Presbyterian Church in the USA (1981) waxed Shakespearean in evaluating the claims of contraception, musing “to parent or not to parent is a decision of the utmost concern” and contraception adds “clear intentionality” to the decision. Later, in 1985, its contraception stance would add be reaffirmed because it helped to “model a new openness to diversity of lifestyles.” The United Church of Christ too has seen “matters of reproductive health” as “matters of conscience” since 1969.

Southern Baptists have tried to stay out of the business of evaluating contraception theologically, so they just condemned distributing birth control devices to minors and against sexual permissiveness in 1977, but have not touched the issue of contraception overmuch. 

Only Seventh-Day Adventists and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) offer complex analyses of contraception, but mostly within a “civil rights” framework. According to the LCMS’s Sanctity of Human Life Committee, since Scripture is silent on the question of contraception, it seems to be in the realm of human freedom; however, methods of contraception that come to mirror abortion undermine the unborn’s right to life. Other LCMS documents, products of official study but not official policy, suggest that fecund marriage and celibacy are both pleasing to God. 

If we are to celebrate and praise God through all our actions, Protestant Christians must think through the place of sex within their marriages. It should be an object of preaching every bit as much as opposition to pornography, though it might prove more offensive to their flocks. Precisely this offense reveals how sacred our very secular approach to contraception has proven to be. Openness to procreation is an openness to the gift and responsibility that are our children. It fills up earth with charges and fills up heaven, eternally, with believers. It connects Christians throughout the ages to the Church writ large. Having children also seems to be a manifest duty for most. 

One of the great shames of today’s Protestant churches is that few are bold enough to even think through how controversial the use of artificial contraception is. So afraid of being seen as Catholic, or so enmeshed in our secular culture, we accept the controversial use as a matter of course, without even thinking. 

Christian Churches cannot thrive when they unreflectively accept prominent teachings from a decadent, dying world. The Christ-against-culture model of the early church may offer us more guidance than we realize for  the good of our souls.

*Image Credit: Wunderstock

Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and author of The Recovery of Family Life: Exposing the Limits of Modern Ideologies, just out in paperback from Baylor University Press.

11 thoughts on “Contraception Nonchalance

  1. I have thought about this topic quite a bit for several reasons.

    First, I am inclined to agree that merely “not wanting kids” is a poor argument for the use of contraception. I generally feel that the common calling of every married couple is to be fruitful and multiply.

    The article appears to be primarily concerned about the avoidance of children, but there is somewhat of a hint that a couple who, for whatever reason, cannot or should not have more children should abstain from sex, which goes against Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 7:5.

    What about a situation where pregnancy is a serious risk? For example, after a C-section, getting pregnant again within 9 months can be a very serious health risk.

    Or what if a woman has already had several C-sections? Doctors tend to put an upper limit on how many can be had. Because of this many women in cultures where the largest number of children is best will allow their child to die rather than get a C-section and thus limit their child-bearing capacity.

    Just curious, as I have settled that contraception in the interest of avoiding potentially life-threatening pregnancy is a valid use, but I would be interested to hear other thoughts on the subject.

  2. It is indeed tragic that the ability and right to control conception is assumed and deemed good. It is tragic that our language surrounding children focuses on whether they were “planned” or not.

  3. This is the first non-Catholic piece I’ve seen to take this position on contraception. The closest that have come to it have been, “Well contraception isn’t ideal but in a fallen world… yadda yadda… go ahead.” I was raised in church and as mentioned, the idea that contraception was a moral issue was unheard of for me until I saw it presented as such on a Catholic blog I found when I was 28. 28!
    I’m so glad to see this discussed.

  4. I’ll always remember when the Catholic position was presented to me, I really had no argument for it when faced with my wife right in front of me getting the same talk during Pre-Cana. Eventually, it is when I realized the Catholic Church was the only Church still stubbornly standing against it (in its teachings at least) that put me on the path to becoming Catholic.

    I have a large family now, it is definitely not easy, there’s not a lot of stupid social media posts of my wife and I rock climbing ‘living our best life!” My oldest son is already a little man ready to be a father that has been a great brother to his siblings as well. We’re never lonely, and our kids always have someone together to play with… and it was a bulwark when the pandemic came. It centered around us what was really important when it came to our family and the Domestic Church.

    Pope Paul VI’s predictions are an accurate and haunting read on contraception for anyone who will take a look. I’ve met too many women to count when they hear I have a large family hang their head and mutter, “My husband was done after #…” If they’re feeling particularly bitter they’ll mention their husband’s hobbies. If we are to shape the culture and bring forth the Christian generation, we need children. There are plenty of ethnic Eastern Catholic churches on the verge of dying because they cannot refill their pews, and many a parish that are filled with just old people. People leaving the church does create a problem, but it’s not the only problem. Even in Capitalist society, corporations knowing homes will more than likely be two-income or that the status quo is, “your job first, or else.” Men have become slaves to the market and not priests to our home.

  5. A bit more than a decade ago, I predicted to my friends that as the sexual revolution progressed further and further from Christian morality, we would start to see more Christians reconsidering the question of contraception.

    My thought is that there is a certain amount of cultural influence or accommodation that we can justify to ourselves (even if it’s not actually consistent with Christian teaching), and the earlier steps are easier to rationalize and keep us respectable in mainstream culture.

    However, at some point the divergence between societal norms and Christian norms becomes so great that no serious Christian can justify the required compromises while still remaining Christian in any meaningful sense. Once we come to terms with the fact that we can’t maintain our social respectability and our Christian convictions at the same time, and that the social norms are not just incompatible with but actually antithetical to Christianity, then we can start thinking again about what a truly Christian position would look like, as opposed to trying to figure out how to bring it as close as possible to the views of the world around us.

    You can bend the branch pretty far, but when you try to pull it so far that it finally slips out of your hands it doesn’t just move back an inch to where you had it before – it snaps back into its natural position. At least, that’s what happens if the branches are still part of a living tree.

  6. No, being fruitful and multiplying is NOT a “Christian duty.” It is a blessing that God gives to humanity (as is explicitly stated in Gen. 1:28). It’s no more a command than is Jesus telling the leper, “Be clean.” It’s a divine message of empowerment, not individual and universal marching orders–or else Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and the host of celibate men and women religious were disobedient to God.

    That said, I do think that most Protestants think of contraception primarily in utilitarian rather than moral terms–though that probably doesn’t vary much from most Catholics, as the Catholic ban on contraception is ignored by extremely large majorities of the laity. On the other hand, the church, particularly in its Catholic form, has a history going back to the Fathers of positions about sex (both acts of physical intimacy and the differentiation between men and women) that are at times directly contrary to scripture and at many other times dismissive of the real concerns of believers, particularly women. The mother of a friend of mine growing up died in pregnancy as a complication of uncontrolled diabetes. My wife and I have two special needs children; the thought of having another child is crushing, even if that one doesn’t have special needs.

    Can contraception be used responsibly and morally? I think it can. Is it consistently used that way by Christians? Probably not. Is the risk of the latter so great that we should prohibit it for all? That’s a harder call. While I’m sensitive to “not causing the weaker brother to stumble,” that’s not a reason to give up everything that might be misused.

  7. I appreciate the history of the Protestant turn-around on contraception, and I also appreciate the argument of Augustine, but this article was lacking in arguments against contraception, if that was Scott Yenor’s intention. Instead, this article comes across more as a complaint about a few modern denominations not being on Yenor’s side on this issue.

    Point 8 in Doug Wilson’s blog is an argument that decides the issue for me. Unless I was a farmer, I simply would not be able to disciple, care for and provide for as many children as my wife could have before menopause. If I understand Scott Yenor correctly, this is what he is advocating for: as many children as will naturally occur before old age prevents it.

    It also would amount to abusive leadership if church elders felt the responsibility to discipline couples who choose not to have children because of painful health problems experienced by the mother during or after previous pregnancies. No, I am not referring to morning sickness. As bad as it can be, it is a normal (Gen 3:16) and temporary part of child birth.

    Finally, I do agree with the author that long time couples with no children need to be disciplined. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command of God and we must be consistent with Scripture, but I don’t believe we can put a definite number on when that is fulfilled or say that its fulfilment can only be limited by menopause. To use non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or not is a decision that belongs to the couple. The church does not have the authority to make law where Scripture ceases to speak.

    1. Long-term childless couples may well not have kids because they’re already taking care of other people–their own parents or siblings, for example, and on the job, for the many children whose parents had them but didn’t have the resources to raise them well. You also need to consider the environmental harm done by an exploding poulation.

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