Birth Control and Christianity Debate: Introduction
Birth control or family planning is one of the most controversial issues, widely and passionately discussed by the Church and one for which a clear answer or solution has remained elusive. With rising population rate, many experts maintain that birth control is not only important, it is critical for the survival of the planet. Birth control methods both artificial and natural have been widely promoted and publicized since the beginning of 20th century. Over the years they managed to gain wider acceptance and Church came under severe pressure to endorse or allow the use of contraceptives. The experts found that growing population rate was directly connected with food and water scarcity and was also seen as a cause of increasing environmental deterioration.
The size of the human population affects virtually every environmental condition facing our planet. As our population grows, demands for resources increase, leading to pollution and waste. More energy is used, escalating the problems of global warming, acid rain, oil spills and nuclear waste. More land is needed for agriculture, contributing to deforestation and soil erosion. More homes, factories and roads must be built, occupying habitat lost by other species that share the planet, often leading to their extinction. Simply put, the more people inhabiting our finite planet, the greater the stress on its resources. (Weber, 1991, p. 1)
However Christianity and modern experts do not see eye-to-eye on this issue for the Church maintains that the first most important command given to man was "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth." (Genesis 1:28) Christianity has vehemently opposed the use of contraceptives, even though some all denomination of Protestant Church left the choice of child spacing to the individuals involved when the pressure to legalize birth control increased in 1930s. Catholic Church however remained opposed to the idea believing that birth control procedures directly reject the first command of "multiply" given by the Lord and also stood in violation of the spirit of Jesus' last command in the book of Matthew that says, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey in everything I have commanded you." (Matthew: 28:19)
Birth control procedures, mainly artificial ones, have been strictly prohibited in Christianity. Some believe that natural birth control methods are allowed but that too, only under specific circumstances. In other words, despite excessive pressure and several modern interpretations of the Biblical commands, the Church continues to oppose the use of contraceptives maintaining that the bible doesn't say anything in favor of birth control and has in fact indirectly condemned the practice on several occasions. While the experts continue to make a strong case in favor of birth control and family planning:
In summary, the world's population will continue to grow as long as the birth rate exceeds the death rate; it's as simple as that. When it [the world's population] stops growing or starts to shrink, it will mean that either the birth rate has gone down or the death rate has gone up or a combination of the two. Basically then, there are only two kinds of solutions to the population problem. One is a "birth rate solution," in which we find ways to lower the birth rate. The other is a "death rate solution," in which ways to raise the death rate -- war, famine, pestilence -- find us. The problem could have been avoided by population control, in which mankind consciously adjusted the birth rate so that the "death rate solution" did not have to occur. (Ehrlich, 1968, pp. 34-35)
The Church sticks with Biblical commands and cites several examples in the Bible that indicate Lord's displeasure with birth control practices. For example in Deuteronomy 23:1, sterilization method has been severely condemned: "He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the Lord." There is another occasion in the Bible where Onan was given death sentences when he failed to fulfill his duty of impregnating his dead brother's wife:
Judah said to Onan, 'Go in to your brother's wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.' But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also" (Gen. 38:8-10).
The introduction to the debate establishes the fact that despite the growing need for adoption of birth control methods and excessive pressure from the public, Christianity doesn't condone the practice of family planning and Church has thus remained staunchly opposed to the idea.
BIRTH CONTROL AND ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
This brings us to the question: What has been the stance of Church on the issue of contraceptives prior to 20th century when some explicit documents were produced to clarify Christianity's position on the issue. We are generally aware of what Christianity says about birth control and vaguely understand that Bible doesn't endorse family planning procedures, but surely the ancient clerics must have said something on the issue. What is the traditional Christian view on the issue of birth control? This question is extremely important and relevant since it helps in understanding the growth and evolution of Christianity's adamant views regarding birth control.
It is commonly believed that since Bible was not clear on the issue of birth control, there were apparently no discussions on the issue of contraceptives available in ancient Christian literature. Paul Evdokimov asserts:
In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised. There are no canons that deal with it. The ancient collections of penitential discipline are no longer entirely applicable; moreover they say nothing on the subject...One must therefore start from the patristic spirit and not from a precise, inexistent teaching. [p. 174]
The practice of birth control was probably as common in ancient times as it is today with the only exception that people usually resorted to natural means of avoiding conception. Several ancient texts allude to Christianity's position on the issue of birth control directly or indirectly confirming that the Church has always been against the use of contraceptives.
Paul Venye in his book "In A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium" refers to St. Augustine and Saint Jerome who mentioned birth control in ancient texts:
All classes of the population certainly made use of contraceptive techniques. Saint Augustine, who speaks of "embraces in which conception is avoided," gives no indication that these are rare; he condemns the practice, even between legitimate spouses. Augustine distinguishes between contraception, sterilization by means of drugs, and abortions, only to condemn them all... Saint Jerome, in his twenty-second epistle, speaks of young girls who "savor their sterility in advance and kill the human being even before its seed has been sown," an allusion to a spermicidal drug. [p. 12]
Since these people were considered authorities on Christianity and various Biblical interpretations, it is not far-fetched to assume that Fathers of the Church must have discussed the issue too. Various ancient texts written by well-known Christian figures talk about the practice of birth control in clearly negatively terms; thus confirming the Christianity's early position on the issue. Noonan (1967) explores the traditional Christian position on birth control and quotes various important Christian texts to prove that Christianity and therefore the Church have always been against the idea of contraceptives. St. Epiphanos of Salamis for example wrote in c. 375: "They exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption." [Noonan: 97] Similarly another famous Christian figure Titus, who was the Bishop of Bostra in Asia Minor wrote in c. 363:
But indulging in pleasure more frequently, they [the Manichees] hate the fruit that comes necessarily from their acts; and they command that bodies be joined beyond what is lawful and restrict and expel what is conceived and do not await births at their proper time, as if birth alone were dangerous and difficult.[Noonan: 114]
With the changes that some denominations experienced in their position on the issue of birth control, many people have started harboring doubts about traditional Christian position on the use of contraceptives. But before this controversy arose, mainly in the 20th century, the Church's position was absolutely clear and it was also believed to the actual traditional Christian view on the issue. Francis Edgecumbe argues: "The traditional attitude has been strictly to forbid all employment of contraceptives, and even to discourage the so-called 'rhythm method'."
It must therefore be borne in mind that until 1930s when due to excessive public pressure, some dramatic changes were introduced to Christianity's original position on the…