Natural Family Planning and the Traditional View on Sexual Relations

The introduction of and widespread insistence on a celibate priesthood seems to have led to a number of views in the Nicene era (give or take a hundred years), which continued to hold sway for a few generations after the Reformation. Thus, for example, it was believed that virginity was – in itself – a virtue. This lead, it seems, both to the idea that Mary was perpetually a virgin, and also to the idea that sexual relations are basically bad – the only thing they are good for (or in some cases, permissible for) is making babies.

Occasionally we see Roman Catholics trying to latch onto these old views as though they supported the Roman Catholic view – and to some extent they do: many of these old views decry the use of chemical sterilization, abortion, oral copulation, and the technique used by Onan (not to be too graphic). All of these things also seem to be condemned by Rome today. For example, “This Rock” magazine ran, in a section titled “The Fathers Know Best,” a series of quotations that they alleged were against contraception (link to article, Volume 16, Number 7, September 2005). Some certainly were against contraception, some were not. For example, the Epistle of [pseudo-]Barnabas was the first item on the list, but it did not refer to contraception as such, but to oral copulation).

The problem for Rome is that today she promotes “Natural Family Planning,” which is itself a contraceptive technique (sometimes referred to as the “rhythm method” of contraception). It is a way that is supposed to provide married people with a way to have sexual intercourse without having children (if they so desire). But this technique is condemned by the same authors. For example, the first church father to be quoted in the article is Clement of Alexandria. The article quotes two selections from a portion of Clement of Alexandria’s “The Instructor,” that Schaff thought better to leave in Latin (because it contains sexually explicit content). The first selection is a somewhat questionable translation that is, in any event, rather vague as to what is precisely intended. The second is much more clear, but it is clear that Clement of Alexandria (lived from about A.D. 150 – 215) views sex as inappropriate except for the purpose of procreation:

“But otherwise, to come together other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature … .” Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children, Book 2, Chapter 10 (my own translation from the Latin section in the Schaff translation) (“Aliter autem coire, quam ad liberorum procreationem, est facere injuriam naturae … .”).

One expanded version of the article (found here) contains a quotation from Hippolytus (lived about A.D. 170 – 236) that has an ambiguous negative reference to the use of drugs. In the context, perhaps the better sense is simply refer to Hippolytus condemning abortions. The citation in the expanded article seems a bit off, if the chapters in Schaff’s edition are the guide, but the quotation as it appears in Schaff’s collection, with the editor’s footnote included in-line, is as follows:

And the hearers of Callistus being delighted with his tenets, continue with him, thus mocking both themselves as well as many others, and crowds of these dupes stream together into his school. Wherefore also his pupils are multiplied, and they plume themselves upon the crowds (attending the school) for the sake of pleasures which Christ did not permit. But in contempt of Him, they place restraint on the commission of no sin, alleging that they pardon those who acquiesce (in Callistus’ opinions). For even also he permitted females, if they were unwedded, [Editor’s Footnote: This passage, of which there are different readings, has been variously interpreted. The rendering followed above does probably less violence to the text than others proposed. The variety of meaning generally turns on the word ἐναξία in Miller’s text. Bunsen alters it into ἐν ἀξίᾳ…ἡλικίᾳ, i.e., were inflamed at a proper age. Dr. Wordsworth reads ἡλικιώτῃ…ἀναξίῳ, i.e., an unworthy comrade. Roeper reads ἡλικίᾳ…ἀναξίου, i.e., in the bloom of youth were enamoured with one undeserving of their choice.] and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband. Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs [Editor’s Footnote: Dr. Wordsworth places περιδεσμεῖσθαι in the first sentence, and translates thus: “women began to venture to bandage themselves with ligaments to produce abortion, and to deal with drugs in order to destroy what was conceived.”] for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. [Editor’s Footnote: The prescience of Hermas and Clement is here illustrated. See vol. ii. pp. 9, 32, 279, 597, etc.] Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church! [Editor’s Footnote: Elucidation XIV.]

– Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 7

As you can see, the quotation is a bit ambiguous at best – does it mean drugs that sterilize or those that produce abortions? The context seems to support the latter better, but the editors seem to have favored the broader sense. In any event, Hippolytus’ condemnation seems to be reserved for adultery and murder (which would include abortion, of course).

Next in the list of fathers from “This Rock” is Lactantius (lived about A.D. 250 – 325). The first quotation provided is misleading – Lactantius comments that it would better in certain instances to abstain from marital relations. Better than what? Lactantius does not have in mind in that context contraception, but infanticide and leaving children abandoned:

Therefore let no one imagine that even this is allowed, to strangle newly-born children, which is the greatest impiety; for God breathes into their souls for life, and not for death. But men, that there may be no crime with which they may not pollute their hands, deprive souls as yet innocent and simple of the light which they themselves have not given. Can any one, indeed, expect that they would abstain from the blood of others who do not abstain even from their own? But these are without any controversy wicked and unjust. What are they whom a false piety [Editor’s Note: They thought it less criminal to expose children than to strangle them.] compels to expose their children? Can they be considered innocent who expose their own offspring as a prey to dogs, and as far as it depends upon themselves, kill them in a more cruel manner than if they had strangled them? Who can doubt that he is impious who gives occasion [Editor’s Note: i.e., by exposing them, that others may through compassion bring then up.] for the pity of others? For, although that which he has wished should befall the child—namely, that it should be brought up—he has certainly consigned his own offspring either to servitude or to the brothel? But who does not understand, who is ignorant what things may happen, or are accustomed to happen, in the case of each sex, even through error? For this is shown by the example of Œdipus alone, confused with twofold guilt. It is therefore as wicked to expose as it is to kill. But truly parricides complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children; as though, in truth, their means were in the power of those who possess them, or God did not daily make the rich poor, and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from marriage [Ab uxoris congressione.] than with wicked hands to mar the work of God.

– Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20

But despite that misleading selection from Lactantius, Lactantius does have something relevant to say on our topic, though not something particularly helpful to Rome’s position. In fact, Lactantius’ position is one that we will end up seeing from several of the fathers, namely that sex is only permissible for the purpose of making babies:

But just as God gave us eyes, not so that we would watch and seize pleasure, but so that we would see those acts that are pertinent necessities of life, likewise, the generative (“genitalem”) body part, as the name itself teaches, we have received for nothing else than the production of offspring.

– Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 23 (my own translation from the Latin section in the Schaff translation) (“Sicut autem dedit nobis oculos Deus, non ut spectemus, voluptatemque capiamus, sed ut videamus propter eos actus, qui pertinent ad vitæ necessitatem, ita genitalem corporis partem, quod nomen ipsum docet, nulla alia causa nisi efficiendæ sobolis accepimus.”)

When the article turns next to the Council of Nicea (the first and more famous one, i.e. the one held around A.D. 325), we see another misuse of citations. The council prohibits self-castrated men (barring medical necessity) from serving in the ministry. The primary reason for this has nothing to do with contraception – although of course it does render such men incapable of procreation. The general perception at the time was that men who had been castrated would not have sexual urges, and consequently it wasn’t viewed like a vasectomy today. In short, the council was directed only to the clergy and was directed to self-castraters (following Origen’s example) and not to those seeking to contracept.

The next father to which appeal is made by the article is Epiphanius (lived about A.D. 315 – 403). Epiphanius refers to certain Gnostic heretics who were opposed to procreation, although apparently they were fond of copulation. Epiphanius describes them this way:

But though they copulate, they forbid procreation. Their eager pursuit of seduction is for enjoyment, not procreation, since the devil mocks people like these, and makes fun of the creature fashioned by God. They come to climax but absorb the seeds in their dirt – not by implanting them for procreation, but by eating the dirt themselves. But even though one of them gets caught and implants the start of the normal emission, and the woman becomes pregnant, let me tell you what more dreadful thing such people venture to do [I’ve omitted his graphic discussion of how they kill and sacrilegiously eat the unborn child.]

– Epiphanius, Panarion, Section II, Chapter 26 – Against Gnostics or Borborites, paragraph 5.2-6

Notice that Epiphanius deprecates copulation for pleasure and refers in somewhat veiled/euphemistic terms for a way in which they attempt to avoid procreation, and whereby they murder any children that come from their copulation. Epiphanius is very insistent on the need for married people to procreate:

It is a real misfortune for me to tell this; only God can close the abyss of this stench. And I shall leave the spot, praying the all-sovereign God that no one has been trapped in the mud, and no one’s mind has absorbed any of the reeking filth. For in the first place the apostle Paul grubs up the entire root of their wickedness with his injunction about younger widows: “Younger widows refuse, for after they have waxed wanton against Christ they will marry; having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith … But let them marry, bear children, guide the house.” But if the apostle says to have children, while they decline procreation, this is the enterprise of a serpent and of bad teaching. Mastered by the pleasure of fornication they invent excuses for their uncleanness, to tell themselves that their licentiousness fulfills [Paul’s commandment].

– Epiphanius, Panarion, Section II, Chapter 26 – Against Gnostics or Borborites, paragraph 14.1-3 (elipsis in original)

Those are not his only comments in that work on the subject, though. He similarly interprets 1 Timothy 4:2-3 as referring (perhaps among others) to certain men who have sexual relations but prevent procreation:

For they prevent chaste wedlock and the procreation of children, but are on fire in their consciences because they have sexual relations and come to climax, yet hinder procreation.

– Epiphanius, Panarion, Section II, Chapter 26 – Against Gnostics or Borborites, paragraph 16.4

At least one more example of Epiphanius’ teaching can be found in the same work:

Something like this fornication and licentiousness can be seen in the particularly dreadful snake the ancients called the “viper with no pangs.” For the birth of this kind of viper resembles the Gnostics’ wickedness. Whether they perform their filthy acts with men or women, they still forbid insemination, thus doing away with the procreation God has given his creatures – as the apostles says, “receiving in themselves the recompense of their error which was meet,” and so on. So, we are told, when the viper with no pangs grows amorous, female for male and male for female, they would twine together, and the male would thrust his head in the jaws of the gaping female. But she would bite the male’s head off in passion and so swallow the poison that dripped in its mouth, and conceive a similar pair of snakes, a male and a female, within her. When this pair had come to maturity in her belly and had no way to be born, they would lacerate their mother’s side to come to birth – so that both their father and mother perished. This is why they called it the “viper with no pangs;” it has no experience of the pangs of birth. Now this is the most dreadful and fearsome of snakes, since it achieves its own extermination within itself, and receives its dirt by mouth; and this crack-brained sect is like it.

– Epiphanius, Section II, Chapter 26 – Against Gnostics or Borborites, paragraph 19.2-6)

As you can see from this, part of Epiphanius’ beef with these Gnostics/Borborites, is their prohibition on procreation. Nevertheless, the argument that Epiphanius makes (and I’ve tried to include all of it) has nothing to do specifically with the manner in which they prevent procreation (though he does seem to hinting strongly at a particular act that they employ to try to avoid pregnancy).

The shorter version of the article turns next to Augustine (lived about A.D. 354 – 430), providing four quotations from three of his works. The fourth of those quotations is from Augustine’s work on Marriage in which Augustine expresses some similar views to those we’ve seen above (with perhaps even a somewhat sharper edge against sexual relations in general):

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct.

– Augustine, Marriage and Concupiscence, Chapter 17

And again he says the same thing in the first work from which the article quotes:

Lastly, there is the symbol of the breast, in which your very questionable chastity consists. For though you do not forbid sexual intercourse, you, as the apostle long ago said, forbid marriage in the proper sense, although this is the only good excuse for such intercourse. No doubt you will exclaim against this, and will make it a reproach against us that you highly esteem and approve perfect chastity, but do not forbid marriage, because your followers—that is, those in the second grade among you—are allowed to have wives. After you have said this with great noise and heat, I will quietly ask, Is it not you who hold that begetting children, by which souls are confined in flesh, is a greater sin than cohabitation? Is it not you who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time, lest the soul should be entangled in flesh? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion. In marriage, as the marriage law declares, the man and woman come together for the procreation of children. Therefore whoever makes the procreation of children a greater sin than copulation, forbids marriage, and makes the woman not a wife, but a mistress, who for some gifts presented to her is joined to the man to gratify his passion. Where there is a wife there must be marriage. But there is no marriage where motherhood is not in view; therefore neither is there a wife. In this way you forbid marriage. Nor can you defend yourselves successfully from this charge, long ago brought against you prophetically by the Holy Spirit.

– Augustine, On the Morals of the Manichaeans, Chapter 18, Section 65

And yet again we see similar sentiments from Augustine in another of his works on Marriage (quoted in the expanded version of the article):

For necessary sexual intercourse for begetting is free from blame, and itself is alone worthy of marriage. But that which goes beyond this necessity, no longer follows reason, but lust. [Rom. i. 26, 27] And yet it pertains to the character of marriage, not to exact this, but to yield it to the partner, lest by fornication the other sin damnably. But, if both are set under such lust, they do what is plainly not matter of marriage. However, if in their intercourse they love what is honest more than what is dishonest, that is, what is matter of marriage more than what is not matter of marriage, this is allowed to them on the authority of the Apostle as matter of pardon: and for this fault, they have in their marriage, not what sets them on to commit it, but what entreats pardon for it, if they turn not away from them the mercy of God, either by not abstaining on certain days, that they may be free to pray, and through this abstinence, as through fasting, may commend their prayers; or by changing the natural use into that which is against nature, which is more damnable when it is done in the case of husband or wife. For, whereas that natural use, when it pass beyond the compact of marriage, that is, beyond the necessity of begetting, is pardonable in the case of a wife, damnable in the case of an harlot; that which is against nature is execrable when done in the case of an harlot, but more execrable in the case of a wife.

– Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, Sections 11-12

And still further we see the same kind of thoughts in Augustine’s work against Faustus, which is the remaining work of Augustine that was identified in either version of the article:

The first of these precepts is, “Honor thy father and mother;” which Paul quotes as the first commandment with promise, and himself repeats the injunction. But thou art taught by thy doctrine of devils to regard thy parents as thine enemies, because their union brought thee into the bonds of flesh, and laid impure fetters even on thy god. The doctrine that the production of children is an evil, directly opposes the next precept, “Thou shall not commit adultery;” for those who believe this doctrine, in order that their wives may not conceive, are led to commit adultery even in marriage. They take wives, as the law declares, for the procreation of children; but from this erroneous fear of polluting the substance of the deity, their intercourse with their wives is not of a lawful character; and the production of children, which is the proper end of marriage, they seek to avoid. As the apostle long ago predicted of thee, thou dost indeed forbid to marry, for thou seekest to destroy the purpose of marriage. Thy doctrine turns marriage into an adulterous connection, and the bed-chamber into a brothel.

– Augustine, Reply to Faustus, Book 15, Section 7

And still further, in the same work:

Referring, then, to the eternal law which enjoins the preservation of natural order and forbids the breach of it, let us see how our father Abraham sinned, that is, how he broke this law, in the things which Faustus has charged him with as highly criminal. In his irrational craving to have children, says Faustus, and not believing God, who promised that his wife Sara should have a son, he defiled himself with a mistress. But here Faustus, in his irrational desire to find fault, both discloses the impiety of his heresy, and in his error and ignorance praises Abraham’s intercourse with the handmaid. For as the eternal law—that is, the will of God the Creator of all—for the preservation of the natural order, permits the indulgence of the bodily appetite under the guidance of reason in sexual intercourse, not for the gratification of passion, but for the continuance of the race through the procreation of children; so, on the contrary, the unrighteous law of the Manichæans, in order to prevent their god, whom they bewail as confined in all seeds, from suffering still closer confinement in the womb, requires married people not on any account to have children, their great desire being to liberate their god. Instead, therefore, of an irrational craving in Abraham to have children, we find in Manichæus an irrational fancy against having children. So the one preserved the natural order by seeking in marriage only the production of a child; while the other, influenced by his heretical notions, thought no evil could be greater than the confinement of his god.

– Augustine, Reply to Faustus, Book 22, Section 30

As you can see, for Augustine, the point of sexual relations is to produce children: there’s no other acceptable purpose to Augustine’s mind. This seems to be a somewhat more extreme view than some of the earlier writings we saw above, but it is consistent with the theme that we see in the patristic literature by the celibate clergy of viewing sex as something barely tolerable in marriage.

Jerome (lived about A.D. 347 – 420), cited only in the expanded version of the article, takes the matter to an even further extreme, indicating that all sexual relations are impure (“The truth is that, in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean.”) and that sex is only tolerated for procreation (“Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?”):

But I wonder why he set [Gen. xxxviii.] Judah and Tamar before us for an example, unless perchance even harlots give him pleasure; or [Gen. xxxviii. 9.] Onan who was slain because he grudged his brother seed. Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children? As regards Moses, it is clear that he would have been in peril at the inn, if [Ex. iv. 24–26.] Sephora which is by interpretation a bird, had not circumcised her son, and cut off the foreskin of marriage with the knife which prefigured the Gospel. This is that Moses who when he saw a great vision and heard an angel, or the Lord speaking in the bush, [Ex. iii. 5.] could not by any means approach to him without first loosing the latchet of his shoe, that is, putting off the bonds of marriage. And we need not be surprised at this in the case of one who was a prophet, lawgiver, and the friend of God, seeing that all the people when about to draw nigh to Mount Sinai, and to hear the voice speaking to them, were commanded to sanctify themselves in three days, and keep themselves from their wives. I am out of order in violating historical sequence, but I may point out that the same thing was said by [1 Sam. xxi. 4.] Ahimelech the priest to David when he fled to Nob: “If only the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered, “of a truth about these three days.” For the shew-bread, like the body of Christ, might not be eaten by those who rose from the marriage bed. And in passing we ought to consider the words “if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” The truth is that, in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean. In the law also it is enjoined that the [Levit. xxi. 13, 14.] high priest must not marry any but a virgin, nor must he take to wife a widow. If a virgin and a widow are on the same level, how is it that one is taken, the other rejected? [Editor’s Footnote: The reference is, probably, to Levit. xxii. 13. But the second marriage is not there prohibited, and in the ideal polity of Ezekiel (xliv. 22) a priest might marry the widow of a priest.] And the widow of a priest is bidden abide in the house of her father, and not to contract a second marriage. [Levit. xxi. 3.] If the sister of a priest dies in virginity, just as the priest is commanded to go to the funeral of his father and mother, so must he go to hers. But if she be married, she is despised as though she belonged not to him. He who has [Editor’s footnote: Deut. xx. 6, 7, where an indulgence, not a prohibition, is clearly indicated.] married a wife, and he who has planted a vineyard, an image of the propagation of children, is forbidden to go to the battle. For he who is the slave of his wife cannot be the Lord’s soldier. And the laver in the tabernacle was cast from the mirrors of the women who [Editor’s Footnote: Ex. xxxviii. 8. Sept. Vulg. “who watched;” Onkelos’ Targum “who assembled to pray,” and so the Syriac Version. The Hebrew word signifies “to go forth to war,” but is applied to the temple service, a sort of militia sacra (Gesenius). Hence Rev. Version, “the serving women which served at the door of the tent of meeting;” and Margin, “the women which assembled to minister.” Comp. Numb. iv. 3, 23, 30, 35, 39; and 1 Sam. ii. 22.] fasted, signifying the bodies of pure virgins: And within, [Ex. xxxvii.] in the sanctuary, both cherubim, and mercy-seat, and the ark of the covenant, and the table of shew-bread, and the candle-stick, and the censer, were made of the purest gold. For silver might not be brought into the holy of holies.

– Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book 1, Section 20

Although the expanded version of the article provides a quotation that suggests that Jerome is opposing oral contraceptives, an accurate quotation in context shows he is just opposing chemically induced abortions:

I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the church, their mother: stars over which the proud foe sets up his throne, [Isa. xiv. 13.] and rocks hollowed by the serpent that he may dwell in their fissures. You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “‘Unto the pure all things are pure;’ [Tit. i. 15.] my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for. Why should I abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving?” [1 Tim. iv. 3.] And when they wish to appear agreeable and entertaining they first drench themselves with wine, and then joining the grossest profanity to intoxication, they say “Far be it from me to abstain from the blood of Christ.” And when they see another pale or sad they call her “wretch” or “manichæan;” [Editor’s Note: The Manichæans believed evil to be inseparable from matter. Hence they inculcated a rigid asceticism.] quite logically, indeed, for on their principles fasting involves heresy. When they go out they do their best to attract notice, and with nods and winks encourage troops of young fellows to follow them. Of each and all of these the prophet’s words are true: “Thou hast a whore’s forehead; thou refusest to be ashamed.” [Jer. iii. 3.] Their robes have but a narrow purple stripe, [Editor’s Note: Plebeians wore a narrow stripe, patricians a broad one.] it is true; and their head-dress is somewhat loose, so as to leave the hair free. From their shoulders flutters the lilac mantle which they call “ma-forte;” they have their feet in cheap slippers and their arms tucked up tight-fitting sleeves. Add to these marks of their profession an easy gait, and you have all the virginity that they possess. Such may have eulogizers of their own, and may fetch a higher price in the market of perdition, merely because they are called virgins. But to such virgins as these I prefer to be displeasing.

– Jerome, Letter 22 (To Eustochium), Section 13

The next (and final, in the short version of the article) father to be cited is John Chrysostom (lived about A.D. 347 – 407).

And to convince you that not even yet have we set forth his madness, let there be no man to accuse and frighten him, but take away the terror of the laws in supposition awhile, and thou wilt see him snatching up a sword, laying violent hands on all, and sparing none; neither friend, nor kinsman, nor brother, nor even his very parent. Nay rather, in this case there is not even need of supposing, but let us ask him, if he is not for ever framing to himself such imaginations, and if he does not in thought range among all men to destroy them; both friends and kinsmen, and even his very parents. Nay rather there is no need even to ask, because in truth all men know that they who are under the power of this disease are wearied even of their father’s old age; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome: many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have maimed their nature, not only by slaying their children after birth, but by not suffering them even to be born at all.

– John Chrysostom, Homily 28 on Matthew (Matthew 8:23-24), Section 5

The question here is what “maimed their nature” means here. It looks as though it refers to castration or the like. The last expression is vague enough to range from abortion to practically any technique to avoid conception.

But what is, “If such be the case of a man with his wife?” That is, if to this end he is joined with her, that they should be one, or, on the other hand, if the man shall get to himself blame for these things, and always transgresses by putting away, it were easier to fight against natural desire and against one’s self, than against a wicked woman.

What then saith Christ? He said not, “yea, it is easier, and so do,” lest they should suppose that the thing is a law; but He subjoined, “Not all men receive it, but they to whom it is given,” [Matt. xix. 11.] raising the thing, and showing that it is great, and in this way drawing them on, and urging them.

But see herein a contradiction. For He indeed saith this is a great thing; but they, that it is easier. For it was meet that both these things should be done, and that it should be at once acknowledged a great thing by Him, that it might render them more forward, and by the things said by themselves it should be shown to be easier, that on this ground too they might the rather choose virginity and continence. For since to speak of virginity seemed to be grievous, by the constraint of this law He drove them to this desire. Then to show the possibility of it, He saith, “There are some eunuchs, who were so born from their mother’s womb, there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men, and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake,” [Matt. xix. 12.] by these words secretly leading them to choose the thing, and establishing the possibility of this virtue, and all but saying, Consider if thou wert in such case by nature, or hadst endured this selfsame thing at the hands of those who inflict such wanton injuries, what wouldest thou have done, being deprived indeed of the enjoyment, yet not having a reward? Thank God therefore now, for that with rewards and crowns thou undergoest this, which those men endure without crowns; or rather not even this, but what is much lighter, being supported both by hope, and by the consciousness of the good work, and not having the desire so raging like waves within thee.

For the excision of a member is not able to quell such waves, and to make a calm, like the curb of reason; or rather, reason only can do this.

For this intent therefore He brought in those others, even that He might encourage these, since if this was not what He was establishing, what means His saying concerning the other eunuchs? But when He saith, that they made themselves eunuchs, He means not the excision of the members, far from it, but the putting away of wicked thoughts. Since the man who hath mutilated himself, in fact, is subject even to a curse, as Paul saith, “I would they were even cut off which trouble you.” [Gal. v. 12.] And very reasonably. For such a one is venturing on the deeds of murderers, and giving occasion to them that slander God’s creation, and opens the mouths of the Manichæans, and is guilty of the same unlawful acts as they that mutilate themselves amongst the Greeks. For to cut off our members hath been from the beginning a work of demoniacal agency, and satanic device, that they may bring up a bad report upon the work of God, that they may mar this living creature, that imputing all not to the choice, but to the nature of our members, the more part of them may sin in security, as being irresponsible; and doubly harm this living creature, both by mutilating the members, and by impeding the forwardness of the free choice in behalf of good deeds.

These are the ordinances of the devil, bringing in, besides the things which we have mentioned, another wicked doctrine also, and making way beforehand for the arguments concerning destiny and necessity even from hence, and everywhere marring the freedom given to us of God, and persuading us that evil deeds are of nature, and hence secretly implanting many other wicked doctrines, although not openly. For such are the devil’s poisons.

Therefore I beseech you to flee from such lawlessness. For together with the things I have mentioned, neither doth the force of lust become milder hereby, but even more fierce. For from another origin hath the seed that is in us its sources, and from another cause do its waves swell. And some say from the brain, some from the loins, this violent impulse hath its birth; but I should say from nothing else than from an ungoverned will and a neglected mind: if this be temperate, there is no evil result from the motions of nature.

Having spoken then of the eunuchs that are eunuchs for nought and fruitlessly, unless with the mind they too practise temperance, and of those that are virgins for Heaven’s sake, He proceeds again to say, “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it,” at once making them more earnest by showing that the good work is exceeding in greatness, and not suffering the thing to be shut up in the compulsion of a law, because of His unspeakable gentleness. And this He said, when He showed it to be most possible, in order that the emulation of the free choice might be greater.

And if it is of free choice, one may say, how doth He say, at the beginning, “All men do not receive it, but they to whom it is given?” That thou mightest learn that the conflict is great, not that thou shouldest suspect any compulsory allotments. For it is given to those, even to the willing.

But He spake thus to show that much influence from above is needed by him who entereth these lists, whereof He that is willing shall surely partake. For it is customary for Him to use this form of speech when the good work done is great, as when He saith, “To you it is given to know the mysteries.”

And that this is true, is manifest even from the present instance. For if it be of the gift from above only, and they that live as virgins contribute nothing themselves, for nought did He promise them the kingdom of Heaven, and distinguish them from the other eunuchs.

But mark thou, I pray, how from some men’s wicked doings, other men gain. I mean, that the Jews went away having learnt nothing, for neither did they ask with the intent of learning, but the disciples gained even from hence.

– John Chrysostom, Homily 62 on Matthew (Matthew 19:1), Section 3

It should be noted that the preceding passage is about men who make themselves eunuchs, thereby depriving themselves of pleasure. This is generally on the topic of sexual organs, but it is not related specifically the issue of contraception. Indeed, Chrysostom is more focused on mental temperance than on the “motions of nature.”

And again he writes:

And in saying this I do not forbid your meeting together, or taking your suppers at a common table, but to prevent your behaving unseemly, and as wishing indulgence to be really indulgence, and not a punishment, nor a vengeance, or drunkenness and revelling. Let the Gentiles (ἑλληνες) see that Christians know best how to indulge, and to indulge in an orderly way. For it says, “Rejoice in the Lord with trembling.” (Ps. ii. 11.) But how then can one rejoice? Why, by saying hymns, making prayers, introducing psalms in the place of those low songs. Thus will Christ also be at our table, and will fill the whole feast with blessing, when thou prayest, when thou singest spiritual songs, when thou invitest the poor to partake of what is set before thee, when thou settest much orderliness and temperance over the feast. So thou wilt make the party a Church, [Editor’s footnote: Ora et ibi templum est, D. Bernard.] by hymning, in the room of ill-timed shouts and cheers, the Master of all things. And tell me not, that another custom has come to prevail, but correct what is thus amiss. “For whether ye eat,” it says, “or whether ye drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. x. 31.) For from banquets of that sort you have evil desires, and impurities, and wives come to be in disrepute, and harlots in honor among you. Hence come the upsetting of families and evils unnumbered, and all things are turned upside down, and ye have left the pure fountain, and run to the conduit of mire. For that an harlot’s body is mire, I do not enquire of any one else but of thine own self that wallowest in the mire, if thou dost not feel ashamed of thyself, if thou dost not think thyself unclean after the sin is over. Wherefore I beseech you flee fornication, and the mother of it, drunkenness. Why sow where reaping is impossible, or rather even if thou dost reap, the fruit brings thee great shame? For even if a child be born, it at once disgraces thyself, and has itself had injustice done it in being born through thee illegitimate and base. And if thou leave it never so much money, both the son of an harlot, and that of a servant-maid, is disreputable at home, disreputable in the city, disreputable in a court of law: disreputable too wilt thou be also, both in thy lifetime, and when dead. For if thou have departed even, the memorials of thy unseemliness abide. Why then bring disgrace upon all these? Why sow where the ground makes it its care to destroy the fruit? where there are many efforts at abortion? where there is murder before the birth? for even the harlot thou dost not let continue a mere harlot, but makest her a murderess also. You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born. Why then dost thou abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws, and follow after what is a curse as if a blessing, and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing unto slaughter? For with a view to drawing more money by being agreeable and an object of longing to her lovers, even this she is not backward to do, so heaping upon thy head a great pile of fire. For even if the daring deed be hers, yet the causing of it is thine. Hence too come idolatries, since many, with a view to become acceptable, devise incantations, and libations, and love-potions, and countless other plans. Yet still after such great unseemliness, after slaughters, after idolatries, the thing seems to many to belong to things indifferent, aye, and to many that have wives too. Whence the mingle (φορυτὸς) of mischief is the greater. For sorceries [Editor’s footnote: Or poisonings.] are applied not to the womb that is prostituted, but to the injured wife, and there are plottings without number, and invocations of devils, and necromancies, and daily wars, and truceless fightings, and home-cherished jealousies. Wherefore also Paul, after saying, “not in chamberings and wantonness,” proceeds, “not in strife and envying,” as knowing the wars that result therefrom; the upsetting of families, the wrongs done to legitimate children, the other ills unnumbered. That we may then escape from all these, let us put on Christ, and be with Him continually. For this is what putting Him on is; never being without Him, having Him evermore visible in us, through our sanctification, through our moderation. So we say of friends, such an one is wrapped up (ἐνεδύσατο) in such another, meaning their great love, and keeping together incessantly.

– John Chrysostom, Homily 24 (Romans 13:11), on the words “And make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” (vs. 14)

This preceding passage from Chrysostom condemns abortion, not contraception. It also condemns fornication and the mother of fornication, drunkenness.

Ver. 12. “I would that they which unsettle you, would even cut themselves off.”

Observe how bitterly he speaks here against their deceivers. At the outset he directed his charge against those who were deceived, and called them foolish, once and again. Now, having sufficiently corrected and instructed them, he turns to their deceivers. And you should remark his wisdom in the manner in which he admonishes and chastens the former as his own children, and as capable of receiving correction, but their deceivers he cuts off, as aliens and incurably depraved. And this he does, partly, when he says, “he shall bear his judgment whosoever he be;” partly when he utters the imprecation against them, “I would that they which unsettle you would even cut themselves off.” And he says well “that unsettle you.” For they had compelled them to abandon their own fatherland, their liberty, and their heavenly kindred, and to seek an alien and foreign one; they had cast them out of Jerusalem which is above and free, and compelled them to wander forth as captives and emigrants. On this account he curses them; and his meaning is as follows, For them I have no concern, “A man that is heretical after the first and second admonition refuse.” (Tit. iii. 10.) If they will, let them not only be circumcised, but mutilated. Where then are those who dare to mutilate themselves; seeing that they draw down the Apostolic curse, and accuse the workmanship of God, and take part with the Manichees? For the latter call the body a treacherous thing, and from the evil principle; and the former by their acts give countenance to these wretched doctrines, cutting off the member as being hostile and treacherous. Ought they not much rather to put out the eyes, for it is through the eyes that desire enters the soul? But in truth neither the eye nor any other part of us is to blame, but the depraved will only. But if you will not allow this, why do you not mutilate the tongue for blasphemy, the hands for rapine, the feet for their evil courses, in short, the whole body? For the ear enchanted by the sound of a flute hath often enervated the soul; and the perception of a sweet perfume by the nostrils hath bewitched the mind, and made it frantic for pleasure. Yet this would be extreme wickedness and satanic madness. The evil spirit, ever delighting in slaughter, hath seduced them to crush the instrument, as if its Maker had erred, whereas it was only necessary to correct the unruly passion of the soul. How then does it happen, one may say, that when the body is pampered, lust is inflamed? Observe here too that it is the sin of the soul, for to pamper the flesh is not an act of the flesh but of the soul, for if the soul choose to mortify it, it would possess absolute power over it. But what you do is just the same as if one seeing a man lighting a fire, and heaping on fuel, and setting fire to a house, were to blame the fire, instead of him who kindled it, because it had caught this heap of fuel, and risen to a great height. Yet the blame would attach not to the fire but to the one who kindled it; for it was given for the purpose of dressing food, affording light, and other like ministries, not for burning houses. In like manner desire is implanted for the rearing of families and the ensuring of life, not for adultery, or fornication, or lasciviousness; that a man may become a father, not an adulterer; a lawful husband, not a seducer; leaving heirs after him, not doing damage to another man’s. For adultery arises not from nature, but from wantonness against nature, which prescribes the use not the misuse. These remarks I have not made at random, but as a prelude to a dispute, as skirmishing against those who assert that the workmanship of God is evil, and who neglecting the sloth of the soul, madly inveigh against the body, and traduce our flesh, whereof Paul afterwards discourses, accusing not the flesh, but devilish thoughts.

– John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, at Galatians 5:12

The preceding passage from Chrysostom deals with what he views as the Manichean error of trying to conquer lust by removing one’s sexual organ. This does not have to do with contraception, of course, since that’s not the reason behind the act involved.

In addition to the fathers discussed above, the expanded version of the article also draws upon Caesarius (lived about A.D. 470 – 543):

No woman should take potions for purposes of abortion, because she should not doubt that before the tribunal of Christ she will have to plead as many cases as the number of those she killed when already born or still conceived. Is anyone unable to warn that no woman should accept a potion to prevent conception or to condemn within herself the nature which God wanted to be fruitful? Indeed, she will be held guilty of as many murders as the number of those she might have conceived or borne, and unless suitable penance saves her she will be condemned to eternal death in hell. If a woman does not want to bear children she should enter upon a pious agreement with her husband, for only the abstinence of a Christian woman is chastity.

– Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 1, Section 12

This is a fitting conclusion to the series of quotations. It is, in fact, an example of a father condemning contraception. Nevertheless, one must note that his rational is twofold (1) abstinence is the only chastity and (2) the only way to avoid having children is abstinence. Notice as well that Caesarius considers that the woman should not seek to render infertile that which “God wanted to be fruitful.”

I realize that some folks will try to latch onto Caesarius and argue that the rhythm method of contraception is just periodic abstinence. Frankly and bluntly put, any idea that Caesarius meant periodic abstinence and not permanent abstinence is farfetched at best.

Generally speaking, as noted above, the trend was (tending into the medieval period) that the fathers viewed sexual relations as essentially a bad thing, but permissible as long as it was for the purpose of making babies.


Update: The following courtesy of Pastor David King:

Lactantius (260-330): Moreover, the passion of lust is implanted and innate in us for the procreation of children; but they who do not fix its limits in the mind use it for pleasure only. Thence arise unlawful loves, thence adulteries and debaucheries, thence all kinds of corruption. These passions, therefore, must be kept within their boundaries and directed into their right course, in which, even though they should be vehement, they cannot incur blame. (ANF: Vol. VII, The Epitome of the Divine Institutes, Chapter 61.)

14 Responses to “Natural Family Planning and the Traditional View on Sexual Relations”

  1. orthodox Says:

    You seem to have been duped by the Catholic quote fest, and Augustine into saying that "the fathers viewed sexual relations as essentially a bad thing"."The sexual union of man and woman in Christian marriage is sanctified, set apart, hallowed, sacred, holy. And it is good." – St GregoryTheir intercourse accomplishes the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment" (Chrysostom 12th Homily on Colossians).""Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband" " – Chrysostom quotes 1Cor""Sexual relations provide an opportunity for the development of a spirit of martyrdom. This is the type of martyrdom that exhibits self-denial and submission to the other." – Chrysostom"And how become they one flesh? As if you should take the purest part of gold, and mingle it with the other gold; so in truth here also the women as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and throughout contributing her own share, restores it back to the man. And the child is a sort of bridge so that the three become on flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to each… What then? When there is not child, will they not be two? Not so, for their coming together has this effect; it diffuse and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has poured ointment into oil has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here" (St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life). 'If for a certain period, you and your wife have abstained by agreement, perhaps for a time of prayer and fasting, come together again for the sake of your marriage. You do not need procreation as an excuse. It is not the chief reason for marriage. Neither is it necessary to allow for the possibility of conceiving, and thus having a large number of children, something you may not want' (Chrysostom "On Virginity")Canon 13 of the Quinisext Council:"Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence, as the Gospel saith: 'What God hath joined together let no man put asunder'; and the Apostle saith, 'Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled'; and again, 'Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed.' "

  2. Mamie Farish Says:

    The unitive and procreative meanings of marriage are mentioned at the very beginning in Genesis. First command to our parents is, "Be fruitful and multiply."(procreative) And when Adam sees Eve for the first time, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," surely a cry of ecstasy! (unitive) Life & Love are linked throughout scripture. When Sarah learns that she will bear a child, she says about her advanced age, "…am I still to have sexual pleasure?" Look at 3:16: God so loved, that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. " Love and life linked again. Jesus is the Bridegroom, we the church are his Bride. Jesus gives his all to us; how then do we respond to his life and love? That's a key question to reflect on in our marriage that ought to reflect the image and likeness of the Trinitarian Love. Christians were united on church teachings on sexuality until the Lambeth Conference of 1930. Although it is a hard teaching to live as God intended man and woman to live in marriage, we need to respect his design for us. We need to keep the unitive and procreative meanings together. We need to respect and appreciate how we are made in the image and likeness of God.

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    Orthodox:Certainly, it depends on the father. Jerome represents one end of the spectrum, whereas other fathers take a more Biblical approach. Generally speaking, the more monastic and ascetic the father, the more likely he viewed sexual relations as barely tolerable for the purpose of producing children.Question for you, though, since you seem to share my interest in digging through the writings of the fathers.Are you aware of any one that condemned some forms of contraception while permitting the rhythm method?-TurretinFan

  4. Turretinfan Says:

    Ms. Farish,I appreciate your thoughts on the subject, though they are not particularly germane to this post. No doubt procreation is one purpose of marriage. It is also clear that it is not the only purpose of marriage.It's easy to try to impose one's views on Scripture, but it is better to see whether what one's church teaches is actually taken from Scripture – or taken from elsewhere.-TurretinFan

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    Case in point: "We need to keep the unitive and procreative meanings together."Scripture does not provide this command.

  6. Mamie Farish Says:

    I don't follow how you can say that "the fathers viewed sexual relations as essentially a bad thing."What an gift that God gives us, to enjoy the intimacy of married life that is modeled on life & love of God Himself. This is an amazing gift that God has given to us. So, I don't follow your comment, at all. I do like the church father's commentary that you provide. It looks good to me.

  7. Turretinfan Says:

    The way I can say that is when we find comments from them like "The truth is that, in view of the purity of the body of Christ, all sexual intercourse is unclean."-TurretinFan

  8. Mamie Farish Says:

    I didn't find that in your commentary. It's an odd thing to say. I'm a catechist in the Catholic faith, not an expert on the early fathers' writings, and by no means an expert on Scripture. If one of the early fathers said that, I don't know the context of why he would say something like that. It isn't something we Catholics would profess.

  9. Turretinfan Says:

    Ms. Farish:Thanks for your thoughts on that. I agree that modern Catholicism (particularly in English-speaking countries) does not widely promote that view.That's part of the point of this post. You and we both disagree with the fathers. We have a good reason: Scripture. Your reason (the contemporary teachings of your church) seems shaky to us.-TurretinFan

  10. natamllc Says:

    TF,great point there to Mamie!The Law is clear that any sexual encounter, whether legal and sanctioned or otherwise renders one unclean and there follow prohibitions after until one is restored to "Clean" before God again.Isn't it weighted more to the "pleasure" side and the inhibitions and evils one is faced with when strong lusts enjoy together, which, again, is not "evil" persay for those wed in holy matrimony as much as those who fall prey to fornication? Those comments follow yours to Orthodox, here:::>"….Generally speaking, the more monastic and ascetic the father, the more likely he viewed sexual relations as barely tolerable for the purpose of producing children….".The tacit approval of Holy Matrimony is that silent partner within the RCC as it is within any organization when "growth" by fulfilling the Adamic mandate? Jesus never nullified that mandate. In fact His teachings promoted family growth. The very nature of the Great Commission implies the raising up of Holy men of God to carry out the commission, "Go" ye therefore!You would over time become very very limited in your pool of priests within the priesthood if all were to become like one such as is the mandate of the RCC when it comes to official duties of that faith!No marriage, no children. No children, no officials to become.Now, I digress foolishly with regard to this organ, that might not be a bad math problem to solve? :)Solving that math problem indeed would minimize the spreading of that particular faith in question!But such is Life and such are we, that this saying is true, "there are many ways to come to Jesus, but there is only One Way to the Father, by Him"!

  11. orthodox Says:

    "Are you aware of any one that condemned some forms of contraception while permitting the rhythm method?"All the quotes I've seen are from Catholic quote mining, most of which would, strictly applied, condemn rhythm method.

  12. Turretinfan Says:

    Yes, that's generally my experience as well. A great many of the fathers seem to have nothing to say on the subject of contraception, but those who do address the subject *never* seem to use the rationale that modern Romanists do, and consequently all, or almost all, of them (the ones who address the matter) seem to express the matter in such a way as to condemn the rhythm method.In short, the modern Romanist view is a departure from tradition, not a continuation of an ancient view.

  13. Mamie Farish Says:

    I've tried to make clear that the two purposes of marriage are necessary: unitive and procreative. As far as weighing more than the other, it seems that it would become unbalanced. Imagine a couple getting together solely for the main purpose of procreation.. Or a couple that loves with no regard to children conceived? Actually, that's a problem we're having today with the rise in abortions and single parenting. With regard to the rhythm method, there have been many advances in natural family planning. The Creighton Model FertilityCare System, the method of natural family planning that I teach, may be used by couple to achieve or avoid pregnancy. The use effectiveness rate is 96.8, which is higher or similar to contraceptive methods. How is contraceptive use different from a couple using natural family planning means? The USCCB's "Married Love and Gift of Life" explains, "A husband and wife express their committed love not only with words, but with the language of their bodies. That 'body language'–that a husband and wife say to one another through the intimacy of sexual relations–speaks of total commitment nad openness to a future together. So the question about contraception is this: Does sexual intercourse using contraception faithfully affirm this committed love? Or does it introduce a false note into this conversation? Married love differs from any other love in the world. By its nature, the love of husband and wife is so complete, so ordered to a lifetime of communion with God and each other, that it is open to creating a new human being they will love and care for together. Part of God's gift to husband and wife is this ability in and through their love to cooperate with God's creative power. Therefore, the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse. That power to create a new life with God is at the heart of what spouses share with each other…."When Married couple deliberately act to suppress fertility, however, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate, something more 'casual." Suppressing fertility by using contracetion denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple's unity. The total giving of oneself, body and soul to one's eloved is no time to say, 'I give you everything I am –except…' The Church teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total,mutual gift of two persons in its integrity."

  14. Turretinfan Says:

    Yes, casual sex within marriage for the enjoyment of both spouses is perfectly acceptable. There is no requirement that such activity be intended for sexual reproduction.Natural Family Planning itself is a way of separating the unitive and procreative. I know that isn't the line that is given by its promoters, but it is the obvious truth. That's why folks who don't want children and scruple over barrier methods employ the rhythm method.NFP is as out of line with the teachings of the more ascetic fathers (such as Jerome) as are the barrier, withdrawal, and chemical methods.-TurretinFan

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