As of August 1, most new and renewing health insurance plans must begin offering a spectrum of women’s preventive health services, including birth control, at no upfront cost. This provision of the Affordable Care Act has been among its most controversial, with many Catholic and other religious organizations suing the government to block a rule that they see as compelling them to act in opposition to their beliefs, which they represent as steadfast through time.
This improbable reemergence of contraception as a public issue in the public square turned our attention to John T. Noonan’s Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. The book was originally published in 1965 and then enlarged back in 1986, but despite its age there seems to exist no comparable treatment of the entire history of the church and contraception, from the Roman Empire to Vatican II. One could argue that no such work could even be attempted today, as anyone with the access Noonan then enjoyed would today almost surely be censured for their effort.
On publication, Time called the book a “magisterially documented history of church teaching on birth control [which] suggests that there are good reasons why the traditional stand can change,” and Harper’s described it as a work of “inherent genius” that was as “truly exciting as a book can be.” In a post earlier this year, the U.S. Intellectual History blog detailed the roiling debate into which Noonan’s book entered in the mid-1960s.
What follows below is adapted from Noonan’s original Introduction to the book.
“Contraception” is a term which could be applied to any behavior that prevents conception. Sexual continence is contraceptive in effect; sexual intercourse when an ovum will not be fertilized avoids procreation as much as intercourse where a physical barrier is used to prevent the meeting of spermatozoa and ovum. How has some behavior now generally approved by Catholic moralists been discriminated from other acts of contraception which have been condemned?
My focus is on the ideas and values clustered into a doctrine on contraception. Seen from one aspect, the doctrine is a reply to the question, “On what terms may the generation of human life be controlled?” Considered from another aspect, it is an answer to the question, “Under what conditions may human beings have sexual intercourse?” From another, it responds to the inquiry, “What revelation of God or what laws of nature are relevant to sexual conduct?”
There is an advantage to looking at a single set of concepts over two thousand years. As an attempt to set out what the purposes of sexual behavior should be, the tradition I explore uniquely combines appeals to divine instruction, natural laws, and psychological and social consequences. Is there any comparable effort, assiduously sustained within the same general framework for over nineteen hundred years, to express in rational terms a standard of sexual behavior?
The meaning of theory, however, is properly understood only when one determines what conditions it responds to. Consequently, I have described the contraceptive means known to different eras, and what can be inferred as to their diffusion and employment. The theory, then, will not be viewed as an abstract logic developed without reference to existing habits. I shall set out both the practice to which doctrine responded and the steps taken to alter the practice. The effort at enforcement tested the seriousness with which the theory was intended. Unlike a history of secular law, however, where the meaning of a rule may be measured by its effective sanctions, the history of a moral doctrine must be, chiefly, an account of what was taught. The application of a moral rule is effected primarily not by agencies of compulsion but by an individual's accepting it in his heart. If a moral teaching is violated, it may still have been “effective” if it played a part in the moral consciousness of the violator. The diffusion of a moral doctrine, and the external embodiment and enforcement of it, may be gauged; the principal effect of the doctrine, its effect on conscience, must largely be inferred from the terms in which it is proposed.
The believers to whom a moral doctrine is addressed will range from the devout to the conformists to the rebellious. Partly as a function of faith, partly as a function of other psychological attributes such as attitude to authority, partly as a function of social environment, the acceptance of the doctrine will vary. At no time, I suppose, has a specific moral teaching put forward by the theologians been received in an identical way by all the faithful. The seriousness with which a doctrine is taken by different persons and groups is a matter of estimate. The range of reaction in the audience may be presumed to have affected the enunciation of the doctrine itself. When the theologians speak to a community of various degrees of faith, various degrees of moral sensitivity, various degrees of education, they may use language unsuitable for more intimate dialogue, and, in the words of the Talmud, they may ''build a fence around the Law,” setting up outer ramparts to keep an inner treasure secure.
The assent of human beings, which gives effect to a doctrine, is not to a single set of propositions, but to the Christian faith. Within this faith there are beliefs on the Bible, grace, original sin, the sacraments, sexuality, marriage, the value of human lives, the purpose of human existence. These beliefs or doctrines structure the propositions on contraception. However tight the relation, however close the dependence on the Christian framework, the teaching on contraception has had its own set of problems, concepts, articulations: its own history.
The development of doctrine is not mere accretion or the simple unfolding of the logic of an idea. The process involves conflict, variety, and personal decision. It is not immaterial to consider where, by whom, when, and how the formulas were repeated. Are these writers and legislative enactments to be equated with “the Church”? There is a tendency among some historians to make the identification, to say that the Catholic Church taught this or did that, when all that one can be certain of is that particular men, baptized Christians, occupying a particular role in the ecclesiastical system, did this or taught that. The Church, of course, to teach at all, must teach not only by the extraordinary pronouncements of ecumenical councils or Popes, but also by its ordinary organs, the bishops, who will rely on the common opinions of the theologians. Yet no great original theologian, not even an Augustine or a Thomas, has been able to write extensively on theology without writing what later has been determined to be heresy. Only the Church is free from error. What is the teaching of the Church becomes itself a theological question.
Obviously, an answer to a theological question within the competence of the Church cannot be given by a book of this kind. An historian may recount, however, what was the teaching of individual theologians and the degree of acceptance apparently accorded the teaching by the hierarchy and the faithful. A history may suggest what may be regarded as ephemeral error and what has become part of the nonnative rules. The frequency with which fallacies, some of a scientific, some of an analytical character, infected the views of particular writers on our subject may, moreover, serve as a useful reminder of how little the individual theologian is immune from mistake. A knowledge of biology, everyone would agree, was not included in Christian revelation; what the absence of reliable biological information involved for the formulation of moral doctrine becomes concretely apparent in this study. In addition, I suppose, no one would maintain that the immunity of the Church from error was a guarantee that the theologians were right in the reasoning by which they reached their conclusions.
As I do not look at doctrinal development as an automatic unfolding of the divine will, neither do I approach it as a process determined by forces capable of quantification. There was tension within the Catholic doctrine arising from the value placed on procreation and the conflicting value placed on education. In using the term “tension” I do not imply that one value had to give way. The Catholic teaching on marriage was a reaction to the organized Gnostic opposition to all procreation. By saying “reaction” I do not mean that the formation of the counter doctrine was inevitable, but that such doctrine had to be asserted if certain values prized by some Christians were to be preserved. “Tension” and “reaction” are ways of signaling the existence of human choices which had to be made at the cost of suppressing some possible alternatives. The existence of these options is at the heart of the history of the doctrine. The options were presented in different ways, at different times, in environmental conditions and under theological auspices which varied and which went far toward determining the response to them. The Church had to choose among them, its freedom being ultimately limited only by its own understanding of its constitution and the commandments it had to keep.
The propositions constituting a condemnation of contraception are recurrent. Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick, and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, “Contraception is a good act.” The teaching on contraception is clear and apparently fixed forever.
The teaching, however, has not been proposed without reasons. It has not been unrelated to other doctrinal propositions. It has not been isolated from the environment in which Christians live. If the teaching were constant while the reasons, related doctrine, and environment changed, it would not be the same teaching that these reasons, doctrine, and environment now supported. A closer examination of the teaching may show that it does not possess an abstract constancy and independence. It has developed. There has been tension, and there has been reaction. Have the options selected made all further choice unnecessary or impossible?
Often the makers of legal or moral rules do not make explicit the innovations and departures from the past which characterize the development of doctrine; the historian does not share this institutional inhibition. My function is not to prophesy what further mutations may occur. But, marking the circumstances in which the doctrine was composed, the controversies touching on it, the doctrinal elements now obsolete, the factors favoring further growth, this study may provide grounds for prophecy.