Augustine and Family Planning

In debates about contraception, traditionalists—usually but not exclusively conservative Roman Catholics—will often invoke Augustine and other Church Fathers, who pretty clearly opposed the practice.[1] Theologically, it is an argument that deserves to be on the table, at least to a point.

But in the iterations I’ve witnessed anyway, this invocation runs into some trouble when the traditionalist position accommodates Natural Family Planning. Here’s one definition of NFP from what I understand to be the definitive source on the Catholic side:

 Now as We noted earlier (no. 3), some people today raise the objection against this particular doctrine of the Church concerning the moral laws governing marriage, that human intelligence has both the right and responsibility to control those forces of irrational nature which come within its ambit and to direct them toward ends beneficial to man. Others ask on the same point whether it is not reasonable in so many cases to use artificial birth control if by so doing the harmony and peace of a family are better served and more suitable conditions are provided for the education of children already born. To this question We must give a clear reply. The Church is the first to praise and commend the application of human intelligence to an activity in which a rational creature such as man is so closely associated with his Creator. But she affirms that this must be done within the limits of the order of reality established by God.

If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained.

Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the later practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.[2]

Conservative Protestants skeptical toward contraception also generally make the same allowance for NFP, I believe, though I’m open to correction. Then there’s Augustine:

[Conjugal chastity], too, combats carnal concupiscence lest it exceed the proprieties of the marriage bed; it combats lest concupiscence break into the time agreed upon by the spouses for prayer. If this conjugal chastity possesses such great power and is so great a gift from God that it does what the matrimonial code prescribes, it combats in even more valiant fashion in regard to the act of conjugal union, lest there be indulgence beyond what suffices for generating offspring. Such chastity abstains during menstruation and pregnancy, nor has it union with one no longer able to conceive on account of age. And the desire for union does not prevail, but ceases when there is no prospect of generation. But if an act is done in regard to the spouse, not contrary to nature, yet passing beyond the limit of the matrimonial code, then, according to the Apostle, it is something pardonable, because the carnal limit is not exceeded, yet, lest the limit itself be exceeded, there must be warfare against the evil of concupiscence, which is so evil it must be resisted in the combat waged by chastity, lest it do damage.[3]

Now, perhaps the line “it is pardonable” as per the Apostle (almost certainly a reference to 1 Cor. 7, which is echoed in the opening lines vis-à-vis abstinence for prayer) provides something of an escape clause, with which the logic of something such as Humanae Vitae could be harmonized. But “pardonable” might be too cozy a translation. In other works, Augustine is emphatic that the “pardonable excess” he has in mind still constitutes a kind of sin (peccatum). That concession or “indulgence” of Paul in 1 Cor. 7:2 “could have been thought not to be a sin” had Paul not added “‘But I say this to you in accordance with a pardon (veniam), not in accordance with a command.’”[4] In other words, Augustine is pretty clear that the optimal and only truly chaste, fully sinless expression of sex is that which is undertaken specifically for reproduction. In an assessment sure to raise hackles, John Noonan’s book (cited above) presents this as little more than a warmed-over Stoic sexual ethic.

Of course, if one is intent on beating Augustine’s testimony into confessing (pun intended) a certain way, perhaps it’s still possible for a clever accommodation between him and, say, the ex officio Roman Catholic rationale for NFP. I find that less than compelling, however. As he writes more briefly, marriage itself—even above and beyond the sole issue of sex—is chiefly about producing children and achieving the kind of higher chastity he explicates in other passages. “The good of marriage,” he writes, “among all nations and all human beings is in the cause of generation and in the faith of chastity.”[5]

On a more prima facie reading, this all puts the debate about contraception in awkward place, at least where it would look to ancient tradition: it places Augustine (and probably quite a few other Fathers) on a footing where they themselves would see something like Humanae Vitae as well off the mark of orthopraxy. I am aware of no live denomination or tradition that holds to a more faithful iteration of the late ancient view, which again raises some awkward ecclesiological issues. Thus, simply claiming Augustine or the Fathers writ-large for one side of the debate will only get us so far. No one is claiming we should stick to something like Augustine’s sexual theology à la lettre; basically all denominations diverge in some way or another from that kind of austerity. The question remains: who has the more persuasive explanation for that divergence and the more coherent ethic overall? That is, the theological and moral nettles will still have to be grasped directly, in the end.

  1. One of the best surveys on this remains John T. Noonan, Contraception: a History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (New York : New American Library, 1965).

  2. Humanae Vitae 16.

  3. Against Julian 3.21.43. Text taken from Elizabeth Clark, St. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 89.

  4. See Enchiridion 21. My translation. For a more accessible English version:

  5. On the Good of Marriage 32. My translation.


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