Sermon at Matins on Sunday 11 October

11 October 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

Last week at Matins I considered the ethical issues surrounding the end of life. This week, continuing the theme of ethics related to quasi-medical issues, I want to look at the issues surrounding the beginning of life, or, to be more accurate, the ethical issues surrounding the attempt to prevent the beginning of life, namely contraception, which has been a contentious issue between the churches over the years.

There has not always been disagreement. Until the beginning of the twentieth century almost all churches, Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, condemned birth control of any form as a contravention of God’s procreative purpose in marriage. But towards the end of the nineteenth century there was the beginning of dissent. In 1893 the editor of a Nonconformist weekly journal in the United States wrote

‘There was a time when any idea of voluntary limitation was regarded by pious people as interfering with Providence. We are beyond that now and have become capable of recognising that Providence works through the commonsense of individual brains. We limit population just as much by deferring marriage for prudential reasons as by any action that may be taken after it.’

But such dissent at that time was unusual. In the case of the Anglican Church at the Lambeth Conference of Bishops in 1908 they were clearly opposed. Resolution 41 noted

‘The Conference regards with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family, and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to the character and hostile to national welfare.’

In the following conference in 1920 they remained clearly opposed. Resolution 68 stated:

‘We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers - physical, moral and religious - thereby incurred, and against the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race.’

It was not until the Conference of 1930 that there was any move in what might be described as a more liberal direction, albeit taken rather grudgingly. Resolution 15 stated:

‘Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse … Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.’

It was not until 1958 that the Lambeth fathers took a more positive line. Resolution 115 says:

‘The Conference believes that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children has been laid by God upon the consciences of parents everywhere; that this planning, in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience, is a right and important factor in Christian family life and should be the result of positive choice before God. Such responsible parenthood, built on obedience to all the duties of marriage, requires a wise stewardship of the resources and abilities of the family as well as a thoughtful consideration of the varying population needs and problems of society and the claims of future generations.’

Those Anglicans who say moral laws never change do not know their history.
But other churches have not made that change. There are still Protestant Christians who continue to believe that all artificial forms of birth control are morally wrong, but most notably that is, of course, still the very clear stance of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul V1, published in 1968, was unambiguous, even though many Roman Catholics at the time hoped that the Commission of 1963 set up by John 23rd to which Humanae Vitae was the response, might bring about a change. It seems that Commission’s report was divided, but the Pope came down firmly on one side. He wrote

‘An act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.’

That still remains the formal view of the Roman Catholic Church. 

The arguments against it are, I believe, at least two-fold.

First, it could be argued that it is a counsel of perfection, but that given the fact that people are not perfect there are pragmatic grounds for changing it. The obvious pragmatic reasons are the overall need to control the rate of population growth given the limited resources of the world, an issue noted in the 1958 Lambeth resolution, the protection needed against the spread of disease, particularly aids, and the economic family reasons that parents might well have for wanting to limit the size of their families. Pope Paul VI did try to respond to that pragmatic argument in his encyclical.

‘Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it —in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.’

Now although I personally believe the pragmatic reasons for accepting contraception are still very strong ones, there is no way of really responding to the Roman Catholic case unless one tackles the more fundamental question, what is the purpose of sex? Now Humanae Vitae does recognise that sexual relations can be a way of promoting the emotional union that should exist between a man and wife, and indeed it even agrees that refraining from such relations except in the infertile periods of a woman’s monthly cycle is reasonable way of controlling the size of a family, but it does hold that the possibility of procreation must always be there if the sexual act is to promote in a healthy way that union. It is on that central point that I believe other Christians will disagree. Procreation is, of course, an important element in marriage for most people, but the sexual drive has other functions including that of expressing love and enjoying a shared pleasure that unites a couple in a constructive way and I do not personally believe that finding that, while seeking to ensure that no procreation will follow, is intrinsically evil. Both the procreative and the uniting functions of sex are good and I do not myself believe that it is intrinsically wrong to have one without the other. And perhaps it is because I am an Anglican at heart that I agree with the comment of that 1958 Lambeth conference that it is essentially for people’s own Christian conscience to decide how to control the size of their families. 

But of course the argument about birth control has gone way beyond that. Contraception does permit sexual relations between people who are not married without the possibility of children, and there is no doubt that it has therefore contributed to a quite different approach to sex among many people, ‘sex’, some evidently say ‘is simply fun.’. Pope Paul VI certainly recognised the possibility of the emergence of such a way of looking at sex in Humanae Vitae, which was another reason why he was against a change, and there are, of course, many Christians today who are disturbed about what they see as a debased attitude towards sex more generally in our society.

I have to say that personally I think there are strong reasons for supporting the principle of fidelity in relationships, and that maybe fidelity is more important than pure chastity; there is a strong case, both principled and pragmatic, for advocating faithfulness in relationships. But I also know that the sight of clergy fulminating against the sexual evils of the age always looks slightly comic, and it may well harm the capacity of clergy to respond in a genuinely caring and sympathetic way to those caught up in complex relationships. And I must also say that there is something very unattractive in seeing happily married people condemning others for not being the same as them. I suspect careful, non-judgemental pastoral care of individuals caught up in the complex world of human sexuality is a far more appropriate response by the church to the needs of our world than any pattern of condemnation and moral judgementalism.

But on the central question I have tried to look at today, contraception, while I of course respect those who hold the Roman Catholic position I do believe it is wrong, both pragmatically but also in principle. The availability of contraception allows freedom, which is not automatically a bad thing to allow, although of course whether that freedom is used responsibly or irresponsibly is still up to us.


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