Why Is Contraception Sinful?

Why Is Contraception Sinful?

It is no coincidence that among supporters of the use of contraception there are so many people who support abortion. In both cases, the potential conception of a child is perceived as a problem that one would like to somehow get rid of. This thinking is anti-life, not pro-life. 

According to statistics, more than 70% of Russians use contraceptives or contraceptive methods. Some of these drugs have an abortifacient effect, others simply prevent conception. Various methods of contraception have been known since ancient times.

However, the attitude towards artificial pregnancy prevention in the Christian world has traditionally been sharply negative. Today the situation is fundamentally different: many Christians (including clergy) have ceased to have this attitude towards the types of contraceptives that do not harm a conceived baby. Today it is generally accepted that their use should be a free internal matter for every family. However, we are convinced that such an attitude is erroneous, superficial and does not take into account some important aspects of the moral teaching of the Church.

Until the 20th century, the entire Christian world considered the use of any artificial prevention of conception a sin. None of the saints for 2000 years allowed such a possibility for Christian spouses. On the contrary, we find plenty of patristic evidence against this practice, some of which we present below.

The first adoption of contraception in Christian history was the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England (1930). The conference stated that "where a moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood is clearly felt, total abstinence is the primary and obvious method", but if in such a situation there is a morally sound argument to avoid abstinence, then "the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of Christian principles" [1]. Since the Church of England first recognized the use of contraception in 1930, acceptance of this form of pregnancy prevention has steadily increased among Protestants of various denominations. Protestant churches throughout Europe adopted modern methods of birth control over the next 25 years [2]. In response to the revolutionary statement of representatives of the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church followed with an immediate negative reaction in the form of the encyclical Casti Connubii of Pope Pius XI (1930). The Greek Orthodox Church in 1937, in a special district message, also condemned all forms of contraception, allowing only abstinence from marital relations.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming this teaching and declaring that “every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life.” After the publication of the encyclical, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople sent a message to Pope Paul VI in which he called it “good steps” and declared his agreement with it [3].

In 1978, in the district message of the episcopate of the Greek Church, a negative attitude towards contraception was confirmed, and marital abstinence was called “the only acceptable solution for a Christian”[4].

Only since the 1980s did a loyal attitude towards non-abortive contraception begin to spread among some Orthodox bishops and confessors [5]. The first official statement of the prevention of conception that we were able to find is the “Pastoral Instructions on Holy Marriage” (1980s) of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America, which states the following: “The greatest miracle and blessing of the divinely sanctified love of marriage is birth children, and avoiding it through birth control (or more accurately, preventing conception) is contrary to God's will regarding marriage [...] In all difficult decisions related to the practice of birth control, Orthodox families should live under the guidance of the shepherds of the Church and daily ask for mercy and forgiveness at God's . Orthodox husbands and wives should discuss contraception in light of the circumstances of their personal lives, always keeping in mind the normal relationship between the divinely sanctified love of marriage and the conception of children. Conception control of any kind motivated by selfishness or lack of trust in God's providential care certainly cannot be justified" [6]. Here you can see that although the Synod Fathers condemn this practice, they allow it as a “lesser evil.”

However, the document “Judgments on Marriage, Family, Sexuality and the Sanctity of Life” (1992) of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America already gives explicit permission for contraception [7]:“Married couples may express their love through sexual intercourse without the permanent intention of conceiving a child, but only those means of controlling conception in marriage that do not cause harm to an already conceived fetus are acceptable ”[8]. Similar official permits currently exist in 3 more Orthodox jurisdictions out of 15 (including the Russian Orthodox Church)[9].

As mentioned above, none of the saints and authoritative church teachers of antiquity taught about the possibility of artificially preventing conception. Even in the second half of the 20th century, with the widespread spread of contraception, we find only a sharply negative attitude among the saints (St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain, St. Porfiry Kavsokalivit). In general, in the Orthodox world, there remain many reputable clergy who condemn the use of contraception as a sin (even in those jurisdictions where it is officially permitted by the Synods with some reservations). Archpriest Nikolai Emelyanov (PSTGU) writes: “Not one of the authoritative confessors, that is, those who served a lot (a lot is more than 30 years, and not 15, as young priests often think), devoted strength to shepherding (and not just administrative or scientific work) and many surviving priests, does not support the idea of ​​​​the normativity of contraception in any of its forms.”

Moral problems with contraception

We will not talk much about the fact that the use of contraceptives with an abortifacient effect is the grave sin of infanticide [10]. This is clearly condemned by ancient canons and modern church documents (see, for example, the 21st canon of the Council of Ancyra, the 91st canon of the Trullo Council, the 2nd canon of St. Basil the Great, Fundamentals of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, XII.3). We will talk about a less obvious moral problem - the use of barrier contraception and coitus interruptus.

The Orthodox Church teaches that the purpose of marital intimacy is not limited to the purpose of procreation. The bodily relations of a man and a woman “are blessed by God in marriage, where they become the source of the continuation of the human race and express chaste love, complete community, “unity of souls and bodies” of the spouses, for which the Church prays in the rite of marriage” [11].

And here the question may arise: if intimate relationships without the intention of conceiving a child can be without sin, then what is wrong with sometimes using non-abortive contraception?

Artificial prevention of conception violates God's design for marital relations

Having created man and woman, God endowed them with sexual differences and planned the process of their union “into one flesh” (cf.  Eph. 5:31). Rector of PSTGU Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov explains that the use of contraception “is a fundamental opposition to God’s plan for man - after all, the Lord created man in such a way that carnal intercourse would serve the conception of a new life, a new man. If this does not happen, doctors note a serious illness, which becomes a difficult cross for loving spouses” [12]. By using contraception, the spouses go against the nature of the marital act, the natural result of which would be the creation of a new life. Based on the premise that the probability of conception is high only on certain days (due, in particular, to menstrual cycles), we believe that the significance of marital intimacy is determined not only by the goals of possible conception). The division of the procreative (generative) and uniative (unifying) functions of the marital act, in our opinion, is unnatural: “Since the natural goal (or rather, the consequence) of marriage - the reproduction of the human race - can be achieved only through the union of both sexes, it follows naturally that any satisfaction of sexual need outside of this connection is a grave crime against nature. If unnatural satisfaction of sexual need were allowed, then reproduction itself would be in great doubt" [13].

The Bible speaks of the union of husband and wife “into one flesh,” referring this phrase to the carnal union of a man and a woman, even outside of marriage (1 Cor. 6:16). This is the union of the spouses of St. John Chrysostom calls it a “mysterious image of the Church”, a “sacrament”. The saint speaks in detail about God's plan: “The creative wisdom of God from the very beginning divided one into two and, wanting to show that even after division one remains, it arranged so that one is not enough for birth. After all, whoever has not yet united (by marriage) does not constitute the whole, but half. This is evident from the fact that he does not produce children as before. Do you see the secret of marriage? From one He made two, and then from two He made and still makes one, so that even now a person is born of one, because a wife and a husband are not two people, but one person” [14]. Even in the absence of conception, such a marital act unites the spouses and has value: “What if there is no baby, and then they will not be two persons? Certainly. For this (unity) comes from copulation, which unites and confuses the bodies of both. It’s just like if you pour fragrant drops into oil, you’ll get one thing out of everything - it happens here too” [15].

The fact that God's plan for the union of the sexes involves the natural copulation of a man and a woman shows that there is no place for human arbitrariness. Let's now think about why the Bible strongly condemns homosexual relations? The Bible does not condemn the friendship of two men, their joint raising of children, or mutual assistance. But homosexual sexual intercourse is clearly condemned: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: it is an abomination” (Lev.18:22). Why is this an abomination? Precisely because their sexual intercourse is unnatural! They physically cannot unite “into one flesh” because their bodies are not designed for this. To do this, they have to come up with various alternative types of sex that can only bring some pleasure, but do not unite people, as God intended, and do not produce offspring.

For the same reason, the use of barrier contraception, as well as alternative forms of achieving sexual satisfaction, can be likened to homosexual relations [16]. The Apostle Paul condemns the unnatural satisfaction of sexual needs: “Therefore God gave them over to shameful passions: their women replaced the natural use with the unnatural , likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the female sex, were inflamed with lust for one another, men committing shame on men and receiving give themselves the due reward for their error” (Rom. 1:26-27). St. John Chrysostom, speaking about the inhabitants of Sodom, directly indicates what the problem of homosexual sexual acts is: “Just as they introduced childless intercourse, which did not end in childbirth , so God also brought vengeance, which made the womb of the earth once and for all childless and deprived of all fruits” [17].

To summarize this idea, we can say that the justification of artificial prevention of conception, interference in sexual intercourse, inevitably leads to the justification of homosexual relations, since the problem in both cases is the same - the perversion of God’s plan for human sexuality. The marital act, which has a deep meaning - to unite two into one and become an expression of love, is reduced to a simple way to get pleasure without the desire to take responsibility for the possible consequences.

Using contraception is a type of fornication

There is an episode in the Bible that tells the story of Onan, who did not fulfill the Old Testament law on levirate marriage: “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, and therefore every time he lay with his brother’s wife, he poured out on the ground so as not to produce offspring for his brother . What he did was evil in the sight of the Lord; and He slew him also” (Gen. 38:9-10). Many modern interpreters suggest seeing Onan’s sin only in evading the law of the levirate, for which he was punished. However, evasion from fulfilling the law of the levirate entailed only dishonor, and not death: “Then his brother’s wife will come up to him in the presence of the elders, and take his sandal off his foot, and spit in his face, and will say in response: this is what they do to a man who did not build his brother’s house” (Deut. 25:5-9). 

So, apparently, Onan committed another sin (coitus interruptus), for which he was punished by death. This is how the holy fathers understood it when they interpreted this episode [18]. For example, Abba Serapion says: “There are three types of prodigal passion. The first is accomplished through copulation of one sex with the other. The second is done without mixing with a woman, for which, as it is said, Onan, the son of the patriarch of Judah, was struck by the Lord, and which in the Holy Scriptures is called uncleanness […] The third type is accomplished in the mind and in the heart, about this the Lord said: whoever looks at woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28). The blessed apostle indicated these three types in the following verse: Mortify your earthly members: fornication, uncleanness, lust, etc. (Col. 3:5)" [19]. St. Theophan the Recluse interprets the words of the Apostle from the above-mentioned letter as follows: “Our interpreters believe that the first word signifies the deeds of lustful passion, and the others - the properties of this passion - that it makes a person unclean more than other passions or upsets him more than others and is truly παθος - a disease similar to fire (see: blessed Theophylact), which is why it deserves to be called evil lust. - But maybe it can be put like this: fornication means well-known criminal relationships with women; uncleanness - unnatural deeds to satisfy lust ; passion - prodigal mania" [20].

The use of contraception creates a “contraceptive mentality”

“Contraceptive mentality” is a set of ways of thinking, life guidelines, and behavior that try to separate a person’s intimate relationships from their consequence—childbirth. People accustom themselves to the idea of ​​“safe sex”, that they can have intimate relationships and not take responsibility for their consequences. It is no coincidence that among supporters of the use of contraception there are so many people who support abortion. In both cases, the potential conception of a child is perceived as a problem that one would like to somehow get rid of. This thinking is anti-life, not pro-life. 

Man is dissatisfied with the fact that God has arranged the natural process this way and prefers to interfere with it. There is a misconception that resistance to safe contraception contributes to increased abortion rates. In some countries, authorities deliberately promote the distribution of contraceptives to reduce the number of abortions. The facts show that this is not a solution to the problem. “For example, in Scandinavian countries, where access to contraception is guaranteed even for adolescents, abortion is very often resorted to. In Italy, the regions with the highest prevalence of contraceptives also rank first in the number of abortions. The Alan Guttmacher Institute published a study in 1996 showing that among 10,000 women who want to kill their own child, 57.5% use contraception. According to K. Sidenius and T.K. Rasmussen, of the adolescents who had an abortion at Harlev Hospital in Copenhagen, 60% used contraception" [21]. The problem is much deeper, at the level of a person’s worldview. Only a serious change in worldview (in particular, a revision of the concept of freedom as permissiveness), acceptance of God's law and responsibility for one's actions can help solve it at the societal level.

Is there a worthy alternative?

Those who have become acquainted with all these reasonings and arguments may have fair questions: does all this really mean that the attitude towards the birth of a child does not imply a responsible approach? Shouldn't you take a break between having children to regain your strength? What about situations when it is absolutely necessary to postpone conceiving a child, but we are not ready to give up marital relations for an extended period?

Pastors and church teachers should not brush aside these problems. The Church reminds that “spouses are responsible before God for the full upbringing of children” [22]. At the same time, the solution to these problems in each specific case should not occur through a violation of the moral law. A good goal is not justified by immoral means.

First of all, the Church condemns the ideology of voluntary child-freeness, since it contradicts the moral teaching about the goals of Christian marriage: “Intentional refusal to have children for selfish reasons devalues ​​marriage and is an undoubted sin” [23].

The use of contraception, as we have already found out, is also not a morally permissible decision.

However, if there are fair reasons for postponing the conception of a child, spouses can use natural methods of fertility recognition ("Natural Family Planning" - "NFP"). This is not contraception, since it does not involve artificial intervention in the natural process, does not distort the marital act, shows respect, and uses only those tools that God himself made to be inherent in nature [24]. NFP promotes marital chastity and is a worthy alternative to any contraception. Their effectiveness (according to numerous studies conducted under the supervision of the World Health Organization) is 98-99%. Using these methods, 80% of married couples with a long-term diagnosis of infertility conceived and gave birth to children [25]. However, their use requires self-discipline on the part of both spouses, without which their effectiveness is significantly reduced. Familiarization with natural methods and their application in the life of a particular family allows us to solve most of the problems that arise in this area and rejoice at how wisely the Lord has designed our reproductive system.

Thematic quotations

“The Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas” (a work by an unknown author of the 2nd century, addressed to the Christian community: “...Do not be like, he says, those unclean men, and do not cleave to those unclean women who are heard to commit lawlessness with its mouth. For this... departs from the general laws in conceiving"

St. John of Damascus : “Of the pleasures that arise with the help of the body, some are natural, at the same time necessary, without which it is impossible to live, such as: food, replenishing the lack, and necessary clothing; others, although natural, are not necessary, such as copulationin accordance with nature and in accordance with the law. For, although they contribute to the preservation of the entire race, it is nevertheless possible to live in virginity without them […] Therefore, the one who lives in accordance with God by will, must seek necessary and at the same time natural pleasures; natural and unnecessary pleasures are placed in second place, allowing them at a decent time, and in a decent way, and in a decent measure. Other pleasures should be avoided at all costs.”

Archpriest Oleg Stenyaev: “All contraceptives are strictly prohibited by the Church. This is the sin of masturbation. We must give birth to children and respect the boundaries that the Lord has set.”

Archpriest Alexander Ilyashenko: “Any types of contraception are a sin.”

Archimandrite Raphael (Karelin): “The Church prohibits the use of contraceptives. The only worthy solution is either abstinence in marital relations, or leaving everything to the will of God […] Contraceptives, for the most part, are hidden infanticide, and in other cases, mutual masturbation.”

Archimandrite John (Krestyankin): “Any contraception is a sin for a layman, not to mention a priest.”

Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose): “With regard to birth control, the Orthodox Church is certainly no more “liberal” than the Catholic Church, and any interference with the natural object and result of sexual intercourse, that is, the conception of children, is strictly condemned as grave sin".

Archpriest Dimitry Smirnov: “The use of a contraceptive is the same as the mechanical emptying of the stomach to accept unnecessary food again. This is a kind of self-deception, the transformation of generic life into meaningless physiological exploitation of the human body without the implementation of generic activity. A person is like a monkey that sits in a cage and misbehaves. For people, everything should happen according to its lawful nature […] From a moral point of view, such means cannot be used. The Church cannot bless this, as it is a perversion of human nature created by God.”

Archpriest Valentin Mordasov: “[The use of contraceptives] is a very serious sin, because one of the main goals of marriage is procreation.”

Priest Joseph Gleason: “There is only one place in all the universe where a Christian can lawfully release his seed. His seed is destined for the wife of his youth. She has a sacred chamber, and this chamber is the only place where sexual activity can be performed sacredly. According to the unanimous agreement of Orthodox saints for the last 2000 years, the seed should neither be destroyed nor issued into an unnatural place. […] In no case should you achieve pleasure from sex by artificially avoiding the possibility of pregnancy.”

[1]Quoted. by: R. Harries. The Anglican acceptance of contraception // Vol. 13, No. 3, September 1996, People and partnerships. R. 2.

[2]See: M. Rengel. Encyclopedia of Birth Control. Greenwood, 2000. P. 182.

[3]See: Patriarch Athenagoras telegram to Pope Paul VI, 9 August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. &trans. EJ Stormon, 1987, p. 197.

[4]For the text of the synodal message, see: Archimandrite. Nicholas Um. Arcas. Marriage and childbirth https://azbyka.ru/deti/brak-i-detorozhdenie-arhim-nikolas-emm-arkas#ch_0_33_1

[5]How attitudes toward contraception have changed in the Orthodox community can be judged from the editions of the famous book by Metropolitan. Callista (Uera) "Orthodox Church". In the 1963 edition the author testifies to the unconditional condemnation of this phenomenon by the Orthodox Church, in the 1984 edition he speaks of recent positive changes regarding this practice and, finally, in the 1993 edition he writes that the strict view has ceased to be dominant, and now “many Orthodox theologians and spiritual fathers believe that the responsible use of contraception in marriage is not sinful in itself.” https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Kallist_Uer/pravoslavnaja-tserkov/2_5_6

[6]Pastoral instructions on holy marriage // OrthodoxChurchinAmerica https://www.oca.org/holy-synod/encyclicals/on-marriage

[7] Apparently, the adoption of this view, among other things, was influenced by the opinion of a very authoritative clergyman in the OCA - Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, who allowed the use of contraception in Orthodox families. See his book “Marriage in Orthodoxy” https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Ioann_Mejendorf/brak-v-pravoslavii/#0_11

[8]Judgments about marriage, family, sexuality and the sanctity of life https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/dokumenty/suzhdenija-svjashhennogo-sinoda-pravoslavnoj-tserkvi-v-amerike-o-brake-seme-seksualnosti-i-svjatosti-zhizni/#0_5

[9] See: S. Fedorov. The topic of sexual relations in the documents of the Church teaching https://azbyka.ru/semya/tema-seksualnyh-otnoshenij-v-dokumentah-uchitelstva-cerkvi/

[10] See: Abortive effect of contraceptives https://azbyka.ru/zdorovie/abortivnoe-dejstvie-sredstv-kontracepcii

[11] Fundamentals of the social concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, X.6.

[12] See his answer on the Shepherd portal https://priest.today/questions/36

[13] prot. Nikolai Stelletsky. Experience of moral Orthodox theology in apologetic coverage. T. 3. https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Nikolaj_Stelleckij/opyt-nravstvennogo-pravoslavnogo-bogoslovija-v-apologeticheskom-osveshenii-tom-3-obshestvennaja-nravstvennost/#0_5

[14] St. John Chrysostom. Discourses on the Epistle to the Colossians, 12.

[15] Ibid.

[16] At the same time, we note that for a full-fledged marital act, only male ejaculation in a woman’s vagina is required. Satisfaction of a woman's sexual needs by her husband can be achieved in any convenient way, since, due to natural characteristics, it is in no way connected with reproductive function. The only moral condition here is that this satisfaction occurs within the framework of one intimate marital encounter.

[17] Conversations on Statues, 19. It must be recalled that St. John considered marital union to be complete even without the intention of conceiving a child, but he considered it unacceptable to pervert the marital act itself, likening it to homosexuality.

[18] We find this interpretation in St. Augustine, St. Jerome of Stridon, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Epiphany of Cyprus, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.

[19] rev. John Cassian. Interviews, V.

[20] The Epistle of St. Apostle Paul to the Colossians, interpreted by St. Theophan https://azbyka.ru/otechnik/Feofan_Zatvornik/tolkovanie-na-poslanie-k-kolossjanam/4

[21]Lexicon. Controversial topics and controversial terms in the field of family, life and ethics. M., 2009. pp. 358-359.

[22] Fundamentals of the social concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, XII.3

[23] Ibid.

[24] Review of the famous confessor Archimandrite John (Krestyakin) about the natural method of recognizing fertility: “This method is not even subject to confession, for it is a method of reasonable abstinence. Everyone and everything is recommended to be done with reason and this is natural and not reprehensible” (Quoted from: Bishop Methodius (Kondratiev). Subtle issues of spiritual care for HIV-infected people https://priest.today/news/episkop_methody_tonkie_voprosi_pastirskogo_oko...).

[25] For more information about natural methods of fertility recognition, see the material on the website of the Patriarchal Commission on Family Issues, Protection of Motherhood and Virginity “On the advisability of using natural family planning methods in gynecology” https://pk-semya.ru/surrogatnoe-materinstvo-5/item/69-zayavlenie-o-tselesoobraznosti-ispolzovaniya-v-ginekologii-metodov-estestvennogo-planirovaniya-semi.html

With grateful thanks to Russian Faith: https://russian-faith.com/why-contraception-sinful-n7412?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email