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Norbert J. RigaliSeptember 23, 2000

Although their day has long passed, the moral theology textbooks in use before the Second Vatican Council were not without a number of enduring merits. These seminary manuals, for example, recognized the need, in establishing the truth of an ethical thesis, to define all relevant terms fully and exactly and to make all pertinent verbal distinctions.

While such attention to the ethical importance of correct, precise language was not unique to the manuals’ authors (it is exemplified also, for example, in the ancient doctrine of Rectification of Names in Confucius’ Analects) in contemporary moral discourse it is sometimes lacking. One thinks immediately of the notoriously amorphous term pro-choicenot to mention the odder, redundant variant of a group wanting to be known as Catholics, not for choice, but for a free choice.

But if the church is ever to arrive at a harmonious resolution of its now longstanding ethical impasse over contraception, both pastoral leaders and theologians, together with the church as a whole, will have to give more attention than has been heretofore paid to the language of moral discourse.

Three years before Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, John T. Noonan Jr. published his masterful study Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Judge Noonan was at that time a consultant to the Papal Commission for Study of Problems of Population, Family and Birth. This panel, referred to often as the papal commission on birth control, was assigned to make preparatory studies for what eventually became the encyclical.

It is with the term contraception that the present essay is directly concerned, a term of much more recent origin than the subject whose history is narrated in Judge Noonan’s book.

Having made its first recorded appearance in the English language toward the end of the 19th century, the word became part of the vocabulary of Catholic moral theology only in the latter half of the 20th. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, what theologians now speak of as contraception, the moral theology manuals called onanisma term derived from the biblical story of Onan (Gen. 38: 4-10) and defined as an act of sexual intercourse so performed that, with ejaculation, procreation cannot result. Applied to a practice of what was judged unchaste conduct, onanism classified certain acts as identical in immorality with the sin committed by Onan.

By the beginning of Vatican II (1962), however, significant change with regard to the subject of onanism had already occurred on three fronts. First, the reform of Catholic biblical studiesinaugurated by Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)had undercut the proof-text use of Scripture, on which was based the moral theologians’ assumption that they were dealing here with Onan’s type of sin. Biblical scholarship now generally pointed not to sexual deviance but to Onan’s failure to fulfill his fraternal duty to provide a child for his deceased brother as the reason for divine punishment. Thus, as an older biblical interpretation was replaced by a more critical one, a new name likewise was needed for what till then in moral theology had been called onanism. From secular society, where Margaret Sanger’s cause of Planned Parenthood was advancing, the name contraception was taken.

A second change during the period before the council was the official ecclesiastical recognition given in 1951 to rhythm as a morally legitimate form of fertility control, thereby explicitly distancing this form from what was regarded as the immorality of onanism.

A third development was the invention, introduced in 1960, of the pillthe oral suppressant of ovulationwhich one of its inventors, the U.S. Catholic John Rock, M.D., hoped the church would consider a morally acceptable form of fertility control. With the pill came the beginning of a sexual revolution that was rapidly to spread and intensify around the world. Even if, in the following year, an ecumenical council had not been convoked so that the church, in the words of Pope John XXIII, could contribute more efficaciously to the solution of the problems of the modern age as humanity stands on the edge of a new era, the church would still have had to address the ethical question of the pill.

Moreover, this question of the pill had almost instantly ballooned into a need to reopen the entire subject that seemed to have been long settled in the theology manuals’ treatment of onanism. Now the question was not only about the morality of the oral contraceptive. The issue confronting the church had quickly turned into a question about the morality of contraception in general. In the end, the council did not deal with this question. During its third session the subject was withdrawn from its agenda and reserved to the pope.

But what kinds of language are involved in this change in theological-ethical discourse from onanism to contraception? In its analysis of human conduct, ethics proceeds from matters of fact to moral judgment, from the language of description to the language of moral evaluation, as the discipline resolves such questions as, What kinds of killing (description) are to be classed as murder (evaluation), and what kinds as morally justifiable (evaluation)?The word onanism, like adultery, lying, stealing and rape, is clearly an evaluative term. Indeed, it was created by theologians to express a religious-moral evaluation of human conduct, classifying certain acts as a particular kind of unchaste, sinful conduct.

Contraception, along with both its adjectival and nominal form, contraceptive, is on the other hand a term taken into theological discussion from secular culture. This happened, it would seem, more by default than by deliberate choice. In its secular use the terminology functions as merely descriptive language, referring to products such as condoms, now stocked on supermarket shelves, and also to certain modes of sexual intercourse in which generally these products are used. Thus, when in the 1960’s the church returned to the old ethical subject under the new name contraception, many considered the central question to be whether an act of contraception (description) can be morally right (evaluation). And it is widely known that the answer given in the papal commission’s final report and also by numerous theologians and other members of the church was affirmative.

Nevertheless, only through doing a certain violence to itself can Catholic ethics sustain this borrowed, merely descriptive use of the term contraception, for in Catholic intellectual life there naturally attaches to the term an evaluative meaning. This distinctively Catholic meaning arises from the convergence in that term of the church’s Latin heritage and its natural law tradition, by which contraception necessarily refers to acting against conception, which is a natural good. In Catholic discourse, then, to use the term in a forced, descriptive sense and to ask whether contraception can be morally right, must sooner or later turn out to be as otiose as asking, for example, whether rapean act that violates a person’s freedom and bodily integritycan be morally right.

For the church, then, the ethical question about contraception is not whether it is morally right. It is rather: What kinds of human control of fertility (description) fulfill a person’s moral responsibility and duty to exercise such control (evaluation), and what kinds act against the natural good of conception (evaluation)? Put differently, what control of fertility is an expression of spousal love and responsible parenthood, and what control is contraceptive?in, of course, the Catholic, evaluative, not the popular, descriptive meaning of this term.

The theological discussion surrounding Humanae Vitae could have been advanced greatly if the terms of the discussion had been systematically clarified and if this had been done from the beginning. As it was, the two different meanings of contraception were confusedly in play throughout, not least in the deliberations of the papal commission and in its final report.

Even in the fifth and final session of the commission, as Robert Blair Kaiser’s report The Politics of Sex and Religion makes clear, the members were still floundering with ambiguous, unclarified language. One commissioner, for example, proposing a change in church teaching, suggested that the commission avoid using the term contraception in any statement intended for publication. Another commissioner, an opponent of change, saw in the term the very reason that church teaching should not and cannot change: Contraceptionthat is contra-ceptioninvolves a will that is turned against new life.

Nor was the confusion over language any less when in their final report the majority tried to distinguish between the conduct they were approving and the very awkwardly designated truly contraceptive’ acts they were repudiating.

Contraception, however, is not the only term in the theological discussion that needs clarification: Birth control is another. This is not synonymous with fertility control. Abortion is a very common mode of birth control, but it is essentially different from fertility control. The use of the term birth control to refer to fertility control obscures the fact that the ethical question of abortion is radically different from that of fertility control. Such use makes it easier for abortion to be seen as if it were on a continuum with means of limiting or preventing conception and had no more ethical significance than a last resort when these have been neglected or fail.

Another term in need of scrutiny is one found in the clause of Humanae Vitae that has been the center of so much controversy. The English translation states that each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. In the official version, however, which is in Latin, the term translated as marriage act is matrimonii usus (use of marriage). This is the expression Pope Pius XI had used when he taught, in the encyclical Casti Connubii (1930), what Paul VI was here reaffirming. The term, moreover, comes from the pre-Vatican II moral theology manuals.

Use of marriage can refer to conjugal sexual intercourse only in a theology in which marriage is seen as something to be used and conjugal sexual intercourse as a use of something. And this is indeed the way in which the moral theology of the manuals understood the relation between marriage and conjugal sexual intercourse.

The manuals not only formatted moral theology differently from the way in which it is presented today; their very understanding of the nature of the discipline differed markedly from contemporary understanding. In its earlier form, moral theology was largely an explanation of church laws, and its professors were frequently priests trained in canon law. The manuals accordingly identified their subject, sometimes even in the manual’s subtitle, as based on canon law, for example, moral theology according to the norm of the new law (ad normam juris novi)the new law in this instance being the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

The theology of marriage in the manuals was, as one might expect, an elaboration of the understanding of marriage in the code of 1917. Regarding procreation and education of children as the primary end of marriage, this older theology defined marriage as a contract by which a man and a woman give to each other the exclusive and permanent right over their bodies (jus in corpus) for acts ordered to procreation. According to this understanding of marriage, it is indeed something to be useda contract conferring a rightand conjugal sexual intercourse is the use of the contract and of the right conferred by it.

Contemporary theology, however, presents a quite different understanding of marriage. Seeking a more adequate and profounder truth of marriage than that attained by the earlier theology, it understands marriage primarily not in terms of legal realities but in terms of persons and their interpersonal relationships. This deepening of the theology of marriage has transformed church law itself so that it now reflects rather than molds theology. According to the revised Code of Canon Law (1983), marriage is a covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, one that of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children. This unique covenant and partnership of lives is, of course, not something to be used but an interpersonal relationship to be lived; and conjugal sexual intercourse is not a using of it but a fundamental part of living this special covenanted partnership. For the church, renewed through Vatican II by the Spirit, the ethical question about the relation between conjugal sexual intercourse and marriage is not, What is the proper use of the contract called marriage? It is, rather, What is the meaning of sexual intercourse within the special covenanted partnership of lives called marriage?

The path to truth lies through the right questions; and for questions to be right, names must first be right. This the authors of the old-time theology manuals knew well.

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Joseph Keffer
11 years 8 months ago
This is a remarkably insightful article and deserves to be re-presented by America in a current issue to provoke further discussion. Rigali patiently makes his points and they are substantive. I am impressed with his insight on the impact of the older thinking of Moral Theology as an explanation of the application of Canon law and specifically the difference that makes when one considers the influence of the 1917 Canons and the evolution to the 1983 revision. Combine that with our Vatican II insight into the nature of the relationship of marriage as a whole and one gets the point.
I would welcome further dissertation along these lines.

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