Following is a fourth perspective on the concept of natural law from the compilation of perspectives that the leadership of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) recently sent to Archbishop John Nienstedt and the priests of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For why we shared these perspectives, click here.)
This particular perspective is from Catholic scholar and author Garry Wills. It focuses on contraception and is excerpted from Wills’ book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.
When we look to the patristic era and its legacy, we find a variety of campaigns against contraception limited to particular contexts. And the great issues in those battles was usually not contraception in itself but some larger struggle – over the goodness or the evil of the body, or the apocalyptic expectations of history, or the sacrifice of marriage to virginity. The whole attitude toward sex in late antiquity – pagan and Jewish as well as Christian – was marred by misogynism, fear of the body, and the lure of false spiritualisms. It is not the place to look for sanity on these matters. . . . Strange notions of what was “natural” in sex would persist for a long time in Christianity. Even in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas would still be saying that natural law makes it a sin for sex to take place in any position but with the man on top, or that contraception is a worse sin than incest.
. . . One particularly disturbing aspect of modern papal claims is the assertion that contraception violates natural law. If it is a matter of moral right or wrong perceptible to natural reason, the ancient pagans should have been bound to see its immorality. Yet the classical Greeks and Romans, who originated Western moral theory (including the theory of natural law), had no inkling of the evil of contraception – and not because there were no contraceptive devices available to them. . . . Even more disturbing for Catholics, who believe in the inspiration of Jewish scripture, is the fact that Jews had no prohibition of contraception in their extensive and detailed laws (though Pius tried to wrest one from a false interpretation of the Onan story in Genesis). . . . As a final blow to natural law claims, some of the theologians who helped craft Humane Vitae for Paul VI agreed with the ban on contraception but not with the natural law justification for that ban.
The history of the theology on contraception, then, had this anomaly as it entered the modern world: It claimed to be basing its views on a philosophy of natural law derived from classical antiquity (which had no ban on contraception) but was taking its supposedly empirical views on sex from late antiquity and the Middle Ages (which were full of superstitions). These problems called for sorting out by the nineteenth century, when science, the industrial revolution, the study of demography, and scientific psychology changed family patterns. . . . Instead of taking this opportunity to reassess the mixed heritage of views on contraception (and on sex itself), the papacy during Pius IX’s long reign (1846-78) saw the whole of modernity as an assault on religion. It put up a stout resistance to science as a Faustian desire to remake nature.
- Excerpted from Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Doubleday, New York, 2000, pages 76-77.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP
• Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 2 - Judith Web Kay
• Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 3 - Daniel Helminiak
For more of Garry Wills at The Wild Reed, see the previous posts:
• Garry Wills: All “Poped Out”
• “Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ”
• The Loyal Catholic in Changing Times