Contraception and the Early Church Fathers

Despite what some commentators and politicians think, Church teaching on abortion and contraception has remained unchanged.

By FATHER MITCH PACWA SJ, 02/16/2012 (copied from National Catholic Register)

The recent indignity by which the Obama administration wants to mandate everyone, including all Catholic institutions or their insurers, to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, has raised the issue of Catholic teaching on these issues.  Some commentators have mistakenly asserted that the Catholic ban on these practices only goes back to Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), by Pope Paul VI in 1968, or as far back as Casti Connubii (Of Chaste Wedlock), by Pope Pius XI in 1931.

Didache, one of the earliest documents outside the New Testament

The latter encyclical was written in response to the change of moral doctrine by the Anglican Church, which undermined centuries of Protestant condemnation of contraception by permitting it at the Aug. 15, 1930 Lambeth Conference.

Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae in response to the then newly invented birth control pill, rejecting it as a legitimate means of contraception for Catholics. However, these encyclicals, along with the 20th century’s nearly 100 other Vatican statements condemning artificial birth control, were simply restating the continuous history of moral theology on this topic.

Catholics do well to know this history of moral teaching on contraception and abortion to back up our position against the mandate, as well as to know better how to live the Catholic faith. Therefore, we will present some of the texts from the patristic (early Christian) sources to demonstrate how early was the Christian rejection of these practices, known widely in the Greco-Roman world.

The earliest reference to contraception and abortion is in the Didache, a document from the second half of the first century or early second century. Didache reads: “You shall not practice birth control, you shall not murder a child by abortion, nor kill what is begotten” (2).   Many translations read “practice sorcery” because the Greek word sometimes has that meaning (see Wisdom 12:4, Galatians 5:20, Revelation 18:23). However, it also means practice medicine or use poison, and the term may refer to contraceptive measures, as is the case in a number of the following texts.

Another early text is the Epistle of Barnabas: “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion, nor shall you destroy it after it is born” (19). This also shows that the earliest Christians forbade abortion. In the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the Paedagogus (2.10.96): “Women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo, but along with it, all human kindness.” This passage supports our translation of the Didache by mentioning the use of drugs to induce abortion.

In 177, Athenagoras of Athens wrote in the Supplication for the Christians: “And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder?”   This is the first of many patristic texts identifying abortion with murder, thereby indicating a high value to the personhood of the fetus.

Tertullian’s Apology in 197, while he was still in union with the Church, says, “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.”  Tertullian was himself a married man and understood the dignity of the fetus in the womb.

In the third century, Minucius Felix (226) wrote in Octavius: “There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth” (30).

Around 228, St. Hippolytus wrote about unmarried women, including some reputed to be Christians, who became pregnant from illicit relationships. In his Refutation of All Heresies, he says, “Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time! And withal, after such audacious acts, they, lost to all shame, attempt to call themselves a Catholic Church” (9.7).   He considers their behavior an effectual refutation of their status as Christians.

A document known as the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles reads “You shall not slay thy child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for ‘everything that is shaped and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed’” (7.1).   This states the belief that the fetus has a soul and its life must be protected from conception forward.

St. Augustine, brilliant thinker, theologian and philosopher

In the fourth century, the Latin and Greek authors addressed these issues. St. Augustine wrote On Marriage and Concupiscence (419). Though he was already the bishop of Hippo when he wrote it, he is equally famous for having lived with a concubine for 14 years and had a son with her. Therefore, he had an experience of living in a sort of family and he learned from his mistakes. He wrote: “I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame” (1.15.17).

St. Basil the Great wrote in his First Canonical Letter, Canon 2: “The woman who purposely destroys her unborn child is guilty of murder. With us there is no nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed. In this case it is not only the being about to be born who is vindicated, but the woman in her attack upon herself; because in most cases women who make such attempts die. The destruction of the embryo is an additional crime, a second murder, at all events, if we regard it as done with intent” (374).

The reason he mentioned the “nice enquiry as to its being formed or unformed” is that some theologians thought that the rational soul did not develop in the fetus until the third month or even later. St. Basil simply notes that this is not an issue because at any stage the destruction of the embryo is a “crime” and a “murder.” Pace Nancy Pelosi, who had claimed that since St. Augustine had thought that the rational soul began late in the pregnancy, therefore abortion would be acceptable in the early stages. St. Basil shows that such false reasoning was unfounded.

St. Jerome, Letter 22 to Eustochium (396), said: “Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world, laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ, but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: ‘Unto the pure all things are pure; my conscience is sufficient guide for me.’ A pure heart is what God looks for” (13).  Here St. Jerome denies that the conscience of the abortion is a sufficient guide. As will be clarified in later centuries, the conscience must be correctly formed so that the Lord can truly find a pure heart in the individual.

Not only did many of the great theologians address abortion and contraception, but so did some councils. The Council of Elvira in Spain (305) decreed two canons forbidding the sacraments to women who committed abortion: “If a woman becomes pregnant by committing adultery, while her husband is absent, and after the act she destroys (the child), it is proper to keep her from Communion until death, because she has doubled her crime” (63). Canon 68 reads: “If a catechumen should conceive by an adulterer, and should procure the death of the child, she can be baptized only at the end of her life.”

A similar decision was reached at the Council of Ancyra (314): “Concerning women who commit fornication, and destroy that which they have conceived, or who are employed in making drugs for abortion, a former decree excluded them [from Communion] until the hour of death” (29)

None of the Fathers or councils offer contradictory opinions on contraception or abortion.

Popes Pius XI, Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II were simply presenting the teaching of the Church in the same line of thought that began in the earliest generations, continued through the Middle Ages, and was taught by the Protestant reformers. (Martin Luther called people who use contraception “logs,” “stock” and “swine.” John Calvin said contraception was “condemned and “doubly monstrous,” while abortion was “a crime incapable of expiation.”)  The popes have called the Church to a moral and holy approach to marriage and the conception of children. We form our conscience in the light of this constant tradition, and we teach and live it by the graces God gives us.

On this basis we insist that the government allow us complete freedom to practice our religion and its precepts.

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is the host of EWTN Live and Threshold of Hope on EWTN. He is president of Ignatius Productions



Wedding Homily

I’ll be performing a wedding a little later today… Here is the homily:


Becoming One (Gen 2:24)

Wednesday was St Valentine’s Day. You know, that mushy day when everyone dresses up in red and white, when gifts of love: red roses, chocolate hearts, love songs DVD’s and golden rings are exchanged, a romantic dinner planned, and absolute panic sets in for the person who realises that he or she has completely forgotten about the day, as if, not complying with some already over-commercialised day will indicate and lack of affection and love on your part. The mistake we make of course is to fall into that commercial trap, when true love really should be constant and consistent, not just on Valentine’s Day, or on an anniversary, or a birthday, but every single day: unchanging and unwavering.

So, one way we try and show that our love is constant and consistent is by entering into the state of Holy Matrimony. By coming to a Church, on a day like this, and making a solemn commitment to one another, before God and His people. And what you are saying today is that you promise, in a sacred commitment – a vow – that you N will take N, to be your husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; and to be faithful to, until death you do part.

So there’s no more ‘jolling’… That’s a thing of the past. Forget about it. No more nice times. What starts today – and this is what you are saying – is that you will ‘have and hold’ each other in the good time and the bad time; when you go overseas on the romantic holiday in Tuscany and when you come back, and life, with its day to day problems, happens; when you are healthy and fine, and when the doctor says it’s cancer or whatever other illness that may strike. You don’t give up on each other. Ever. And the only thing that eventually separates you will be death itself, which, if I may add – and this is a reminder to us all – will happen to you sooner rather than later. So it befalls each and every one of us, to make the best of what we have, right now. If you’ve messed up, fix it. Time on earth is short. Very short. And it’s never too late to make things right. Relationship count.

So when people see you – wherever that may be – they must see her; and when people see him – wherever that may be – they, they must see you. She becomes, under God, your #1 priority; and he becomes, under God, your #1 priority.

You’ll notice I said, ‘under God’. He is on top, right?

Otherwise, why else all this?

We need to be aware that the God who created us, designed us, and loves us, He, knows what is best. He knows what is right and wrong. And even but a casual reading of His Word will tell you that this (marriage) is right. No couple should live together outside the bonds of marriage (1 Cor 6:18-20; Heb 13:4) because marriage, by definition, means that ‘I will be here for you, always… No matter what.’ We stick together.

And that is exactly how it is with God through Jesus Christ His Son. The model of marriage is the relationship that Christ has with His bride, the Church. He is faithful. He doesn’t throw us away if He gets tired of us. He doesn’t get rid of us when we do wrong. He doesn’t give up on us: His love peruses us; His love for us is what led Him to die for us, so that in Him, we may find salvation and freedom from sin. Again, He is our example. We live by emulating Him. We live in obedience to Him. We live in ways that are right before Him. And today, you are making it right.

The Church recoginses and blesses you in this.

But it does not stop here. You will need to push on. And I want to say to you – and hear me now – If you are not willing to make Jesus the rock on which you build this your foundation, the One who is your only hope, your support and your anchor in the stormy sea that we call life, then you will struggle, you will falter, and you will fail.

You need to make Jesus the centre of your marriage. See, He has all the answers. Because let’s face it, there will come times when, like at the Wedding Feast at Cana, the wine will run out [hopefully that won’t happen tonight]. But when it does, and you discover weaknesses in each other, differences of opinions, different goals, a side of the person that you may not even know existed, and then you can turn to the faithful, ever present Shepherd, and He will be there to help you along.

Those are the times when you will need to learn to forgive each other and make a fresh start. And somehow, it is only in knowing forgiveness, that you too will be able to forgive, to refill, and to push on.  Not only does God love us, and forgive us, but God teach us how to love Him and how to love others in real love, not in the cheap imitations we see in the lost world around us, not in the Valentine’s Days, or Cupid shoot your arrow kind of nonsense.

In marriage, love grows. In marriage, love matures. As you become one.

So today marks a complete new beginning in the lives of both of you. The wedding is just today, the marriage is what lies before you. And it’s no MacDonald’s drive through.

Commit today, to being there for each other. Forget about ‘me’. It’s no longer me, what I want, selfishness… It is us.

Commit today, to trust in each other.

Commit today to trust in Jesus with all your hearts.

And you’ll see, you’ll be okay…

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

– Amen.



Pope: Allocution to New Cardinals

Venerable Brothers, Dear Brothers and Sisters,

With these words the entrance hymn has led us into the solemn and evocative ritual of the ordinary public Consistory for the creation of new Cardinals, with the placing of the biretta, the handing over of the ring and the assigning of a titular church. They are the efficacious words with which Jesus constituted Peter as the solid foundation of the Church. On such a foundation the faith represents the qualitative factor: Simon becomes Peter – the Rock – in as much as he professed his faith in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. In the proclamation of Christ the Church is bound to Peter and Peter is placed in the Church as a rock; although it is Christ himself who builds up the Church, Peter must always be a constitutive element of that upbuilding. He will always be such through faithfulness to his confession made at Caesarea Philippi, in virtue of the affirmation, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”.

The words Jesus addressed to Peter highlight well the ecclesial character of today’s event. The new Cardinals, in receiving the title of a church in this city or of a suburban Diocese, are fully inserted in the Church of Rome led by the Successor of Peter, in order to cooperate closely with him in governing the universal Church. These beloved Brothers, who in a few minutes’ time will enter and become part of the College of Cardinals, will be united with new and stronger bonds not only to the Roman Pontiff but also to the entire community of the faithful spread throughout the world. In carrying out their particular service in support of the Petrine ministry, the new Cardinals will be called to consider and evaluate the events, the problems and the pastoral criteria which concern the mission of the entire Church. In this delicate task, the life and the death of the Prince of the Apostles, who for love of Christ gave himself even unto the ultimate sacrifice, will be an example and a helpful witness of faith for the new Cardinals.

It is with this meaning that the placing of the red biretta is also to be understood. The new Cardinals are entrusted with the service of love: love for God, love for his Church, an absolute and unconditional love for his brothers and sisters, even unto shedding their blood, if necessary, as expressed in the words of placing the biretta and as indicated by the colour of their robes. Furthermore, they are asked to serve the Church with love and vigour, with the transparency and wisdom of teachers, with the energy and strength of shepherds, with the fidelity and courage of martyrs. They are to be eminent servants of the Church that finds in Peter the visible foundation of unity.

In the Gospel we have just heard proclaimed there is offered a model to imitate and to follow. Against the background of the third prediction of the Passion, death and resurrection of the Son of Man, and in profound contrast to it, is placed the scene of the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, who are still pursuing dreams of glory beside Jesus. They ask him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mk 10:37). The response of Jesus is striking, and he asks an unexpected question: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” (Mk 10:38). The allusion is crystal clear: the chalice is that of the Passion, which Jesus accepts as the will of God. Serving God and others, self-giving: this is the logic which authentic faith imparts and develops in our daily lives and which is not the type of power and glory which belongs to this world.

By their request, James and John demonstrate that they do not understand the logic of the life to which Jesus witnesses, that logic which – according to the Master – must characterize the disciple in his spirit and in his actions. The erroneous logic is not the sole preserve of the two sons of Zebedee because, as the evangelist narrates, it also spreads to “the other ten” apostles who “began to be indignant at James and John” (Mk 10:41). They were indignant, because it is not easy to enter into the logic of the Gospel and to let go of power and glory. Saint John Chrysostom affirms that all of the apostles were imperfect, whether it was the two who wished to lift themselves above the other ten, or whether it was the ten who were jealous of them (“Commentary on Matthew”, 65, 4: PG 58, 619-622). Commenting on the parallel passages in the Gospel of Luke, Saint Cyril of Alexandria adds, “The disciples had fallen into human weakness and were discussing among themselves which one would be the leader and superior to the others… This happened and is recounted for our advantage… What happened to the holy Apostles can be understood by us as an incentive to humility” (“Commentary on Luke”, 12, 5, 24: PG 72, 912). This episode gives Jesus a way to address each of the disciples and “to call them to himself”, almost to pull them in, to form them into one indivisible body with him, and to indicate which is the path to real glory, that of God: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10:42-44).

Dominion and service, egoism and altruism, possession and gift, self-interest and gratuitousness: these profoundly contrasting approaches confront each other in every age and place. There is no doubt about the path chosen by Jesus: he does not merely indicate it with words to the disciples of then and of today, but he lives it in his own flesh. He explains, in fact, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). These words shed light upon today’s public Consistory with a particular intensity. They resound in the depths of the soul and represent an invitation and a reminder, a commission and an encouragement especially for you, dear and venerable Brothers who are about to be enrolled in the College of Cardinals.

According to biblical tradition, the Son of man is the one who receives power and dominion from God (cf. Dan 7:13f). Jesus interprets his mission on earth by combining the figure of the Son of man with that of the suffering Servant, described in Isaiah (cf. 53:1-12). He receives power and the glory only inasmuch as he is “servant”; but he is servant inasmuch as he welcomes within himself the fate of the suffering and the sin of all humanity. His service is realized in total faithfulness and complete responsibility towards mankind. In this way the free acceptance of his violent death becomes the price of freedom for many, it becomes the beginning and the foundation of the redemption of each person and of the entire human race.

Dear Brothers who are to be enrolled in the College of Cardinals, may Christ’s total gift of self on the Cross be for you the foundation, stimulus and strength of a faith operative in charity. May your mission in the Church and the world always be “in Christ” alone, responding to his logic and not that of the world, and may it be illumined by faith and animated by charity which comes to us from the glorious Cross of the Lord. On the ring which I will soon place on your finger, are represented Saints Peter and Paul, and in the middle a star which evokes the Mother of God. Wearing this ring, you are reminded each day to remember the witness which these two Apostles gave to Christ even unto martyrdom here in Rome, their blood making the Church fruitful. The example of the Virgin Mother will always be for you an invitation to follow her who was strong in faith and a humble servant of the Lord.

As I bring these brief reflections to a close, I would like to extend warm greetings and thanks to all present, especially to the official Delegations from various countries and to the various diocesan groups. The new Cardinals, in their service, are called to remain faithful to Christ at all times, letting themselves be guided only by his Gospel. Dear brothers and sisters, pray that their lives will always reflect the Lord Jesus, our sole shepherd and teacher, source of every hope, who points out the path to everyone. And pray also for me, that I may continually offer to the People of God the witness of sound doctrine and guide holy Church with a firm and humble hand.

SourceVatican Radio



Cardinal-to-be Dolan (and others)

Speaks of going to confession in Rome. Powerful.

Archbishop Dolan’s message about confession the other day was a fine example of simple pastoral care for his people.

Love, Prayers, and Best Wishes from Rome

Well, I did it again…

It’s usually one of the very first things I do on my first full day back in Rome…

Early in the morning, I walk down the Janiculum  Hill – where I stay at the North American College – to Saint Peter’s Basilica, there to go to confession and then to celebrate Mass.

Two powerful sacraments, Eucharist and Reconciliation, constants of our spiritual life, at the heart of the church, near the tomb of Saint Peter.

I don’t want you to think that I only approach confession when I’m in Rome!

At home with you in New York I try to go every two weeks, because I need it.

But it does have a special urgency and meaning here in Rome.

Near the tomb of Saint Peter, I can hear Jesus ask Him three times: “Simon, do you love me?” and then examine my conscience to see how I have failed to love the Lord and take care of his sheep.

Near his tomb, I picture myself, like Saint Peter, doubting Jesus and sinking in the waters of the storm.

Adjacent to his burial place, I even admit that, like Peter, I have, in my thoughts, words, and actions, denied Jesus.

So my contrition is strong, my purpose of amendment firm, and I approach one of the Franciscans for confession in the corner of the massive basilica.

Then I say my penance before the tomb of Peter, under the high altar, and go to vest for the greatest prayer of all, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

And then I go for pasta….

Lent begins next Wednesday.  I’ll be back to start it with you.

Sometime over those forty days leading up to Easter, take a cue from your archbishop: get back to confession!

My love, prayers, and best wishes from Rome.

BTW. Eminences, It’s Time:

… everything’s ready.

To the crowd in Rome, TO, Gotham, Charm City, and beyond, a Good and Happy Consistory Morning to one and all. As ever, it’s an emotional day ’round here, yet even moreso in the wake of the last couple weeks.

If the most recent editions of this moment are any indicator, there’ll be near-riots for spots in St Peter’s — and it’s very likely that some pilgrims who’ve traveled so far will, indeed, be shut out of the basilica — but luckily, you lot have the best seat in the house.

Ergo, for those who could use it, webstreams for today’s freshly-revised Rites of Creation bestowing the “Red Hat” and ring on 22 new cardinals — set to begin at 10.30 Vatican time (4.30am Eastern, 0930GMT) — are available through the Vatican player and EWTN, among others.

More as the big day progresses…

Rocco Palmo will keep you thus well informed on his blog here or on twitter here.