But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also. - Genesis 38:8-10
Many today, sadly even some lay Catholic theologians and biblical scholars, argue that Scripture says nothing against contraceptives, even though traditional orthodox moral theology looks to Genesis 38:6-10 as indeed being one of the arguments against contraception. So, does this passage have anything to offer on the question of sexual morality and the use of methods of avoiding pregnancy?
Onan, mentioned in the above mentioned verse, was supposed to marry his deceased brother’s widow who was childless. This custom, known as the Levirate law (coming from the Latin levir, meaning “a husband’s brother”), was a moral requirement of those within the Old Testament (Deut. 25:5-10). The intention behind it was to insure that an unmarried brother would “raise up seed for the deceased brother that his name be not blotted out of Israel.”
The prime argument against contraception, based within this particular passage, used to be regarded as quite straightforward and uncontroversial. In the past century, however, both Protestant and unorthodox Catholic thinkers have outright rejected traditional interpretation of this passage. They argue that Onan’s offense against God solely entailed his disregard of obligations to his dead brother.
The flaw with presenting this as the counter argument to the traditional view is that the legal perception of violating the Levirate law was not it being a capital offense (requiring being put to death). If a man did not uphold to his end of what was required of him to his deceased brother’s wife, she was to bring the circumstances to the attention of the elders, who in turn would attempt to counsel the offender in order to persuade him to change his mind. If he persisted in his position, his brother's widow was to “go up to him and strip his sandal from his foot and spit in his face, saying publicly, ‘This is how one should be treated who will not build up his brother’s family!'” (Deut. 25:9).
While such a public admonishment might be embarrassing, it is quite far from the death sentence we see that Onan received in Scripture. This leads to suggest that he sinned not only by violating the Levirate law, but also through the means that he did so. The kind of act he committed was so despicable that, in the Old Testament context, it was worthy of being put to death.
By committing a contraceptive act, Onan stripped sex of its life-giving purpose and acted contrary to the good of his potential child's life. Both within his intention and by his deliberate actions he had disdain towards new life. As a result, Onan received the Old Testament penalty for his crime.
I feel that we tip toe a lot around this topic due to the overwhelming familiarity we as a society have with contraception and the anti-pregnancy mentality, and now any voice countering this view is seen as outdated, judgmental, or controlling. This whole societal shift in the view of sexuality has deeply affected how we see marriage as well, even the Christian view writ large. What I mean is that there is now an unhealthy level of emphasis in marriage on the physical, emotional, and romantic unity between man and wife as being supreme priority rather than the procreation of children. Children are seen as secondary, if they are thought about at all, rather than a first. The man and the wife are put before and above the idea of kids. Children then only come into the world if it is convenient for the relationship of the parents, even though God said "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28).
Not many Christians stand in opposition to contraceptives now. It has become integrated into how many "plan" their families whilst serving their passions. They hinder the true purpose of union between man and wife by placing either a physical barrier between them or implementing a chemical barrier and avoiding responsibility of the primary purpose of sex. The physical pleasure of sex is a gift from God, but not the true end (ultimate purpose) of sex. Sex, left unhindered, results in procreation, because that is its primary function implemented by God Himself. Engaging in the marital act is pleasurable, and is designed by God to encourage and deepen marital unity, but it is only good if there is an openness to life as well. When measures are taken which intend to directly prevent life from coming into being, it opposes love of one another because it is an act against the other's good. It is also a direct act against the good of sex as fashioned and intended by God.
What I mean by good (in a human sense) is: that which fulfills the purpose or essence of a thing. For instance, the good of the intellect is truth, since obtaining truth fulfills the abilities and pursuits of the intellect. So to willfully deny the good of a thing or person, is to act against its purpose and contrary to love (acting in disdain), since acting in true love of a person or thing involves a constant commitment of the will to the true good of said thing. When one, or both, of the spouses enact measures which prevent their sexual abilities from fulfilling their purpose they are:
1) Acting contrary to their own good designed by God
2) Aiding in the act against the good of the other designed by God
Thus not loving themselves nor the other.
Karlo Broussard, Catholic apologist for Catholic Answers, said:
Acts that positively reject the order of a human good cannot possibly be expressions of authentic love, even if they are done in the name of love. In fact, they are directly opposed to love, showing disdain for the beloved instead.
To say that a couple can express authentic love while engaging in sexual activity that voluntarily thwarts the procreative end of sex is like saying a person can express love by voluntarily crushing another person’s windpipe. Love is by nature opposed to the rejection of another’s good, as well as one’s own good. And since that good includes man’s biological good (procreation) just as much as it includes his rational good, love demands reverence for the procreative dimension of sex.
It should be noted as well that the Church has been engaging with and teaching against the contraceptive actions of the world for centuries. It is not a modern times reaction on behalf of the Church, for there have been sinful methods to prevent pregnancy and new life since ancient times. The traditional unilateral teaching of orthodox bishops and saints throughout Church History has always been against these contraceptive mentalities and methods. For example:
St. Clement of Alexandria (The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2; 2:10:95:3 [A.D. 191]):
“Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted [...] To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature”
St. Augustine of Hippo Against Faustus 15:7 [A.D. 400]:
“You [Manicheans] make your auditors adulterers of their wives when they take care lest the women with whom they copulate conceive. They take wives according to the laws of matrimony by tablets announcing that the marriage is contracted to procreate children; and then, fearing because of your law [against childbearing] . . . they copulate in a shameful union only to satisfy lust for their wives. They are unwilling to have children, on whose account alone marriages are made. How is it, then, that you are not those prohibiting marriage, as the apostle predicted of you so long ago [1 Tim. 4:1–4], when you try to take from marriage what marriage is? When this is taken away, husbands are shameful lovers, wives are harlots, bridal chambers are brothels, fathers-in-law are pimps”
St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Matthew 28:5 [A.D. 391]:
“[I]n truth, all men know that they who are under the power of this disease [the sin of covetousness] are wearied even of their father’s old age [wishing him to die so they can inherit]; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having of children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome. Many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have mutilated nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live”
St. Epiphanius of Salamis Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5:2 [A.D. 375]:
“They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption”
The traditional teaching of condemning the use of contraception was so prevalent throughout the history of Christian thought and theology that this belief was carried on by Protestants as well up until the 20th century. Some of the Reformers had this to say on the matter:
"[T]he exceedingly foul deed of Onan, the basest of wretches . . . is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed. Accordingly, it was a most disgraceful crime. . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God.”
“The voluntary spilling of semen outside of intercourse between man and woman is a monstrous thing. Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is to extinguish the hope of the race and to kill before he is born the hoped-for offspring.”
“Observe, the thing which he [Onan] did displeased the Lord—and it is to be feared; thousands, especially of single persons, by this very thing, still displease the Lord, and destroy their own souls.”
The fact that Christians of differing denominations had unanimous agreement on the sinful nature of contraception and its varying forms until this last century shows to the extent that society has pressured many Believers to succumb to the contraceptive mentalities of the world. How many Believers nowadays dare to hold to the centuries old moral Biblical teachings?
"Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, "every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" is intrinsically evil: Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality." - Catechism of the Catholic Church (2370)
There is an argument that in modern times it would be unloving towards a child for them to be conceived and then born and to not properly be taken care of mentally, emotionally, or financially, and thus contraception is a "good" in that it helps sustain physical unity within a marriage while also allowing the planning of pregnancies, so that the appropriate preparations for a baby can be made. Though, from a secular standpoint I can see where this argument is coming from, it still is not a good moral argument for use of contraception in light of our Faith. Here are points to be thought upon relating to this argument:
1) The aspect of sex relating to physical pleasure and passion is not a God-given right, it is a gift from God to be enjoyed within marriage with the intended openness to Life (which is openness to God's Will).
2) The desire for pleasure can be countered and subdued through practice of continence/self control (we are not animals unable to control themselves) and so abstaining from sex for a period of time can be a good in these "planning times" since it enacts compassion for children that could be conceived "at a bad time" and respect and love of God and your spouse can be maintained
a. As Christians, we should NOT be servants and slaves to pleasure, and so continence (not just sexual continence) should be a general discipline in our spiritual lives anyhow
3) Any conception that would come about from the union between man and wife is willed by God since He is the Author and Creator of Life (we are only participants) and nothing can have being without His blessing and grace, therefore a plan for that Life has already been divinely designed if conception has occurred.
4) Avoiding life within sexual relations is an act against the essence of God's omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), and Design since it expresses by the act that we have faith in our own decision making, prioritizing ourselves, above and beyond the decision making and design of God who may or may not bless the sexual union between man and wife with conception of Life.
5) Contraception therefore takes God out of the equation of the marital union and expresses lack of Faith in God's providence.
The teaching on contraception, however, is not able to be up for debate, even "in light of contemporary times and issues". The Church has affirmed that the illicitness of contraception is an infallible doctrine:
“The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable. Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity, it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life (the procreative aspect of matrimony), and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses (the unitive aspect of matrimony); it harms true love and denies the sovereign role of God in the transmission of human life” (Vademecum for Confessors 2:4, Feb. 12, 1997).
The Church does promote the physical unitive quality of marriage, and encourages the beauty of such a unity to flourish and thrive in the love of God and love of another. For this very reason, it teaches as it does so that couples of good-will do not act contrary to God's Will for the human design and purpose. So we should never detract from the absolute gravity of such acts against procreation in any which way, for they are, in turn, acts against love and life, and in turn acts against God. Our Lord gave us natural abilities by which we get to participate with Him in Creation, in carrying on the human race that He designed in His Image. It truly is a gift and a privilege that we should not hinder, but embrace full heartedly with no lack of Faith in Our Lord and Our God, who is Love, and Creator of all things good.