Simon Heans examines the useful contribution made by Elizabeth Anscombe to the debate on contraception and the interpretation of Humanae Vitae

The Church Times commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae in predictable fashion by engaging a dissenting Catholic journalist to rubbish it. The premise of his argument in that article will be familiar to readers of New Directions for it is the source of the legitimacy claimed for the decisions of General Synod. The majority of Roman Catholics, he said, don’t accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae: therefore it should be changed. Deciding doctrine by show of hands is of course the Church of England way. Quentin de la Bedoyere is obviously a very Anglican Catholic.

But what do Catholic Anglicans think about Humanae Vitae’? Are we also liberals on this issue? In a recent sermon, Bishop Andrew Burnham challenged his clerical congregation to reflect on paras. 2368-2370 of the Catholic Catechism concerning ‘the regulation of births’. This little article is intended to aid that reflection, and not just among the clergy.

Modified outcomes

Discussing the work of the papal commission called by John XXIII to examine the whole question of birth control, de la Bedoyere claimed that it reached the conclusion that there was no difference between use of the condom or pill and intercourse during the infertile period. All are ‘simply different ways of modifying natural outcomes.’ In a letter to the Church Times (which I’m glad to say was published), I expressed scepticism about his account of the commission’s thinking and made the point that there is a world of difference between an act of intercourse deliberately rendered infertile by mechanical or chemical intervention and one which is infertile because it takes place during the infertile period of the woman’s reproductive cycle. The first two are indeed ways of modifying natural outcomes. However, the last is an unmodified outcome – which is surely what is meant by a natural outcome!

But what if we put the stress in that sentence on outcome rather than on natural? Is there then such a difference between the artificially sterile act of intercourse and the one which is infertile by nature? After all, the outcome is the same, viz. conception does not take place. And in the latter case might it not also be said that the outcome is needlessly rendered uncertain?

In my letter I recommended the CTS pamphlet, Contraception and Chastity, by the late Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, where this line of reasoning is refuted. She points out that Paul VI readily acknowledged that in both contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times ‘the married couple… are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born.’ However, ‘contraceptive intercourse is faulted’ by Pope Paul ‘because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of action by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.’

Prophetic words

So what sort of act is the contracepted sexual act? In answering, Anscombe reminds us that Christianity was at odds with the ancient pagan world in its moral teaching on sexual matters, above all in prohibiting fornication and adultery. She then makes the connection between the early Christian objection to these activities and the modern Catholic opposition to contraception: ‘the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act…then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married?’ If sexual intercourse is not to be so restricted, then ‘there is no reason why for example “marriage” should have to be between people of the opposite sex.’ She was writing in 1975.

There are some prophetic words too about the effect of ‘the new heathen, contraceptive morality’ on heterosexual behaviour: ‘more and more people will have intercourse with little feeling of responsibility, little restraint, and yet they just won’t be careful about always using contraceptives. And so the widespread use of contraceptives naturally leads to more and more not less and less abortion.’ G.K. Chesterton put it even more succinctly: ‘Birth control means no birth and no control’

Natural law

Not the least of Elizabeth Anscombe’s achievements in this pamphlet is in bringing clarity to a particularly confused area of the debate over contraception. She notes that ‘in popular discussion there’s usually more mention of “natural law” in connexion with the Catholic prohibition on contraception than in connexion with any other matters’ But this is a mistake. Contraception is not wrong because it is artificial: the contraceptive act does not have to involve chemical or mechanical devices.

As Onan’s behaviour after deciding against providing heirs for his deceased brother proves [Gen. 38.9], it is perfectly possible to have one without the other. Thus ‘it is not because there is a natural law that something artificial is condemned.’ She helpfully explains that the language of natural law is ‘simply a way of speaking about the whole of morality, used by Catholic thinkers because they believe the general precepts of morality are laws promulgated by God our Creator in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions.’

Anscombe is in no doubt that contraceptive intercourse falls under the latter heading. It is a sin against chastity ‘in which chastity is simply the virtue whose topic is sex just as courage is the virtue whose topic is danger.’ And chastity, like charity, begins at home. Anscombe writes: ‘contraceptive intercourse within marriage is a graver offence against chastity than is straightforward fornication or adultery. For it is not even a proper act of intercourse, and therefore not a true marriage act.’ Mr de la Bedoyere would doubtless disagree, but I think that is a major reason why these days so many Christian marriages, both Catholic and Anglican, clerical and lay, end in divorce. \ND\