The American bishops have declared a “Fortnight for Freedom,” running the 14 days from June 21 (the Vigil of the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More) to July 4, Independence Day. “Culminating on Independence Day,” the bishops explain, “this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.”
Well said. In that same spirit, here is a little history lesson to help prepare us for a Fortnight for Freedom.
First, current history. The Fortnight for Freedom was declared because President Obama is trying to force Catholic institutions, through a Health and Human Services mandate, to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization through their insurance coverage.
And now for a little ancient history to put current events into the widest possible context. To truly see what’s at stake with Obama’s HHS mandate, you must go all the way back to ancient Rome, to the pagan empire into which Christianity was born.
We might think of contraception as something new, a modern thing, just as we think abortion was rare before Roe v. Wade. But that is historically as inaccurate as one could possibly get. The truth is this: contraception, abortion, and infanticide were widely practiced and entirely acceptable in all ancient cultures, including Rome. The acceptability was the result of attitudes toward sexuality. “In antiquity,” historian John Riddle notes, “the evidence suggests, sexual restraint was largely ignored; pagan religion normally did not attempt to regulate sexual activity. Free males could do almost anything sexually, even if they had to resort to slaves, with no moral or societal consequences to themselves.”
Elevating the goal of sexual satisfaction meant that babies were often considered unwanted side effects. Most ancient pagans saw nothing wrong with stopping babies from happening, and used a variety of contraceptive and abortifacient concoctions, ingested or applied, to accomplish this—everything from pomegranate peels, giant fennel, acacia gum, crushed juniper berries, cabbage flowers, date palm, rue, and myrrh, to crocodile dung. If all that failed, they had back-up plans to induce something like a modern-day abortion (hot baths, vigorous exercise, horseback riding, carrying heavy loads, bleeding, punching the stomach, more poisons). The final back-up was infanticide, usually by exposure.
The earliest Christians rejected the whole spectrum, from contraception to infanticide—and this is obviously an essential point for understanding the historical importance of the current standoff between Obama’s HHS and the Catholic bishops. We find their explicit rejection in the Didache, the first-century AD catechetical manual used in the house churches and directed at converts coming, not through Judaism, but from among the pagans.
Pagan converts were confronted with a list of commands in the Didache, including, “You will not have illicit sex” (ou porneuseis) and, “You will not murder offspring by means of abortion [and] you will not kill one having been born [i.e., infanticide].” The list also includes, “You will not make potions” (ou pharmakeuseis), a prohibition against the wide-scale use among pagans of potions intended as contraceptives and abortifacients.
St. Paul’s list of sins of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-20 is very interesting in this regard. The list begins with fornication or illicit sex (porneia), impurity, sensuality or lewdness, and idolatry, and then lists what is often translated as sorcery (pharmakeia). Sorcery and potion-making went together in the ancient world, and we cannot exclude the possibility that St. Paul (given the duplication of pharmakeia in the Didache) was intending to include makers of contraceptives and abortifacients.
Such prohibitions would have been more familiar to Jews than Roman pagans, but even the Jews, it seems, were not dead-set against the use of contraception. According to John Riddle, “While there is no mention of intentional abortion [via abortifacients] or contraception in the Old Testament, both practices are in the Talmud, Tosefta, and Mishnah.” More accurately, “rabbinic opinion was divided,” and even those that affirmed the use of contraception and abortifacients did so only under restricted conditions.
As with the command against adultery, the Christians intensified the Jewish prohibitions, and condemned all use of contraceptives and abortifacients, thereby setting themselves at the most complete odds with the accepted Roman pagan sexual practices. That is a very important point to make in regard to the HHS mandate: it means that Christianity alone is the historical cause of the moral prohibition against contraceptives and abortifacients.
But history attests not just this single, early prohibition. Following the lead of the Didache, we find contraception and abortion condemned by a string of eminent early churchmen: Athenagoras (c. 133-190), Clement (c. 150-215), Marcus Minucius Felix (c. 150-270), Jerome (c. 347-420), and John Chrysostom (347-407).
This condemnation continued as pagan Rome crumbled and Christendom emerged from its ruins. Bishop Caesarius of Arles condemned contraception and abortifacients in the early sixth century AD, and Abbot Regino, writing from Lorraine about 830 AD, asserted that if someone does something to stop childbearing, such as ingesting some potion so that no generation or conception can take place, “let it be held as homicide.” Ivo, bishop of Chartres from 1090 to 1115, brought these prohibitions against contraception, abortifacients, and abortion together, and his account was taken up by Peter Lombard in his Sentences (c. 1096-1164), which in turn was incorporated by Gratian in the 12th century into the Church’s canon law. Canon law formed the Church’s unified, authoritative approach to these issues, and this allowed church moral doctrine to influence and define the civil law of the West.
There is no other historical source for the laws against abortion that were struck down with a single blow by Roe v. Wade in 1972, and no other source for the laws against contraception that were struck down with Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. And finally, there is no other source of the current antagonism created by the HHS mandate, demanding that that the Church violate its two-millennium-old condemnation of contraceptives and abortifacients.
When we put the HHS mandate into the larger historical framework, we realize something quite ominous about what’s really at stake. The HHS mandate is just one more momentous battle in the long struggle between Christians and pagans. For we in the West have been, for some time, undergoing what could quite accurately be called “repaganization.”
Repaganization? Yes. Over the last two centuries, our culture has become increasingly secularized. The Christian-based understanding of sexual purity that for so long had formed Western society has been largely abandoned by a kind of secular hedonism, with quite predictable effects. The release of sexual desire from Christian-based moral restrictions in the 19th and 20th century led immediately to the desire for contraception, abortion, and, as we’re seeing more and more, infanticide. As a result, Christians now find themselves in much the same situation as they were in ancient, pagan Rome: surrounded by an antagonistic, sexually-saturated pagan culture, demanding contraceptives, abortifacients, direct abortion, and infanticide to remove the unwanted “side-effects” of sexual libertinism. Our secularism looks suspiciously like ancient paganism.
The HHS mandate is a throwing down of the gauntlet by the new pagans. At issue is whether the enormous moral influence of Christianity, and Christianity itself, will be erased from history—that is, whether the seamless spectrum of “reproductive rights” cherished in ancient, pagan Rome will be re-imposed by the secular state.
The HHS mandate is not like Roe v Wade, which used raw judicial power to demand full access to the abortion-infanticide aspect of the pagan spectrum for those who desire it. It is not like Griswold, which used just as raw judicial power to remove the Christian hold on law, so that contraception would be freely available for those who desired it. It is the imperial state demanding that the Catholic Church must pick up the dagger and turn it against itself, and act against its own moral law, just as the ancient, pagan emperors demanded that, in order to save their lives, Christians must curse Christ, throw the Scriptures in the fire, and offer ritual sacrifice to the divinized emperor and the Roman gods.
With the HHS mandate, the secular state is moving from, “Christians, do what you like among yourselves, but don’t impose your moral views on us,” to, “Christians, you must now do what we like—or else.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.