From Lambeth to the Land of Nod

Catholic teaching on contraception will always be a "sign of contradiction" and it will always point to an inconvenient, counter-cultural truth: more contraception means more divorce and more abortion.

In his preface to A Man for All Seasons, playwright Robert Bolt describes protagonist Thomas More as

a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off… but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person… was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff.

“Adamantine”—unyielding, impervious, diamond-like—befits the real Thomas More who, as councilor to King Henry VIII, was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1535. He would not sign the First Succession Act, which was anti-papal authority, anti-Catherine of Aragon (including daughter Mary—fathered by Henry VIII), and pro-Princess Elizabeth (still in Anne Boleyn’s womb).

At the formal Catholic level, More is the patron of statesmen and politicians; in the pews, he is a defender of marriage and family.

The Beauty of Marriage and Family—Anglican Style

The Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 1920 were also diamond-like. Compared to the grimy, banal, all-purpose language used today, they spoke of marriage with an eloquence and directness that is, in a word, lustrous:

The fellowship between man and woman in marriage was the earliest which God gave to the human race…. What our Lord adds about marriage is not given as new legislation, but as a declaration of God’s original purpose. The man and his wife are no longer twain, but one flesh: and those whom God has joined together, man is not to put asunder…. [God] will work, as those who wait for Him well know, the miracle by which the two lives become one, yet so that each life becomes greater and better than it could have been alone. (Lambeth Conferences—1867-1930; [SPCK, 1948], 29)

By contrast, the Catholic world—up until the watershed-year 1968—saw few lines about the unifying woof in the warp and woof of marriage. In Pius XI’s Casti Connubii (1930), for example, love’s primary purpose is to help husband and wife form and perfect their interior life so “they may advance ever more and more in virtue, and above all that they may grow in true love toward God and their neighbor” (23). In order of emphasis, Pius XI puts procreation first, conjugal honor (based on mutual fidelity) second, and spousal love third.

But the Anglican bishops, having set the stage with the “oneness” of marriage, continue with the importance of procreation:

But marriage is not ordained only to give opportunity for the development of those two lives in unity. It has essentially the aim of bringing other lives into the world. Its indissolubility should secure to the children continued care and love of both their parents, so long as they live. The State’s obvious interest in the children should lead it to preserve the strictness of marriage law. (LC, 30)

Beautifully put—clarity and resolve. One is not surprised, then, when the bishops set forth unequivocal resolutions. In a section called, “Problems of Marriage and Sexual Morality,” Resolution 68 stands out:

The Conference, while declining to lay down rules which will meet the needs of every abnormal case, regards with grave concern the spread in modern society of theories and practices hostile to the family. We utter an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers—physical, moral, and religious—thereby incurred, and against, the evils with which the extension of such use threatens the race. In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuance of the race through the gift and heritage of children; the other is the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control. (LC, 50-51, emphasis added)

Ten years later, during the Lambeth Conference of 1930, Anglican bishops again talk about marriage and family, continuing the tradition of eloquence, directness, and depth:

The beauty of family life is one of God’s most precious gifts, and its preservation is a paramount responsibility of the Church. Its foundation is the life-long union of husband and wife on which our Lord decisively set his seal. “One flesh,” he said they were to be. Holy marriage is part of God’s plan for mankind. It follows that any community disregards this at its peril. Empires have perished before now because the dry rot of laxity and corruption in home life set in. To maintain the ideal of marriage is therefore to preserve the social health of the community…. It follows that divorce is unnatural. It destroys the security of the union and the stability of the family. If there are children, they are deprived of the guardianship to which God called both their parents….

Bound up with that high and holy vocation [of marriage] is the vocation to parenthood…. Every child is for the State a potential citizen, for the Church a potential saint…. We deeply sympathize with those who have burdens which are hard to bear. But we appeal to the whole community of the Church to remember that in home life… we are called to take up the cross…. And indeed when the sacrifice is made for the sake of the family, that cross becomes a crown. (LC, 150-151)

The bishops are putting first things first. Everything—marriage, sex (within the context of marriage), and parenthood—comes from God. The foundation of a beautiful and stable marriage is the “life-long union” between husband and wife. And, initially, their resolutions echo those of Lambeth 1920. Resolution 13 is resolute and straightforward:

The Conference emphasizes the truth that the sexual instinct is a holy thing implanted by God in human nature. It acknowledges that intercourse between husband and wife as the consummation of marriage has a value of its own within that sacrament, and that thereby married love is enhanced and its character strengthened. Further, seeing that the primary purpose for which marriage exists is the procreation of children, it believes that this purpose as well as the paramount importance in married life of deliberate and thoughtful self-control should be the governing considerations in that intercourse. (LC, 165-166)

The Fissure

Then comes Resolution 15:

Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience. (LC, 166, emphasis added)

The breastplate protecting a fundamental part of the inner truth of marriage and family is now fissured, ever so slightly. Within a couple of decades, the breastplate will have rusted away for Protestants. Close to four decades later, the vast majority of Catholics will deem the same breastplate—though burnished and strengthened by Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae—too burdensome (and embarrassing) to wear.

At warp speed, “conception-control” for reasons of “selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” becomes the standard, not the exception. Out of the countless individual contraceptive acts that ensue comes what is called the “contraceptive mentality.” From that mentality, comes Roe v. Wade.

An Aeviternal Myth

Most myths, if they die at all, die hard. One myth, having a seemingly endless life, touts that more contraception means less abortion. The strength of that myth stems from what seems to be rudimentary, irrefutable, physiological logic—more contraception means fewer fertilized ova. But never factored into the equation is the fact that, since no contraceptive is 100-percent effective, one looks for a backup. The backup is, of course, abortion. Having to have a backup is the turbine that runs the contraceptive mentality. So, the actual equation looks like this: the more contraception, the more contraceptive “failures” (conceptions); the more “failures” (given the contraceptive mentality), the more abortions.

Up until 1930, all of Christendom believed that contraception was exactly what the name denoted: contra conception, against an obvious good. With the contraceptive door now opened, however slightly, the law-flattening wind Thomas More warns about in Bolt’s play began to blow down the door and most of the walls of what we call the institution of marriage.

By the 1950s, most, if not all, Protestant denominations considered contraception as a given, a necessary unifying and freedom-assuring part of marriage. By 1968, much of the pastoral element in the Catholic Church had embraced the Pill. Countless priests, religious, and lay people began viewing the magisterial Church as an out-of-date, mother ship filled with highly-flammable hydrogen. “Follow your conscience” became the mantra in and out of the confessional. By the early 1970s, the general clamor across Christian and secular America was for total control over human reproduction.

Bedfellows Share Bedbugs

Supposedly, Catholics have the same divorce rates as do Protestants who, in turn, have the same divorce rates as do secularists. If true, that is not a coincidence. After all, the underlying language of contraception is that of reservation: “I love you, but your fertility is making me a bit nervous right now. If you could short-circuit your procreative wiring, at least for the time being, I would be more comfortable, and we would have more intimacy.” Even if both parties freely say the same thing, it is usually the woman who takes on the responsibility, not to mention the physiological risk, of making things “more comfortable.” Such verbal or nonverbal messaging works on spousal love like high blood pressure works on blood vessels: it is usually too subtle to notice and, in effect, scores the walls of the love-giving conduits between husband and wife, inviting future blockage.

Paul VI warned that contraceptive use would lead to marital infidelity, the general lowering of morality, a loss of respect for wives, and the possibility of governmental intrusion into family life (Humanae Vitae, 17). With rapier wit and secular data, Mary Eberstadt shows that Paul VI’s prophecies have come to pass (“The Vindication of Humanae Vitae, First Things, August/September 2008). The point: Catholic teaching on contraception will always be a “sign of contradiction.” It will always point to an inconvenient, counter-cultural truth: more contraception means more divorce and more abortion. And the Catholic Church will continue to argue that contraception has paved the way for the redefinition of marriage: if the procreative aspect of conjugal love is intentionally absent, what difference does it make where spermatozoa, in their harrowing journey, end up?

The Land of Nod

Nowadays, with legal abortion as a near-perfect backup to contraception, with the possibility of infanticide as a backup to botched abortions, with divorce statistics continuing to be over 50 percent, with one-parent families becoming the norm rather than the exception, and with the overhauling of the meaning of marriage (which, by any new definition, cannot include procreation), are we not, finally, in the Land of Nod?

Either connotation of Nod will work. In Genesis, Cain was exiled to the land of Nod (east of Eden) after killing his brother Abel. The very name—Nod—meant a place of wandering. In literature, the Land of Nod, a play on words, is where one nods off to sleep. Regarding contraception and its spores, Protestants, collectively at least, are nomadic or somnolent. They have made no connection between contraception and abortion, contraception and divorce, or contraception and the redefinition of marriage. They do not see that by embracing contraception, they have not only helped engineer, but pave, the roads to marital breakdown and the de-sanctification of human life.

Imagine the United States today if the majority of American Protestant clergy viewed marriage and contraception like the Anglican bishops did in 1920. Even the Anglican bishops in 1930 heralded the essential goods of marriage, including the virtue of self-control. With great reluctance (and naiveté), they did open the door to contraception, but only to that contraceptive act deemed absolutely necessary and having no connection whatsoever to “selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”

Protestants who stand for innocent life and who believe that marriage is between one man and one woman hope that Scripture and prayer will eventually put right the minds of those who stand for abortion and same-sex pseudo-marriage. But that is (with apologies to Matthew) like pointing at the particleboard in the opponent’s eye when the wood particles, if not the glue, have come from one’s own workshop.

Beyond Nod

The Lambeth Conferences of 1920 and 1930 show us how the Christian world saw marriage, family, and human sexuality less than a century ago. Save for Proposition 15, the sections on conjugal love bespeak an important fact: marriage and family are a divine construct, not a human invention.

The sections we have seen could have prefaced St. John Paul II’s main catechesis, his theology of the body. That theology explicates the watershed encyclical, Humanae Vitae, focuses on the principle that to love is to give oneself, and connects the truth of marriage with the interior truth of the Holy Trinity in terms of total, personal self-gift. Once one understands this theology, he understands the inherent problem of contraception:

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 (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 32).

And one also understands that there is no such thing as same-sex marriage. Conjugal love is, by nature, life-giving because it reflects the mystery of the Creator’s creative love. However, for decades, contraception has been a sacred preceptive panacea, embedded in society. The social mind that reveres reproductive control cannot help but blur the distinctive lines between heterosexual and homosexual love. Hence “marriage” will come to signify intense emotional reciprocity, social status, and civil rights, but no more than that.

For us Christians, it is “come to Jesus” time. It is time to put on the mind and heart of Christ. Concerning contraception, how do we know Christ’s mind? Simply, we can look at contraception’s aftermath—abortion, divorce, and the redefinition of marriage—and argue backwards. The fruit of the tree is awful, so the roots cannot be good. But, again, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the contemporary mind to make those connections. After all, if we can alter nature for what we deem to be the common good, are we not obligated to do so? The pull to be at the cutting edge of society is like the pull compass needles have to magnetic north—our thoughts want to line up in the “with it” direction.

Protestants have it doubly difficult, because Jesus does not talk about contraception, and philosophy is not, in most denominations, a trusted catechetical or evangelical tool. By contrast, Catholics have what should be a walk in the park: the pope is the Vicar of Christ and therefore, regarding faith and morals, the ever-present voice of Christ. And philosophy—À la St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Paul II, and others—is the traditional helpmate of theology. All possible wellsprings of truth are interconnected and full. But few Catholics are drinking from those springs.

The Anglican bishops in 1920 were clarion when speaking on the truth of spousal love. So were the Anglican bishops in 1930, right up to the point of drafting Resolution 15. We would do well to rediscover and re-trumpet the best of their declarations and resolutions.

And, to further the adamantine sense of ourselves, we would do very well to understand and apply the thought of Paul VI and John Paul II. Both popes addressed the reality of spousal love and the unreality of contraception. Their collective vision of marriage and family is the passage out of and beyond the aimlessness and sopor of the Land of Nod.

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity with the title, “Living in the Land of Cain—The Sad Journey of Marriage & Sex from Lambeth to the Land of Nod.”)

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About John S. Hamlon 9 Articles
John S. Hamlon taught religion, philosophy, physics, and chemistry at the high school level prior to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the Catholic Catechism, marriage, and Christian ethics. He continues to teach theology/philosophy courses for adults at Easter's Faith Formation Center, Sacramento, CA. He has an MA in theology from the University of San Francisco and did doctoral work in systematic theology at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He was the associate director of the St. Ignatius Institute, University of San Francisco from 1994 to 2001. Prior to that, he was the program director for national and international conferences on NFP, marriage, and family at St. John’s University, Collegeville, MN. He’s the author of A Call to Families: A Commentary and Study Guide for Familiaris Consortio.