Contraception, Christianity & Law by Stuart Dean


Stuart WordPress photoNotwithstanding the widespread belief that contraception is not consistent with the principles of Christianity, there is no basis for it.  On the contrary, contraception was closely associated with early Christianity.

Matthew 19:12 is the only passage quoting Christ that is on point.  Christ has been speaking about family law (adultery), acknowledging here that the issue is not relevant to eunuchs, including those who castrate themselves “for the kingdom of heaven.”  At a minimum it seems problematic how this verse is to be understood today.  Yet, the evidence for Christians castrating themselves in the first few centuries after Christ comes from a variety of sources, many of which are considered to be otherwise reliable.  It is very difficult to see why Matthew 19:12 itself should not be taken both as evidence of the practice and Christ’s implicit endorsement of it.

Understanding its relevance to the issue of contraception today requires some historical context.  At the time of Christ there was nothing comparable to modern fertility testing to identify the presence or absence of sperm in the ejaculate and certainly nothing like a DNA test for paternity.  Castration was the only known method of preventing heterosexual copulation from resulting in conception (herbal equivalents of ‘morning after’ pills were known to women (see Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance), but the degree of confidence in them and extent of usage is difficult to gauge).  If the suspicion of adultery raised a question of paternity, establishing the date and circumstances of castration of a man would have been the only way conclusively to rule out his being the father.  Hence it should not be surprising that a discussion of adultery would bring to mind the issue of eunuchs or that Christ’s somewhat legalistic categorization of types of eunuchs is very similar to that found in the writings of a prominent Roman jurist.

Though it may seem odd that eunuchs could even be drawn into such a legal dispute, it was well known in antiquity (and modern medicine confirms) that depending on the age at which castration occurs and the method used, it does little or nothing to eliminate sexual thoughts or behavior.  One ancient method of castration, probably adopted from animal husbandry practices, seems to have been substantively similar to a modern vasectomy.  There is ample anecdotal evidence of the popularity among women of eunuchs as sexual partners precisely because they offered the only way for a woman to have sex with a man without risking pregnancy.  At the time of Christ, there were eunuchs, mostly slaves, throughout the Roman Empire and interactions with them would have been frequent, even everyday occurrences (e.g., Acts 8:27).  How many such interactions led to sexual affairs is impossible to say, but suspicions about the sexual orientation and activity of eunuchs meant that they generally were stigmatized.

Such stigmatization was especially pertinent with respect to those who castrated themselves, for unlike other eunuchs their condition directly related to a decision they made and acted upon.  Though relatively uncommon, the practice was associated in particular with orgiastic rituals of the cult of the goddess Cybele.  The evidence is far from conclusive, but it would seem likely given the popularity of this cult that it influenced some of the Christians who adopted the practice.  It is therefore understandable that Christ stipulates he is referring only to self-castration “for the kingdom of heaven.”

Consistent with the fact that Christ is referring to what men do to themselves, there is an implied acknowledgment that each such man is ultimately responsible for determining what sort of life free from family responsibilities might lead to the kingdom of heaven.  Translated into modern terms it is difficult to imagine any career, whether or not expressly religiously affiliated, as being excluded.  Yet, translated into modern terms Matthew 19:12 is not just about men.  Given both what is known of human reproduction today as well as what modern medical technology makes possible, it is reasonable to translate the reference to those who castrate themselves in this verse as including any man or woman using any form of contraception as defined by modern medicine (see the definition in this legal brief).

Translated in this way, it becomes apparent that the original, exclusively male, focus of Matthew 19:12 betrays a long tradition of gender inequality with respect to family law.  Ironically, one of the earliest critiques of this inequality comes in a sermon on Matthew 19:1-12 by Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who finds fault with the adultery laws of his day that, like some still in effect today, criminalized adultery only for women.  For Nazianzus such laws are fundamentally flawed because they were drafted by men, so much so he comes close to advocating civil disobedience with respect to them (Oration 37, paragraph VI).  Though he certainly did not appreciate it, the principle has wide applicability and, for example, could be applied to Matthew 19:12 itself and the fact that men have been almost exclusively responsible for overlooking its relevance for modern contraception.  Indeed, the general applicability of the principle can be seen in how startlingly similar it is to what Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the United States, in a now famous letter to her husband, warns can only be ignored at risk of rebellion.

It is worth wondering, just as a thought experiment, what Nazianzus or Adams might have to say about the following imaginary case–a deliberately outlandish, even Kafkaesque hypothetical (to help with the thought experiment): a court, the majority of the judges of which consists of men, decides that a corporation (a creature of male drafted law), has a right, grounded in a mix of ‘Christian’ dogma (formulated by men) and constitutional law (drafted by men), to limit the availability of contraceptives to women.  Perhaps more importantly, it is worth wondering not so much what they would say as what they would do.

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.



Categories: Christianity, Church Doctrine, civil rights, Contraception, Infertility, Justice

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4 replies

  1. Ingenious and informative! Thank you.

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  2. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

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  3. Would there have been any Jewish enuchs for the kingdom of heaven at the time of Jesus or does this reference indicate an early church context for the passage. Interesting argument nonetheless. If priests really were celibate they too might qualify as eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.

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  4. Thank you. Regarding Jewish law/custom: not my area of expertise, but based on what I have read castration was strictly forbidden. Circumcision, though, was perceived by some as being ‘castration’ and, almost needless to say, that can lead to a lot of confusion. Allegorical/metaphorical readings of Matthew 19:12 (the Oration by Naz. I link to has such a reading) do appear to underlie the policy of celibate priests. Even before Naz. such readings gained traction and it surely underlies the 1st Council of Nicaea’s disqualification for the priesthood of those who castrated themselves (ie, eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven). That there was even a need to formulate such a policy ironically proves that a literal reading of Matthew 19:12 had been, if not predominant in the early centuries, at least common.

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