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Calvin’s Contraception Contradiction

Children. They used to be known as the “fruit of marriage,” but these days they have become an “issue.” It is an issue that faces every married couple from the wedding night on. To have and to hold . . . but how many? One or two? Five or six? More? Many couples consider only what kind of contraception they will use, foregoing entirely the question, “Should we contracept at all?” 

For a Catholic couple, the answer to the contraception question should be simple. The Church’s teachings on marriage and family are profoundly beautiful. Once these teachings and the authority of the Church are understood, the contraception “issue” should vanish.

But it’s not as easy for many Protestants. Take the case of John and Jane. They are faithful Protestants who believe they are saved through their faith in Christ and belong to a church that adheres to a Calvinist theology. They have two children, and they’ve decided it would be financially imprudent to have any more. They use birth control and believe they are merely employing modern medical means to achieve a reasonable and moral goal. Are they sinning?

A look at their theological tradition can help us determine the answer to that question. Let’s assume that in general they wish to follow John Calvin’s basic teachings. Calvin, like all Christians until the twentieth century, opposed contraceptive acts. Read his harsh condemnation of Onan’s actions in Genesis 38, which have long been interpreted by all of Christianity as a contraceptive act:

“It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is doubly horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime” (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, vol. 2, part 16).

Clearly, Calvin saw contraceptive actions as disordered and sinful. But modern-day Calvinists who contracept are living in harmony with two of Calvin’s other teachings: total depravity and double predestination.

The theory of total depravity holds that when Adam and Eve sinned and fell, our human nature was left in a state of complete corruption; we can do nothing towards our own salvation. As Catholics, we believe that it is God’s grace that first moves us to conversion rather than any action or merit of our own. But we part company with Calvin on the next point: our response. We are free to accept or reject God’s gift of grace, and our acceptance or rejection affects all of our actions that follow.

This brings us to Calvin’s theory of double predestination, which teaches that God has predetermined who will be saved and who will be damned. If double predestination is true, there is no room for a genuinely free will as regards our actions and choices. 

Those who study Calvinist beliefs in an objective fashion might well ask, “If our fate is sealed, what difference do our actions make? Does it matter if we go to church, or evangelize, or follow the Commandments or ignore them? What difference does it make if we contracept? If we have no control over our actions, but are merely puppets performing the drama of God’s grace, then don’t our actions become meaningless?”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that original sin did not leave us totally corrupt but rather left us with a wounded nature. We are “subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin-an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.'” The sacrament of baptism is necessary to wipe out original sin. It “turns a man back to God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (CCC 405). 

In other words, though the aftereffects of original sin cripple us, through baptism we are armed, in a real and tangible way, for the battle that is our spiritual life. It is through the grace imparted at baptism that we become “an adopted son” (CCC 1997). The adopted son is justified, and “justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom” (CCC 1993). It is this cooperation that is at the core of the conflict between the Catholic doctrine of justification and Calvin’s theories. 

For a Catholic who believes that God has by his grace moved us to cooperate with him in our sanctification and salvation, every action of every moment of every day moves us either closer to or away from God. Ultimately, our choices could lead us so far from God as to endanger our salvation. Some choices are pretty minor (“Do I want fries or onion rings?”). But every act with a moral dimension is a meaningful choice. God gave us an intellect and a will, and he gave us the freedom to exercise both. With every exertion of my will I can either cooperate with his grace and grow in virtue or I can reject his grace and sink into sin.

Now let’s get back to the main question: Does it matter if we contracept? If every act with a moral dimension is a meaningful choice, then certainly the sexual act within marriage is charged, by virtue of God’s design, with great meaning, since God designed it to be the means of transmitting new life. The Church teaches that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. This . . . is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (CCC 2366). 

By attempting to isolate the marital act from its natural consequences, contraception strips married sex of its supernatural dimension and therefore of its meaning. Calvin’s ideas of double predestination and total depravity, by stripping our actions of their meaning (of ultimately affecting our salvation, should we choose to move completely away from God through mortal sin) strip all human choices of their salvific meaning.

A Calvinist might argue that our actions do affect our relationship with God, i.e., our place in heaven. But if Calvin was correct in saying that God has predetermined who is saved and who is damned, then the final effect of those actions has nothing to do with our salvation or damnation-a distinction we, as Catholics, must make.

Back to our married Calvinist couple who contracept in an attempt to be responsible. We asked, “Are they sinning? What difference do their actions make as long as they, like Calvin, believe in Jesus Christ’s saving power and have faith in him?” Sin “requires full knowledge and complete consent” of the will (CCC 1859). As Catholics we know that contraception is sinful. But Protestants such as John and Jane, raised without such knowledge, while acting in a way that is objectively contrary to God’s will, might not be culpable, due to their ignorance in this realm. 

Sadly, many poorly catechized Catholics are also unaware of what the Church really teaches. But a Catholic who has been taught the doctrines of the Church regarding marriage, family, and natural family planning has a serious responsibility. Scripture tells us, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke, 12:47-48). Those of us blessed to be part of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church have a grave responsibility to live out her teachings and to share them whenever possible with our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It is easy to see why many modern Calvinists and other Protestants, raised without the benefit of the Catholic Church’s holy wisdom, see nothing wrong with contraception. For them, it is merely one action, in a life of actions, which does not affect our salvation. What’s curious is that Calvin never saw this contradiction in his beliefs. It’s hard to imagine why, given the premises of double predestination and total depravity, along with their logical conclusions, Calvin would have cared about contraception, or any other choice for that matter. Perhaps he would have argued that God had predestined him to care-but that is another article.

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