De Koninck and Contraception

In a comment thread on his own blog, Arturo Vasquez says:

I read somewhere that the Thomist philosopher Charles de Koninck was an advocate for a change in the Church’s position on artificial contraception. It would be interesting to find his arguments concerning this matter.

He was such an advocate. In fact he died in Rome (+1965) before he was to have an audience with the Pope to advocate the change. His most prominent student, Ralph McInerny, makes mention of this in a eulogy he wrote in The New Scholasticism shortly after De Koninck’s death.

There are two aspects to De Koninck’s advocacy: (1) he argued that spacing births was licit; (2) he argued that the use of the birth control pill as opposed to other forms of artificial contraception might be licit. For the first, I’ve read the original texts that De Koninck wrote himself, for the second I’ve had to reconstruct his opinion from other sources.

The first opinion now strikes us as superfluous. In De Koninck’s own day, however, there was perhaps an air of celebration in raising it, so far as it around the turn of the century we started to notice as a culture that children were more likely to survive. It’s hard to appreciate just how far infant mortality has dropped in the last half-century (note that this chart is of mortality in the very prosperous United States). Human beings didn’t tend to relate to children as persons who would be around very long until very recently: as Roy Porter points out, in the last few years we have seen death as something that comes for the old – but for all the rest of human history (even in very civilized societies) death was seen as primarily something that comes for the young. At any rate, De Koninck argued that a parent doesn’t just generate offspring but must raise them too, and so generative acts need to take into account the need to educate (with all the time and resources this demands). This argument is now taken for granted and is not very controversial – and it’s not clear to me that it was ever terribly controversial (people have limited family size for millennia in ways that the Church had no moral interest in). The question was raised to clarify and answer and not to resolve a doubt.

The second point is a real controversy, but the terms need precision. The question is explicitly about the whether it is licit to take hormones to space births. The vast menagerie of other artificial contraceptives are not considered and, as far as I can tell, were simply assumed to be illicit. They were already condemned by the Church, and at any rate De Koninck himself never raises the question of their moral licitness. For that matter, I’m not sure that he ever raises the question whether artificial contraception as such is licit – which is exactly the question that contemporary Catholics are so interested in. De Koninck seems to take for granted that the use of barriers, for example, is a different sort of thing than putting progesterone in one’s body, and this is central to understand his argument.

The context of the controversy is crucial here and it goes a long way to explaining the controversy. Remember that De Koninck is arguing about a pill that has been available for less than five years. It was new and seen as an utterly distinct form of birth control (the Catholic doctor who developed it saw it as a great moral achievement – a morally licit contraceptive that simply mimicked the body’s own natural infertility). Note carefully that there is nothing intrinsically unnatural in suppressing ovulation with a hormone – the woman’s body does it all the time naturally, and not as a failure (as with miscarriage). The dispute is therefore whether doing this intentionally was analogous to, say, insulin injections so far it it helps the body do something or respond to some circumstance in a way that the body would do itself if it were only more powerful or well-adapted to the environment.  The question is a very good one even now, but it is not exactly the same question as “is artificial contraception licit?”  De Koninck’s question is unavoidably about a new technology, and (in this limited sense) we simply can’t raise the question he was raising any more – the pill is just not new to us.

Interestingly enough, the debate is no longer about De Koninck’s question, but about the more fundamental question “is artificial contraception licit?” We owe a great deal to the genius of Karol Wojytla for not just raising the question but providing a way of speaking of it (he was the primary author of Humanae Vitae). The unity we see  in all artificial contraception owes much to him.  Whether one advocates it or condemns it, we owe a lot to Wojytla in unifying the pill and other forms of contraception into a single moral category – a moral category that is today assumed by both sides of the debate. The moral debate over this category is still very new, and it is not clear that either side has yet put forward its best case. The pill is arguably as significant to Church doctrine as Arianism, and responses to Arianism did not just pop out fully formed from the first person who dealt with it. The debates are messy, they drag on for centuries, they lead away millions and confuse the rest, both sides feel convinced that their argument is utterly airtight and beyond rational objection, and everyone moans for years that people have been moaning about the problem for years. That’s just how it is. On the upside, eventually such debates get resolved by, say, a St. Augustine or St. Athanasius. John Paul II was our first. My God, I miss him.


  1. January 19, 2011 at 5:43 am

    Do you know where you can find primary / secondary sources on this question?

    Granted, I haven’t read much on this particular issue, but I am always wary of people who say, “of course, back then, they didn’t understand X”. Let us not put words into the mouths of the dead. I would wonder how we know something specifically that de Koninck would not have known.

    And Wojtyla made the issue as clear as mud, in my opinion, if that theology of the body corpus is what we are judging. But one could just say that this is my anti-hylomorphic prejudices talking. I have written enough on this, including in the post you originally linked to, so I won’t bring it up here. But could you not conceive that comparing the debate on artificial contraception to the doctrinal struggles over the nature of Christ is fuel for the fire for people like me who think that the Catholic Church is in danger of becoming some sort of bizarre fertility cult? That of course is incendiary, and it is meant to be, but the sight of a bunch of celibate men arguing about what their faithful do in their bedrooms is a ridiculous one, especially if you are saying that it is like the centuries long debate on Arianism. Perhaps you thought nothing of it, but people can see a void being filled there: no longer Cross and Crown, but Cross and Thermometer. (There, being incendiary again.)

    • January 19, 2011 at 9:21 am

      The sources are hard to track down. I have the first part of a proposal from De Koninck himself, but the only place I’ve every seen it publicly is in Rome! I don’t know where the full document is (the original is Latin). The part I’ve read argued that spacing births was licit so far as it was done under the aspect of “the educatio” of ones offspring (in Latin this had a general sense of “rearing”). I also has access to people who knew him personally and could tell me the story (though their accounts don’t always agree – there is, for example, dispute over whether CDK changed his mind on all of this). There is also mention of the debate in the introduction to the first volume of CDK’s writings in English.

      I’m making a historical conjecture about CDK’s motives for raising the question of spacing births, but the evidence for it is tolerable. One can only have so much certitude about these things, and I wouldn’t set it out there as the final word.

      No offense taken at the tone – I’ve read your blog for years and understand how you speak (you don’t think in “American nice”) I meant to qualify that comparison to Arianism, but too many qualifications are tiresome. Like all analogies, it breaks down and can be taken in the wrong way. But I think I did a tolerable job at explaining the points of comparison, and I’d stand by the analogy so far as it is limited to those points. I certainly would take exception at anyone claiming that the point of the analogy was to establish that a mistake about the nature of Christ was as integral or crucial to the faith as a mistake about sexual ethics. That said, almost no one reads this blog, and those who do understand what to do with the analogy. It’s not as if my blog is said to the world like a papal address or something. I don’t need to exercise that much care over my analogies.

      Like you, I’ve never taken much interest in these matters – I’m not very good at moral theology, for one, and in my own private life I’m content to follow the basic contemporary orthodox line. In my own experience, it’s been liberating and productive of a great deal of happiness. That’s as far as my TOB goes. I don’t share the same evaluation that you do of celibates speaking about sexual matters, and at any rate in contemporary discourse many of those speaking about these things aren’t celibate. But I don’t know where exactly to begin discussiing that, so I’ll let it pass.

      Your critique of John Paul has some force, but he was trying to do something new – namely talk about contraception as such even in the face of a contraceptive technology that simply mimicked what the body itself did. This was no easy task, and he might not have succeeded in every way, but I think its generally agreed now by both sides that he was right to integrate the pill with all other contraceptives and give at least an initial account of what constituted them as a group. As I said, I’m not convinced that either side has put its best argument out there yet.

      There are a good deal of things about all this that I can’t integrate and that I find hard to deal with – what are we to do with the complete absence of saints who were made saints by their marriage? Though all admit that matrimony confers grace, is it incapable of conferring it in a heroic degree? This would be a strange thing to say. What does this tell us about the exercise of marriage (sex, that is)? I simply don’t know. And what do we do with St. Augustine? Everyone knows the proof texts where he “bashes” intercourse, but these are never balanced against the praises he gives to marriage. But this comment has already gone on too long.

      • January 20, 2011 at 4:40 am

        This is a wise and level-headed response to my concerns.I think we may disagree about certain things, but at least I see here a willingness to think about them.

        I would firstly say that there is the truth, and there is the truth. Just because something is true does not necessarily mean that one should “lead with it”, so to speak. I think here primarily of St. Augustine’s views on predestination, grace, concupiscence, etc. I believe at the end of his life he still thought he was right on these issues, but he didn’t necessarily think that people should think about them or that this should be preached unless absolutely necessary. He was wise, because all we need do is look at the Calvinist and Jansenist crises and see people who took his “truths” too far. The other example I can think of, a little outdated but still very telling, is the doctrinal opinion of the limbus infantium. In my opinion, telling people who have lost children in utero that their child has ended up without any hope of salvation and has to settle for a “natural beatitude” also became a pastoral non-starter. The Church is, rightly or wrongly, looking at other options. To think that we can just throw “the truth” in people’s faces and wash our hands of the difficulties is neither very Catholic or very human. You can be right for all the wrong reasons.

        That being said, I think Wojtyla’s justification for the Church’s position on artificial contraception as currently understood was a valiant try but has proven unsuccessful. The comparison with Arianism is telling. In that case, while the clergy were ready to make a deal (save for Athanasius… contra mundum), it was the laity who resisted saying that Christ was anyone short of God. Here we have the entrance of what Newman famously noticed as the orbis terrarum. But what if the orbis terrarum does not seem to be accepting a “doctrine” or given practice? Would someone like Newman be so dismissive, thinking that the orbis terrarum is just going to have to swallow it without the necessary chewing (to use a Newman paraphrase)? It may take centuries, but I for one am willing to give far more doctrinal weight to the fact that the vast majority of Catholics have no moral qualms about using these methods to space births. It is not that I am saying that they are right, or that the hierarchy is totally wrong. There is some just median that will be worked out, I think. Newman called this after the First Vatican Council, “waiting for the echo”. So far, the echo is not singing Wojtyla’s song, at least in the rank and file.

      • January 20, 2011 at 7:40 am

        I hadn’t thought about that before. Theologians can’t very well appeal to the consensus gentium to argue for the natural law, the value of religion, the definition of marriage, and a hundred other things and then turn around and call the voice of the people a sheer mob when it contradicts them. It doesn’t speak well for the TOB guys that, as far as I know, they have yet to take the very clear will of the whole world seriously. So far as nature means an action that happens always or for the most part, contraception has certainly been natural to the whole world for the last 50 years – and arguably the only reason it hasn’t been universally accepted before this is simply because we lacked the know-how to make it.

        There might also be something to the case that the will to contraception is a deviation from the norm. It was once illegal and widely dissapproved – attempts in the late 60’s to make it legal by popular referenda all failed, in much the same way that marriage amendments all tend to now succeed. But Americans, for all their bravado of being against government encroachment, all parrot the party line as soon as a law (or, what’s worse, a lawyer) tells them what to think. Who knows, had the court been a bit different, perhaps Americans would confuse the whole world with their persistent anti-contraception mentality (in much the same way that we puzzle the whole world by our attachment to guns, skipping afternoon naps, and the death penalty). But all this is, at the moment, the weakest of all inferences: the historical counterfactual.

        John Paul II did leave his mark on the will of the people at least this far:everyone accepts that the pill is the same sort of thing as a barrier. The attempt of intellectuals in the 60’s to argue that the pill, in effect, wasn’t contraception totally failed. The first attempt at compromise among intellectuals was to carve out a special place for the pill – but that argument is lost. This seems to raise the stakes, since now all contraception must be accepted or rejected as a piece. It’s not the sort of topic (like, say, torture) where our first impuse is to subtle casuistry about the relative value of the diverse methods.

  2. Sue Sims said,

    January 19, 2011 at 8:00 am

    And the sight of a bunch of people who don’t have to look after demented and incontinent fathers arguing about whether it’s morally licit to shoot aforesaid fathers in the head is, I suppose, equally ridiculous.

    What on earth has celibacy or the gender of the debaters to do with whether something is right or wrong? Ridicule is an excellent weapon for affecting your audience’s reactions, but anyone who takes it to be an indication of truth is, well, slightly ridiculous.

  3. January 19, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    “Given that the primary concern that gives rise to the question of spacing births is the need to care for children for a long time, one would not expect the question to arise until very recently.”

    Or perhaps it didn’t come up because babies were naturally spaced when they didn’t die. Cultural breastfeeding and its concomitant spacing of births just naturally occurs if impediments are not put in its way.

    • January 19, 2011 at 6:22 pm

      I’ve disliked that paragraph much of the day. People have been limiting families and spacing births forever in a way that the Church didn’t even wonder about. Still, I think the sharp drop in infant mortality allowed for a more public discussion of spacing births, a sort of flip side to our now widespread cultural awareness that death was no longer something that comes for the young.

      Malnutrition was a factor in limiting births too.

    • AG said,

      January 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

      Take it from a guy with boys 14 months apart, exclusive breastfeeding is not a perfect system.

  4. RP said,

    January 20, 2011 at 4:11 am

    what are we to do with the complete absence of saints who were made saints by their marriage?

    From one point of view almost everyone in heaven was made a saint by marriage.

    If you are restricting the meaning to canonized, well, it takes a lot of time and money to go thru the process.

    Either way, a lot of saints were married. The saint with the record for the fastest canonization (I think) was St. Homobono – married and a retail merchant

    • January 20, 2011 at 7:04 am

      it takes a lot of time and money

      But married Catholics have had a lot of time and money! It’s not as if Christians only started getting married in the 50’s. And no one would argue that the results are proportionate to the participants, or even very high in terms of absolute numbers.

      Good to hear about St. Homobono, though, I’ll look him up.

      • Brandon said,

        January 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

        I took it that RP’s point was that other people have to spend time and money on it, not that the spouses themselves have to do so — while there are exceptions, for a married couple to be canonized would usually mean that their family, friends, neighbors, would have to keep the memory of their sanctity alive, sometimes for centuries. And families, unlike religious orders, tend not to be so careful at preserving memories at that level of detail.

        Thus the married people that do get canonized for reasons clearly springing directly or indirectly out of their marriage are usually people whose marriage showed unusually visible signs of sanctity, like St. Basil the Elder and St. Emily, five of whose nine children became saints, and three of those great theologians, and whose notable children were unqualified in recognizing the importance of their parents’ devotion. No doubt there were other married people as holy as Basil and Emily in that disruptive time, but they didn’t have the very noticeable big family of holy children. Or else they are saints whose sanctity particularly in marriage was explicitly recognized, but who also were recognized other things — St. Jeanne de Chantal, for instance, wasn’t just canonized for having been a holy religious but for having been, before that a holy wife, or some of the holy queens and princesses throughout history. And I think for the same reason there’s a good argument to be made that holy widows are at least often cases of people who were made saints by their marriage, even though they only became visibly so after it, a fact that I think has tended to affect women in the canonization process quite a bit, because the traditional conventions of a widow’s life have always been much allowing of public interaction than those of a wife’s life (when the wife isn’t a queen or some such). (If that’s the case, there’s another argument to support the idea that it’s a pity that we’ve pretty much dropped the designation of Holy Widow from liturgical life.) Sacramental marriage even when good for grace may be bad for visibility; and since when we are talking of saints we are usually talking about that subset of saints whose value in being taken as a model is recognized by the Church, you need both: grace for sanctity and visibility for being a model.

      • January 20, 2011 at 9:45 am

        It didn’t occur to me that that might have been his point, and that’s a stronger one. But since fate put me on one side of this controversy, I might as well keep trying to problematize it.

        I don’t know much about the process of canonization, but since clerics are in charge of it it would make sense that those closest to clerics would be the most visible. That said, I’d tend to think that the married lack advocates after death because they lack popularity for holiness in life. In our own time, those who attract those to them for their holiness all tend to be celibates: John Paul II, Mother teresa, Padre Pio, etc. Married persons just don’t seem to display that level of sanctity. I don’t know that is a matter of visibility – and even if it were, lay people in our time can have a great deal of public visibility.

        Something like RP’s answer has struck me for a while now, however. The same question that I raise about married persons now could have been raised about secular priests in 1830 – John Vianney was their first saint. Trochu’s famous biography hints that Vianney himself saw his vocation as something that could never make him a saint – and at any rate he knew that there had never been one.

      • Brandon said,

        January 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

        There certainly are a lot of lay people who are publically visible, but, honestly, how many of them are visible specifically for things that we tend to think of as having to do with what happens within marriage itself? It’s very likely — probably morally certain — that a lot of the saints who happened to be married received grace through their marriage; but our recognizing that is a different thing, either because we just don’t see the ways in which it worked (marriage in some ways perhaps being the second most private thing after what happens in one’s own mind) or because we do but falsely think that it has nothing to do with marriage.

        I suspect with marriage it also works the other way: we sometimes see the holiness in marriage, but simply don’t recognize that it’s holiness because being holy in marriage is that sort of thing that has to be very mundane-looking in a lot of cases. In that sense married holiness is like ‘true love’ — we remember unusual cases where it was spectacularly put on display, but there’s nothing about true love that tends to that sort of flashiness. In fact most of what is really done out of true love is what most people other than the lovers would find utterly boring, to an extent that they might even be mystified that anyone could regard it as expressing true love.

        But I do like the John Vianney example, which I’ll have to think about. Whatever the reasons for the lack of secular canonizations, it can’t be that the Cure D’Ars was the only holy secular priest in history up to that time. So somehow or other, something other than sanctity stood in the way of secular priests being held up as models of sanctity. That would make for an interesting study.

  5. RP said,

    January 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    In the early Church with its 2 or 3 million martyrs almost certainly most of them were laymen. Now, not remembered, not even known.

    Goes to Brandon’s point: something spectacular is happening but it’s not noticed or remembered. Of course, when martyrdom is frequent in the good ol’ US of A most of them will be married folks.

    It is absolutely certain for me that if my wife and I get to heaven it will be because of our sacramental marriage (and for me the Sacrament of Penance every couple of weeks probably doesn’t hurt, either).

  6. January 23, 2011 at 6:44 am


    I think you’re right in this:

    John Paul II did leave his mark on the will of the people at least this far:everyone accepts that the pill is the same sort of thing as a barrier. The attempt of intellectuals in the 60′s to argue that the pill, in effect, wasn’t contraception totally failed. The first attempt at compromise among intellectuals was to carve out a special place for the pill – but that argument is lost. This seems to raise the stakes, since now all contraception must be accepted or rejected as a piece.

    But you don’t seem to realize just how high the stakes are.

    First, there’s the fact that the birth rate in most of the “developed” world is now below replacement level and shows no signs of rebounding. The means by which we’ve reached this pass are contraception and abortion. One can speculate about why people are losing the will to replace themselves, but the fact is that, if present trends continue, the native stock of Europe, North America, and some Asian countries will be replaced, if at all, by people who aren’t Christians. That is a high stake, don’t you think?

    Second, there’s the question of magisterial authority. It is at least arguable that the teaching conveyed by HV was, and remained, infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Theologians as diverse as Grisez and Küng think so, and I do too. Of course, for the latter, that’s a reductio of infallibility, which it isn’t. But you seem to believe that the question of contraception will be settled, if at all, by “argument” over a period of centuries. Well, people’s acceptance of HV’s teaching might well depend on that; but the teaching’s level of authority cannot be, if it’s already been infallibly set forth.

    In my opinion, then, both the future of the West and the credibility of the Magisterium are what’s “at stake” in this debate.


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