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.