Friday, October 01, 2010

C.S. Lewis & T.S. Eliot on Contraception

Two Dubious Anniversaries

By Gregory K. Laughlin

This year offers a fitting opportunity to look back at two pivotal events in the life of the broader Christian community and in the moral and social life of the United States. Eighty years ago, and forty-five years ago this summer, respectively, were dates that changed the course of human history. A bit of background: In 1908 the world's Anglican bishops, meeting at their periodic Lambeth Conference, enacted a resolution that expressed "alarm" at the "growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family, and earnestly call[ed] upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare." Twelve years later, in 1920, the Anglican Communion again affirmed consistent Christian teaching by "utter[ing] an emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception." Yet, a mere ten years after that, in 1930, the Anglican bishops gathered again at Lambeth Palace and there, by a majority of 193 to 67, approved Resolution 15, which read, in part:
Where there is 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.
Then, in 1965, thirty-five years after that fateful Lam­­­beth Conference, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, struck down as unconstitutional the last remaining state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples, finding for the first time a "right to privacy" located in "penumbras, formed by emanations from [the] guarantees" contained in the Bill of Rights. Griswold and its "right to privacy" has been relied upon repeatedly to strike down, among other laws, statutes restricting access to contraceptives by unmarried adults (Eisenstadt v. Baird) and unmarried minors (Carey v. Population Services), and statutes criminalizing abortion (Roe v. Wade) and sodomy (Lawrence v. Texas). It has also been relied upon by state courts, which have recognized a right of members of the same sex to "marry" (e.g., Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health).

These twin anniversaries — 1930 and 1965 — offer an appropriate opportunity to consider the misgivings of two prominent Anglicans with regard to the use of contraceptives and with the actions taken by the Anglican bishops gathered at Lambeth Palace eighty summers ago. While neither Anglican writer was willing to condemn the use of contraceptives explicitly, both recognized that serious moral issues were at stake. As we live today in a world ravaged by the tragic consequences of these two pivotal events, we would do well to ponder their words.

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed." One of these was the use of contraception. "I am not a woman nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so."

In a letter to his brother, Warren, in 1931, Lewis expressed a similar sentiment, writing, "We had tea at Wheatley, Barfield denouncing birth control. I could not help thinking, though I hardly cared to say, that a man married to an obviously barren woman was in this matter an arm chair critic." In a letter to Mrs. E.L. Baxterin in 1947, he wrote that he had never taken "a general position about contraception. As a bachelor I think I shd. be imprudent in attacking it: on the other hand I shd. not like the job of defending it against almost unbroken Xtian disapproval. But it isn't my business." And in another letter, addressed to a Mrs. Johnson nine years later, he wrote simply, "Birth control I won't give a view on; I'm certainly not prepared to say that it is always wrong."

A casual reader, if he even noticed these remarks, would conclude that Lewis had little to say on the subject (the C.S. Lewis Readers' Encyclopedia does not mention it at all) and, if anything, approved of the practice.1 Yet his treatment of contraception in his other writings stands in stark contrast to these explicit refusals to condemn it.

A Sensible Practice

Lewis first wrote about contraception in The Pil­grim's Regress, published in 1933. The book recounts a dream about a boy — later a man — named John and his journey through life, in which he explores a variety of alternative worldviews, represented by characters encountered on the journey, before finally accepting Christianity.

One of the characters John encounters is Mr. Sensible, who tells him, "To cut off pleasures from the consequences and conditions which they have by nature, detaching, as it were, the precious phrase from its irrelevant context, is what distinguishes the man from the brute and the citizen from the savage."

Mr. Sensible approves "the Roman emetics in their banquets" and "the even more beneficent contraceptive devices of our later times…. That man who can eat as taste, not nature, prompts him and yet fear no aching belly, or who can indulge in Venus and fear no impertinent bastard, is a civilized man. In him, I recognize Urbanity — the note of the centre."

Given Lewis's attachment to natural law, which he believed to be universal, objective, and of divine origin, and his offering of Mr. Sensible as one alternative to Mother Kirk (Christianity), one can deduce Lewis's disapproval of this justification of contraception, if not of contraception itself.

Later in his journey, John meets Mr. Broad, who represents modernist religion and describes Mr. Sensible as his "oldest friend" and his "quite near neighbour." One cannot help but wonder whether, in describing Mr. Broad, Lewis had in mind factions within his own Anglican Communion, including those who had approved of Resolution 15 just three years earlier. Mr. Sensible lives north of the "long straight road, very narrow" way of Christianity, an area representing "tension, hardness, possessiveness, coldness, anaemia."

Lest there be any doubt about Mr. Sensible, Lewis returns to him as the first character whose true nature is revealed to John as he begins his journey along the long and narrow road of Christianity. John's guide describes Mr. Sensible as "so near to nonentity — so shadowy even as an appearance — that he is now invisible to you."

A New Morality

That Lewis understood the potential consequences of the widespread use of contraceptives is illustrated in The Abolition of Man, published in 1945 and written in defense of the Tao (the natural law) and against the "Innovator," the one who rejects natural law and seeks to reshape mankind to his own purposes. He begins his discussion of contraception by noting that "there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive." He continues:
By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.
Elsewhere, Lewis notes that "the modern situation permits and demands a new sexual morality" because "the old taboos served some real purpose in helping to preserve the species, but contraceptives have modified this and we can now abandon many of the taboos." In words that now appear prophetic, Lewis observes that with the acceptance of contraceptives, sexual desire, "being instinctive, is to be gratified whenever it does not conflict with the preservation of the species. It looks, in fact, as if an ethics based on instinct will give the Innovator all he wants and nothing that he does not want."

The Innovator and Mr. Sensible share a common worldview. The former's ethics give him "all he wants and nothing that he does not want." The latter's ethics permit him to "cut off pleasures from the consequences and conditions which they have by nature." Thus, both "can indulge in Venus and fear no impertinent bastard."

Lewis recognized that contraception permitted the abandonment of other taboos guiding sexual conduct. "Now that contraceptives have removed the most disastrous consequences for girls, and medicine has largely defeated the worst horrors of syphilis," he wrote in a letter to Rhona Bodle in 1955, "what argument against promiscuity is there which will influence the young unless one brings in the whole supernatural and sacramental view of man?"

Human Will vs. God's Purpose

But Lewis's concern was not limited to the impact that permitting contraception would have on sexual ethics. For example, in a dialogue in That Hideous Strength, the last of his "Space Trilogy," Merlin, appearing in twentieth-century England, describes the young academic Jane as "the falsest lady of any at this time alive…. For, Sir, it was the purpose of God that she and her lord should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been put out of Logres for a thousand years." Ransom, the leader of the resistance against the evil threatening England, replies that Jane is only recently married, to which Merlin responds:
Be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines the begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such seed, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.
"The usages of Sulva" is a reference to an earlier passage in which Sulva is identified as the Moon, where, by choice, "the womb is barren and the marriages are cold," and "their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place." Here, Lewis can be seen as anticipating the use of reproductive technologies common in our own time. Ransom tells Jane that she is neither "a Christian wife" nor "a virgin." Her use of contraception appears to be one of the characteristics by which Lewis illustrates this. In the closing chapter, Ransom tells Jane, "Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead." ("Dreams" refers to Jane's visions of events at which she has not been present but which in fact occurred.)

Compare these passages from That Hideous Strength and, in particular, the advice Lewis had his fictional character Ransom deliver to Jane with an admonition Lewis himself gave to one of his own friends, Shel­don Vanauken. In his award-winning autobiography, A Severe Mercy, Vanauken reproduced eighteen letters written to him by Lewis after the death of Vanauken's wife. In one of those letters, Lewis admonished Vanauken for his "voluntary sterility" and for having denied his wife the experience of maternity. Lewis wrote: "Chris­tians…would of course agree that man and wife are ‘one flesh'…. But surely they would add that this One Flesh must not (and in the long run cannot) ‘live to itself' any more than the single individual. It was not made…to be its Own End. It was made for God and (in Him) for its neighbours — first and foremost among them the children it ought to have produced."

In the preface to That Hideous Strength, Lewis discloses that his novel has "a serious ‘point' which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man." His misgivings about contraception are not that point, of course, but are related to it: the rejection of natural law and the reshaping of humanity to serve the desires of a few.

Two Worlds Contrasted

In the first book of Lewis's Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom raises the issue of overpopulation with his hrossa host and the potential for war with other hnau over food. (Hnau is the collective name given to all sentient, ensouled beings on Malacandra, the "Old Solar" name for Mars in Lewis's Space Trilogy. Hrossa are one of those species.) His host, Hyoi, responds by asking why the hrossa should have more young, and Ransom in return asks, "Is the begetting of young not a pleasure among the hrossa?" It is "a very great one, Hman," he replies. "This is what we call love." Ransom explains that humans want to have the pleasure over and over again, even if it produces more children than they can feed.
It took Hyoi a long time to get the point. "You mean," he said slowly, "that he might do it not only in one or two years of his life but again?" "Yes." "But why? Would he want his dinner all day or want to sleep after he had slept? I do not understand."
Although this dialogue demonstrates that Lewis was concerned about overpopulation, what is significant is that he did not offer contraception as the means by which the hrossa control their population. Indeed, the hrossa seem never to have considered the issue, and their natural practice of abstinence after procreation regulates their population sufficiently, without artificial means.

The hrossa and the other hnau of Malacandra live in a world that is not "bent" — that is, in a world uncorrupted by sin. In contrast, Jane and the people of the Moon who practice contraception in That Hideous Strength live in "bent" worlds.

Lewis, then, associated natural methods of population control — i.e., abstinence — with a sinless world, and artificial methods of preventing conception (and causing it) with a sinful world. It is hard to believe that Lewis did not intend this.

Thus, Lewis, while never explicitly condemning contraception and, indeed, explicitly refusing to do so, treated the subject on several occasions, always in a negative light. Despite his reluctance to condemn contraception, Lewis's writings, taken as a whole, demonstrate an antipathy toward its indiscriminate use, and a recognition that its use is against both natural law and "almost unbroken Xtian disapproval."

Serious Questions

Today, the concerns raised by C.S. Lewis are rarely recognized. He apparently did not agree with the teaching of the Catholic Church that contraception is inherently sinful and always forbidden, yet he realized that it raised serious moral issues meriting serious consideration and pastoral guidance, the latter being implicitly recognized by his noting his own lack of pastoral obligation in this regard.

Lewis was not alone among Anglican intellectuals who were troubled by the indiscriminate use of contraception. In a pamphlet titled Thoughts After Lambeth, published in 1931, T.S. Eliot expressed his misgivings over the Anglican bishops' passing of Resolution 15 approving of the use of contraceptives. Again, the resolution provided, in part,
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…Christian principles.
The bishops concluded with a "strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience."

Many Anglicans opposed the resolution. Others stressed the resolution's limitations. K.E. Kirk, then a professor of pastoral theology at Oxford University, for instance, considered "the number of cases in which it could be treated as legitimate to be very small indeed."

Eliot supported the bishops' position, but he was critical of the manner in which they had acted, or rather, failed to act. Eliot opined that the Anglican bishops were "right and courageous to express a view on the subject of procreation radically different from that of Rome," but he regretted that they "placed so much reliance upon the Individual Conscience…. Certainly, anyone who is wholly sincere and pure in heart may seek guidance from the Holy Spirit; but who of us is always wholly sincere, especially where the most imperative of instincts may be strong enough to simulate to perfection the voice of the Holy Spirit?"

Letting each couple ask for counsel only if they are "perplexed in mind is almost to surrender the whole citadel of the Church," Eliot continued. "Considering the extreme disingenuity of humanity…only a very small minority will be ‘perplexed'; and…the honest minority which takes ‘competent advice' (and I observe that the order of the words is ‘medical and spiritual') will have to appeal to a clergy just as perplexed as itself."

The bishops had not given adequate instruction, leaving unanswered the questions: "When is it right to limit the family and right to limit it only by continence?" and "When is it right to limit the family by contraception?" Eliot stated further, "It is exactly this matter of ‘spiritual advice' which should have been examined and analysed…. Here, if anywhere, is definitely a matter upon which the Individual Conscience is no reliable guide; spiritual guidance should be imperative; and it should be clearly placed above medical advice."

Thus, while approving in general the liberalizing of the official Anglican position on contraception — a liberalization that, however, did not envisage the unquestioning use of contraception — Eliot recognized that contraception raised moral issues and implicitly considered contraception not to be morally permissible in all cases. With greater prescience than the bishops, he recognized that, without more explicit guidance, couples would soon stop thinking about the nature of marriage and procreation and treat contraception as an integral part of Christian marriage.

A Solitary Voice in the Wilderness of Choice

Lewis and Eliot were writing in the years immediately following the Anglican Communion's change in teaching regarding contraception. It was then still an issue hotly debated among Christians, and these debates were often covered in the national media. During the remainder of Lewis and Eliot's lives, however, practically all Protestant denominations followed the Anglican Com­munion's lead in this matter. In our own time, the vast majority of all Christian couples, whether Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic, have used or are now using artificial contraceptives.

Neither Lewis nor Eliot was willing to condemn all uses of artificial contraception, yet both had obvious concerns about the moral implications of its use. There were Anglicans (and other Protestant and Orthodox Christians) then — as there are now — who were willing to stand by the historical Christian condemnation of the practice. Today, however, the Catholic Church stands alone in her unbroken condemnation of a practice which, until a lifetime ago, all Christians condemned. We would do well to consider the concerns raised by Lewis and Eliot and to return to the constant teaching of historic Christianity prior to that fateful summer a mere eighty years ago.


  1. Lewis had another interesting exchange that relates tangentially to this subject. In "Answers to Questions on Christianity," from God in the Dock, Lewis addressed the following question: "What justification on ethical grounds and on the grounds of social expediency exists for the Church's attitude towards Venereal Disease and prophylaxis and publicity in connection with it?"

    When Lewis asked for clarification, the inquirer added, "The view of some is that moral punishment should not be avoided."

    Lewis responded, "I haven't myself met any clergyman of the Church of England who held that view: and I don't hold it myself. There are obvious objections to it. After all, it isn't only Venereal Disease that can be regarded as a punishment for bad conduct. Indigestion in old age may be the result of overeating in earlier life; but no one objects to advertisements for Beecham's Pills. I, at any rate, strongly dissent from the view you've mentioned."

    It is not clear from what view Lewis dissented. From the context, it appears that he objected to the view that "moral punishment should not be avoided." However, he did not state his opposition to the use of prophylaxis to prevent the spread of venereal disease. In fact, this passage could be read as his approval of such use. [back]

[Gregory K. Laughlin serves as law library director and as associate professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. His article, "Two Dubious Anniversaries," was originally published in New Oxford Review (July-August, 2010), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]


Roger said...

I believe there is ample evidence to prove, through philosophical and spiritual means, the family is the root of society. The family structure has been wounded by parents turning from the true teaching of the Church on contraception. If you use contraception in marriage, you have stepped onto the slippery slope. The family structure has no foundation when each person in the family seeks self-gratification instead of living virtuously as gift for each other. When the priority of self is first, others second, and God last, the world is upside down. If we seek to right the ship that is society, which is in my view upside down, start with God and end with self. The family is the starting point to right society, pray together often and always, and be for each other.

Anonymous said...

"Unbroken condemnation" -- that is just armchair stuff. Catholics use their common sense in this matter.

Jordanes said...

Catholics use their common sense in this matter.

If that's true, then how come most of them contracept? It's imprudent to trust the "common sense" of a Catholic who disregards the fact that the Church has always and everywhere taught that contraception is intrinsically evil.

Peter said...

2 X Cool