‘Pharmakeia,’ Contraception, and the Interior Life

About contraception, a Catholic couple can easily succumb to what might be called the bourgeois temptation: Christianity is fine so long as it makes no demands. But what if the Church’s teachings about contraception are true? What if they are part of revelation and the Bible?

St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians uses a certain Greek word: pharmakeia. It is usually translated as “sorcery” and appears in a catalogue of sins that Paul condemns as “works of the flesh”: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger. (5:19-21). The list is long and invites devout skimming. Yet each word was put there by the Holy Spirit for a reason and is meant to be unpacked.

Sorcery was a problem around the 54 A. D., when St. Paul wrote his letter. In his invaluable book, Sex and the Marriage Covenant, John F. Kippley points out that pharmakeia may also refer to artificial birth control:

“Pharmakeia” in general was the mixing of various potions for secret purposes, and it is known that potions were mixed in the first century A.D. to prevent or stop a pregnancy. The typical translation as “sorcery” may not reveal all of the specific practices condemned by the New Testament. In all three of the passages in which it appears, it is in a context condemning sexual immorality; two of the three passages also condemn murder (Gal 5:19-26; Rev 9:21, 21:8). Thus it is very possible that there are three New Testament passages condemning the use of the products of “pharmakeia” for birth control purposes.

Catholics, of course, shouldn’t need scriptural proof-texts to know that artificial contraception is wrong. It is an irreformable doctrine of the ordinary Magisterium, based on natural law, taught from the beginning, and reiterated in numerous papal documents. But they do need to know why the Church teaches that contraception is wrong. Faithful Catholics are often hard pressed to give reasons for a teaching so distant from modern views of sexuality.

One approach is to delve into the double meaning of pharmakeia – sorcery and artificial birth control. Both senses of the word denote a perversity that infects our culture so deeply that it goes largely unnoticed. I mean a gnostic separation of flesh and spirit, which is contrary to the will of God who became incarnate.

Gnosticism was the Church’s earliest and most deadly enemy. It considered matter evil and the human body an enemy, rather than a potential ally, of the spiritual life. The Church fought this attitude tooth and nail, holding not only that matter is good (because created by God) but that the body, in the words of Tertullian, is the “hinge of salvation.” That’s one reason the Nicene Creed does not affirm the immortality of the soul – which it could – but the resurrection of the body.

The Church’s positive attitude toward the body means a positive attitude toward sexuality, despite occasionally heated rhetoric from figures like Saint Augustine. Sex is deemed by the Church to be a spiritual bonum for a married couple, and not, as the Gnostics would have it, a questionable – or at best, neutral – carnal activity.

"The Wedding Party" by Henri Rousseau, c.1905
“The Wedding Party” by Henri Rousseau, c.1905

This gnostic attitude toward the body has never entirely disappeared. Rather, it mutates from age to age. Our modern version began with Descartes, whose Cogito ergo sum radically separated personhood from the body.

Most people today think like Descartes: they imagine their real self is somewhere inside the body, the proverbial ghost inside a machine, and that what they do with their bodies doesn’t really matter. The body is a thing to be manipulated; it has no essential connection with our spiritual core. This gnostic downgrading of the body is so ingrained that we don’t even notice it. And yet it is going to have to be reversed if we are to build what Saint John Paul II called a Civilization of Love.

The Church offers a radically different reading of the human person. To a large extent, we are our bodies, and we are what we do with our bodies. Which means that our spiritual welfare is intimately bound with our physical acts. And there is no deeper physical act than sex.

Sex is not simply the functioning of a biological appetite. It is a deep bonding between two individuals. It is an exchange of persons, and not simply an exchange of pleasure between consenting adults. The whole person, body and soul, is involved. The Magisterium reminds us in documents like Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio that this bonding is so intimately linked with the creation of new human life that there is no way of artificially separating them without doing spiritual damage to ourselves.

A couple who deliberately put a plug on their fertility are acting out a modern form of sorcery, trying to gain control over nature by illicit means. As Chesterton put it, artificial birth control “[filches] the pleasure that belongs to a natural process while violently and unnaturally thwarting the process itself.”

Contraception is entirely different than the attitude behind Natural Family Planning, wherein a couple who have reason to space their children accept the gift of sexuality exactly as it is stamped in the human person and treat their fertility as sacred ground rather than a technological problem.

It takes imagination to make the connection between a small dose of artificial hormones or a piece of plastic and the spiritual welfare of a couple – or an entire culture. But if this modern form of sorcery does indeed violate the virtue of chastity, then the spiritual implications are profound.

Josef Pieper puts it this way:

we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. Thomas [Aquinas] says that unchastity’s first-born daughter is blindness of spirit…an impure, selfishly corrupted will-to-pleasure destroys both resoluteness of spirit and the ability of the psyche to listen in silent attention to the language of reality.

The first concrete step John Paul II urges (in Evangelium Vitae) to fight the “culture of death” is the establishment centers to promote Natural Family Planning. The Magisterium is correct: pharmakeia puts limits on the gift of self in marriage and so is an obstacle between the soul and God.

George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).