C. S. Lewis was a prudent man. He picked his battles carefully. On the ethics of contraception, he was especially circumspect.
In a letter to a Mrs. Baxter (August 19, 1947), Lewis writes: “I’ve never propounded a general position about contraception. As a bachelor I think I shd. be imprudent in attacking it . . . But it isn’t my business.”
In a letter to a Mrs. Johnson (March 13, 1956), Lewis writes: “Birth control I won’t give a view on: I’m certainly not prepared to say that it is always wrong . . . ‘Mind one’s own business’ is a good rule in religion as in other things.”
And in a letter to his brother (November 22, 1932), Lewis writes that his friend Owen Barfield had recently been “denouncing birth control.” Lewis’s response? “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.”
It is partly because of his desire to avoid being an arm-chair critic that Lewis adopts a studied silence on the subject in Mere Christianity (1952). In its preface, he observes how, ever since he fought in the trenches of the First World War, he has had “a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line.” As a result, Lewis writes, he has been reluctant to say much about temptations to which he himself is not exposed. Therefore, he has “said nothing about birth-control. 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.”
We must not interpret this silence as indicating that he was either pro- or anti-contraception. He says that he has “never propounded a general position about contraception”—and this is true if “propounded” means “explicitly argued for.” But if “propounded” means “consistently albeit implicitly maintained,” then it is fair to say that Lewis propounded a general position about contraception, and we will come to that implicit case presently. But first let’s take a second glance at Lewis’s letter to Mrs. Baxter. What he says in full is this: “I’ve never propounded 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” (my emphasis).
He “should not like the job of defending it.” And why? Because of the “almost unbroken” tradition of disapproval toward contraception in the history of Christian ethics. Lewis is correct about this unbroken tradition. Ironically, the first clear break in the tradition of disapproval occurred within the Anglican church to which he himself belonged, at the 1930 Lambeth Conference.
Lewis never explicitly stated a settled conclusion on contraception. But if we look at his work as a whole, we can clearly see where his sympathies lay. What follows is not an exhaustive treatment, but it does survey the major places where Lewis touches on the subject.
In Christian Behaviour (1943)—which later became part of Mere Christianity—as well as in “Christian Apologetics” (1945) and “God in the Dock” (1948), Lewis points out how contraceptives have made a huge difference in the way people think about “fornication.” As long as sex outside marriage could be expected to negatively affect the social standing of a girl by making her an unmarried mother, most men recognized that there was an uncharitable element in fornication. Now that those probable consequences have been almost entirely removed, “illicit unions” are hardly seen as sinful at all.
In other words, extra-marital couplings have been encouraged by contraception. Men feel much more free to engage in sexual behavior with women now that they don’t have to seriously worry about generating new life. In Studies in Words (1960), examining the semantic shift which the word “life” had undergone over time, Lewis observes: “Since the young people in Sons and Lovers [D. H. Lawrence’s 1913 novel] never appear either to hope or fear fertility, we may assume that they have prudently taken measures to be ‘carried by life’ just so far as is convenient and no further.” Note his sardonic tone here. The young couple in the novel celebrate “life” but have carefully excluded fertility from their understanding of the term, lest they be inconvenienced.
Convenience is not necessarily an evil, but if convenience is preferred to genuine human flourishing, it may betoken a self-protectiveness that is better avoided. This is what Lewis has in mind when discussing one real-life instance of a contracepted relationship. A young American student called Sheldon Vanauken, who studied at Oxford in the 1950s, got to know Lewis well, as did his wife, Davy. After Davy died of a mysterious disease, Vanauken wrote Lewis a long letter, telling him the story of their “Shining Barrier,” which was what they called the protective cordon they had deliberately built around their relationship. Vanauken told Lewis the purpose of this Barrier, which was “to keep inloveness. I told him why we had not had children—lest they should come between us by lessening our sharing.”
Lewis sent to Vanauken a long and pastoral reply (May 8, 1955), which was bracing in its admonitions about what he terms “a life so wholly (at first) devoted to US.” He asks Vanauken to consider how Christians throughout history would have viewed their relationship:
They wd. of course agree that man & wife are “one flesh”: they wd. perhaps admit that this was most admirably realised by [Davy] and you. But surely they wd. 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, any more than he, 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 . . .
You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how v. frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. And from US you have been led back to US AND GOD: it remains to go on to GOD AND US.
This letter is, I think, the clearest example in Lewis’s writings of his view that marriage has a natural and proper procreative end (“the children it ought to have produced”), and that voluntarily to frustrate that end is an ethical misstep.
Lewis also reflects on the ethics of contraception in his semi-autobiographical work, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933). There, the worldly Mr. Sensible expatiates on the value of disciplining his appetites. Sensual passions are all very well, but one should not allow oneself to get carried away:
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. I cannot join with those moralists who inveigh against the Roman emetics in their banquets: still less with those who would forbid 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.
Mr. Sensible’s scrupulous moderation “tames in the service of the reasonable life” those pleasures that might otherwise imply he was less than completely rational. In short, Mr. Sensible does not fully respect the animal side of his nature. Rather than recognizing the reality of his passions and then mastering them through the virtue of self-control, he indulges his passions but reorientates their natural end. To use terms from The Abolition of Man, Mr. Sensible’s head looks impressively large and rational not because of its owner’s extraordinary intelligence but because of the atrophy of the chest and belly underneath. We do not have space here to explore what Lewis has to say about contraception in The Abolition of Man, but suffice it to say, it is again negative or, at best, non-committal.
The fictional counterpart to The Abolition of Man is the final volume of the Ransom Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945). The first word of the novel is “matrimony”: “Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.” “Matrimony” means literally “mother-making” or “mother-state.” But Jane Studdock and her husband Mark are determined that there shall be no mothering (or fathering) in their marriage; they have decided “to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet.”
It is significant that Jane jumps to the third purpose for which matrimony was ordained, according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and skips the first two (procreation of children and avoidance of fornication). One of the reasons why the Studdocks’ marriage has been so sterile emotionally is because it has been deliberately infertile physiologically; the newlyweds have not faced each other with complete self-giving love but have kept part of themselves back. As the story progresses, the Studdocks abandon these reservations. Mark gives himself completely when he risks his very life by refusing to trample on a crucifix, and Jane encounters Christ (in a chapter entitled “Real Life is Meeting”) “with no veil or protection between.”
“Real Life is Meeting” is a phrase that Lewis derived from Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Buber writes: “The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one; just as any action of the whole being, which means the suspension of all partial actions . . . is bound to resemble suffering.”
By using this phrase from Buber as his chapter title, Lewis seems to be suggesting that Mark and Jane have not really been “meeting” each other in their marriage because they have been engaged in “a partial action,” a form of sexual intercourse that deliberately selects part of intercourse—the part that is unitive and recreational—rather than embracing the whole, which would include procreative potential. Mark and Jane have been sidestepping the suffering proper to marriage, the suffering that follows upon conception and parenthood—or at least, they have been sidestepping, indeed deliberately stifling, the possibility of that suffering.
But by the end of the novel, Mark and Jane have changed. They have aligned themselves with the cosmic powers of masculinity and femininity as displayed by Mars and Venus in the first two books of the trilogy and become, respectively, a complete man and a complete woman, forgoing partial actions. Mark realizes that he has hitherto been regarding Jane with an offensively proprietorial eye. He repents: “How had he dared? And who that understood could forgive him?” Jane, “descending the ladder of humility,” thinks of Mark’s sufferings and “of children, and of pain and death.”
In the Studdocks’ connubial reunion we find what Lewis describes in The Allegory of Love as the “typical medieval theme” of the proud young man “tamed by Venus.” It is a theme Lewis often reflected upon while looking at Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, one of his favorite paintings. In Botticelli’s masterpiece, Mars and Venus have evidently just made love and now Mars, the god of war, is asleep, but Venus, the goddess of love, is awake, looking calmly, serenely, contentedly, on the defenseless form of her husband. The mythological meaning of the picture is profound. She has “tamed” him, yes, but it is a good kind of tameness, bespeaking repletion and consummation, not the evasive and repressive spirit with which Mr. Sensible tames his passions. War lays aside his armor. Perfect love casts out fear.
Lewis did not explicitly argue for a general position on contraception. As a bachelor, he thought he would have been imprudent in attacking what did not affect him directly, and as a layman he didn’t consider it his business publicly to teach a particular line. Yet he did consistently maintain a distinct coolness toward the practice because he thought it evaded the suffering proper to wholehearted love, denied human embodiedness, and effectively emboldened men to treat women in a more utilitarian fashion. His references to contraception are never positive, and although he sometimes sits on the fence, whenever he comes down from the fence to give a verdict he does so on the side of traditional Christian ethics, making plain his disapproval of contraceptive practice, a disapproval that is sometimes quite trenchant. His stance constitutes a challenge to those who see nothing amiss about contraception at all.
Dr. Michael Ward is an associate member of the faculty of theology and religion at the University of Oxford, professor of apologetics at Houston Christian University, and the author, most recently, of After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.
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