In a surprise move, the Archbishop of Paris has backed the withdrawal method of preventing pregnancy over the ise of the pill and condoms.

Driving the news

The startling claim of Archbishop Michel Aupetit, a doctor by training, is contained in a booklet he has just published – Humanae vitae, une prophétie (“Humanae vitae, a prophecy”) – dedicated to the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI, as French paper Libération reported January 27.

That encyclical was and continues to be highly controversial, because of its restatement of the Church’s ban on artificial contraception: perhaps the most widely-ignored doctrinal ban in all of Church history.

Go deeper

Although Aupetit promises, with his booklet, to provide “our disoriented society with a deeper and more inspiring understanding of the union of men and women and their fruitfulness”, all the Archbishop of Paris has done to date is provide controversy for his defence of coitus interruptus.

Not only is that practice a “lesser evil” compared with the use of condoms, the pill or hormonal treatment, according to Aupetit, but it is also… better for the environment.

“Our fathers and, especially, our grandfathers practised coitus interruptus, certainly more difficult but also more ecological”, the Archbishop of Paris writes.

Withdrawing during sex before ejaculation also avoids the other moral problems the archbishop also sees in other methods of birth control, namely, that they “exonerate men of responsibility in the pregnancy of their wives”.

“This practice of withdrawal, even if it does not correspond to a full gift of self, gave them [men] responsibility, and when the child came, they felt fully involved”, the Archbishop of Paris explains.

Why it matters

What then is the problem with coitus interruptus, especially if, for Aupetit, artificial contraception is responsible for the “generalised adultery” in society today, which the archbishop says is so prevalent as to be “advertised even in metro stations”?

In Church history, the withdrawal method has been condemned under the name of the “sin of Onan”.

That sin is named after the biblical figure who, obliged to raise up offspring for his dead brother, “spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother” (Gen. 38:3-10), and was killed by God for that sin.

Though theologians debate whether the sin of Onan is having practised coitus interruptus or having avoided his ancient familial responsibility, it is surprising that Aupetit flies in the face of Church tradition with his defence of the withdrawal method, even as a “lesser evil” and a “more ecological” alternative.

Aupetit’s contribution to Catholic sexual morality is also significant in terms of the bioethics debate in France over the past few months.

In that debate, the Church has just been dealt a resounding defeat this last week with the passage in the Senate of a bill that will allow access to medically-assisted procreation (PMA) to all women regardless of marital status or sexual orientation, despite the bishops’ opposition to that access.

Aupetit has been a leading spokesman of the episcopacy against the bioethics legislation, as well as of what has been called “bioconservatism”: the condemnation of the pill and PMA in the name of ecologism.

On the question of PMA for all women, the Paris archbishop wrote: “We see that it [becoming pregnant] is more a question of filling a frustration whose legitimacy is not obvious at the expense of the good of the unborn child, which risks becoming a manufactured consumer good”.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.