In January 1936, a meeting took place between Mohandas Gandhi and Margaret Sanger. The subject of their conversation on that auspicious occasion was contraception.
Gandhi had a different understanding of birth control. For him it meant temperance, or self control.
During their meeting, Sanger tried to convince Gandh of the moral legitimacy of contraception. She wanted people to rely on contraceptive technology. Gandhi, who regarded the use of contraception as sinful, wanted people to rely on human virtue. He offered, therefore, a more human and less technological remedy for avoiding unwanted pregnancies. The great Hindu leader proposed a method in which the married couple would abstain from sexual union during the wife's fertile period.
It may be that no two more utterly disparate world figures of the twentieth century ever met to discuss a moral issue of such critical and global significance. Sanger was a libertine whose religion was pleasure. In a letter to her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, she advised that "for intercourse, I'd say three times a day was about right." Gandhi, known as Mahatma or "Great Soul," was an ascetic who dedicated his life completely to truth and peace. He led his people in India to their political independence, and both his example and his philosophy have continued to inspire others who labor for the same goals, including Reverend Martin Luther King jr. and his fight for civil rights.
It is not an exaggeration to compare this meeting between the voluptuary and the ascetic with that between Satan and Christ after the latter had fasted for forty days in the desert. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in 1939 and later became honorary president of International Planned Parenthood. Drawing from her second husband's wealth, she established the Margaret Sanger Research Bureau that financed the development of the birth control pill. Gandhi, a man of God, was entirely self-effacing. He advocated natural family planning and preached that virtuous temperance should be rooted in love. "If love is not the law of our being," he declared, "the whole fabric of my argument falls to pieces."
He called the particular form of temperance he practiced and preached, brahmacharya, a Sanskrit word referring to perfect control over the appetites and bodily organs. In 1924, Gandhi stated that, fully and properly understood, temperance, or brahmacharya, "signifies control of all the senses at all times and places in thought, word, and deed." It includes, yet transcends, sexual restraint. It rules out violence, untruth, hate, and anger. It creates a state of even mindedness that allows for self-transformation in God. Gandhi saw in the use of contraception the potential for man undoing himself. The virtue of temperance or brahmacharya is needed, he felt, for man to be truly himself and to allow God to work through him. Therefore, contraception, which divorces the sexual act from it's natural consequence, divides man, separating him from the meaning of his own actions. For Gandhi, contraception "simply unmans man":
Pope Paul VI echoed many of the thoughts that Gandhi expounded concerning the evils of contraception. Gandhi stated that, "As it is, man has sufficiently degraded woman for his lust, and artificial methods, no matter how well-meaning the advocates may be, will still further degrade her." Pope Paul VI wrote:
Gandhi advised people to use that particular part of temperance called "self-restraint" to achieve "self-transformation." Pope Paul VI underscored the importance of "self-mastery" in matters of sexuality (cf. Catechism, 2346). They both spoke of the importance of education and the cooperation of external agencies. Neither was hesitant in identifying the use of contraception as an evil and a disorder. Both saw contraception as an enemy to marriage.
The distinguished British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, long before he became a Roman Catholic, offered a comment in praise of Humanae Vitae that may be taken as an apt comment on the 1936 discussion between Gandhi and Sanger:
The paths of temperance or brahmacharya and eroticism most assuredly do not move in the same direction. As current history has indicated, the former leads to a culture of life, while the latter leads to a culture of death.
Donald DeMarco. "Temperance." from The Many Faces of Virtue (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2000): 43-46.
This article is reprinted with permission from Emmaus Road Publishing and Donald DeMarco.
Copyright © 2012 Emmaus Road Publishing
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