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Mahatma Gandhi

In January 1936, a meeting took place between Mohandas Gandhi and Margaret Sanger. The subject of their conversation on that auspicious occasion was contraception. Mrs. Sanger was, at that time, the high priestess of the birth control movement. For her, as well as for her legion of followers, "birth control" meant contraception. Gandhi had a different understanding of birth control. For him it meant temperance, or self-control.

During their meeting, Sanger tried to convince Gandhi 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 (The Works of Gandhi, vol. iv, pp. 45-48).

Sanger meets Gandhi

It may be that no two more utterly disparate world figures of the 20th 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 16-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 Rev. Martin Luther King 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 40 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 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."

Leading "Godly lives" (Titus 2:12)

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's undoing. 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 its natural consequence, divides man, separating him from the meaning of his own actions. For Gandhi, contraception "simply unmans man": "I suggest that it is cowardly to refuse to face the consequences of one's acts. Persons who use contraception will never learn the value of self-restraint. They will not need it. Self-indulgence with contraceptives may prevent the coming of children but will sap the vitality of both men and women, perhaps more of men than of women. It is unmanly to refuse battle with the devil."

Rome has also spoken

Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (1968), echoes many of the thoughts that Gandhi expounded concerning the evils of contraception. Gandhi stated: "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." In Humanae Vitae, Paul VI wrote:

"It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conception practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion" (no. 17).

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. 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.

Separate paths

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: "One of the things I admired the Church for so much was Humanae Vitae. I think it's absolutely right that when a society doesn't want children, when it's prepared to accept eroticism unrelated in any way to its purpose, then it's on the downward path." 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.


DeMarco, Donald. "Temperance." Lay Witness (April 2000).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2000 LayWitness



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