Jousting, Dueling, and Artificial Contraception


What does artificial contraception–the modern practice of using technology to defeat the procreative tendency of sexual intercourse–have to do with jousting–the medieval practice of fighting for fun and glory–and with dueling–the medieval and early modern practice of trying to kill a man to prove one’s honor?

Recently I was reading historian Barbara Tuchman‘s A Distant Mirror, her account–as her subtitle tells us–of “the Calamitous Fourteenth Century,” and her comparison of it to the also calamitous twentieth century.  Among many, many other things, Tuchman observes that in the middle ages the Catholic Church condemned jousting repeatedly and insistently, but that for the most part nobody listened.  Jousting went on among the noble classes, even though they were all Catholic, and even though the Church had said not to do it in terms that nobody could mistake or overlook.


Msgr. Ronald Knox makes a similar point in his excellent book The Belief of Catholics.  He observes that the Church condemned dueling for a very long time, during which its pronouncements were mostly ignored.  Eventually, of course, both jousting and dueling died out as civilization progressed.

It occurred to me as I thought about these things that there is an interesting parallel to our own times.  The Church today is in the same position to the larger society–many ordinary Catholics included–with regard to its teaching on artificial contraception as it was in the past with regard to its teaching on jousting and dueling.  It is faithfully proclaiming its teaching, even though many people dismiss that teaching as hopelessly unworldly.

And there is this parallel, too: The Catholics today who ignore the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception, saying that it is hopelessly unsuited to the real world we inhabit, are in the same position as those Catholics of the past who ignored the Church’s strictures against jousting and dueling for exactly the same reason.  Then and now, they would rather conform to the present culture’s understanding of what is “good” than to the Church’s teaching about what is truly good.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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