This past week I have received a number of notifications that this priest or that priest has given a homily on contraception. It is a lamentable fact that most Catholics have never heard contraception mentioned from the pulpit. And now, thanks to President Obama, they have!
How very, very devious of the Holy Spirit to use the insidious HHS mandate as a means of getting the Church’s teaching on contraception not only before the public, but before Catholics.
I have been trying to help priests for some years to preach on contraception. Perhaps a dozen bishops or so have invited me to speak to their priests on the subject of “How to Promote Humanae Vitae and Natural Family Planning in the Parish.” As part of the presentation I comment on how rare it is for priests to preach on any moral topic.
Sadly, we pew sitters never hear priests preach against greed, racism, drunkenness, adultery, laziness, fornication, pornography, gossip, wasteful spending of money and time, etc. let alone contraception. Many Catholics have heard at least one good homily on abortion, though few have heard more than one. We hear a lot about the need to believe God loves us and to be loving and forgiving and most of us take those words to heart and try to advance in those respects. But we don’t hear priests preach on moral topics.
How strange since Christ’s first public words were “Repent and believe in the Good News”! Why do so few priest emulate St Paul who was not shy to chastise the wayward?:
You know perfectly well that people who do wrong will not inherit the kingdom of God: people of immoral lives, idolaters, adulterers, catamites, sodomites, thieves, usurers, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will never inherit the kingdom of God. These are the sort of people some of you were once, but now you have been washed clean, and sanctified, and justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God.. (1 Cor 6:10)
Why aren’t we being asked to repent either in a general or a specific way? I think the dissent against Humanae Vitae is largely responsible. Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s book, Catholics and Contraception: An American History, documented that in the first half of the twentieth century, Catholic priests preached frequently and effectively on contraception. Catholics were happily having large families and were proud of their nonmaterialistic witness to the faith.
The dissent of prominent theologians from Humanae Vitae , such as Fr. Bernard Haering and Fr Charles Curran, quickly penetrated the universities and seminaries. Seminarians were taught NOT to preach on contraception. The dissent from Humanae Vitae morphed into dissent from virtually everything; it seems there were no certain teachings on anything, except that God loves us and wants us to be loving and forgiving.
It would be unjust to accuse the current crop of US bishops as being at fault for the failure of priests to preach on contraception. Some individual bishops in recent years have issued pastoral letters on Humanae Vitae and finally in 2006, the US Bishops issued Married Love and the Gift of Life, their first pastoral document on marriage in over 40 years. But what would the world look like if bishops and priests had been educating their flock on contraception for the last 50 years rather than ignoring the issue nearly entirely? Fr. Roger Landry tells us that 50% of those coming to him for marriage preparation do not know that the Church teaches against contraception.
Perhaps some day bishops in more countries will echo the amazing apology of the Philippine Bishops in their 1990 document Love is Life:
It is said that when seeking ways of regulating births, only 5% of you consult God. In the face of this unfortunate fact, we your pastors have been remiss: how few are there among you whom we have reached. There have been some couples eager to share their expertise and values on birth regulation with others. They did not receive adequate support from their priests. We did not give them due attention, believing then this ministry consisted merely of imparting a technique best left to married couples.
Only recently have we discovered how deep your yearning is for God to be present in your married lives. But we did not know then how to help you discover God’s presence and activity in your mission of Christian parenting. Afflicted with doubts about alternatives to contraceptive technology, we abandoned you to your confused and lonely consciences with a lame excuse: “follow what your conscience tells you.” How little we realized that it was our consciences that needed to be formed first. A greater concern would have led us to discover that religious hunger in you.
The most vocal defender of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, particularly contraception, was John Paul II. Two decades before he became Holy Father he wrote Love and Responsibility, a brilliant philosophical defense of the Church’s condemnation of contraception. Among other propositions, he defended the obvious truth that when one is choosing a sexual partner, one is essentially choosing a future parent of one’s children. That, clearly, is a phenomenally affirmative action: “I choose you to be the father/mother of my children.” That means that the partners are choosing each other not just for some momentary sexual pleasure but for a lifetime committed union with each other. (How many women whose contraception has failed, have had to live with the painful reality that the man they had sex with is now the father of their child and now, whether they want it to be true or not, they have a lifetime relationship with him – rarely that of marriage.)
Twenty years later, in his work known as the Theology of the Body, John Paul II provided a scriptural defense of the Church’s condemnation of contraception. There he explained how the human body by its very make up shows that we are meant to be in union with another; how we are to make a complete gifts of ourselves to others, and how new life is designed to issue from that loving, self-giving union. Withholding one’s fertility from an act of marital intercourse is to withhold precisely from that act what makes it most affirming and bonding.
Because for decades moral philosophy professors in seminaries were dissenters, many priests are ill equipped to preach against contraception (or, as I stated, on any moral issue!). (Most contemporary priests are in the same situation as we pew-sitters – they have never heard a homily by a parish priest on a moral issue.) The good news is that many priests trained in the last decade or so, have received solid training in the seminary and have read the works of John Paul II. Equally formative has been their often first hand experience of the destructive results of a contraceptive culture – aborted babies, children raised without fathers, heartbreak, disease, poverty. They are ready and willing and now, with the issuing of Obama’s mandate, they have found the perfect opportunity to try to save women, men, children and our culture from such harm.
See, for instance, Fr Leos’ response to the mandate. It is just the kind of bold, humorous, and dare I say, manly approach, that I think we will see from a new generation of priests.
So if you are a Catholic and you want your priest to preach on contraception, these are a few things you might do (after praying and fasting!). Give him a copy of my CD: Contraception: Why Not (don’t mean to be self-promoting but….). Provide him with Jenn Giroux’s “Deadly Health Risks for Women” on the abortifacient properties of the chemical contraceptives and their serious health risks. Recommend that he put in the bulletin a terrific insert produced by the US bishops some years back (based on a pamphlet they had produced): Married Love and the Gift of Life. Or recommend that he put the pamphlet “Sex and Contraception” (sorry, by me again!) in the pamphlet rack or on the tables in the back of the Church. Of course, approach him nicely about this and if you are able to you might want to offer to pay for whatever costs are involved.
I never thought I would be thanking President Obama for helping Catholics understand the Church’s teaching on contraception. Indeed, I must concede he has been more successful than I have been in prompting priests to teach on this matter.
Watch out President Obama, the men in black are back!
Professor Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Over 2 million copies of Smith’s CD Contraception: Why Not have been distributed and are available at contraceptionwhynot.com.