Why Don’t We Hear More Sermons on Marriage and Contraception?

As Stephen White noted, Cardinal O’Malley of Boston is quite right to suggest that liberal institutions like the New York Times give far more evidence of being obsessed with same-sex marriage and contraception than does the Catholic Church.  Still, in his remarks on the question of “obsession” the Cardinal raised some questions that might be appropriate to pursue further.  He said the following as a way of showing that the charge of “obsession” is off the mark:

The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They’ll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They’ll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at the New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?

The Cardinal is correct that one can hardly say that the Catholic Church is obsessed with same-sex marriage and contraception.  On the other hand, it seems strange to just blandly note that the “normal Catholic” will “never” hear a sermon on homosexuality, gay marriage, or contraception.


In the first place, I don’t think this is entirely true.  I have heard sermons on homosexuality, gay marriage, and even contraception.  Maybe I am not a normal Catholic, but the people around me looked like normal Catholics, and they were hearing the same sermons I heard.  In truth, I heard these sermons not in some strange, ultra conservative church but in a suburban Catholic parish in a mid-sized midwestern American city.  These sermons, by they way, were nothing at all like diatribes against any group of people but were simply charitable and gentle discussions of Catholic teaching on these questions.

In the second place, and more to the point: To the extent that it is true that most normal Catholics never hear a sermon on homosexuality, gay marriage, or contraception, isn’t this kind of a problem?  Of course we need not obsess on these issues, as Pope Francis warned so famously.  On the other hand, they all have to do with sex, and sex is going to be part of the ordinary life of almost all ordinary Catholics: most people are not called to a life of celibacy but to marriage.  Wouldn’t it make sense that these questions should be addressed from the pulpit, so that the Catholic faithful have a good sense of the Church’s teaching pertaining to human sexuality?  We are told that we have to live out the faith, and seek to be virtuous, in everyday life.  But sex is part of everyday life for most Catholics, so it would seem important to equip them with an understanding of the Church’s teaching on the purposes of human sexuality.  This is especially true if sex is not just something trivial but something of deep human and theological importance, which is certainly the Church’s position on the matter.

Cardinal O’Malley goes on and notes that these issues are typically treated “in CCD classes, along with the rest of Catholic doctrine.”  That is fine, but it would not mean that that these issues should not also be discussed in sermons.  Isn’t it the purpose of sermons to build on and emphasize the things that are taught in CCD classes?  And wouldn’t this be especially important if there was evidence that much of what is taught in CCD doesn’t seem to stick, so to speak?  I don’t have statistical evidence of this at hand, but I think most people would admit that having completed CCD is no strong indicator that a person will adhere to the Church’s teaching on the meaning and purpose of marriage, including its understanding of the morality of artificial contraception.

There is another problem, by the way, with not having these issues as a more prominent part of the sermons preached by priests.  When they are no part, or only a very small part, of the ordinary Catholic’s ongoing spiritual and moral formation, then it appears that the bishops are engaged in nothing but pure politics when they make pronouncements on these questions in relation to public policy.

So while we certainly should not obsess over these issues, it would not hurt the Church to talk about them more.



  • TCL

    I’m 25. I didn’t learn about Church teaching on these issues from the pulpit. For the most part, I had to dig to learn about them, and discovered a lot of it on my own. In truth, it made me a bit mad that I hadn’t heard more about it. I felt like something was kept from me that makes so much sense out of so many problems we’re facing. We can’t be apathetic about it, and I’m sure we can present it in an engaging context. But, I agree it would be difficult to educate on this issue in a sermon due to age appropriateness.

  • Slats

    Carson, well-said as usual. Yes, these issues should be discussed from the pulpit.

  • Donna

    In our quasi-suburban Texas parish, we have a common joke about the “A” word and the “C” word. We were shocked when father actually said the “A” word from the pulpit–“abortion”, and then only because the bishop sent out a specific request for a specific day last year for a sermon to be on abortion (daily mass, of course.) He has never said “contraception”, the “C” word. There is no problem, however, with “sex”, particularly in jokes.

  • MorganB

    Carson, I heard Cardinal O’Malley’s sermon on EWTN.

    We have all heard the church’s position on homosexuality, gay marriage and contraception many times. As far as I am concerned, just like ordaining women priests, which I fully support, there is NO room for discussion. Kinda like the answer one would expect from a male dominated organization.

    I had an encounter with a priest many years ago when in the confessional. Being young and naive I asked for his advice on contraception. My first wife, now deceased, had two difficult pregnancies and our Catholic doctor insisted she have no more children. In the confessional I mentioned vasectomy. Father Farrelley went berserk and kicked me out. Needless to say I was shocked. I left the unforgiving church and have not returned. The reproductive concern was solved. Maybe I should have shopped for a new priest?

    • Dan

      Morgan-While I understand your concern RE: your related experience at the confessional, I’m not sure why the gratuitous “male-dominated organization” broadside was included in your post. I’m not sure the Church is the place for you, since you feel that your feelings on issues should supercede their teachings.

  • Will

    We hear homilies from our pastor about marriage, contraception, and abortion. Unfortunately, almost every homily is doom and gloom. Everything is getting worse. Not much of the “good news”. Many former parishioners attend Mass elsewhere.

    • Antonio A. Badilla

      Will, perhaps you hear gloom and doom because that’s what is going on in this culture of death,

      • Will

        Some people see the glass half empty and some see it half full. I think Christ’s message is more positive.

  • James

    I think it depends on your parish and perhaps diocese. A few priests (and more than a few laypersons) can really obsess about these issues.

    As for sermons: The issues of homosexuality and contraception rarely come up in the readings and to the extent they do, it is very indirect. The homily is generally supposed to be a discussion of the readings, so the priest would have to work it in over the main topics of the day.

    Additionally, for all sexual issues, children are in the congregation. How does a priest talk about these topics in a way that is frank enough for the adults, but doesn’t unintentionally give children information that isn’t developmentally appropriate? Not easy.

    • Slats

      James, several points –
      1) If at least the majority of the congregation hasn’t come to a solid consensus of heart and mind with Christ against abortion, contraception, and same-gender marriage, these issues are serious enough and affect the lives of Catholics enough that unless Father is talking about the issues very literally every week, there is no legitimate room to say that he is “obsessing” about, rather than necessarily addressing, the issues.

      2) While the specific issues as such may not be covered in the readings, healing, forgiveness, commitment, the decision to follow Christ, Christ’s role as bridegroom to the Church, integrity of life, and the unity of the Church are covered in nearly every reading. Each of these topics provide germane (i.e. not just spurious “springboarding”) entree into those issues in our day and age.

      3) The “children in the congregation” issue is pretty simple. Father needs not to say “sex,” but rather “what is appropriate to marriage.” He can even probably get by with “marital relations” or even “relations.” The word “contraception” isn’t very problematic, but language about “openness to life” and that sort of thing can serve as appropriate euphemisms. There is no reason to use the word “homosexual” or “homosexuality,” and of course within Catholic rhetoric and (certainly) liturgy, the use of the word “gay” would be uproariously inappropriate, but “same-gender attraction” or “same-gender marriage” work. As for abortion, there’s no way to sugar-coat it, except insofar as the smallest of children may not understand the word, but it has to be talked about. If Junior asks, “What was Father talking about?” and it’s not age-appropriate for him to know, Mom and Dad can explain that Father was talking about something that was appropriate for adults and being discreet about it, and that those issues will be explained when Junior is old enough.

      These issues are a hemorrhaging wound in the Body of Christ of the U.S. Church, and we’re far better off than our counterparts in Europe, certainly. These issues are hurting U.S. Catholics in their communion with God and with each other. It’s not okay for Catholics not to be catechized about the issues. It’s not okay for Catholics to believe that dissent from Church teaching on these issues is anything less than direly harmful for themselves, others around them,, and society at large. Opposition to the Church’s teaching on these issues, both “within” and outside of the Church, is founded in philosophical approaches and categories which are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Gospel.

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (quite correctly) that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, that which is indicated by the “eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” was the decision and project of human beings to define what was good and evil in their actions toward one another rather than accepting what God had written in the very design of the human creature. Such a project is, 100% of the time, going to have instances of asserting that what is good is evil, and that what is evil is good. Since God is the designer of the creature and since the creature was designed for communion, and since evil actions hurt communion, the damage caused by this project is no case academic, but always and everywhere catastrophic. It engenders evil actions, prevents repentance of them, propagates the supposed legitimacy of evil actions so that others engage in them, and of course cripples the communion God created human beings to have with Him and each other. It is this precise illness and its effects from which Jesus came to save us. If Father is leaving his flock languishing in relapse into that condition rather than doing something about it, and especially in this day and age in which the toxicity of its fumes are the very air which every one of us who aren’t hermits breathe every day, then he is as damnably guilty of negligence toward them as is a parent who doesn’t feed his or her child.

      Does Father need to bring these issues up every Sunday? No. But in this country, once a month is about right, until he is sure that the majority of his flock get the picture and are able to articulate and defend that message to others in their workplaces, friendships, and extended families.

    • SM2504

      Excellent point. I don’t see homilies as a place to discuss hot botton issues, but as a place to discuss what God is trying to tell us, especially in the context of sometimes complex Gospel readings. The best homilies are those in which the Pastor is able to relate to the parishioners through the Gospel lesson at hand.

      • Slats

        I find it monumentally naive and short-sighted to believe that God isn’t trying to tell us something about these significant issues in the Scriptures in our day and age.



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