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.