Getting Beyond “I Can’t”
By Frs. Dan McCaffrey
and Matthew Habiger, OSB, PhD
We travel the entire United States of America proclaiming the Gospel of Life as it pertains to God’s plan for spousal love. This plan calls for a total gift of self to one’s spouse and the acceptance of her total gift of self in kind. Contraception makes such an unconditional gift impossible. Natural Family Planning fosters these values, and cooperates with them.
Everywhere we go we find married couples asking, “Why won’t our priests address the issue of contraception and sterilization from the pulpit?” Having heard these frustrated questions many times, we think it is time to list the top eight excuses given by priests and our answers to them:
1) “Talking about contraception and sterilization would scandalize the children in the congregation. Thus, I can’t deal with them at the pulpit.”
But Jesus didn’t have such reservations. When he was addressing large crowds he talked about sexual sins. Recall the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27). Children are not offended by a teaching on God’s plan for spousal love. Rather, they are the victims of silence at the pulpit. People get hurt when there is confusion about right and wrong, and there is a great confusion today about the moral evil of contraception and sterilization. Children do not understand the language we use when discussing capital punishment, euthanasia, or experimentation on human embryos. They take from a homily what they need. If they have questions, they can ask their parents for an explanation suited to their level of comprehension.
Refusing to address major moral issues at the pulpit, in effect, makes infants of the entire congregation, who often do not know that contraception and sterilization are wrong, and do not understand why they are wrong. Today we have many adults who are seriously immature in the development of their conscience.
2) “It’s okay to talk about these matters in RCIA, marriage preparation classes and to provide pamphlets on these issues in the vestibule, but not at the pulpit.”
But this approach misses the point. “Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception.” (Evangelium Vitae 58). Important issues cannot be censored from the pulpit. If a message does not happen at the pulpit, it doesn’t happen. There is great ignorance among Catholics about the morality of contraception and sterilization. Very few understand why these choices and acts are immoral. Many people think that if a topic is not treated at the pulpit, where it is heard by all, then it is not important and can be ignored. RCIA classes, marriage prep classes, and the pamphlet rack are good ways to supplement teaching from the pulpit, but can never replace it.
3) “These issues are contentious. They will produce strife and discord.”
But this means that the priest, as a moral guide, cannot provide moral guidance where it is most needed. If people already understand an issue, like slavery for example, and do not dispute it, then there is no need to address it from the pulpit. But if many people are violating the 5th and 6th Commandments, do not know it, and can’t understand why these acts are sinful, then we priests must address the issue. Not to address them is reprehensible negligence on our part. We must inform conscience by proposing moral truth. The approach we use is that of Jesus: we speak the truth in charity, and with conviction and forthrightness. If we allow the Gospel to be silenced because we refuse to accept criticism from those who reject Gospel values, then we fail in our priesthood. It is not our Gospel. We are not at liberty to decide what parts of the Gospel are too hard to accept, and can be ignored. Contraception and sterilization are serious matters, and they are causing much harm to our marriages, our families and to our young people.
4) “Collections will go down.”
The guiding principle must be that we do not surrender the pulpit to the dollar sign. “May your money perish with you …” (Acts 8:20). The collection could go down temporarily. But beyond that, we members of the clergy must anticipate the criteria our Lord will use to evaluate our pastoral care of the flock entrusted to our care. The main criterion will not be “Did you get all the bills paid and have a smooth running operation?” Rather, it will be “Did you guide my people into a knowledge of my ways, my Gospel, and into a love for the splendor of the truth?” Paying bills is not high on the list of pastoral success. The qualities of a CEO are not those of being a priest. Bringing people to the person, heart and mind of the Lord is what is essential. God does not demand success from us in terms of our people’s response to good moral teaching. He does demand that we faithfully propose and teach the values that comport well with our dignity as bodied persons. God’s plan for human sexuality, marriage and family are an essential part of the Gospel of Life in these times.
Priests who have consistently proposed the values of Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio and Evangelium Vitae will tell you that their collections have not collapsed. Instead, the parish has learned the meaning of a spirit of generosity, and that is reflected in parish contributions as well as volunteer service to various parish organizations. Couples who practice NFP are very often the most generous volunteers in the parish. Couples open to life are also open to giving their children to the priesthood and religious life. If they are caught up in the contraceptive culture, then they will likely not be generous with God by accepting His invitation to their sons and daughters.
5) “People will go to another church because they don’t want to hear this.”
Sad to say, not every parish is on the same page when dealing with matters of sexuality, marriage and the family. Some parishes simply ignore whatever is politically incorrect. They allow dissenting elements within the parish to determine what parts of the Gospel can be proclaimed there. This, in turn, means that forces within the secular society exert an influence over some parishioners, who bring that to bear upon the entire parish. Instead of being counter-cultural, such a parish becomes a mere reflection of the secular culture.
But this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. What is there to prevent a clergyman from proclaiming God’s beautiful plan for human love, life, marriage and family? We are not to worry about those who may reject the truth and leave. Our Lord did not change his teaching about the Eucharist when many in His audience found this a hard saying and walked away. He respected their freedom, and let them walk. But they had to respect His freedom also and His responsibility to proclaim the message the Father gave Him, which is for the life of the world. If all the clergy were clearly teaching good moral principles, then our people would not go shopping for the preacher who suits their ears.
6) “When the bishop talks about it, I’ll begin to talk about it.”
One can understand why a priest or deacon would hesitate to take the initiative in teaching values that have been largely ignored since 1968. We have a right to expect our spiritual fathers, the bishops, to lead by their example in addressing these serious matters. This is their duty as moral guides and spiritual leaders of a diocese. They are to be the good shepherd for the entire diocese. But what happens if they do not speak out? Is the pastor justified in keeping silent? When we priests die, the Lord will not ask you “What did the bishop do?” He will ask, “What did you do? You are the pastor of your people.”
Our priesthood comes from the Lord, not from another human being. Our obligations go to the Lord, before they go to any of His human representatives. God holds us accountable for what we do, for our choices and actions, and taking responsibility for ourselves and our people. True leadership means that we address the real needs of our times, regardless of what others are not doing. Reprehensible negligence does not justify other reprehensible negligence. Perhaps what needs to be done in a diocese where the bishop chooses not to address these issues is to have many of the clergy give him their assurance that they will support his giving a public teaching. Perhaps the bishop is concerned that if he takes any initiative in these matters, then his clergy will publicly refuse to comply, as happened when Humanae Vitae was first promulgated. Everyone admires leadership, but where will leadership arise? We think that the good Lord expects all of us to be spiritual and moral leaders.
7) “I’m not prepared to speak about these issues because I wasn’t trained in the seminary for this.”
We find that many clergy are woefully unprepared to address these issues. They have not kept up with their reading and personal ongoing formation in the areas of human sexuality, chastity and marriage. But this is not an acceptable excuse. What other profession would be excused from professional ongoing formation, keeping abreast with contemporary developments in their profession? If medical doctors did not keep themselves updated, they would lose their license to practice medicine. Can it be any different for the clergy?
There are excellent materials available today to help us understand the beauty of God’s plan for human love, and especially marital love. There is Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body; there is Christian Personalism. There are the writings of reliable moral theologians. There are the writings, CDs and videotapes of Dr. Janet Smith. There are the testimonies of thousands of married couples that have discovered the blessings that these values have brought into their marriages and families. Two readily available sources for materials on Natural Family Planning and the harms of contraception and sterilization are One More Soul (www.omsoul.com) and the Couple to Couple League International (www.ccli.org). CCL provides three-day clergy conferences twice a year at Covington, Kentucky. NFP Outreach (www.nfpoutreach.org) helps design and conduct clergy conferences for entire dioceses on the topic of “How to Present the Values of NFP From the Pulpit.” There are many good Catholic doctors who are willing to bring their expertise to these conferences. And there are hundreds of married couples that are willing to give their testimonies about the values of NFP in their marriages.
Ignorance was never a good excuse for justifying neglect. And it will not wash today in areas that are so vital to good marriages and happy families.
8) “The recent clergy sex scandals make it impossible for me to talk about sex today. I have no credibility.”
This is very much the intent of some forces in the secular society, which want to muzzle the pulpits on matters of sexual morality. They don’t want us to teach about God’s plan for human sexuality. But there is no such thing as a moral vacuum. If good morality is not being taught, then other varieties of sexual ideology will be taught. We see it today in the push for acceptance of single sex marriages, in safe sex for our young people, and in trivializing committed relationships.
The clergy sex scandals call for greater, not less, emphasis upon sexual morality. If there had been greater clarity on these matters from the pulpit in the past, then everyone would know the standards, which apply to everyone, and we would have been spared much grief. Our young people would not have been victimized. Dioceses would not be in danger of bankruptcy. Respect for the clergy would not be at an all time low. Bishops would not be faulted for their lack of oversight. Scandals erupt when there is no clarity of moral teaching coming from the pulpit. Our times call for more, not less, moral teaching from the pulpit.
Both the clergy and the laity have to clean up their act. The abuse of young people by 4% of the clergy in the United States is indeed a scandal. The abuse of sexuality by 80% of Catholic couples that are using birth control, or are sterilized, is also a great scandal. Before one group can throw stones at the other, they must first clean up their act. God is chastising his people because of violations against His sexual code. He chastises the clergy by not providing vocations to religious life and the priesthood. He chastises the laity by weak marriages, a 50% divorce rate, lots of unhappiness, and children who bear the brunt of their parent’s selfishness. So both the clergy and the laity need to hold the other accountable. We are not beating up on each other; rather, we are confronting the truth together.
The responsibility of the clergy and the religious is to hand on the deposit of the Faith as preached by the Apostles, which includes teaching moral truths. This includes explaining why God’s plan is so good for us, and so deserving of our efforts to comply with it. The responsibility of the laity is to integrate good moral principles into their lives and actions. Then they are to take these values out into the broader society, and help shape the culture with these Gospel values. This is part of the new evangelization.
9) In Conclusion
Perhaps it could be said that contraception also applies to us priests today. We may be willing to speak about the love-giving dimensions of the Gospel, but are unwilling to address its life-giving dimensions. We know, however, that love without life is sterile. And we know that real love is demonstrated by our willingness to be totally “for” our people, which may also involve suffering occasional rejection and criticism. The Gospel is one of life, as well as of love. Because He loves us, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for us, so that we could have life to the full. Are not we priests, then, to foster life and greater life among our people, in an age which is characterized as a culture of death? We should not be contracepting the Gospel of its life-giving dimensions.
We priests may think it will be difficult for our people to give up contraception and adopt pure spousal love. But will it not also be difficult for us to give up our contraceptive approach to the Gospel? With God’s grace, and with an openness to conversion, all of this is possible.
There are no reasons today that would justify a continued silence at the pulpit about matters of sexual morality, especially in the areas of contraception and sterilization. Begin your search for good materials for reading and reflection. Integrate these values into your own spirituality, and then you will develop your own way to articulate them in your preaching and moral counseling.