Contraception: a Challenge to Catholic Preaching
"Father," the lady said, "last Friday when I went to pick up Maureen from Holy Angels, a couple of the mothers were openly discussing what birth control methods to use. These were Catholic women who attend Sunday Mass and send their children to Catholic schools. It happens all the time."
Perhaps it does happen all the time. According to the Gallup Poll, the majority of Catholics disregard the Church's traditional teaching against contraception. On September 11, 1968, less than six weeks after Pope Paul VI had issued his Encyclical Humanae Vitae1, the poll asked "those who heard or read about Pope Paul's statement," "Do you favor or oppose his position on this matter?" Fifty-four percent of the Catholics surveyed said they opposed the pope's position. Moreover, 65 percent of the Catholics who were asked "Do you think it is possible to practice artificial methods of birth control and still be a good Catholic" said Yes.
In another poll taken on August 11, 1993, 82 percent of Catholics said one can use artificial birth control "and still be a good Catholic."
The statement that these dissenters opposed is this: "The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches as absolutely required that in any use whatever of marriage there must be no impairment of its natural capacity to procreate human life."1 It is essentially the same as the condemnation of contraception, issued 38 years earlier, in the Encyclical Casti Connubii. There Pope Pius XI wrote, "But no reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious."2
In making their statements, both sovereign pontiffs maintain that they are exercising the authority Christ transmitted to them as successors of Peter. Pope Paul VI wrote: "Let no Catholic be heard to assert that the interpretation of the natural moral law is outside the competence of the Church's magisterium. It is in fact indisputable, as our Predecessors have many times declared, that Jesus Christ, when he communicated his divine power to Peter and the other apostles and sent them to teach all nations his commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the gospel but also of the natural law, the reason being the natural law declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men's salvation."3
Even more forcefully, Pope Pius XI declared:
Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and that those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of grave sin.4
In the light of these pontifical statements, the widespread rejection by Catholics of their Church's teaching on contraception is alarming. There can be no doubt that the Catholic Church has always asserted divine authority in proclaiming what men must believe and do in order to save their souls. Nor can there be any doubt that the Church has always condemned contraception as intrinsically evil. Moreover, Lumen Gentium and Humani Generis have stressed the obligation of Catholics to submit their minds and wills to the teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff even when he does not speak ex cathedra. As Pius XII said in Humani Generis,
Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me" and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.5
Anyone who claims to be a Catholic but rejects the Church's teaching can justly be compared to Judas. As Saint Thomas More said, "In the same way Christ is approached, greeted, called 'Rabbi', kissed, by those who pretend to be disciples of Christ, professing His teaching in name but striving in fact to undermine it by crafty tricks and strategies."6 There are many priests who are far more deserving of the epithet than the laity.
Although Pope Paul VI made a special appeal to them "to expound the Church's teaching with regard to marriage in its entirety and with complete frankness," priests turned their backs on him. Unmoved, they listened to this terrible warning of Pope Pius XI:
If any confessor or pastor of souls, which may God forbid, lead the faithful entrusted to him into these errors or should at least confirm them by approval or by guilty silence, let him be mindful of the fact that he must render a strict account to God, the Supreme Judge, for the betrayal of his sacred trust, and let him take to himself the words of Christ: "They are blind and leaders of the blind: and if the blind lead the blind, both fall into a pit."7
In the July 16 issue of America magazine Father Andrew Greely reported the results of two studies, which revealamong other thingsthat most American priests do not support Humanae Vitae. One study, which was conducted for the National Federation of Priest Councils by the Life Cycle Institute of Catholic University of America, was based on 1,186 respondents. The other, which was conducted by the Los Angeles Times, was based on 2,061 respondents. Only 25 percent of these priests disapproved of contraception.
Despite evidence that contraception has caused the injury and even death of women, that it has occasioned divorce and that it is often an abortifacient, 75 percent of the priests surveyed favored it. What is this but spiritual blindness writ large? These men, having ignored the clear teaching of the Church, now find themselvesin their ignoranceapproving of sterilization, the preferred method of contraception, and abortifacients, the second most popular means of birth control (IUDs are always abortifacient and since the seventies the pill has been an abortifacient in half the cases).
Priests who approve of contraception not only deliver their flocks to physical and moral evil but drive them to eternal ruin. Because of their spiritual blindness, they do not appreciate the charity that has prompted the repeated warnings of the Holy See. In Casti Connubii, for example, Pope Pius XI admonished priests: ". . . in Our solicitude for the salvation of souls, not to allow the faithful entrusted to them to err regarding this most grave law of God."8
Only those priests who are docile to the teachings of the Church can have the charity to warn their neighbors of the evil of contraception. To achieve this goal they should provide their people with material from such organizations as Couple to Couple League ( P.O. Box 111184, Cincinnati, Ohio 45211-1184) and Human Life International (7845 Airpark Rd., Suite E, Gaithersburg, Md. 20879).
They must also preach. Saint Caesarius of Arles, a sixth century bishop, provides an example. In one of his sermons he told his congregation ". . . women should not take diabolical draughts with the purpose of not being able to conceive" and justified his blunt speech by citing these words from Isaiah: "Cry, cease not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and show my people their sins" (Isaiah 58:1).9
Because such a warning is valuable when a man is convinced of the fundamental truths, congregations should be reminded yearly of the meaning and purpose of life, sin and its consequences, the last things and the infinite mercy of God in the sacrament of penance. They must be further reminded that the Church is "the pillar and ground of truth"(1 Tim. 3:15), established by Christ, who is the truth, and protected by the Paraclete, "the Spirit of Truth"(John 16:13). Finally, they must be disabused of the disastrous notion that conscience excuses men from submitting to truth proposed by a divinely established authority. Conscience is not a teacher but a pupil. It is not a sovereign but the herald of the Great King whose will man must obey.
Preaching "the Church's teaching with regard to marriage in its entirety" demands a condemnation of contraception, but this is something that not every priest who accepts that teaching is willing to do. Such a condemnation, after all, may provoke the anger of parishioners and not gain the support of bishops. This consideration, however, collides with Saint Paul's injunction to Timothy, i.e., "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine"(2 Tim. 4:2). To be instant in season and out of season is to preach God's message whether the hearers welcome it or not. The preacher may not succeed in winning over his congregation but the prospect of failure does not excuse him from his duty. As Mother Teresa said, "God does not ask me to be successful; He asks me to be faithful."
Fidelity to Christ in fulfilling the pastoral office is a key point in Saint Augustine's commentary on the parable of the Good Shepherd. There he observes that though he is needful, the hireling is blameworthy because he seeks what is his own and not the things of Jesus Christ. Recognizing that there are hirelings in the Church of God, Augustine identifies these men as those who do not love Christ freely, who do not seek after God for His own sake; who are pursuing after temporal advantages, gaping for gain, coveting honors from men. When such things are loved by an overseer and for such things does he serve God, whoever such a one may be, he is a hireling who cannot count himself among the children. For such also the Lord said, "Verily I say unto you, they have their reward."10
Later in the same commentary he reprimands the pastor for not censuring evil with words that should make us priests squirm. He says,
Who is the hireling that seeth the wolf coming and fleeth? He that seeketh his own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's. He is one that does not venture plainly to rebuke an offender. Look, some one or other has sinned grievously sinned; he ought to be rebuked, to be excommunicated; but once excommunicated, he will turn into an enemy, hatch plots and do all the injury he can. At present he who seeketh his own, not the things that are Jesus Christ's, in order not to lose what he follows after, the advantages of human friendship, and incur the annoyances of human enmity keeps quiet and does not administer rebuke. See, the wolf has caught a sheep by the throat; the devil has enticed a believer into adultery: thou holdst thy peacethou utterest no reproof. O hireling, thou hast seen the wolf coming and fled! Perhaps he answers and says: See, I am here; I have not fled! Thou hast fled, because thou hast been silent; thou hast been silent, because thou hast been afraid. The flight of the mind is fear. Thou stoodst with thy body, thou fleddest in Thy spirit.11
Augustine's scolding of the hireling must force us priests to examine our consciences. The wolf has attacked the flock of Christ. As a result of a widespread campaign, the vast majority of American Catholic peoplein peril of their eternal salvationhas embraced contraception. Instead of resisting the wolf, many shepherds assist him in his depredations and others, paralyzed with fear, do not sound the alarm. Are we silent because we have fled in our spirit ? Are we silent because we do not seek the things of Jesus Christ?
1 Pope Paul VI, Encyclical Letter on the Regulation of Births, Vatican Collection, Vol. II. ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, N.Y.: Costello Publishing Company, 1982) p. 403.
2 Pope Pius XI, "Encyclical Letter on Christian Marriage." St. Paul Editions (Daughters of St. Paul) p. 28.
3 Pope Paul VI, "Encyclical Letter on the Regulation of Births," pp. 398-399.
4 Pope Pius XI, "Encyclical Letter on Christian Marriage," pp. 28-29.
5 Pope Pius XII, "Humani Generis," St. Paul Editions. (Daughters of St. Paul) p.8.
6 Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ. ed. Gerald Wegemer (Yale University Press: 1976) p. 70.
7 Pope Pius XI, "Encyclical Letter on Christian Marriage," p. 29.
8 Pope Pius XI, "Encyclical Letter on Christian Marriage," p. 29.
9 Saint Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 44, The Fathers of the Church. ed. Defarrari et al., trans. Sr. Mary Magdelein Mueller, O.S.F. Vol. 31 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956) p. 221.
10 Saint Augustine, "On The Gospel of St. John," Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Rev. John Gibb. Vol . 7 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995) p. 257.
11 Ibid. p. 259.
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