Among the many hard teachings of Christ that is deeply “offensive” to the dominant secular culture today is the Church’s age-old prohibition of the use of all forms of artificial contraception, which is a clearly-defined doctrine of the Church.
How many people have left the Church or formally rejected the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and still consider themselves good Catholics or Christians? Many more than we would like to admit, I’m sure. Perhaps many of the dissenters are even among those of our own close circle, who in all other ways are faithful to the teachings of Christ. But If we can believe the secular polls, contraception is a stumbling block for a high percentage of members of our own Church.
Yet, the teaching on artificial contraception is Christ’s teaching. The Church only defines it for us and hands it on through the ages. It is a fundamental element of the moral teaching of the Church, the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68) that come from the lips of Christ. It is one of the hard teachings of the Gospel that does not change according to the whims of any age. For the purposes of this article, we will leave a deeper explanation of this complex subject to credible witnesses in the modern age, the best of whom is Professor Janet E. Smith, the preeminent commentator and teacher on the subject of contraception, and focus on the legitimate duty to propagate this counter-cultural message of the Gospel.
A Conspiracy of Silence from the Pulpit
What is difficult to understand is the “conspiracy of silence” from the pulpits of our Church on the issue of contraception. If the faithful have been ignorant of the teaching of Christ on this issue, it is primarily due to the refusal of the Catholic clergy (deacons, priests, bishops) to address it in a consistent and realistic way in their preaching. Clergymen, however, have a moral obligation to do so.
The reasons for this negligence on the clergy’s part may range from a scandalous lack of belief in the teaching or a lack of moral courage to an inexcusable ignorance of the subject matter. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: clerical contraception. It is the other priestly scandal that few talk about.
Contraception itself is a rejection of God’s sovereignty over one’s marriage and a refusal to obey the Lord’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” The priest, though not married, analogously contracepts the life-giving seed of truth when he refuses to preach the Catholic Faith – all of it. He made a solemn promise to do so on the day of his ordination. Faith comes through hearing, says St. Paul, and it is through the priestly ministry that Christ transmits the Faith to His bride, the Church, so that she can be spiritually fruitful and multiply the souls who are brought to salvation.
The Parenting Analogy
I liken this situation to a certain difficult duty of parenting, namely the parental obligation to educate their children on the delicate matters of human sexuality. It is clearly one of the more difficult tasks of parenting but also one of the most important for the Christian and human formation of their souls.
Oftentimes parents delegate this duty to “sex-educators” (especially in public schools) who distort the very values of modesty and chastity that parents hope to instill in their children by their example at home. The passive communication of Christian values in the home environment is simply no match for the systematic programming of hedonistic values the kids get from the school system as well as the secular culture. Without an explicit effort by parents to communicate and instill Christian values in the lives and hearts of their children, the kids often emerge from their teen years imbued with a full set of pagan values – and behaviors – regarding human sexuality.
The Reality of Clerical Contraception
The analogy applies well to the silence of Catholic clerics regarding sexual morality in general and contraception in particular. Priests are spiritual parents – we call them fathers – who have an obligation to communicate the truth of these delicate matters to the faithful; and in many cases they don’t. (There are many marvelous exceptions, of course.)
Parents who later wonder where their kids “went wrong” in areas of sexual morality often have their own lack of diligence to blame. Priests who wonder why certain members of the Church (politicians and public figures, in particular) consider themselves Catholics “in good standing” while rejecting the teaching of Christ wholesale, analogously, have their own silence from the pulpit to blame.
A Different Conspiracy of Silence
It is said that “nature abhors a vacuum,” and that is true of spiritual nature as well. Where Christian values are lacking, where there is a conspiracy of silence in the place of a robust witness, negative spiritual values rush in. If the faithful have never been admonished that it is a mortal sin to use contraception or to have oneself sterilized, they adopt the default values of a society that harshly criticizes them as being “irresponsible” for having more than 2.1 children. The Catholic Church’s view of “responsible parenthood” is quite different from society’s default view, but few Catholics would know the difference due to the abysmal silence about it from the pulpit.
Likewise, when the faithful have never been told of the real physical and spiritual dangers of contraception, they endure the damage of these tolls of the culture of death wondering why no one ever warned them. (Note: take a quick look at the extensive list of side-effects of the hormonal birth control pill to get an idea of the significant health risks of taking this drug.) If the faithful have never been made aware of the magnificent alternatives that the Church offers to the world’s current love affair with infertility, they never experience the life-giving blessings that come through fidelity to Christ’s teaching.
As noted, every form of contraception has negative side-effects, but so does clerical contraception. Priests who are silent about the teaching on contraception forget two very important things: first, priestly vocations generally come from large families. It does not take much insight to understand the direct correlation between family size and vocations to the priesthood. Failure to preach openness to life and generosity in forming families has a direct effect on how many men will be standing in the ecclesiastical trenches with them later on.
Contracepting Church teaching has a comparable effect on the Church, as does contracepting the marital act: sterility. The persistent sterility of priestly vocations in the West is in some real way related to the deafening clerical silence about contraception from the pulpit. Perhaps priests forget that their vocations are the result of their own parents’ generosity with life. Overworked priests are already reaping the fruits of their silence on contraception and will likely be doing so for a long time to come.
Secondly, priestly silence about contraception has eternal consequences. The price of that silence is the loss of souls. Contracepting men and women, who are not warned of their sin and who therefore do not repent of it, risk the death of their souls, and that is a scandal of immense proportions. To be warned is to be forearmed, especially about something so crucial. Perhaps the only danger of greater consequence is the danger to the priests themselves who do not do their job: they risk their own spiritual deaths because they will be held accountable for preaching the Church’s full message “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
What to Do About This Problem
The first response of the laity to clerical contraception is personal fidelity to our Church’s teaching. We cannot point a finger accusing another of infidelity if we ourselves are not faithful. Even if the “official” teachers are silent, the best teachers are the witnesses who live the teaching and pass that teaching on to those for whom they are responsible. St. Paul reminds us that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, for good or for evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Let that be a stark reminder to all of us, particularly in these times of scandal.
Our second and most creative response is to “evangelize” our clergy through dialogue, educational materials, and exhortations. There is no reason why each of us cannot encourage our priests to preach about this topic. We can send them literature and teaching resources, articles and witness pieces about this subject. Why not send your priest a list of all the side-effects of the contraceptive pill with the question: “Did you know this, Father? It just confirms the wisdom of our Church on the subject.” Then, “Let me know if you need help with your sermon on contraception.” Married deacons should be in an even better position to witness to this teaching in a very personal manner. Give them encouragement!
Finally, it goes without saying that we need to pray for the purity and doctrinal fidelity of our priests, who are responsible for preaching the whole truth of the Catholic Faith. That is not an easy task. Let them know that you pray for them and understand the enormity of their burden – as you slip Janet Smith’s Contraception Why Not? CD into their hands after Mass.