Clerical Contraception – The Other Priestly Scandal

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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.

Long-Term Consequences

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.

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19 thoughts on “Clerical Contraception – The Other Priestly Scandal”

  1. I take issue with those who equate abortion with birth control. When a doctor tells a mother of 7 that she cannot get pregnant again or she will die… all bets are off. It mystifies me that Pope Francis tells a group that they “should be good stewards of mother earth by not reproducing like rabbits”, and gives NO cook book with the solution. Once again the church fall back on highly suspect and difficult to follow – NFP.

    In my opinion regardless of the method the intent is the same, no more babies, she’s has enough. My Dublin born grandmother had 13 births and nearly died in two. What did the Catholic Church do to help her? Nothing.

    1. Unfortunately, that story is really a tired old trope that dissenters trot out every time the Church makes an argument against abortifacient birth control. It’s emotive, it can’t be verified, it’s factually innacurate, it attempts to scare women (even though Ireland literally has the LOWEST maternal mortality rate in the world), and it totally ignores the many possible options and resources that the Church brings to the issue. It’s also solipsistic: it presumes that the complainer is the only person who ever had to deal with the difficulties of raising a family. Sorry I’m just not buying it.

  2. Thanks for your further endorsement Peter (re: my earlier comment on Quebec’s Quiet Revolution). I would have spoken on the Winnipeg Statement too, having known a theologian-priest who drafted it and remained too proud to admit that it would have been (relatively) faultless if the topic for the ‘inner forum’ of conscience was use of NFP birth-spacing methods. For, a couple needs to do an examen regularly on whether they are open to children, or seeking avoidance only. But since the statement was about artificial contraception it was deeply flawed and grieved pope Paul VI. Later on, John Paul said “poor Canada”. Poor indeed, because right afterward we legalized abortion, well before Roe v. Wade was even a blight in its mother’s eye. Don’t get me started on Eire, my paternal grandmother’s beloved land: Eire was first to constitutionalize same-sex marriage (an open declaration of moral war on the church, since now a state intrudes on preaching). But getting back to roots: easy divorce (and ill-prepared marriage) was a root of the contraceptive movement, and that itself stems right back to the dispute between Church and State on the registry or dissolution of marriage, even in St. Anselm’s time. It seems Christ’s hard teaching was never fully embraced in western Christendom, and now we face the dire consequences.

  3. I am a direct witness to the power of speaking the truth about contraception. A courageous priest at my parish taught this truth, twice! (that I heard), in his homilies. I, a cradle Catholic, had somehow never heard or known it (I bear my own responsibility for this). I heard God’s voice calling to ME to stop using contraception. I (finally) listened and my husband and I learned NFP and had hearts opened to three more children in the years since.
    Sadly, that priest left the priesthood a few years later, and I wonder if part of his decision was the lack of support, or more probably the active pushback, he received in teaching Christ’s truth both in and out of season. But I will always believe that he saved my soul.

    1. God bless this priest, Erin. Whatever his subsequent fate, he faithfully preached the full Gospel message. The Gospel has so much power and only needs to be preached. And God bless you too for your receptivity to the truth!

  4. Some say we will never get rid of abortion until we end artificial contraception. After all, it was St. John Paul II who said contraception and abortion are fruit of the same tree. And how rotten that tree truly is.

    1. It is true, Karl, that abortion and contraception are related. I believe that abortion is the fruit and contraception is the root. The anti-life “mentality” that contraception creates leads directly to the abortion mills. I think that these twin evils probably have to be fought in tandem, but it’s a fight that will never end. These are demonic evils and only our fidelity to the truth will be the witness that the world needs to undo this in the lives of people. One soul at a time. God bless you!

  5. Preaching non-contraception per se is feared by homilists because in the modern climate it comes across as its own sort of social engineering or political theme, counter to anti-natalist state policies. The silence in Canada began in Quebec during the ‘Quiet Revolution’ at just the time when prime minister Lester Pearson (a darling of the United Nations, Nobel laureate, and advocate of population control) sought to promote the pill as a legal pharmaceutical. The bishops and most clerics in Canada (taking the lead from ‘Catholic’ Quebec) were mute on the topic in pulpits, lest they be seen as disingenuous to the Liberal governments (which then more than Conservatives seemed to welcome Catholic members). This too was a simultaneous self-censoring reaction to a former unfortunate history of excess clericalism (especially in Quebec). The irony is, Canada had been put under the patronage of St. Joseph (his biggest shrine in the world in Montreal), who as we all know is the exemplar of the best teachings on the goodness of chastity. In fact chastity (which includes faithful spousal fecundity) is sexual goodness.

    1. Couldn’t agree more with your insights, Gary. Catholic Canada collapsed quickly once the clergy caved into the contraceptive plague with their Winnipeg Statement. It’s a very sad case of secularism gone wild. We’ve recently seen the same in Ireland. May God help us all. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Deacon A. J. Dietz MD PhD

    I have briefly touched on this and abortion some years ago in the Chicago Archdiocese parish. I was assigned to. My reward was to be suspended from preaching for 6 months by my pastor and warned never to touch on these subjects in the future otherwise I would never preach again. After 6 months I changed Parishes and Diocese and my new pastor welcomed my preaching about the medical and moral consequences of contraception and abortion even though some people got up and left Mass.
    Deacon Albert J Dietz MD, PhD

    1. Thank you for your holy witness, Deacon. You have paid a price for your fidelity. Keep preaching the truth and God will bless you no matter what you have to go through. The Truths is always a sign of contradiction because the Truth is Christ Himself! God bless you!

  7. Jason Evert’s Life Giving Love- Understanding Chastity In Marriage is a 75 minute video that is excellent. He talks about theology, the problems with contraception (as known 12 years ago, it would be nice to have an update) and funny stories about his family. We’ve showned this video to about 100 couples for a wedding requirement, and we often get positive responses from many of the couples who watch it.

    1. She’s a perfect example of a robust witness with a lot of intelligence, who makes the case for that Church’s teaching in such an amiable and persuasive way. Just the best!

  8. “Where Christian values are lacking, where there is a conspiracy of silence in the place of a robust witness, negative spiritual values rush in.” Yes, this. This single sentence concisely describes what has happened to our society and to our Church. Let our prayers crowd out these negative spiritual values and allow God to rush in.

    1. 100% agreement. The Operation Rescue groups in the late 80s and early 90s used to say that abortion existed in our society “with the permission of the church.” That may be too simplistic of an explanation but I suppose that explains why these evils, contraception included, seem like they have just taken over our society. A robust witness is needed!

  9. The Church has a long history of uneasiness with this topic. It wasn’t until 1880 that Leo XIII. (somewhat hesitantly) declared it proper for spouses to choose the infertile days for intercourse. A substantial majority of bishops (!) was opposed to Paul VI.’s clear teaching on artificial contraception in Humanae Vitae. And both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who completely agree with the overall teaching of HV, had reservations with respect to the argumentation made in HV against artificial contraception. This specific Church teaching has stirred up even “unrelated” controversies regarding the conscience vs. loyalty and synodality vs. infallibility. Let’s keep praying for our shepherds so that they stay united in the Lord’s will. And let’s also pray for good confessors, because they are sorely needed.

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