Birth Contol

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae — that’s the famous 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s teaching that using birth control is immoral.

One group of “Catholic“ organizations used the occasion of this anniversary to publish an “open letter” to Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to change Church teaching on this, and acknowledge that birth control isn’t sinful. The main point of this letter, and of much of the criticism of the teaching of the past 40 years is: it has not been accepted by the Catholic lay people, therefore it must be wrong. (The same reasoning is presented by a priest-theologian here.)

There’s no doubt about the not-accepted-by-Catholic-laypeople part. The teaching is generally ignored and even ridiculed by most folks. It’s been that way since the time Humanae Vitae was first released in 1968. (There is a very interesting article about how the encyclical was received by the priests of Baltimore in the first days of its release, by a guy who was one of them at the time, here; the Baltimore priests were not unique, though. If the leaders rejected it, certainly the lay people at the time never had a chance of even having it explained to them.)

An article in this month’s issue of First Things (which is also available online) summarized well where things stand today:

Hasn’t everyone heard Monty Python’s send-up song “Every Sperm Is Sacred”? Or heard the jokes? “You no play-a the game, you no make-a the rules.” And “What do you call the rhythm method? Vatican roulette.” And “What do you call a woman who uses the rhythm method? Mommy.”

As everyone also knows, it’s not only the Church’s self-declared adversaries who go in for this sort of sport. So, too, do many American and European Catholics—specifically, the ones often called dissenting or cafeteria Catholics, and who more accurately might be dubbed the “Catholic Otherwise Faithful.” I may be Catholic, but I’m not a maniac about it, runs their unofficial subtext—meaning: I’m happy to take credit for enlightened Catholic positions on the death penalty/social justice/civil rights, but of course I don’t believe in those archaic teachings about divorce/homosexuality/and above all birth control.

Thus FOX News host Sean Hannity, for example, describes himself to viewers as a “good” and “devout” Catholic—one who happens to believe, as he has also said on the air, that “contraception is good.” He was challenged on his show in 2007 by Father Tom Euteneuer of Human Life International, who observed that such a position emanating from a public figure technically fulfilled the requirements for something called heresy. And Hannity reacted as many others have when stopped in the cafeteria line. He objected that the issue of contraception was “superfluous” compared to others; he asked what right the priest had to tell him what to do (“judge not lest you be judged,” Hannity instructed); and he expressed shock at the thought that anyone might deprive him of taking Communion just because he was deciding for himself what it means to be Catholic.

But does “most people haven’t accepted it” = “it’s not true”? That’s one way of looking at it, one “spin,” but not the only possible one.

The first time I heard of last week’s “open letter” asking the Pope to reconsider the teaching, I was in the car, driving back home from our family vacation.  In fact, I was driving one of two cars that my family was traveling in, in caravan, because we don’t fit in one any more. In other words, it was a moment in which I was experiencing acutely the real life consequences of what it sometimes means for some people to be faithful to the teaching.

(Don’t get me wrong — I realize that there are some people who are completely faithful to Church teaching and never have more than one or two kids. Natural Family Planning, after all, works. Toni and I don’t have 7 kids because we use Natural Family Planning. In fact, we’ve never used it. If we had, I’m sure we’d have less kids. Statistically, it’s as effective, or more effective, than condoms or the pill. Also, note that some people who are completely faithful to Church teaching have no kids, sometimes to their own sorrow. So I’m not suggesting that being a faithful Catholic always means having a boatload of kids.)

It was quiet in the car, as the radio told me about that letter telling the Pope he should change that teaching about birth control. The kids in my car were sleeping, so I could actually think about what I was hearing.

My very first thought, to be honest, was, “I really hope he does.” It would make my life easier, more comfortable, give me less to worry about (even though at this point, I guess it might be closing the barn door after the horses got out).

My second thought was, “Benedict change Church teaching? Because the modern world doesn’t like it? That’s like asking a hurricane to go somewhere other than here because I left my car windows open.” (Okay, odd simile; I’ll think of a better one later.)

And then as I drove along, I was able to think more about the news report about the letter, and about that initial reaction of mine. What occurred to me was this: If the radio had said that a group of Catholics had written to the Pope asking him to change the teaching about how we must love our enemies, I’d probably have liked the sound of that, too. If they’d asked him to dump the teaching that says we can go to hell for ignoring the poor, that sure would make life a little easier for me. And actually, that bit about adultery being a mortal sin is kind of a fun-killer at times, too.

And you know, after all, there are plenty of Catholics, even the kind who go to church on Sundays, who ignore each of those ones, too. So why not change them? (Did you know that before the twentieth century, every Christian church and denomination taught that birth control is sinful? It was only recently that most changed their teaching.)

So the question is: Has the teaching about birth control been ignored because it’s not true, or has it been ignored because it’s inconvenient and hard to live out (and, we can also add, in the context of the society we live in, hard to understand)?

Can any one of us answer that with any kind of authority, and free of our judgment being skewed by personal preferences or wishful thinking? Probably not.

That’s the value of having the Church, which the Bible calls “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, I think.) The Church exists to present the message of Jesus to us in an authoritative way, to discern the truth under the dependable guidance of the Holy Spirit, especially when the weakness, limitations, and biases of individual humans make our judgments anything but dependable.

So the Church and its teaching is something to welcome, even when it’s tough to accept, and tougher to live up to.

An analogy: A couple of months ago, my doctor told me to get a colonoscopy before the summer’s out, and to get one every year after this, since mom died so young of colon cancer. I was not happy to hear her prescription. I’ve been putting it off so much that my wife actually made the call for me, without telling me, to schedule it, just before we left for vacation. And actually doing the thing won’t be any fun.  But can I make the excuse that I don’t really need it, that it’s not what’s best for me? Can I dare ignore it? And what might be the consequences if I do?

Sometimes the Church acts as doctor of our souls, prescribing medicine that’s hard to swallow, but life-saving. Soul-saving. Society-saving.

I can tell you that at the end of each of the past three pregnancies, Toni and I have had a conversation about the possibility of having her tubes tied. Each time, the doctor asks if she wants it done. I don’t mind admitting, we’ve seriously considered it. Each pregnancy has been harder on her body, and of course, each new child is harder on our finances (and occasionally, of course, our nerves). At some point in the conversation, each time, I’ve explicitly said to her that ultimately, she’s free to make that decision on her own, regardless of my opinions on it. It is, after all, her body that goes through each pregnancy.

But each time we‘ve decided (her and I, both individually and as partners) that it‘s ultimately much better to be faithful to the teaching, faithful to God, because God knows what’s best for us, more than we do. It’s better to be living life on God’s terms than on our own. Because loving God means wanting to be as in sync, in communion, with him, as much as we can (and she and I know all about what it’s like to be living out of sync with him).

This is not to pass judgment on others who have made different choices. Though I think the teaching that’s in Humanae Vitae is true for everyone, I know not everyone understands it or is in a place in life in which they feel capable of following it.

I’d be silly to present myself as some kind of model of morality (a point I make to my eleventh graders in the first week of each school year). Rather, this is more a way of pointing the way to another source of moral wisdom — Jesus. And often, Jesus and his teaching comes to us through the one whom St. Catherine of Siena called “my sweet Christ on earth,” the Pope. (And she was no personal fan of the pope she was talking about when she said it.)

In this case, I believe Christ took an opportunity in 1968 to repeat some important truths about what marriage is all about. I think we ignore him to our peril.


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