(This column is not for children).
You might have heard the phrase “the elephant in the living room.” It refers to a highly important topic that everyone knows is real and significant but almost no one wants to discuss or address, because it is too controversial or, as often as not, makes some people very uncomfortable.
Such a topic is the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church on contraception which has so sadly been widely rejected by most Catholics in the west for almost 50 years, starting especially after effective birth control pills became widespread and Catholic women adopted their use in nearly the same numbers as non-Catholics. (Since that time, sterilization for both women and men has also soared in popularity). In fact, many Catholics assume that these are “no big deal” and don’t particularly worry about this, so much so that they think nothing of receiving Holy Communion in a state of mortal (grave) sin which results from this practice.
The fact remains however that Christ’s teaching is constant and unchangeable. What the Church taught in the first century she reaffirms in the 21st and will always hold: that deliberately blocking the transmission of life in the marital act by means of chemicals or barriers or deliberately sterilizing oneself is a grave sin against God and the nature of marriage that he created and raised to a sacrament. (There are a few exceptions, for example, when sterilization is necessary for medical reasons. That’s a column for another day).
I have many, many stories – some almost comical, some very sad – about Catholics who choose not to accept this truth. For instance, there was a laywoman who taught me in seminary who insisted that priests shouldn’t talk about this at Mass (where else do people hear him teach and preach?); a (married) permanent deacon at a diocesan conference on marriage who angrily stood up and told us that celibate priests present had no right to speak about this; and even a Catholic college professor who came into my office the week after I preached a homily about this at Mass and insisted that, even if the Church’s teaching were true, we should preach about racism instead or other topics that weren’t “up to someone’s conscience.” After I politely told him I had no intention of not preaching this part of the Gospel, I never saw him in the parish again. Clearly, the question touches a nerve for those who don’t accept this teaching and choose not to allow Jesus to be the Lord of their marriage.
So the questions aren’t, Is the Church’s teaching true (it is); or are contraception and sterilization serious sins (they are). Instead, the questions we should be asking are, What is behind the Church’s teaching? Why does she teach this? And Why have so many chosen to reject that teaching?
The shortest answer to those questions is that it is the very nature of marriage that the union of the marriage covenant be open to life as a gift from God. Further, any attempt to close marriage to that gift of life will have profoundly negative consequences. It actually changes the relationship between the husband and wife and “turns in” that action on themselves and their own physical pleasure, essentially trying to shut God (and His will) out of the picture.
Pope St. Paul VI wrote a short but very powerful and prophetic letter on this in 1968, entitled Humanae Vitae (On Human Life). It was all the more powerful because many influential theologians and advisors urged him not to write it. But the truth and beauty of the marriage was too important to keep silent about.
One of the unintended consequences of the widespread acceptance of contraception is the notion that children are somehow an interruption to marriage rather than the “crowning jewel” of that sacred union.
Jesus Christ and His Church have always encouraged husbands and wives not only to forge a strong union with each other through the grace of marriage but also generously to accept life from God. God entrusts to the couple the decision about when to engage in marital relations and how many children to bring into the world, provided that no immoral means are used to prevent their conception. In cases where the couple has a justifiable reason not to receive a child from the Lord, modern methods to track a woman’s fertility are highly reliable in determining when a couple should wait to engage in relations.
There are many excellent resources to find out more about this – and to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”
I recognize that, as a priest, many Catholics have been seriously misinformed about this teaching. I hear (sad) stories sometimes that priests told couples years ago simply to ignore the Church’s teaching here. It is important for both couples in their child bearing years and those parents teaching their children what Christ expects from marriage to understand this.
Some people are afraid to talk to a priest about this, especially in confession. Don’t be. Our goal is to always bring people to the forgiveness and mercy of Christ and help the faithful understand how following Christ’s teaching can bring joy, especially to marriage.
The couples I know who follow Christ here are among the happiest people I know.