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On the 25th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI's encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, one diocesan paper showed a picture of the document on the front page with the headline, "Why did this little 25-cent pamphlet cause so much trouble? Answer: Because it was right."
The same reason it caused trouble is the same reason we can preach about it confidently: it is right. The fact that so many Catholic couples use birth control means that they also know from experience that it does not lead to fulfillment, happiness, and stronger marriages. Compassionate preaching about the lived experience of couples can be a good starting point for addressing a topic rarely heard in today's pulpits: the immorality of contraception.
Contraception doesn't work. Sure, it will prevent pregnancies, amidst occasional "failures," but it doesn't bring happiness or strengthen marriages. Groups such as "One More Soul" (www.omsoul.com) and the Couple to Couple League (www.ccli.org) have gathered numerous testimonies about how couples discovered this first-hand, and did something about it. Evidence continues to mount, in fact, that Natural Family Planning does strengthen marriages.
Moreover, many Christians and leaders in other denominations are emphasizing that contraception violates God's law. They are returning to the teaching that was held officially by all denominations without exception from the beginning of Christianity until 1930.
Starting Points for Preaching
There has never been a time when we have had access to more guidance and information on this topic than now, after Pope John Paul II has enriched the Church with his extensive writing and preaching on the meaning of the human body, sexuality, and marriage. What are some of the ways to condense this vast body of teaching into a 10-15 minute homily on Sundays?
Birth control is really about life control. It raises questions of who makes the final decisions about the course one's life will take, and who makes the decision about whether another's life will begin. Scripture teaches ceaselessly that we belong to God, the only arbiter of human life. His Lordship is the foundation of all that the Church says about contraception.
Only God has absolute dominion over human life. "None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live, we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die, we die as His servants. Both in life and in death, we are the Lord's" (Rom.14:7-8). If He is Lord of Life, He is Lord of the sources of life, and of the entire process by which life comes to be.
Scripture, in fact, instructs us that God's call to make and save us was in place before we were conceived: "God chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Eph. 1:4).
By contraception, a couple becomes the final arbiter of whether or not God will create a new human being. It is critical to point out that some contraceptives do not prevent fertilization, but rather destroy the newly-conceived life. There is no need here to delve into medical details, but simply to point out that if one's action might destroy a human life, it is immoral, as it would be to destroy an old building without making sure that it is empty first.
Giver of Life
Scripture presents life as a blessing. The circumstances in which life comes about may not always be good, but the life itself is always a good. The privilege to cooperate with God in bringing forth new life is presented in God's Word as a blessing to be sought and celebrated. God commanded our first parents to “Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Why? Because God Himself is fertile. Love, by its nature, overflows into life. “Truly children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3).
God does not love us in carefully measured amounts. The love He has for us, and the love we are called to have for one another, is marked by generosity. When a couple give themselves to each other in marriage, anything that compromises that gift is contrary to God's plan. A plan to be married for only a limited number of years, for example, contradicts the nature of marriage. So does a deliberate plan to exclude children permanently. Contraception is a holding back of one's fertility from one's spouse; it says in bodily language, "I don't want all of you. I reject your fertility. Give me everything else, but not that."
Love and Life
Love and life are joined in God Himself (see John 1). They are also joined in the act of marital intimacy. Why does the same act that expresses intimate love also give rise to new life? Certainly, God could have made it so that one had to do something extra for this act of love to bring forth life. He did not run out of creative ideas. The joining of love-giving (unitive) and life-giving (procreative) aspects in the same act is by God's deliberate intent. What God has joined, we may not divide.
Here is where the preacher on contraception needs to clear up some common misunderstandings of Church teaching. Many think that the Church says the only purpose of sexual intimacy is procreation, that the act must always give rise to a child, and that couples may not plan their families. These are all mistaken notions.
Preaching on contraception should point out in simple terms that the purpose of sexual intimacy is twofold: the expression of love and the begetting of life. To be faithful to God, spouses are called to recognize God's plan for this special act, and acknowledge His authority, so that the ultimate decision about whether this act will conceive a child is left to Him. This attitude recognizes, of course, that God Himself often closes the door to conception, having built into the female body the cycles of fertility.
And there is precisely the point. God may close the door; we may not.
Isn't NFP a form of birth control?
A homily on contraception should acknowledge, as the Church does, that couples have the right and duty to decide, before God, on the number and spacing of their children, and that there can be circumstances in which, for medical, financial, social, and other reasons, the couple rightly decides to avoid conceiving. The key here, of course, is that they do so only for objectively grave reasons, and only in a way that respects the moral law by not deliberately cutting off the life-giving power of sexual intimacy.
A brief explanation of Natural Family Planning is possible, when the preacher indicates, first of all, that this is not the old "calendar rhythm method," but rather a new branch of science, naprotechnology, which gives couples scientifically and morally reliable ways to know more intimately the cycle of fertility. NFP is not contraception, because in the latter we close the door and in the former, God closes the door. Moreover, NFP is not just a way to avoid pregnancy. It is an entire lifestyle, based on virtue, communication, self-control, and an acceptance of God's plan for sexuality. Any good thing can be misused, including NFP, and that would happen if it were simply used as another way to selfishly exclude children.
As Paul VI does in Humanae Vitae, the preacher on contraception makes clear the mercy of God. The Church does not simply stand up and say, "Birth control is wrong -- don't do it." The Church, while teaching the truth clearly, extends the hand of strength to enable us to do what is right, and the hand of mercy to lift us up when we fall. The homily on contraception should be marked by a sense of joyful confidence, of compassionate welcome, of solidarity with each other in the struggle against temptation, of acceptance and understanding.
That, after all, is what the gift of life is all about.