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
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
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"
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
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.