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When is the Last Time You Heard a Sermon on Contraception?

New alliance between Catholic physicians and priests will tackle difficult medical and moral questions

When is the Last Time You Heard a Sermon on Contraception?

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When was the last time you felt awkwardly out of place?  I felt that way, at least initially, when I spoke last week in Orlando, FL at the annual conference of the Catholic Medical Association. I felt out of place there because my training is primarily in the humanities, and I was surrounded by people with broad and deep training in the hard sciences. Was God playing a joke on me? I suspected as much because during my talk I decided to conduct a scientific experiment—in front of almost 700 medical professionals.  Although I was disappointed with the results, I think the experiment was a success, so I thought I’d repeat that experiment here.

While speaking on “Moral Courage in Medicine”, I suggested that faithful Catholics need to know how to find and cultivate allies—a task that we cannot afford to get wrong. I wanted to show that faithful Catholics have long suffered from the lack of pastoral and professional encouragement that faithful Catholic allies can and should provide. My attempt at an experiment was to take a quick survey by a show-of-hands among those at the conference.  I started with a simple question:  “How many of you, since 1968, have heard ten or more homilies in your home parish on the merits of Humanae Vitae and the evils of contraception?”  Fewer than 5% raised their hands. I continued:  “How many of you have heard at least five such homilies?  At least three?  At least one?”  All could see that the overwhelming majority had not heard even one such homily in their parishes since 1968, the year that Humanae Vitae was promulgated. That raises a very important question: Why not?

I hesitate to ask that question, even though I think it should be asked, because it can lead to a great deal of speculation, much of which would likely not be immediately helpful.  I say that because such speculation may distract us from an even more important question:  What can be done about it?

And here’s where the good news begins.  First, the moral law, available to ordinary human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, is on the side of the teaching of the Church regarding human sexuality and contraception.  I have taught 19-year old college sophomores how to demonstrate to a hostile audience that contraception is an intrinsic evil because it frustrates the symbolic meaning of human sexuality and it is a violation of human dignity.  If a bright and willing undergraduate can do this, then surely the rest of us Catholic adults can learn to do the same.  We can tell the world that we oppose contraception not because of some wacky Catholic quirk but because we can show that it is a moral evil.

The other good news is that science, available to ordinary human reason without the aid of supernatural revelation, is on the side of the teaching of the Church regarding human sexuality and contraception.  My undergraduates have studied the data and can demonstrate that contraception is an act of physical/chemical violence against the human body.  People who know the scientific truth and who love each other don’t inflict contraception on those they love.  

Taken together, these two bits of good news produce a third bit of good news.  Even Father Typical at Saint Ordinary’s parish (wherein nearly everyone sexually active is almost certainly contracepting) need not be afraid to teach and preach about a sensitive topic even though he might at first be met with skepticism or indignation.  The moral and scientific facts, along with the authentic teaching of the Church can be brought with Father Typical into the pulpit, the confessional, his marriage preparation sessions, and the parish class room.  And that fact brings me to some especially good news, news I learned while attending the CMA conference.