The Church teaches that artificial birth control is seriously sinful. Any priest who hears only a few confessions knows very well the widespread use of artificial birth control among Catholics. Priests also know that many Catholics receive holy Communion despite practicing artificial contraception.
Many Catholics never confess using artificial birth control, maybe because they practice moral methods of regulating birth, maybe because they have convinced themselves that the Church is wrong or maybe because they fear the confessor will confront them.
Pope Paul VI’s historic encyclical Humanae Vitae , on the subject of artificial birth control, especially urged priests to be patient and compassionate.
The Church, in general, admonishes confessors to be patient and compassionate. This does not mean setting aside the moral teaching of the Church.
Compassion and patience cannot negate what long ago was judged to be essential to a good confession — namely, admission of an act as sinful, acceptance of personal responsibility in sinning and a firm purpose not to sin anymore in this regard.
Often, in the confessional, priests hear a penitent confess using artificial birth control, and the priest strongly suspects that, even if penitents say otherwise, there is no resolve whatsoever to end the practice.
Confessors are not supposed to go into lurid detail in sexual matters. The priest must take penitents at their word, and the priest realizes that, given human nature, no one is beyond repeating a past sin. However, if the penitent admits this sin and absolutely refuses to stop sinning in this regard, under classic Church rules, the priest should withhold absolution.
This rarely happens. It is part of a muddled situation, a vicious cycle entrapping priests and people alike. Artificial contraception is so much a part of Western life that it is taken for granted. Very real circumstances seem to make it logical. Also strong these days is the opinion that Church authority itself is open to questioning and altogether discounts the doctrine about artificial birth control, as well as other teachings.
Added to this is the unfortunate fact that among many Catholics, the Church’s position is seldom understood or, at times, not even known. In some cases, it is not taught, either because instructors in Catholic doctrine disagree with the teaching or because, to a great extent, priests disagree with it or fear that if they preach about it, people will walk away.
Most priests already see that too many Catholics are walking away, for many reasons, especially young Catholics. Few priests want to send even more out the door.
Still, this fact proves all the fuzzy thinking among Catholics about artificial birth control. Confessions demonstrate that many Catholics feel in their hearts it is wrong. Yet, somehow, they still practice it and still consider themselves worthy of receiving holy Communion.
Priests must be compassionate and patient, but they will best serve people not by looking the other way, nor by belittling Church teaching, nor by lowering the boom, but by teaching the Church’s view that artificial birth control is wrong, and carefully explaining why the Church sees it as wrong.
It is not just about priests. Married Catholics must question their own behavior, firmly and objectively, and hear the Church, believing that the Church teaches the word of God, and that individual interpretation is, at best, risky.
Priests and people need to approach this issue honestly and frankly. No Catholic can accept one magisterial doctrine and reject another. It is that simple.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.