The Catholic Church’s teaching that contraception is a grave sin is based on love, said Father Roger Landry, associate pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Mass.
It follows from the idea that sexual intercourse in marriage should be an act in which a husband and wife offer themselves totally to one another, with no reservations, and with the possibility of the fruit of their love becoming manifest in a child, and it is indeed good news.
Too bad that many of the couples whom Father Landry has counseled as they prepared for marriage had never even heard that contraception is sinful, let alone why.
Jumping into discussion
So, Father Landry spreads the word from the pulpit, including the Church’s teaching on contraception in his homilies at least a couple of times a year.
He did it again Feb. 12, in response to the Obama administration’s mandate that all employers who provide health insurance include coverage of contraceptive drugs, devices and sterilization at no added cost. According to a Feb. 18 profile in The New York Times, the homily was met with applause.
While a priest preaching about the sinfulness of contraception is apparently unusual enough to qualify as news in one of the nation’s leading newspapers, Father Landry isn’t the only one taking on the topic.
Father Jonathan Raia, associate pastor at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, used the government mandate as a springboard for discussing Church teaching on contraception in his homilies the weekend of Feb. 4-5.
Father Raia, who was ordained two and a half years ago, said that after reading a letter about the Health and Human Services mandate from Austin Diocese Bishop Joe Vasquez the week before, he thought the time was right.
“I was kind of trembling as I read that,” Father Raia told Our Sunday Visitor. “It was so powerful. It had an emotional effect on me.”
While the letter focused on the threat the HHS mandate to provide contraceptive coverage poses to religious liberty, Father Raia said, he knew that he had to go a step further.
“It begs the question,” he said. “It says we are opposed to the mandate because it forces us to violate Catholic teaching. Catholics who are opposed to the teaching are going to say it doesn’t violate their consciences, so what’s the problem? Why is contraception such a big deal? It was the perfect opportunity to jump into it and to continue talking about it.”
Father Raia said he has mentioned contraception in a homily before. He also had discussed the teaching in adult faith formation sessions.
But he didn’t want to arrive at his first parish — which St. William is — and start talking about contraception right away. That follows a piece of advice he got in seminary, that you have to show the people you love them before you can tell them “that kind of a hard truth.”
Finding a way to condense the teaching enough for a homily, yet convey it clearly, can be difficult, he said. But it’s just important to make sure the message is one of love.
“You have to make sure people know you’re being compassionate,” he said. “You’re not condemning them. You want to work with them.”
Both priests report overwhelmingly positive feedback from their parishes. So, why don’t more priests preach about contraception?
It can be difficult to be direct about the Church’s teaching on contraception at a Mass where, for example, there are a lot of children.
“You don’t want to give them too much information before they’re ready to hear it,” Father Landry said.
Other priests may have tried to talk about contraception and gotten “a little heat” for it in the past, making them leery of going there again.
There are other ways parishes can and do address it, such as including prayers for people who are using contraception in the prayers of the faithful, putting information in the bulletin and providing pamphlets explaining the Church’s teaching on racks near the entrance.
Father Landry said he keeps the racks at his parish stocked with about 150 different pamphlets, many about questions of sexuality and reproduction.
Sometimes, Father Landry said, priests avoid the topic because they don’t look at it with the right attitude.
“There are too many priests who think the Church’s teaching with regard to sexuality, rather than being liberating good news, is burdensome bad news,” he told OSV.
That seems to be more true of priests who were formed in the time when Humanae Vitae was released in 1968, who often didn’t have good formation in the area of human sexuality and were expecting the Church to change its teaching, Father Landry said.
Priests who came of age during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II and absorbed the theology of the body, understand the freedom the Church’s teaching offers, he said.
“We’ve been blessed with an approach that can lead to a ‘eureka!’ moment on the part of young couples, about how the Church teaches on contraception is integral to the Church’s teaching on self-giving love,” he said.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.