Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A couple of weeks ago, our priest gave a homily about contraception. While speaking about the Health and Human Services mandate, our associate pastor, Fr. Jonathan Raia, made a few allusions to the fact that the Church believes that contraception is bad. There were over a thousand people packed into the building, and a slight but noticeable tension developed as he inched closer and closer to the subject. This most controversial of Catholic teachings had been splashed all over the news in recent days, ridiculed and denounced throughout popular culture, and the question hung in the air: “Is he going to go there?”
You can hear the whole homily on our parish website here. In the second half of his talk, he gently but unflinchingly explained that the Catholic Church teaches that contraception is wrong. He gave a bit of background about the reasoning behind this stance, cleared up some common misconceptions, and pointed people to resources where they could find out more about methods of Natural Family Planning. As he spoke, the thought came to mind:
I think we’re finally ready for this.
In the seven years that I’ve been going to Catholic churches, I’d never heard a priest speak so directly about the Church’s teaching in this area—and I can understand why. For decades our culture has perceived contraception as being akin to air or water: a universally good resource with no downside. Only an institution with the most nefarious motives would oppose everyone incorporating this invaluable blessing into their lives, the thinking went. And so I’m guessing that many of our priests felt like the misunderstanding on this topic was so deep and so widespread that they’d need hours of speaking time to even begin to address it properly, and thus avoided it in homilies. (I’ve seen quite a few parishes, for example, where it may not be preached from the pulpit, but parishioners are encouraged to get involved in marriage and family ministries, where the issue is discussed in a more interactive, personal setting.)
But things are changing now. Just as the tide has turned on the issue of abortion, I see it turning with contraception too. Even non-Catholic publications are conceding that that the Church may not be totally crazy when it says that artificial birth control is neither good for the individual nor for society. More and more couples are realizing that contraception does not make marriage easier; they’re coming to see that, while Natural Family Planning has its challenges, the grass is just as complicated on the other side. After forty years of collective experience, it is dawning on people that contraception does not give women freedom over their bodies. Rather, it takes it away, as we see when we consider the data that over half of women who seek abortions were using contraception at the time they conceived. And while it may or may not be true that 98 percent of people sitting in the pews at Mass use contraception, I’m willing to bet that 98 percent of them also know someone who has ended up in an abortion clinic because of failed contraception.
The society-wide experiment of artificially severing the sexual act from its life-giving potential has been going on for four decades now, and people have had time to see that it’s not the cure-all solution they were told it would be. The tension is building as more and more men and women are disappointed by the “solution” of contraception, and the time is ripe for the message that there’s another way. I’m not naive enough to think that one homily would be enough to inspire everyone in the pews to throw out their birth control pills the moment they get home; but I do think it could get them to consider it.
As we sat listening to Fr. Jonathan’s homily that Sunday, I think we were all surprised to hear such an open discussion of this topic. Not only did he eloquently state the Church’s teaching, but then he issued a gentle message to anyone who may not currently accept this doctrine, challenging them to reconsider their stance. In the tone of a caring father, he suggested that each of us pray for conversion within the broader issue of respect for life and human sexuality, wherever we may be in need of it. He ended by saying, “This is at the heart of our Faith, because it’s at the heart of who we are as human beings.”
When he finished, the church was still. The topic had been hotly debated all over the country in recent days, even among Catholics, and there was an electric silence as we all internalized what he had said. I think many of us also wondered how our fellow parishioners would react. There had been so much media speculation about practicing Catholics’ opinions on this issue, how would the thousand-plus people in this church, located in a politically liberal metropolitan area within the Protestant South, receive this homily?
The question was unexpectedly answered when, as Fr. Jonathan returned to his chair at the side of the altar, the pews erupted in spontaneous, thunderous applause.