Don't Misread Bishop Conley's Letter On Contraception

Some twenty three years after Bishop Glennon Flavin of the Diocese of Lincoln issued a pastoral letter to Catholic couples and physicians on the Issue of Contraception, his successor Bishop James Conley has done the same.

His letter will be discussed along with the topic of contraception generally this Sunday in all parishes of the Diocese.

The letter is a wonderful restatement of Catholic principles on the issues of contraception and I urge each and every one of you to read it in its entirety. Further, I find it wonderful and somewhat counter-cultural, even within the Church, to issue such a letter and instruct that this topic be taught in every parish. Bishop Conley is truly a good shepherd.

All that said, we must understand the culture and context of the age and discern how such a call will be treated by Catholics and by the culture at large.

First, the secular press has tried to spin this letter as contradiction to Bishop Flavin's letter on the same topic in an effort to somehow nullify its force. In fact, this has already started. The Lincoln Journal Star reports the letter this way:

Twenty-three years ago, Lincoln Catholic Diocese Bishop Glennon Flavin issued a letter to parishioners and physicians, decrying birth control as evil and immoral.

He warned Catholic couples using contraception and the Catholic physicians prescribing it they were “committing grave sin.”

On Tuesday, Bishop James Conley issued his own letter to parishioners reaffirming the Catholic church’s stance prohibiting the use of all contraceptives, but explaining the stance in much gentler tones.
Whereas Flavin’s letter took a strong, authoritative tone and called contraception “gravely immoral ... intrinsically evil … contrary to the law of nature and nature’s God,” Conley’s explains the church’s stand based on understanding God.

It is true that the tone of Bishop Conley's letter is different that that of Bishop Flavin and it is true that if you do searches for gravely immoral or intrinsically evil you will not find them.  But to contrast them in such a way is to misunderstand them in their context and misunderstand them entirely.

First, Bishop Flavin wrote his letter in 1991, twenty three years removed from the issuance of Humanae Vitae, the same length of time we are now removed from his letter. I would suggest that the context and the audience explain the difference in tone. In 1991, those of child-bearing age were still more familiar with the Church's teaching on this subject and many of their parents likely lived by it, even if unconsciously.

The time between 1968 and 1991 saw the rapid demise of the practical acceptance of the Church's teaching on the matter, but generally I think that many or even most understood that the Church banned the practice. If you read Bishop Flavin's letter, it seems clear in its purpose to let those Catholic couples and physicians know that the Church's teaching on nature of the acts involved had not changed, even if they were roundly ignored. Bishop Flavin was merely restating that which most Catholics understood just a generation before. I think the brevity of his letter bears this out.

Bishop Conley, I think, is addressing a different audience, even if the labels remain the same. Those of child-bearing age now are the children of those who ignored or willfully forgot the Church's teaching on the matter. They are not tied in any way to a generation that practiced their faith with these teachings in mind. Bishop Conley is not addressing an audience that is purposely ignoring the teaching, he is addressing an audience that most likely never received it. In fact, Bishop Conley says as much in the closing of his letter.

Tragically, a majority of people in our culture and even in our Church, have used contraception. Much of the responsibility for that lies in the fact that too few have ever been exposed to clear and consistent teaching on the subject. But the natural consequences of our culture’s contraceptive mentality are clear.

Bishop Conley is trying to address this issue from the ground up and not trying to plug the leaky dam as was Bishop Flavin.

In this day and age we are inclined to view many things in the way of the "Church of nice' vs. the 'The Mean Ol' Unpastoral Church.' To view either letter in this way is a disservice to both Bishops, but particularly Bishop Flavin. There is nothing unpastoral or unkind about letting people know the truth of their actions.

Lastly, Bishop Conley does not shy away from the truth at all in this letter. If that was his intent, why not avoid the topic at all just as it is avoided in most dioceses in this country? No, he does not shy away even if his language choices are different. Case in point, find the wiggly niceties in this statement:

No Catholic healthcare provider, in good conscience, should engage in the practice of medicine by undermining the gift of fertility. There is no legitimate medical reason to aid in the acts of contraception or sterilization. No Catholic physician can honestly argue otherwise.

Bishop Conley has done the faithful in his diocese a great service, a service his role as pastor requires of him. I have two hopes. I hope that this is the first in a series of initiatives to restore the clear and consistent teaching whose absence is lamented by the good Bishop. And I hope that every Bishop in this country does exactly the same thing.