Contraception, the Election and the New Evangelization

The coming election has shaped up to be a battle between those who think free contraceptives and keeping abortion legal should be our national priority and those who think jobs and reducing the national debt should be our national priority. (These were the self-identified themes at the summer conventions.)

How astonishing it is that Sandra Fluke should be a headliner at the Democratic National Convention, when her only claim to fame is her adolescent, narcissistic grousing that Catholic Georgetown University does not provide her, a law student almost certain to be wealthy, with free contraceptives.

How sad it is that two of the chief architects of the Health and Human Services mandate are Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, both Catholics.

The Catholic vote will be pivotal, as it always is. The recent effort to get the Obama administration to rescind the HHS mandate has again brought to the fore the sad fact that Catholics are poorly educated about the Church’s teaching on contraception.

The brave, visionary and remarkably candid Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in an interview in The Wall Street Journal, acknowledged that the Church has failed to teach on contraception: "I’m not afraid to admit that we have an internal catechetical challenge — a towering one — in convincing our own people of the moral beauty and coherence of what we teach. That’s a biggie."

The cardinal said the "flash point" was Humanae Vitae, which "brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the Church, that I think most of us — and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself — kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’ We forfeited the chance to be a coherent moral voice when it comes to one of the more burning issues of the day."

The present struggle offers an opportunity to become that coherent moral voice.

The U.S. bishops are taking an important lead in this matter. For instance, they have developed a set of bulletin inserts about contraception and developed a very useful website about contraception. If there were only some way to get priests and laypeople to take advantage of these resources.

Let me here encourage laypeople to approach their pastors and encourage them to use the inserts.

A report has recently been issued by "The Women, Faith and Culture Project" that should help spur a renewed effort to teach about contraception. The report gives the preliminary results of a study done on "What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience and Contraception."

It is a professional and measured report (funded in large part by the Our Sunday Visitor Foundation) and worth a close read.

We all know that the vast majority of Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on contraception. This study attempts to figure out what women really know and think about the teaching.

Actually, I found it terrific news that "37% of women who both attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year completely accept Church teachings on family planning."

We don’t know what is cause and effect here — we don’t know whether those who accept the Church’s teaching are more likely to go to Mass and confession regularly or whether going to Mass and confession regularly helps people accept Church teaching — but it is not surprising that there is a pairing of these elements of the faith.

Still, although that figure is encouraging, we might ask why it is not higher.

Part of the answer is surely that few Catholics have ever heard an explanation or defense of the Church’s teaching. It is not surprising to learn that "85% of Catholic women believe they can be ‘good Catholics’ even if they don’t completely accept the Church’s teachings on sex and reproduction. And a full third are mistaken about what the Church teaches."

The study found that 72% of Catholic women state that the homily is their primary source of learning about Church teaching — and that priests and other religious leaders are the primary sources for 55% of women.

My guess is that few have ever heard a homily about contraception.

I have long been exhorting my seminarians to reflect on the fact that most Catholics get most of their understanding of Church teaching from the homily.

People in the pews tend to think that if issues are important, their pastor, who cares enough about their eternal salvation to dedicate his life to serving them, will speak to them from the pulpit about the issues that may threaten their eternal salvation.

If they never hear that abortion, greed, contraception, pornography, racism, missing Mass on Sunday, etc. are serious sins, they tend to think they are not serious sins. And if they don’t hear these teachings from the pulpit, they are unlikely to hear them at all.

Few Catholics attend conferences, read Catholic publications, visit Catholic websites or even read the parish bulletin and its inserts.

Many priests are hesitant to teach on moral issues from the pulpit, but if they don’t, they are seriously shortchanging their congregations.

It has not always been thus. In her book Catholics and Contraception: An American History, historian Leslie Woodcock Tentler reports that in the ’20s through the ’50s of the last century, in an increasingly contraceptive culture, priests regularly preached on contraception, and an impressive proportion of the Catholic faithful cheerfully embraced that teaching.

The more educated a Catholic woman was the more likely she was to accept Church teaching.

Today’s priests may not have a habit of teaching on moral issues, but they can cultivate that habit. And I suspect they will like the results.

Certainly, they will meet with some resistance, but they will also be the recipients of an outpouring of gratitude. I also suspect they will experience a newfound source of satisfaction in their priesthood.

When my seminarians preach on moral topics, there is a strangeness in the room; neither they nor I am accustomed to hearing homilies about greed or immodesty or laziness or contraception. But after the strangeness wears off, it is quite inspiring. The young men come alive when they speak from the heart about something they care about.

It is hard to think a congregation wouldn’t be moved by their zeal.

One of my seminarians, as a deacon, gave a homily against contraception based on the story of Jonah. He asked the congregation to consider what sins Jonah would be inveighing against were he alive today and suggested to them that contraception would be high on the list.

With trepidation, I asked what kind of response he got; he said he got a standing ovation. I doubt that even the majority agreed with him, but I think they were impressed with his courage and concern for them.

I strongly suspect that there have been more homilies about contraception in the last year than there have been since Humanae Vitae was issued (1968).

One homily, of course, won’t do the trick. There will need to be follow-up, with more homilies and conferences and inserts, but the homily will likely jump-start the whole process.

Moreover, priests also need to exhort their parishioners to be faithful in Mass attendance — even to take in a daily Mass on occasion — and to go to confession.

Providing the occasion for Eucharistic adoration would undoubtedly increase that effect of receptivity as well. Combined, everything will have a profoundly positive effect.

All of this is the work of the New Evangelization; it will galvanize Catholics to share their faith.

Jesus himself was a tireless teacher. He traveled from synagogue to synagogue; he taught on the hills and in the plains and from the water.

The great apostle Paul could not have clocked more miles; John Paul II spoke on natural family planning in nearly every country he visited. In 1999, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document, "The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community." At one point it states: "From a pastoral perspective, the primary action of evangelization is, logically, considered to be preaching."

The homily is a marvelous vehicle for teaching; the congregation deserves and needs to be fed by their pastor.

Janet E. Smith holds the

Father Michael J. McGivney

Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.