In the 1930s or 1950s, how often did the parish priest talk about contraception in homilies? Only occasionally. It might be proposed once a year by the diocese, but generally they didn’t preach much on it. Instead, they would bring mission preachers in regularly and get them to take on hard topics like this.
We have lost these parish mission preachers for the most part. Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: An American History, thinks that a large part of the collapse of the missions was how they treated contraception. However, I wonder if we should bring them back precisely for contraception but maybe with some slight changes to adapt to the modern situation. Let me point out why parishes relied on mission preachers to talk about contraception, canon law, and how I might adapt this to the future.
Why Mission Preachers?
Giving preaching on contraception to itinerant preachers served a few purposes. First, it avoiding scandalizing children. It is always challenging to bring up adult sins while not giving inappropriate ideas to the children present at Sunday Mass. When I worked more in youth ministry, we would simply say, “Did you look at anything on the internet you shouldn’t have?” if younger teens were present to avoid giving them ideas about pornography. In a related vein, missions were generally preached only to adults, and often preached to single-sex audiences.
Second, it is hard for a pastor who is close to his flock and “smells like the sheep” to bring up a sin that is common, serious and secret. Bringing in a priest to preach on it lets the pastor just say, “Yes, Fr. Jack was right,” when anyone asks, which might avoid some parish conflicts.
Third, it is a difficult topic to preach on well. Even for a priest with the courage to bring it up, it is hard to make a homily that is engaging, at the level of the everyman and actually explains the reasons behind Catholic teaching.
Canon Law on Parish Missions
Even though parish missions have fallen out of favor in many places, Canon Law still asks for frequent parish missions.
The law in force from 1917-1983 set a rather long time between missions: “Canon 1349.1: The ordinary [bishop] should be vigilant that at least every 10 years that sacred parish missions be held. Parishes priests are to ensure this happens.” In the U.S., most parishes used to have them far more frequently than every 10 years.
The 1983 code dropped the 10-year requirement, and offered other formats, but kept the requirement for extra preaching in parishes: “Canon 770: At certain times according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, pastors are to arrange for those types of preaching which are called spiritual exercises and sacred missions or for other forms of preaching adapted to needs.”
Thus, every parish is still called to have regular preaching by outside priests. I know many parishes do this regularly, but my experience makes me think some forget about this.
Parish Missions Going Forward
Although I disagree slightly with Tentler’s analysis of the collapse of parish missions, she seems like a serious historian to rely on for facts about how these missions preached on contraception.
Today, I don’t know if we could excite the people who need to hear the Church teaching on contraception to a weeknight preaching. I’d hedge my bets. Often a priest will need to get coverage for one or two Sundays a year while he’s out. Why not get a priest specifically trained in contraception to celebrate the Masses and preach one weekend?
I think this would fully resolve two of the three reasons above that mission preachers were relied on before, and it could manage the third. It would solve the issues of being tough to preach well and a pastor looking to avoid parish conflicts. Obviously kids would be present at a Sunday Mass, but I’ve seen a few priests preach in ways that explain Church teaching without giving kids inappropriate ideas.
I think in doing so, we can do something better than the missions 75 years ago. Often these missions just told people to obey the Church on the issue or gave secondary problems that might result from contraception. Instead, modern homilies I’ve seen on this do a far better job of describing the natural law and theological reasons than any of the varied mission homilies Tentler quotes in her book.
I am not the first to suggest this idea. I have heard similar suggestions of training a few priests to give amazing homilies on these tough topics and send them out to cover different parishes each weekend. However, I have yet to seen it done much.
Such missions would need to be timed with classes on NFP/Fertility Awareness of the parish starting right after. Helping couples see how to live without contraception helps change their mind about whether they use it.
If we keep on our current trajectory, we will keep having an official Church teaching that many Catholics ignore. We need a way to teach Catholics this in a way that they are open to accepting the teaching. I think priests who regularly preach on this in different parishes is one way. Let’s bring back parish missions.