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The debate about whether state and federal law should mandate contraception and sterilization coverage in health care has created a wonderful opportunity to provide the world with some faith formation on a very misunderstood topic. How well are we doing?
The trigger question: Should a government that’s based on separation of Church and State be allowed to dictate religious consciences?
What’s our response? I remember the time when, during the Viet Nam war, draftees could declare themselves “conscientious objectors” to killing, and the government allowed it. When was the last time you heard anyone calling themselves “conscientious objectors”? What has happened to the American attitude of freely objecting to the government, based on conscience?
If we don’t object, we pay grave consequences that result from ignoring the forces that attack our Faith. More and more worldliness creeps into our experience of faith. The Body of Christ on Earth, which is the Church, which includes you and me, becomes sicker and weaker.
Are we only “conscientious objectors” when our own lives are in danger, such as when we are made to fight in war zones? In other words, only when it’s convenient for us?
Convenient! Isn’t personal convenience the reason why so many Catholics ignore – and don’t even bother to try to understand – the Church’s teaching about artificial birth control?
The underlying question: Is the use of contraceptives in fact a sin?
Should we just take a stand against government interference in matters of conscience, or should we also be taking a stand against the worldly view of and rampant misunderstanding of the issue of artificial birth control?
The response we need to better understand: Some contraceptives aren’t about preventing pregnancy but rather ending an early-stage pregnancy, which is a self-induced abortion. Let’s briefly consider this. Even though an embryo is comprised of only a few cells in its earliest days, it’s the cells of a real person, an individual human being that, if left to grow, would become recognizable as a person. It’s not a horse. It’s not a tumor. It’s not mere tissue that has no personhood assigned to it by genetics and by our Creator God who is the source of life. Therefore, in this case: Yes, the use of this particular form of birth control is in fact the destruction of another human person, a sin.
But what about contraception that prevents pregnancy in the first place? How could that be sinful? In other words, how could it be destructive or un-Christ-like?
In 1998, Pope John Paul II wrote:
I hope that everyone will benefit from a closer study of the Church’s teaching on the truth of the act of love in which spouses become sharers in God’s creative action.
The truth of this act stems from its being an expression of the spouses’ reciprocal personal giving, a giving that can only be total since the person is one and indivisible. In the act that expresses their love, spouses are called to make a reciprocal gift of themselves to each other in the totality of their person: nothing that is part of their being can be excluded from this gift. This is the reason for the intrinsic unlawfulness of contraception: it introduces a substantial limitation into this reciprocal giving, breaking that “inseparable connection” between the two meanings of the conjugal act, the unitive and the procreative, which, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, are written by God himself into the nature of the human being (Humanae Vitae, paragraph 12).
Interestingly, support for Humanae Vitae has recently come from a secular source: Business Insider posted an analysis of the predictions made by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae. The writers point out, with eye-opening statistics, that he was correct in his warnings about how the acceptance of contraception would harm society. < Click here to read it. >
So, why haven’t we noticed this ourselves? Why isn’t there a groundswell of Catholics conscientiously objecting to our secular society’s infiltration into our bedrooms? We all know the answer to that: Most of us don’t want to even try to understand the Church’s teaching about artificial birth control. It’s not convenient.
In my experience, Catholics who disregard or object to the Church’s teaching against using artificial birth control simply do not understand what the Church is really saying and why. For years, I did not understand it either. The truth has not been taught very well, nor very widely, nor in the language of everyday life. Praise God, seminars on The Theology of the Body are now filling that void for those who care enough to become educated about it.
My husband and I had two children that we planned, and we decided to use artificial contraception to prevent more pregnancies. Then we joined the Pre-Cana team at our parish to help engaged couples prepare for marriage. Time after time, we heard other couples on the team give “the sex talk” wherein the Church’s teaching about birth control was explained. We didn’t want to believe that this teaching applied to our situation.
Finally, one couple on the team explained it in a way that made sense to me: Jesus said that love means laying down one’s life for another person. Marital love means doing this to such an extent that we give our ALL to the other. We don’t hold back anything from our spouse – not even our fertility. And since marriage includes God (well, it should or we’ll not survive the hardships of marriage and avoid divorce), the couple together loves God so completely that they hold nothing back from Him – not even their fertility. And God holds nothing back from us, including wisdom for how many children to have.
Marriage is a reflection of God’s love. Marriage is a testimony to the world that shows others what God’s love is like. God’s love is faithful; spouses are called to be faithful to one another and thereby testify to the world what love really means. God’s love is creative and productive; spouses who are truly in love exemplify God the Creator’s rich outward-flowing nature of producing life from love. At least that’s what it does when we are more in love with God than with selfish desires and self-focused goals.
The third question is about choosing the right health care plan: Why take a stand against health care that includes contraception and sterilization? What’s the big deal, anyway? Since every individual, according to his/her conscience, can choose not to use contraceptives, why should anyone object to buying health care that includes contraception? Employees are not compelled to use the contraceptives.
The response of a Christ-like conscience: As an employer running a Catholic organization, if I were to provide health insurance that includes contraception and if I were to give silent approval by not objecting to this, I am leading my staff to the occasion of sin. Although it is their private decision whether or not to choose to sin, I am called by Christ to assist others in their holiness by choosing not to give them an opportunity to sin.
Another example of this Christian principle is the kind of clothing that I as a woman choose to wear. If I were to wear, for example, a very provocative, low-cut blouse that draws attention to my shape, I am free to do so, and by itself this is not sinful. But perhaps someone who sees me has a vulnerability to being lustful. Anyone who sees me and commits the sin of lust as a result of seeing me – I bear some responsibility for their decision to sin, because I gave them the occasion to sin.
In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:29, Jesus tells us that if someone steals from us, instead of demanding that it be returned, we should let him keep it and give him more! Why? Because the most loving way to treat that person is to take away the occasion of sin by freely letting them have it so that it is no longer stolen goods. What they took from us becomes a gift from us.
Jesus says in Luke 17:2 that if anyone leads little children to sin, it would be better if they were drowned with a millstone holding them underwater so that they could do no more damage. Does his concern about leading others to sin stop when children grow up? Of course not.
If any employee of mine chooses to sin by what they do in the privacy of their bedroom (or anywhere else), I am accountable to God for whatever message I convey that either supports their sin or gives them an opportunity to avoid that sin.
And then what?
There is one additional, very important matter to keep in mind. If we find ourselves in a situation where we work for a company that provides health insurance that includes contraception and sterilization, then what?
We have the responsibility and the opportunity to teach the staff why contraception and sterilization is a sin. We cannot just hope for the best and look away from the question of whether or not our employees choose to use the contraceptives that we have, in effect, provided through the health benefits we give them. Morality is never taught by making laws and enforcing them, nor by stopping laws that should never be mandated. Morality is taught by good conscience formation.
And now we come full circle back to how I started this article. We all need to understand what is really being taught in Humanae Vitae and why. We need to get off our lazy horse named “Ignorance” and care enough about our own holiness and the spiritual journey of others to actually study the actual teachings of the Church. Almost every Catholic has an idea of what Humanae Vitae says based on a very limited knowledge of what it really contains, also based on what the world’s media has been saying about it.
Did you know that the bottom line of what is taught in Humanae Vitae is love? It’s not a hardship to live without contraception! Humanae Vitae teaches about love that respects and honors the couple as much as it respects and honors the life of any child their love produces.
When my husband and I accepted what we heard on the Pre-Cana team, we attended Natural Family Planning classes and lived for the next 20-some years without any new pregnancies. It didn’t just prevent pregnancy without the medical side-effects of contraceptives; it enhanced our personal relationship with each other. NFP teaches more genuine love between spouses than the world teaches with its pro-contraception attitudes. How? This article has been long already, so I will leave you with the challenge to go find out for yourself.
For further understanding on the topic of this article, please visit the US Bishops’ website:
- White House Misrepresents Its Own Contraceptive Mandate
- Conscience Protection
- Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Chairman of Pro-Life Activities, calls for greater conscience protection in health care reform.
- Why Natural Family Planning Differs from [and is better than] Contraception (PDF)
© 2012 by Terry A. Modica
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