Well, it’s been over a year since my last post, but I got the urge to chime in on the latest hubbub surrounding the HHS and Obama Administration decision to force compliance of a mandatory requirement that health plans offer free Birth Control to employees covered by health plans.
Unless you’ve been hiking on Mars for the last couple weeks, you know what I’m talking about.
While I am in complete agreement with all those calling this unfair and unjust, and while I join in opposition to it, that is not where I’ll go in this post. It is easy enough to find the arguments against this action around the internet, and it is worth reading over the various appeals for action at the USCCB.
What I’d like to muse about here is the fact that – as often happens with God – this outrageous action that never should have happened has nevertheless done more to draw attention to the Catholic stance on contraception than anything else in recent memory. Ironically, this may be a controversy that does more to save souls than to destroy them, especially if this ultimately gets overturned either by policy, a new administration, or in court.
While it is true that some Priests willfully broach the topic of contraception in their homilies, let’s be honest: there hasn’t exactly been a forceful and consistent message on this topic.
Not to make excuses for the lack of willingness to give a good old-fashioned “this is the way it is and suck it up and deal with it” homily on the topic of contracepting Catholics, there is also a reality that Priests have to deal with and struggle with. Now, to many of us, there is a feeling that the truth should just be spoken because that’s what Christ did and if people run away then that’s their issue. Others will come because there is always a yearning for truth. But things are rarely that simple. The most benign and generic homily that discusses the evils and sinfulness of contraception will elicit negativity from those who feel they are being judged. And ramping up the intensity will expand the universe of those who feel that way. It’s a tough thing to try and get people to actually confront their sin without making them feel like they’re bad people. And it’s human nature to filter out all the caveats about how we’re all sinners and go straight to “I think he just said I’m going to hell!”
On this issue, it’s particularly sensitive, for a few reasons. First of all, as a Catholic with 8 kids, I really need to resist the urge to look around at all the families with 2 or 3 kids and make any assumptions about them. Now, I’m not stupid. As a group, I simply know that there is contracepting going on. I know this because some aren’t shy about telling others about it. I also know it because there is no other reasonable explanation for the distribution of family sizes. But what I don’t know (unless they share) is who is doing it. And I don’t really want to know. So, I can’t and shouldn’t assume anything at the personal level. But it’s an easy assumption to make at the general level. But generalizing doesn’t usually help, because it’s human nature (especially when you know you’re an offender) to think “he’s looking at me.” And this draws offense and ire. Not because the Priest is wrong, but because the person doesn’t want to hear it and is offended at the very fact that something they are doing could dare be called a sin.
Second, there’s the unfortunate money and membership issue. It shouldn’t matter, but we live in the real world where it does. Some courageous priests won’t let the threats of “I’m leaving and taking my donations with me” matter, but other Priests will try much harder to figure out what they can get away with and keep the money here.
Third, there is the real spiritual concern of losing people. We want people at Mass. It is the best opportunity to make a difference, have the graces of Mass available, and experience conversion. There is always the hope that keeping the people coming will make a difference in the long run. It’s not an unfounded idea. This causes great struggle among the faithful Priests. They must be forceful, yet pastoral. I do not envy them.
Fourth, it is an adult topic. I have young children, and I’d want my Priest to be careful how he decided to address the contraception issue. I think this can be accomplished relatively easily, but it takes some thought. Different parents will draw the lines of acceptability differently. We want to keep the young children as innocent as possible for as long as possible.
This all leads to the fact that we do not hear about this issue nearly enough. So little, in fact, that a lot of otherwise good and faithful Catholics truly don’t understand that this is taught by the Church to be a grave sin. And even if they have heard that, they’ve been given very little context in the matter to understand the Theology behind it. How many otherwise faithful Catholics have rationalized that on this particular issue, they just disagree? And how many actually have really sound theological insights into their reasons for disagreements, versus the relativistic arguments of our generally secular society?
But thanks to the HHS and Barack Obama, things have changed. Over the last two weeks we have had letters from Bishops read throughout America. The issue is lighting up discussion boards, chat rooms, TV screens, and is even present in political debate. And while the argument is about the right to religious freedom more than it is specifically about contraception, this is not a drawback at all. Since the fundamental issue is more foundational from a Constitutional and Political perspective, it is getting much more coverage than if it was a narrow issue regarding the Church’s teachings on contraception.
But the practical impact of it is that every Catholic is now confronted with the question as to why this is such a big deal? Why is the Catholic Church saying that she can not and will not comply? What makes contraception such a point of argument that Catholic institutions are saying they will actually drop coverage before complying? How many times have we heard in the past two weeks that the Church considers contraception to be a sin? And we’re hearing that from news media in order to put context to the story. We are hearing more about the Catholic teaching of contraception from all forms of media than we’ve heard from the pulpit in the last four decades. This is truly a teaching moment.
Just yesterday I had an e-mail exchange with someone whose conscience was rekindled with respect to decisions he and his wife have made with respect to this issue. He was very sincere in reflecting about it and finding out more about the Church’s teachings. How many others are asking themselves the same questions? How many people are struggling internally with the issue who had otherwise set it aside?
Let’s thank God for how He works. Yes, we need to kill this unjust ruling. But in the meantime, let’s use this ruling! Priests can bring it up in the context of religious freedom and find ways to work in some things that will get people thinking. This has turned into a great opportunity for us.
Thank you, God, for finding ways to use the devil against himself, and using his methods of attack to bring about conversion. And thank you for the Church. May she demonstrate her strength during this time.