We welcome our seminar guests to Sunday High Mass here at the Thomas Aquinas Chapel, and we thank our choir for assembling during summer vacation. Over the last two days we studied texts on Marriage, and some pointed out the connection between contraception and the decline of marriage. I heard not a few people say that rarely if ever have they heard homilies on this topic. So let me give you a little homily on birth control.
You might ask: What do the scripture readings have to do with contraception? Nothing, but on Thursday we observe the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae. This summer I’ve been giving the seminarians of Sacramento, Santa Rosa, and San Francisco talks on how to create a culture of life in their parishes. I recommended they preach on contraception at least once a year, perhaps on the Sunday nearest July 25. So I had better follow my own advice.
In September 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb hit the bookstores. It opened with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The book scared a good many people and governments, who turned to sterilization and birth control to head off the alleged catastrophe. Two months earlier, Pope Paul’s encyclical on the regulation of human births, Humanae Vitae had come out, affirming society’s perennial rejection of contraception (contraceptive drugs were illegal in the United States until 1938). In paragraph 17, the Pope predicted four negative consequences should contraception become the prevailing mentality: “Let us consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. …Another effect is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman…. Finally, …this power [will pass] into the hands of public authorities who care little for the moral law….Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” So which Paul was right in 1968? Whose predictions came true, those of Paul Ehrlich or those of Paul VI?
Contraception is Intrinsically Evil
It’s pretty clear to everyone that the terrible unrest in our culture results from the breakdown of the family, which hurts poorer people most of all. 60% of white working class women are struggling to raise children in fatherless households, and studies abound demonstrating the personal and social damage resulting from single-parent households. What everyone does not know, but we Catholics had better make it our business to know, is that family collapse results largely from artificial birth control. The Church could not be clearer, in magisterial document after document, on the inherent evil of sterilizing the conjugal act. I quote the Catechism 2370: “Every action which … proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.” How to plan our families? First, love the child, and count your fertility as among one of God’s greatest gifts. And then, if you need to space births, use natural family planning. Again, from the Catechism: “The methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.” Artificial contraception, which is essentially different from natural family planning, is intrinsically evil—a mortal sin if committed with full knowledge and full consent.
So what to do, given that most of us Catholics contracept? We must begin the long road back to right reason, to submission to the natural law, to disciplined and authentic conjugal love. We must begin to practice the truth ourselves, and then help others to choose nature’s way of spacing births. There. Now you have heard a homily on contraception, and I don’t want to hear any more complaints.
Right Marriage and Right Worship
But there is a little more. The breakdown of marriage and the family coincide with another lamentable phenomena: the breakdown of right worship (in Greek, “ortho-doxy”). In the 1950s, when family life flourished in America, most folks went to church every Sunday. Now only about 25% worship God regularly. In the Catholic Church in particular, a mistaken notion of worship has overcome us, parallel with a mistaken notion of sex and marriage. That is, most Catholics have come to imagine that the Mass is about us rather than about God, and that we “own” the liturgy.
The Scriptures portray divine worship as a sacred banquet, from the Old Testament Passover to the Gospel Last Supper to Revelation’s Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But whose banquet is it—God’s or ours? We have come to think of the Mass as “our” meal. It’s “our” church (after all, we paid $23 million for this chapel). We set the altar. We provide the bread and wine. We say the prayers. But consider more carefully. Whose chapel is this, after all? Who provides us with everything we have?
In the First Reading (Genesis 18), Abraham puts on a banquet for the mysterious “three men” at Mamre, the famous Old Testament Trinity. He serves God—it is an act of worship—but who is really serving whom? One of the “men” tells Abraham he will be holding his firstborn son within the year, the fulfillment of the Promise. Abraham makes no mistake: even though he gives his best to these three men, he knows that they are giving infinitely more to him.
In the Gospel, Martha puts on a banquet for Jesus, a fine act of worship. But gradually she slips into the “ownership” mentality, becomes controlling of her sister Mary, and ends up ordering God to do her will: “Lord, tell her to help me!” Martha makes the mistake Abraham didn’t make: she thinks she is doing Jesus a big favor by serving him. And so most Catholics come to Mass a bit begrudgingly: “Lord, I hope you appreciate what I’m doing for you this Sunday morning.”
Our marriages, our bodies, our homes and families, our jobs, our Mass: it is all from God. And it is all going back to God. St. Paul describes himself as a steward in the second reading. Read it again after Mass. We are stewards, not owners. Let us follow the example of the saints, and especially of Our Lady, who received God’s gifts with joyful humility, never imagining that we actually deserve his blessings. Let us use these gifts in accord with his will, in submission to the revealed laws of His Church, so that we may live peaceful and ordered lives here on earth, and so attain perfect joy in the life of the world to come.