This is a true story.
A few years ago my wife, Linda, and I were invited to talk to a group of engaged Pre-Cana couples at a local parish. The woman responsible for lining up speakers had done charitable work with my wife and thought that we would be well suited to talking to the soon-to-be married couples about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, and the place of natural family planning (NFP) within it (be aware that our instructions stressed that this wasn't to be a class on the exact details of how to practice NFP; There were several couples in the diocese qualified to teach such a class, but we were not among them, and the invitee knew this).
|A mom and dad enjoying family time with their children.|
Needless to say, we were pleased to be asked. We leapt into preparations: we read Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, articles by people like Janet Smith from the website One More Soul, Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love, information on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I can’t remember what else (I may track down our bibliography and post it). We did include NFP, but in the context of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, which, you’ll remember, is what we were actually asked to do. It was, if I may say so, a dynamite presentation.
Strange to say, the reaction was not as positive as we had hoped. Monsignor seemed pleased with our presentation, but our target audience seemed a little, well, stunned. While we certainly didn’t accuse anyone of anything, we did share the fact that cohabitation, consummating relationships outside of marriage, contraception, etc. were sins. It’s a fair bet that a number, most likely the majority (quite possibly all of them), were doing some of those things, so it wasn’t welcome news, however gently and non-confrontationally we put it (which I assure you we did).We did get one mildly positive comment from one of the women; the only other question was “How many children did you say you have?” To our answer, “five”, the response was “and how reliable is NFP supposed to be?” They seemed unconvinced that none of our children were due to a “failure” of NFP, that all were expected and welcomed. They had never been taught, or at least never absorbed, that having children is the norm (we used to call them “a Blessing”!), avoiding them the exception. In their written feedback afterwards, they related that they liked us personally, but found our presentation too “judgmental”, too "black and white".
The gentle and kindly woman who had asked us seemed as stunned as the couples. Apparently, she thought we had gone too far by actually saying that contraception was a sin; her vision of the presentation was that we would talk in glowing terms about how natural NFP is, how free from chemical side-effects, etc. and we would somehow win them over to NFP by sheer green-appeal. Then, having been won over to NFP by its greenness, they might someday be inclined to learn more about the theology behind it and the fullness of the church's teaching on the blessing of children. My lovely bride answered that we could not, in good conscience, go in to talk about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality without, you know, talking about the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Linda recalls saying with incredulity, "But they're all getting married in a few weeks, and this is supposed to be the official instruction they are receiving from their church about contraception. If we don't tell them now, when are we going to tell them? Are we going to wait and let St. Peter do it at the gate?" Really, if they never knew any better, they wouldn’t be the ones breaking out into a cold sweat when giving an account of themselves someday. As we were "hired" for this job, and knew better, if we didn’t share the fullness of the Church's teaching with them, we were the ones who'd have some 'splainin' to do.
This all happened seven or eight years ago. Would you be surprised if I told you that, despite the fact that they claimed to be desperate to find speakers willing to help out with this topic, we haven’t been asked back?
So, as they say, what have we learned here? If you’ve read many of my posts on this site, you know that I take the importance of the family very seriously. On the level of Natural Law, it is the essential building block of a healthy society; as Catholics, we know that it is an image, an icon, however imperfect (even in the best families), of the perfect love of the Trinity. Let me amend that: as Catholics, we should know. In my experience, most Catholics don’t. My wife at one point gave a copy of Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love to a young mother, a faithful Mass attendee, after she heard her talking to another regular Mass goer, also a young mother, and it was clear that neither knew anything about the Catholic teaching on contraception, sterilization, and our proper disposition toward child-bearing. I’m sure both young women were trying to be a faithful Catholics, but having absorbed the secular “conventional wisdom” about having babies, they were unaware of a serious alternative.
Some will criticize priests for not preaching on this topic, and there’s some justice to the complaint: I can’t recall a single homily even mentioning contraception in my adult life (although there are some bishops who have spoken out boldly, particularly the incomparable Archbishop Charles Chaput, link here). Many priests will respond that, in this skeptical age, they simply lack the credibility to say anything too demanding about marriage; and they also have a valid point. I can hear it now: “Who is he to tell me about sex? He’s a celibate male!” What’s the solution?
It seems to me that, given the age in which we live, leadership in this area has to come from the laity. We do need the explicit support of the clergy, yes, but right now they’re talking to a blank wall (when they’re talking at all). We lay Catholics, especially those called to marriage, need to learn about the true nature of marriage and the true place of sexuality (the Theology of the Body is a great place to start). We need to live according to that knowledge, joyfully receiving the children the Lord sends our way (using NFP, if we discern that it’s appropriate, according to the principles laid out by the Church), publicly demonstrating the importance we place on our families, and always remembering that we are to be an Icon of Love; never underestimate the Power of Example. The power of example, however, is not enough: after all, to many people our traditional family, however loving, will appear to be simply another “lifestyle choice” among the many on offer (“That’s fine for them, of course, but not for us”). We need to be willing to share the content of Catholic teaching, in a loving way that respects people where they are, with the goal of lifting them up. If more priests feel that they have the support of a large part of the laity, they will be able to speak out with more confidence.
The state of the family is not a tangential matter, it is a key component of every major problem facing both the Church and society at large. We have the truth: we need to live it.
(This was co-written by my lovely bride, Linda. It is a revision of an earlier post entitled “A True Story: The Importance Of The Family”)
Resources: this is not a full bibliography from the talk I describe above, but these are links to sources I mention in my post:
Pope Pius XI’s Casti Connubii – amazingly relevant eighty-three years later:
The “notorious” Humanae Vitae” – the encyclical that launched a thousand dissents - read it and see how accurately Pope Paul predicted the baleful results of wide-spread contraception:
Janet Smith’s One More Soul – well worth the time you spend there:
Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love – an excellent popular resource on the Catholic vision of marriage:
There is no one resource to go to for the Theology of the Body, but the USCCB site is a good place to start – closely follows John Paul the Great’s series of talks on TOB from 1979-1984:
Text of Pastoral Letter published in 1998 by Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver (Currently heading the See of Philadelphia) – absolutely the best explanation of Humanae Vitae I’ve come across by anyone, cleric or layperson: