Editor’s Note: At a time when some Catholics are afraid to stand up for their faith in the face of secular disdain and ridicule, Fr. George Rutler of the Church of St. Michael in New York City put things into perspective in a bulletin column the Sunday before Ash Wednesday:
“Exactly two years ago this month, twenty young Coptic Christian Egyptians were kidnapped by Islamic State militants while on a work crew in Libya. They refused to renounce Christ and chanted in chorus, ‘Ya Rabbi Yassou!’ — ‘Oh my Lord Jesus!’ A black youth from Chad, Mathew Ayairga, not a Christian, was watching and, when asked by the captors, ‘Do you reject Christ?’ he replied, ‘Their God is my God.’ He was baptized by blood when all twenty-one were beheaded.
While these martyrs had never heard of the theological disputes over grace and justification, they were confident that Christ can raise life eternal from dust and ash. The purpose of Lenten disciplines, not salvific in themselves, is to train voices to join their chorus of faith.”
Q. At Sunday Mass recently, I noticed several pews reserved for something called “Little Church.” Before the readings, those in the reserved pews — mostly preschoolers with parents — were then gathered before the altar and met by the celebrant. Then the “Little Church” group was sent out of the church to another site. Your comment? — M.S. Michigan.
A. We are familiar with this practice of dismissing the children (although not the parents) before the Scripture readings and homily, and then having them return for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The point of the exercise, which is usually conducted by a layperson, is to have the children hear readings and an explanation suited to their age.
We have never thought that this was a good idea. We would prefer to have families together at Mass. If those in attendance are primarily children, then the readings and the homily can be adapted to them. If the congregation is mostly adults, there could be a class afterwards that would help the children to understand what they had just witnessed, or parents could exercise their role as the primary educators of their children and talk with them at home.
Q. Why is the Church so silent on birth control? As a Catholic mother of seven wee ones, and physically worn out from childbearing, I want to avoid another pregnancy. If I use birth control in my marriage, does the Church teach that I am likely to go to Hell? Am I really to sit out Communion and not go to Confession right now? With my Catholic hospital the one to initiate my birth control, and because of poor catechesis, I knew nothing of mortal sin, only that the Church frowned on birth control. When I decided to learn more about my faith and started reading more, did I suddenly burden myself with sin, whereas before I was innocent and Heaven-bound? This is upsetting to me, and I would love some advice. Can I still be a Catholic if I intend to use birth control? — Name and State Withheld.
A. First of all, if every Catholic guilty of committing sin ceased to be a Catholic, there would be no Catholic Church. The Church is made up of sinners and all are called to, in the words of Jesus, “repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). No grave sin automatically sends a person to Hell; only persistent and stubborn adherence to that sin until the end of one’s life results in final damnation.
Second, the three conditions for a mortal sin are grave matter, sufficient knowledge that the matter is gravely sinful, and deliberate consent of the will. If you at first were truly ignorant of the sinful nature of birth control (more properly called contraception since one can control births by moral means), then you were not in a state of mortal sin. That may no longer be true since you now possess sufficient knowledge of the immorality of contraception. However, one’s degree of guilt or moral responsibility can be mitigated by such things as fear (of future pregnancies) or concupiscence (the rebellion of one’s passions against reason). You should discuss your situation with a priest who is loyal to the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception.
Third, the Church herself has never been silent on the evil of contraception. She has condemned this sin since the first century, and every Pope in the past century, as well as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, has reaffirmed that condemnation. The definitive statement on the matter was issued in 1968 with the promulgation of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI, who declared as immoral “every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” (n. 14).
Fourth, while the Church’s Magisterium has always been vocal about the evil of contraception, many of her bishops and priests have been virtually silent, which is why so many Catholics, even today, think that there’s nothing wrong with practicing contraception. They have never been told by their clergy that contraception is not only a great moral evil, but it is also a betrayal of marriage as the mutual and fruitful self-giving of two persons to each other. Just as the Father and the Son pour out the gift of themselves to each other, and the Holy Spirit is the fruit of their self-giving love, so husbands and wives are to model themselves on the Trinity and make a free, total, sincere, and fruitful gift to each other.
Man and woman were made for each other. For one or both of them to say, “I give you all of myself, except my fertility,” is a lie and a betrayal of the self-giving love that the Creator intended in the beginning when He invented marriage.
Fifth, bishops and priests who failed to teach that contraception is evil will have much to answer for. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI specifically told the Catholic bishops of the world that their mission of safeguarding the holiness of marriage was “one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time” (n. 29). The Holy Father had even stronger words for priests, telling them that “your first task…is to expound the Church’s teaching on marriage without ambiguity.”
He told them to “be the first to give, in the exercise of your ministry, the example of loyal internal and external obedience to the teaching authority of the Church….You know, too, that it is of utmost importance, for peace of consciences and for the unity of the Christian people, that in the field of morals, as well as in that of dogma, all should attend to the Magisterium of the Church, and all should speak the same language” (n. 28).
Sixth, perhaps these clergy who failed in their duty to guide their flocks were afraid of driving people away, and so they avoided homilies on contraception. How did that work out? Attendance at Mass still dropped from about 70 percent on Sundays before Humanae Vitae to around 20 percent today\ These members of the clergy should have heeded the advice of Pope Paul, that “to diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls. But this must ever be accompanied by patience and goodness, such as the Lord Himself gave example of in dealing with men. Having come not to condemn but to save [cf. John 3:17], He was intransigent with evil, but merciful to individuals” (n 29).
Seventh, here is the consolation that you are looking for — the knowledge that the Lord did not come to condemn, but to save us, to be intransigent with such evils as contraception but to be merciful to those individuals caught up in this web. We can identify personally with your situation, having once had seven “wee ones” ourselves under the age of nine. But with God’s help, we survived, even with the birth of two more children. Looking back, my wife and I wonder how we did it, but we did, and now we have 22 grandchildren as well.
Eighth, the answer to your plight is Natural Family Planning, which the Church approves as a method of spacing out the births of children, or of avoiding another birth for the time being, after taking into account what St. John Paul II called the “physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions” facing a family.
The beauty of NFP is that it involves the loving cooperation of both parties, rather than putting the burden on one spouse, usually the woman, who endangers her health by taking powerful drugs (the Pill) or using dangerous devices.
For information on NFP, check with the Family Life Office in your diocese or contact John Kippley of Natural Family Planning International at P.O. Box 112035, Cincinnati, OH 45211. His website is www.nfpandmore.org.