Sunday, 4 October 2009

On Contraception, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 10:2-16; Gen 2:18-24
[This is a longer text than the actual sermon preached]

In our Gospel we heard Jesus speak on marriage, speak a hard teaching against divorce. He reminded His hearers that there is a meaning to marriage, the body, and sex, a meaning that pre-exists us, a meaning established at Creation, a meaning that we need to respect and observe if we are to be happy. For the first Christians, that meant living a sexual lifestyle radically different to that of the hedonistic pagan Romans around them. For us, today, it likewise means living a lifestyle different to non-Catholics.
As I said at the start of Mass, I’m going to preach on a matter of sexual morality, and today I want to address one very particular issue: contraception. I don’t know when you last heard a sermon on contraception –possibly never, many older priests have told me how they have had people shout and spit at them for preaching on this, and, understandably, such priests have often fallen silent on this part of the Gospel. But as St Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16-23) -I want to give a few points on the importance of this issue. If you’re going to shout or spit at me please wait until after Mass. The points I want to make are that: First, that sexual morality is a part of the gospel; second, that the Church deserves to be taken seriously about this; third, contraception is bad for you, and is in fact a sin; and finally, that, there is an alternative.

Now first, preaching the gospel involves preaching a way of life, preaching about what is sin and what is not sin. That includes preaching about sexual morality, and this has been the case since the very beginning of the Church, and the Christian way of life was preached to the pagan world that lived a debauched and promiscuous lifestyle completely opposed to Christian morality. Adultery, abortion, and contraception, were all common in the Greek world, but the early Christians preached a different way of life. People sometimes talk about contraception as it was just a modern question, but actually contraception existed in the ancient world. It was less effective and less predictable but the ancient Jews knew about it and knew that it was forbidden to them, the early Christians likewise knew that contraception was something that belonged to pagan morality and was not part of the chastity to Christ calls us to. We can note too that in the ancient world (as in the modern world) contraception and abortion are very much related. Today, the most common form of contraception, i.e. typical modern forms of ‘the pill’, are deliberately designed so that when it fails as a contraceptive it will then act as an abortifacient aborting the young embryo by making it unable to implant in the womb.

My second point, is that the Church deserves to be taken seriously. Over two generations ago, modern contraception seemed new, and those who promoted it thought it would usher in a brave new world. They said the contraception would bring happier marriages, with less family stress, less divorce, less teenage pregnancy, and less abortion, “every child a wanted child". In the midst of these expectations, in 1968 Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would introduce a barrier in the relationship between a husband and wife, would lead to more divorce, more promiscuity, less family stability, and an increase in women being seen as sexual objects. Tragically, it is the Church and not the secular world that has been proved right on this. The fact that two generations on the Church's expectations have been tragically realised and that the ‘brave new world’ has instead been a fractured society, means that the Church deserves to be heard again, and those who promote contraception, the Planned Parenthood, United Nations, or our own government, deserves to be treated with suspicion.

My third point, is that contraception is not only bad for society at a general level, this is bad for individuals, and it is bad for the marriages where it used. What is a disaster at the level of a society may not prove a catastrophe in an individual marriage, but nonetheless that marriage is weakened not strengthened. Divorce statistics show this. American studies, including people of all religions and none, show that while divorce rates among those who use artificial contraception are nearly 50%, divorce rates among those who use various methods of natural family planning between 2 and 4%. These statistics point to a further truth: the Church teaches that artificial contraception is not only bad for you but it is a sin. The higher divorce rate is not a proof in itself, but it is a sign. Divorce is the separation of a husband and wife, and contraception separates things that belong together, things that if they are separated in the marriage act tend to the separation of the whole marriage.

The marital act, namely, sex, is a gift from God, a gift destined to be shared by wife and husband committed to each other in lifelong marriage. In sex two bodies are as fully united as they can be, and this only has its proper context in a relationship where two people are not only bodily united but spiritually and legally united in marriage. The sexual act is not something that a couple invent themselves, rather, it is something they receive as a gift from God, God who planned and made all things. The meaning of sex is a meaning that God has established, and there are two things, two meanings, that God has intertwined in the marital act.
One meaning is union, so that sex both expresses the union of a husband and wife, and fosters that union. But there is another meaning in the marital act, and that meaning is procreation, i.e. that sex is naturally ordered to the creation of new life. So that new life finds its home in a loving embrace. Now, sex does not always lead to new life, but sex always has this as part of what it means, and to directly oppose this is not only to directly oppose new life, but it is to violate the integrity of the marriage act: it violates the meanings that God has written into this act.

My last point, is that there is an effective alternative. 200 years ago, condoms were made of leather -they were immoral then and they are immoral now, but they are more effective now. Half a century ago, the only known method of natural family planning, i.e. approved by the Church, was the rhythm method which assumed that a woman had a regular cycle. The science of fertility awareness has improved, and the accuracy of methods like the Billings Method have improved also. As research you can read yourself on their website indicates,, methods like the Billings Method are 99% effective, a statistic also on the NHS Direct website, which is as good a statistic or better than anything claimed by the pill or implants (though admittedly different NHS websites vary in their reports).

There is a difference between contraception and NFP. In contraception the couple have directly thwarted the procreative meaning of the act; the act they engage in is an altered act. In contrast, when a couple use Natural Family Planning they track the wife’s cycle and fertility and so decide when to abstain and when not to abstain, but when they engage in the marriage act it is a normal act that they are enjoying. The act they enjoy is as God planned and intended it to be.

What contraception does is, it violates the nature of the marital act by forcibly separating two things that the Church says inherently belong to each other in the marital act, namely, the unitive dimension and the procreative dimension. While the unitive and procreative dimensions are not always actualised at the same time for example when the wife is not fertile, forcibly separating these two meanings is different to engaging in the act when one of the two meanings will not be realised.

Returning to natural family planning, i.e. what the church promotes, how is it different to contraception? Well, the Church does indeed teach that there are times when it is right for a couple to not want to have a child, for serious reasons. So, both natural family planning and artificial contraception, both have the same intention of not wishing to have a child right now. But the Church teaches that the two acts are different because contraception changes the act itself, while natural family planning either abstains from the marital act or it engages in a normal unaltered act. A couple who use natural family planning track the wife’s cycle and fertility and so decide when to abstain and when not to abstain, but when they engage in the act it is a normal act that they are enjoying.

Natural family planning is moral because it never directly separates the two meanings the marital act, union and procreation. But not only is it moral, it can also benefit the relationship between a husband and wife. I have repeatedly had men tell me, men in marriages where they have switched from contraception to natural family planning, that it changes how they relate to their wife. It makes them communicate more with their wife, it makes them more sensitive to their wife, as well as the fact that it follows God's law and receives God's blessing. Regular abstinence can introduce discipline and self-mastery, an awareness of the woman's cycle and bodily integrity, and with this a greater consideration for the woman. I make this point because some people say that the church is imposing too great a burden by calling for the regular abstinence that is involved in natural family planning. Well, contraception is also a burden, not least in the higher divorce rates I referred to.

In conclusion, What does all this mean for you today? For many of you, this may simply be a re-affirmation of what you practiced for many years, if so, I hope you don’t object to me preaching to the converted. For others of you, it may be that in hearing what I have said, you might re-examine some of your own practice, either from years gone past, or in the present. For some of you that may mean repenting and going to confession for the past. For others of you, it may mean that now is a good time to find out more at a practical level about what natural family planning involves. We are fortunate in this parish to have a trained teacher in the Billings Method, Valeria Findley-Wilson -if you don't know who she is, then there is a photo of her on the porch notice board. And she’ll be speaking at a parish meeting on this 10th December, 7pm.

I started by noted that the early Christians in ancient Rome realised that they had to follow a sexual lifestyle different to that of the pagan world around them: sexual morality is an integral part of following Christ. There are some people who say the Church should not get involved in the bedroom, but that is like saying that Christ should be involved in one part of my life but not in other parts of my life. However, Christ is ‘Lord’, and He wants to be Lord of all my life, and if He is not Lord of all then He is not Lord at all. And that means He must be Lord of the bedroom too.

The following is a link to the newsletter insert on contraception and natural family planning:

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