Catholic tradition guides teaching on contraception, archbishop says

By Dennis Sadowski

(CNS) — The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, abortion, human sexuality and
contraception is rooted in the same respect for human dignity that guides its
work for social justice and care for poor people, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput told a Catholic University of America audience.

It is
imperative that the church make known why it upholds its teaching, as reiterated
in Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human
Life”), so that Catholics and the world understand God’s plan for
humanity, the archbishop said during the April 4 opening session of a symposium
marking the 50th anniversary of the papal teaching.

encyclical is notably known for upholding church renouncement of contraception.
It followed by eight years the 1960 U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval
of the first birth control pill.

Paul convened a commission to examine whether the historic Christian rejection
of contraceptives would apply to the new technology. Most commission members advised
the pope that it would not, but Blessed Paul eventually disagreed, saying in
the encyclical that the new technology was prohibited birth control.

Paul’s decision has been widely criticized, Archbishop Chaput acknowledged,
with some Catholic clergy, theologians and laypeople refusing to accept it. “That
resistance continues in our own day,” said the archbishop, who chairs the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. He made the comments in a
35-minute presentation to about 200 people.

Vitae’ revealed deep wounds in the church about our understanding of the human
person, the nature of sexuality and marriage as God created it,” he explained.
“We still seek the cure for those wounds. But thanks to the witness of St.
John Paul II, Pope Benedict, Pope Francis and many other faithful shepherds,
the church has continued to preach the truth of Jesus Christ about who we are
and what God desires for us.

willing to open their eyes and their hearts to the truth will see the hope that
Catholic teaching represents and the power that comes when that truth makes us
free,” he said.

The archbishop
challenged widespread denunciation of the teaching on contraception by those who
say church leaders spend too much time on “pelvic issues,” thus obscuring, they argue,
the Gospel message of caring for poor people.

“As a
bishop for 30 years in the dioceses where I served, that’s three of them, the
church has put far more money, time and personnel into the care and education of
the underprivileged than into programs related to sex,” he said.

it’s not that the critics don’t know this. Many don’t want to know it because
facts interfere with their story line of a sexually repressed, body-denying institution
locked in the past.”

teaching on contraception can be traced to the early days of Christianity, particularly
in ancient Rome, where Christians emphasized upholding human dignity, he said.

Citing the
work of Kyle Harper, provost
at the University of Oklahoma and an expert in Roman history, the
archbishop said the Romans “presumed that sex was just sex, one
instinctual need among others” and that prostitutes and slaves were
“safety valves” to satisfy such needs. But it was the early
Christians who “welcomed all new life as something holy and a blessing,”
teaching that each person was created in the image and likeness of God, he

also preached that God gave all people free will to act in accordance with
God’s commands or against them, he said, continuing to cite Harper.

embedded that notion of free will in human culture for the first time.
Christian sexual morality was a key part of this understanding of free will.
The body was a ‘consecrated space’ in which we could choose or reject
God,” he said.

As a
result, Christians began demanding “care for vulnerable bodies,”
speaking out against slavery and supporting the needs of poor people, and that
concern included opposition to contraception, he said.

Chaput noted that Christian opposition to contraception continued until the 1930
Lambeth Conference of
Anglican bishops, which determined that while the preferred method of avoiding
birth should be sexual abstinence, other methods may be used to prevent
pregnancy as long as they fell in line with Christian principles.

minor tweak gradually turned into a full reversal on the issue of
contraception. Other Christian leaders followed suit,” he said.

this leaves the Catholic Church almost alone as a body of Christian believers
whose leaders still maintain the historic Christian teaching on contraception,”
he continued. “The church can thus look stubborn and out of touch for not
adjusting her beliefs to the prevailing culture. But she’s simply remaining
true to the faith she received from the apostles and can’t barter away.”

Since then,
Archbishop Chaput said, “developed society has moved sharply away from Christian
faith and morals, without shedding them completely.”

He echoed
author G.K. Chesterton, who asserted that society is surrounded by
“fragments of Christian ideas removed from their original framework and
used in strange new ways. Human dignity and rights are still popular concepts,
just don’t ask what their foundation is or whether human rights have any solid
content beyond sentiment or personal preference.”

culture isn’t reverting to the paganism of the past. It’s creating a new
religion to replace Christianity. It’s that we understand that today’s new
sexual mores are part of this larger change.”

The moral
conflicts society faces, such as broken families, social unraveling and
“gender confusion” stems “from our disordered attitudes toward
creation and our appetite to master, reshape and even deform nature to our wills. We want the freedom
to decide what reality is. And we insist on the power to make it so,” he

thinking is manifest in efforts to master the limitations of the human body and
“attack the heart of our humanity,” the archbishop added.

Paul explains that “marriage is not just a social convention we’ve
inherited, but the design of God himself. Christian couples are called to
welcome the sacrifices that God’s design requires so they can enter into the
joy it offers. This means that while husbands and wives may take advantage of
periods of natural infertility to regulate the birth of their children, they
can’t actively intervene to stamp out the fertility that’s natural to sexual
love,” he said.

Because the
church’s teaching often was not being followed prior to the encyclical, Archbishop
Chaput said Blessed Paul offered four predictions if that trend continued: widespread
infidelity and the general lowering of morality; loss of respect for women as
they become viewed as instruments of selfish enjoyment rather than as beloved
companions; public policies that advocate and implement birth control as a form
of population policy; and humans thinking they had unlimited dominion over
their own bodies, turning the person into the object of his or her own
intrusive power.

a century after ‘Humanae Vitae’ the church in the United States is at a very
difficult but also very promising moment,” the archbishop said.
“Difficult because the language of Catholic moral wisdom is alien to many
young people, who often leave the church without every really encountering her.
Promising because the most awake of those same young people want something
better and more enduring than the emptiness and noise they now have.

“Our mission
now, as always, is not to surrender to the world as it is, but to feed an
ennoble the deepest yearnings of the world and thereby to lead it to Jesus
Christ and his true freedom and joy.”

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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