Contraception is a quick fix all right. As it turns out, three priests I know seem to think that the Church's teaching on contraception is optional. They have compassion for the couples who come to them for counsel on this issue and typically go on to tell them that they should "follow their conscience," that they clearly have "serious reasons" to exempt themselves from the teaching, or that the Church's teaching on contraception is not infallible and therefore up for debate.
I ponder these arguments with incredulity. Not too long ago, I had the chance to listen to Janet Smith's talk Humanae Vitae and Conscience, which deals with the "conscience clause" and touches on the infallibility of the teaching.
If a couple goes to a priest for advice on contraception, it's clear that their conscience is bothering them and they're looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Instead of getting information on alternative NFP methods that will work better for them, words that will encourage them to offer up their sacrifice, or information that will help inform their consciences, all they get is . . . that get-out-of-jail-free card. Some priests have even reassured their parishioners after hearing their confession.
On the struggle between conscience and Church authority, John Henry Newman writes:
And further, obedience to the Pope is what is called "in possession;" that is, the onus probandi (burden of proof) of establishing a case against him lies, as in all cases of exception, on the side of conscience. Unless a man is able to say to himself, as in the Presence of God, that he must not, and dare not, act upon the Papal injunction, he is bound to obey it, and would commit a great sin in disobeying it.The problem is, most Catholics tend to put their conscience (usually, what they think they should do) above the teaching authority of the Church whose beliefs they claim to profess, especially if they have "serious reasons" to do so.
If we take a look at the words of Humanae Vitae, we will see the teaching clearly stating that the spouses may use natural methods to postpone pregnancy if they have serious reasons to do so. Nowhere does it say that those serious reasons give the spouses the license to contracept--it simply allows them to use natural methods. It seems that my three priest friends may have forgotten or overlooked this distinction.
Whether or not they are aware of the above distinction, though, some priests flat-out question the infallibility of the teaching, saying an encyclical is not infallible. Janet Smith, however, cites the document Lumen Gentium, from Vatican II, which says that there are three ways to determine if a teaching is infallible or not, absent an ex cathedra statement from the pope. It would depend on:
- the character of the document
- the frequency of the teaching being articulated, and
- the manner by which the doctrine is formulated.
The Church's teaching on contraception does fit the guidelines for an infallible teaching, putting the teaching right up there with abortion and adultery: it is never right.
So, what is behind the laxity of these priests in the area of contraception? Do they still believe, erroneously, that Natural Family Planning is the very imprecise "rhythm method"? Do they think it is a burden for the spouses (particularly the husband) to suppress their sexual attraction until the timing is better? (Who better than a celibate priest to hold married men to a higher standard!) Do they fear that people will leave the Church when confronted with a truth they do not like?
I don't know.
What I do know is that the Church has never and will never change its teaching on contraception--a teaching that states that contraception is intrinsically evil. And yet, some priests will continue to exempt practicing Catholics from this infallible teaching.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:27)
Longing for God,
The Catholic Wife