The last few weeks have been rather stressful for me. When I find that I am over stressed and have difficulties in my life, I find that it is usually time to go to confession. There is probably some sort of sin in my life that is holding me back. If nothing else, I could use the spiritual guidance.
So Saturday morning I went to confession in the hopes that my soul would be unburdened. My regular confessor was out of town, so we had a substitute priest.
What I was looking for was help in dealing with the unexpected blessing that we found out about a few weeks ago. When you’re married to someone who is somewhere between highly skeptical and outright hostile to Catholic teaching on sexuality, an unplanned pregnancy can have serious consequences in your marriage. What I was looking for was reassurance, advice, and comfort.
What I got was not-so-subtle hint to just ignore the Church.
The priest was rather incredulous that anyone would have a third child after having two, much less that anyone would ever try to follow Church teaching on the matter. He told me:
I have to be careful about what I say, but, umm, you know more about your marriage than the Church does. These teachings aren’t infallible, you know.
Then I realized that in trying to unburden my soul, I had just scandalized a priest in the confessional. I had inadvertently reassured his doubts and dissents on Church teaching.
The Blind Leading the Blind
This is not an attack on this individual priest. Given his age, he was likely formed in the wake of Vatican II. He was likely told of the dangers of the clericalism that was prevalent before the council. He was probably lectured frequently on how little he knows and how unimportant he is—a “They are the Church” formation in the “Spirit of Vatican II.” (Note: This was not to say all was rosy before Vatican II. Clericalism, moral rigor, and legalism were real problems, especially in the United States, and they led to many of the problems after the council. Put another way, when you tell people that eating meat on Friday is as bad as having an abortion, you shouldn’t be surprised when they conclude that having an abortion is no worse than eating meat on Friday.)
Marital issues, especially sexual issues, are always awkward in the confessional. Most priests feel very uncomfortable with the subject and for good reason. It’s not their vocation.
They have no personal experience with marriage.
They have no personal experience with parenting.
They have no personal experience with marital sexuality.
They have no personal experience with women’s health.
As a result, many priests assume that the Church knows as little about it as they do. They assume that married couples appreciate advice from a priest on the most intimate aspects of marriage as much as they appreciate parishioners giving them detailed instructions on how to say mass. They assume we don’t want guidance from the Church or that we don’t need it. They are afraid that Catholics will stop coming to Church, or more cynically, stop giving.
They see difficult and unpopular teachings like Humanae Vitae, not as being the true teaching of Church protected from error by Holy Spirit, but as yet another example of clericalism run amok. They see the encyclical not as being about marriage and sexuality, but about a raw assertion of Church authority.
They see clergy who support the teaching not as faithful Catholics, but as careerists looking for a promotion from Rome. They are suspicious of Catholics who follow the Church as being radicals. (Admittedly, not always without reason—sometimes well-meaning, but overzealous and ill-informed lay Catholics can do serious harm to couples.) Because they were taught that the Church’s teaching is based strictly on authority, they don’t see how anyone who wasn’t power hungry could support it.
Then I realized why the USCCB isn’t doing more to promote NFP and is so resistant to those who would try: Not only do most Catholics disagree with the teaching, but so do a significant number of priests and bishops.
None of us should be surprised at how many pastors and bishops promote NFP less-than-enthusiastically.
Nor should we be surprised when Melinda Gates sees promoting contraception worldwide as fulfilling her Catholic faith. The Ursuline nuns who educated her told her “[W]e absolutely believe that you’re living under Catholic values.”
Nor should we be surprised when the product of a Catholic education from kindergarten to college tweets about how we should spend more money on family planning (contraception) for the developing world.
Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholics—more than the general population—believe that employers should cover contraceptives in their health plan.
Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholic use contraception.
Nor should we be surprised when it’s so hard to find guidance and support in living the Church’s teaching.
Yet I remain hopeful.
…to be continued.