Sunday, February 12, 2012

Homily 6th Sun OT Year B–Contraception, Why Not?

Sacramento del MatrimonioA couple of weeks ago, I preached about the prophetic nature of marriage, about how marriage itself preaches the good news of Christ’s love for the Church and of eternal union with God in heaven. During the announcements I read the letter from Archbishop Kurtz about the mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In addition to marriage being roundly attacked in our society, so too is our religious freedom. The Archbishop’s letter pointed out the troubling moral implications of religious organizations being forced to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs – a mandate that tramples on the freedom of conscience and the teachings of the Church. Despite a recent development in the Administration’s policy, it isn’t over yet.

Last week I preached about the healing power of God’s Word and I proudly proclaimed with St. Paul to the Corinthians: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it.” I have combined that line in my heart with what Paul writes to the Corinthians today: “Avoid giving offense… not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” These verses have inspired me not to wade out of the waters of controversy just yet. There are still difficult moral questions to be addressed before I can feel like I have adequately provided spiritual leadership to you. I was ordained a priest on May 28th to teach, to sanctify, and to govern God’s people, not to shy away when wolves in sheep’s clothing threaten their safety.

On Friday, the Administration announced that now, rather than forcing religious employers to directly pay for insurance coverage that included contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients, it will be the insurance companies that will directly offer these free to women and will reach out to them separately to provide them.

This so-called “accommodation” is still morally troubling. What about religious employers who self-insure? EWTN, the popular Catholic network, is the largest Christian media network in the world – it self-insures. What about the conscience rights of for-profit employers? They’re being forced to deny their consciences as well. You can read the Archbishop’s latest response on at another time. Today I want to address the big elephant in the room.

Our first reading from Leviticus explained the law concerning those in the society with leprosy. They were exiled to a shameful lot outside of the community, declared unclean for worship, made to give humiliating warnings to those who come too close. But the prophets foretold that the Messiah will one day come and we will know him by his ability to heal this terrible plague and restore lepers to the community. In the gospel a leper, out of great humility and trust in the Lord, throws himself at Jesus’ feet pleading, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.”

In our society today, a leprosy still plagues God’s people. It is not a “scab or pustule or blotch” on the skin though, as Leviticus describes it. It is, rather, a scab on the heart. No bodies have been quarantined, but hearts have certainly been separated. I’m talking about the leprosy of the sin of contraception. Contraception, is the big elephant in the room, the sin getting everyone’s attention but that no one wants to talk about. We’ve certainly heard a lot about it in the media’s coverage of the mandate from HHS. Every time religious objection to the mandate is reported, the media is quick to say that 99 percent of all women use contraception and 80% of Catholics are contracepting. But, they forget, that the truth isn’t determined by popular vote – the truth is true outside of the number of those who believe it.

I know there are bigger fish to fry: religious liberty, the first amendment of the Constitution, and the very framework of our nation, made up mostly by religious institutions. But the spotlight is being shined on contraception in a big way and its making Catholics sheepishly scratch their heads and say, “Oh… yeah… that’s a problem, isn’t it.” If 80% of the nation’s Catholics are contracepting, can we narrow that down to 80% of Catholics at Mass here today? Don’t worry, I don’t need a show of hands! But what kind of priest would I be if 80% of my people carried this modern leprosy on their hearts and I didn’t stretch out my own hand to them? Trust me, it’s not easy for me to stand up here and talk about a sin that won’t necessarily win me any popularity points. But I don’t want the Good Shepherd, on the day of my particular judgment, to say to me, “80% of my sheep were led astray and you did nothing to save them.”

The truth is, contraception is intrinsically immoral; it is a mortal sin, a sin that doesn’t merely wound but severs our personal integrity, our relationships with each other, and our relationship with God. It is not confessed enough.

There are many troubling effects of contraception. Studies link its widespread use since the 1960’s to increased prevalence of societal dysfunction, abortion, single parenthood, sexually transmitted diseases, unwed pregnancy, poverty, and divorce. But the Church teaches against it primarily because it violates the goods of marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that marriage “is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring” (CCC, 1601).[1] Contraception thwarts God’s will and intention for marriage and the very design of the human body. It is indeed a serious sin.

The popular mindset is articulated well by the president when he speaks about contraception. He refers to “contraceptive services” and “contraceptive care” as part of “preventive services.” The healthy and natural functioning of the human body, including its reproductive function, is a great good. Indeed, precisely because the human person is of such inestimable value, the sources of the human person – the fertility of both men and women – also have great value. But, contraception divorces human sexuality from procreation and leads one to regard fertility as a disease. The ability of spouses to become cooperators with God in the creation of new human life is itself of inestimable value and not some physiological nuisance.[2]

Janet Smith, a professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit has a talk on CD called “Contraception, Why Not?” that has distributed over a million copies. You can find the transcript free online. She beautifully explains this issue. “Barriers are not appropriate between those who love each other,” she says. Our bodies speak a certain language. A husband and wife should say to each other, in their sexuality, “I give to you all that I am and all that I have, even my fertility. I am willing to be a parent with you.” And those are statements that promise a lifetime commitment because children help to reinforce that commitment. “Sexual intercourse is meant to express and solidify this comment to lifetime union that a couple has already made through their marriage vows. Indeed a child is a living monument to the union… Sexual acts that are open to children express more fully the lifetime commitment that marriage is.” But couples who put up a barrier between them are “saying” with their bodies “I only want from you a momentary union of pleasure.”[3] Just as the decision to marry IS a decision to be open to the miracle of children, so to the decision to have sex IS a decision to be open to the miracle of children – they are one and the same decision, not two separate ones.

Most married couples have “spoken the language” of contraception. Most used contraception before they were married. Once married, they stop it momentary to have a child and then contracept again. They may stop again to have a second child and then become sterilized. They say to each other, “your fertility is a pox on this house.” The fact that some contraceptives end up killing the embryonic human being makes this “language” all the more abusive. Now, I realize, that some women take the synthetic hormones that are in the pill to treat hormonal disorders, endometriosis, or ovarian cysts that themselves can cause infertility. In these cases, infertility is the unintended and indirect effect of a treatment and so use of the hormones is then not a sin. But, nowadays there are very few occasions in which infertility causing drugs are the single, solitary treatment for these problems.

In marriage, Natural Family Planning is the better way. Contracepting couples make themselves infertile; NFP couples work with the natural periods of infertility in a woman’s body. Contraception treats fertility as a defect; NFP treats fertility as a gift to be treasured though perhaps not always opened. Contracepting couples do not give fully of themselves in their sexuality; couples using NFP give all that they have to give during the times of infertility. Furthermore, NFP costs nothing, is as effective as birth control, enhances marriage, improves the sex life, increases intimacy, and improves communication. And couples using NFP almost never divorce, unlike 50% of the rest of the population.[4]

To the young adults here today: don’t buy the lie of contraception, don’t fall into its trap. Don’t trivialize sex now and ruin it for yourself later. For the sake of your future marriage, stay away from it. To those already married, come to the Lord in humility and trust in the sacrament of Reconciliation. He does will it, to cleanse you of this modern leprosy, so you can start again.

[1] Janet E. Smith and Christopher Kaczor, Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics, p. 78
[2] Ibid, p. 78
[3] Ibid., p. 79
[4] Ibid., p. 82

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Homily 5th Sun OT Year B – The Healing Power of the Word of God

extremeunction It can be tempting at times, especially given the state of our economy and other pressures, to live life according to the despair of Job rather than according to the hope of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Life. “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? Are not his days those of hirelings?” Job asks with despair. We strive to grow in holiness only to fall to sin time and time again. We work so hard, day in and day out for money to support our families, only to have it taken from us. We raise our children the best way we can only to see them leave the faith. We exercise and eat healthy foods only to be stricken with a debilitating disease. Even our nights provide no rest. “The night drags on,” Job laments, “I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.” Surrounded by sin and death we are tempted to utter again with Job “I shall not see happiness again.” What’s the use?

If you have uttered these words before, let me tell you that there is indeed hope; that you will see happiness again, even in this life, for happiness is your destiny, the very thing for which you were created. This happiness can be found in the Word of God, Jesus Christ the Lord. And perfect happiness can be found in Eternity with Him.

Notice how our readings today bring together the trials and sufferings of life with the preaching of the Word of God. We have in the same Mass the despairing cries of Job alongside St. Paul’s zeal for preaching. And we find Our Lord “preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.” Why are suffering and preaching brought together? I think this is to remind us that the Word of God is inextricably linked to every aspect of the healing ministry of the Church, physical and spiritual, as she seeks to alleviate suffering in the world. There is much wisdom in this; we must not take it for granted.

With all of the Church’s sacraments and sacramentals of healing, both those celebrated within Mass and outside of Mass, readings from Scripture are there. In the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, readings from Scripture are there. In Visits to the Sick, Communion of the Sick, celebrations of Viaticum, and Commendation of the Dying, readings from Scripture are there. In Baptism and even in the beginning of the Sacrament of Reconciliation – when the greatest sickness of all, sin, is healed – the priest is encouraged to read some passages from Scripture. It is unfortunate that this isn’t the common practice. The Church, you see, is not a haven for the perfect and healthy; it is a hospital for sinners. Our Lord is the Divine Physician and His Word is our medicine for everlasting life. After all, the word “doctor” comes from the Latin word docere, which means “to teach.” And in our Responsorial Psalm – one of the readings or “teachings” of the Word of God – we sang, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Remembering then how necessarily linked the Word of God is with both physical and spiritual healing, we are given both a consolation and a challenge. How often, when we suffer, do we look to everything but the Word of God for happiness or relief? In a world that has no tolerance for suffering and refuses to find meaning and redemption in it, we are tempted to turn to Christ, if we turn to Him at all, only when all other avenues have been exhausted. We try all the latest medications and remedies. Or we medicate ourselves through impulsive buying or thrill-seeking or lustful passions or by being in denial. St. Paul captures beautifully in our Gospel the universal longing that is at the root of all of these: “Rising very early before dawn, [Jesus] left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”

We seek happiness and relief from our suffering in a myriad of ways but, deep down inside, “Everyone is looking for [Jesus].” Although in the midst of our trials, our Lord may seem to be “off to a deserted place” he is always very near. Let’s not wait until we hit rock-bottom to turn to Him. When we are tempted to look to worldly things to find what only He can provide, we must remember that he truly is found in His Eternal Word, especially in the Gospel proclaimed at Mass. He really can satisfy the desires we have. This is our consolation and challenge.

Perhaps you yourself are suffering even as you sit here today. Or perhaps a friend or a relative or a coworker you know is suffering today. St. Paul challenges us with full zeal and piety: “If I preach the gospel,” he says, “this is not reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” Woe to us as well if you or I fail to preach the Good News to those who are sick in body or soul; if we fail to proclaim the truth of Christ’s redemptive suffering and his many healing miracles; if we fail to give the sick this greatest of medicines: His Word.

The power of His Word inspires us not to wait to call a priest to anoint our loved ones only at their final moment, as we used to do. No, the power of God’s Word impels us to call for the priest to preach the Good News of God’s Anointing as soon as we begin to be in danger. Why would we want to delay the giving of so precious a gift? And Why should we be afraid to see the priest when he comes? He’s not the grim reaper. He is Jesus Christ bringing the grace of strength, humility, perseverance, and healing. This is the challenge from St. Mark. He says that the apostles “immediately told [Jesus]” about Simon’s mother-in-law who lay sick with a fever. We must not hesitate to tell our Lord in prayer about our own trials or those of our relatives and friends.

We see that upon hearing their petition “[Jesus] approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.” Furthermore, St. Mark continues, “When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.” Perhaps you, or someone you know, are looking in all the wrong places for the comfort we can only find in Jesus. Perhaps you, or someone you know, are possessed by the demons of addiction or despair. Today is the day to resolve, if you have not yet done so, to gently take them by the hand and bring them to Jesus. If you have already begun this journey, resolve to persevere for our Lord himself said he wishes to come to us, to “preach there also.” We need only to “gather at the door” of His Word.