NYT – John L Allen’s op-ed on Humanae vitae

My friend John L. Allen, Jr., the nearly ubiquitous fair-minded former Rome correspondent for the ultra-lefty National Catholic Reporter had an op-ed in the New York Times (or Hell’s Bible as one bishop I know calls it).

Let’s have a look at what Mr. Allen has to say, but with the usual Z-protocol (my emphases and comments).

Op-Ed Contributor
The Pope vs. the Pill

Published: July 27, 2008

FORTY years ago last week, Pope Paul VI provoked the greatest uproar against a papal edict in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church when he reiterated the church’s ban on artificial birth control by issuing the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” At the time, commentators predicted that not only would the teaching collapse under its own weight, but it might well bring the “monarchical papacy” down with it. 

Those forecasts badly underestimated the capacity of the Catholic Church to resist change and to stand its ground.

Down the centuries, Catholics have frequently groused [excellent word, and it sets a tone…. keep reading] about papal rulings. Usually they channeled that dissent into blithe disobedience, [still setting the tone…] though occasionally a Roman mob would run the Successor of Peter out of town on a rail just to make a point. In 1848, Pope Pius IX was driven into exile by Romans incensed at his refusal to embrace Italy’s unification.

Never before July 25, 1968, however, had opposition been so immediate, so public and so widespread. World-famous theologians called press conferences to rebut the pope’s reasoning. Conferences of Catholic bishops issued statements that all but licensed churchgoers to ignore the encyclical. Pastors openly criticized “Humanae Vitae” from the pulpit[painting a picture as a backdrop to what is coming up…]

In a nutshell, “Humanae Vitae” held that the twin functions of marriage — to foster love between the partners and to be open to children — are so closely related as to be inseparable. In practice, that meant a resounding no to the pill.  [Excellent.  Allen actually gives a fair view of the reasoning in Humanae vitae.  NB: This wasn’t published in the journal he usually writes for, the NCRep – which had its own dissenting editorial. For the NCRep Humanae vitae was about holding on to power and, digest this, against "real" love.]

The encyclical quickly became seen, both in the secular world and in liberal Catholic circles, as the papacy’s Waterloo. It was so out of sync with the hopes and desires of the Catholic rank and file [too be fair, we have to include the many of the hierarchy] that it simply could not stand.

And in some ways, it didn’t. Today polls show that Catholics, at least in the West, dissent [I am glad he calls it what it is.] from the teaching on birth control, often by majorities exceeding 80 percent.

But at the official level, Catholicism’s commitment to “Humanae Vitae” is more solid than ever. [This use of "official" is not charged with the negativity that it has in the NCRep editorial.]

During his almost 27-year papacy, John Paul II provided a deeper theoretical basis for traditional Catholic sexual morality through his “theology of the body.” In brief, the late pope’s argument was that human sexuality is an image of the creative love among the three persons of the Trinity, as well as God’s love for humanity. Birth control “changes the language” of sexuality, because it prevents life-giving love.

That’s a claim many Catholics might dispute, but the reading groups and seminars devoted to contemplating John Paul’s “theology of the body” mean that Catholics disposed to defend the church’s teaching now have a more formidable set of resources than they did when Paul VI wrote “Humanae Vitae.”  [Good point!]

In addition, three decades of bishops’ appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, [A very important factor.  I have written about this more than once: this is one of the most important things to consider during the long pontificate of John Paul II.] both unambiguously committed to “Humanae Vitae,” mean that senior leaders in Catholicism these days are far less inclined than they were in 1968 to distance themselves from the ban on birth control, or to soft-pedal it. A striking number of Catholic bishops have recently brought out documents of their own defending “Humanae Vitae.”  [I know he is relating facts, here, but I wonder if Allen isn’t quietly arguing that dissent from Humanae vitae is out of step with the present direction of the Church?  Namely, if it isn’t a washed up cliche of the "sixties"?]

Advocates of the encyclical draw assurance from the declining fertility rates across the developed world, especially in Europe. No country in Europe has a fertility rate above 2.1, the number of children each woman needs to have by the end of her child-bearing years to keep a population stable.  [Perhaps I am unclear about terminology, but do we mean "fertility" rate or "birth" rate?  There might also be fertility problems on the rise because of the damage (usually unknown) done by some sexually transmitted diseases, but surely contraception and aboritifcients and abortions are keeping the number of live births very low.]

Even with increasing immigration, Europe is projected to suffer a population loss in the 21st century that will rival the impact of the Black Death, leading some to talk about the continent’s “demographic suicide.”  [Well said!  An artifically created "Black death" as the consequences of, really it must be said, "dissent" from Humanae vitae‘s conclusions in many ways.]

Not coincidentally, Europe is also the most secular region of the world, where the use of artificial contraception is utterly unproblematic. Among those committed to Catholic teaching, the obvious question becomes: What more clear proof of the folly of separating sex and child-bearing could one want[Hits the nail squarely on the head.]

So the future of “Humanae Vitae” as the teaching of the Catholic Church seems secure, [Because the Church is committed consistently to teach the truth.] even if it will also continue to be the most widely flouted injunction of the church at the level of practice.

The encyclical’s surprising resilience is a reminder that forecasting the Catholic future in moments of crisis is always a dangerous enterprise — a point with relevance to a more recent Catholic predicament. Many critics believe that the church has not yet responded adequately to the recent sex-abuse scandals, leading to predictions that the church will “have to” become more accountable, more participatory and more democratic.

While those steps may appear inevitable today, it seemed unthinkable to many observers 40 years ago that “Humanae Vitae” would still be in vigor well into the 21st century.

Catholicism can and does change, but trying to guess how and when is almost always a fool’s errand
[And some things really can’t be changed.]

John L. Allen Jr. is the senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter and the author of “The Rise of Benedict XVI.”

 Not the sort of thing readers of the New York Times expect to see, I think.

Good editorial!

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  1. Theo says:

    The folks at Commonweal are besides themselves. Allen is a traitor in their eyes.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    Mr. Allen keeps on suprising me. Why doesn’t he leave the NCRep?

  3. Ben Trovato says:

    What he doesn’t mention, are the fruits of the disobedience: sexual behaviour has become vicious in so many ways (look around you!) It was this, to, that the Holy Spirit moved Pope Paul to see. This teaching is not just for Catholics, but for the whole world: the sixties sexual revolution has been an extraordinary disaster for civilisation. And the ground was paved by the Anglicans, in 1930, breaking the previously unanimous witness of all Christians about the intrinsic evil of contraceptive acts.

  4. Those statistics on how many people dissent are a sad reflection of how poorly people have been taught. Priests don’t talk about it from the pulpit and if they do (typically the newer, younger ones who have learned from Pope John Paul II’s writings), they are sometimes run right out of parishes. I know of at least one priest who kept getting bounced from parish to parish because he dared to talk about things like contraception, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, and other such things rarely heard about from the pulpit.

    When someone on judgment day is standing before the Just Judge and shows ignorance of basic Catholic teaching, who do you think will answer for that soul?

    I wonder how many nursing homes, chaplaincies, and remote parishes are filled with priests who dared to uphold Humanae Vitae.

    I am glad to see there is a change though becasue soon, there won’t be enough of those places to shelve these fine priests.

    Also, it was so refreshing to hear Bishop John M. Quinn of Detroit speak so strongly about the prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae, not ust when he came to bury the aborted babies, but in subsequent radio interviews on Cahtolic radio in Detroit. And, he had a Mass which was advertised for the 40th anniversary of HV this past Sunday where he was to talk about it. He is definitely a pro-life champion and just to hear a bishop talk about the Encyclical in a positive way was sooooooo refreshing.

  5. QC says:

    I look at it this way. Usually, medicine is used to help heal something broken. However, with contraception we take a completely healthy and properly working system of the body and mutilate it, insert devices into it, or pump it full of chemicals until it completely malfunctions. In any other context this is called poison.

  6. Kudos indeed to Mr. Allen for a very balanced and well written article on a sensitive subject. I will have to go out and purchase his book on Pope Benedict.

    God bless,

    Fr. Deacon Daniel

  7. rosie says:

    To be fair, priests who are silent on the truth are usually told to do so by their bishops. And priests are sworn to obey their bishops. Though a wise-as-a-serpent priest could have certainly tapdanced around that and still gotten the truth out without breaking his vow.

    This nonsense started in the higher branches and was forced down upon us through our poor priests. Don’t think for a minute that these bishops were confused, but well-meaning servants of God. Oh, no. They were and ARE any combination of the following: Freemasons, Communists, Homosexuals and Atheists. (Did I miss anyone?) And they are all intertwined and founded and run by Jews. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. That is the historic truth, not my opinion.

    But since when do we get our basic Catholic Faith taught to us from a pulpit anyway??? Unless we are orphans or converts, we should have the truth of Catholicism given us by our parents and grandparents, no? That is the way it has always, always, always been until the indoctrinations of perverted CCD and RCIA programs were thrust upon us. I assure you that the Catholics in my family can teach WITHOUT ERROR, every catechetical point and back it up with flawless and DETAILED theological doctrine. And I am talking farmers who never got past the third grade in old Yugoslavia. In the town where I live, my family was not unique. Most Catholic families were able to do the same. What happened?!?

    So, if even centuries of poor and uneducated peasants have through the years handed on true Church Teaching, why are we depending on a corrupt system of catechesis today? I don’t think encyclicals like Humanae Vitae are written as much for the laity as it is for the bishops. Until recent years most people didn’t have easy access to them. And most people (I for one!) couldn’t understand them anyway. Many outside the U.S. could not read at all. I think they were written to hold firm Catholic Truth in the faces of embedded enemies of The Church.

  8. PMcGrath says:

    Never before July 25, 1968, however, had opposition been so immediate, so public and so widespread. World-famous theologians called press conferences to rebut the pope’s reasoning. Conferences of Catholic bishops issued statements that all but licensed churchgoers to ignore the encyclical. Pastors openly criticized “Humanae Vitae” from the pulpit.

    If you want to see that level of dissent up close and personal, then read this article by Cardinal James Stafford, who is now the Major Penitentiary of the Church, in Rome, but who in 1968 was a parish priest in Baltimore. (Hat tip to His Heremenuticialness.)

    Then-Father Stafford was bullied by his fellow priests into signing an ad dissenting from HV, but he refused to sign.

    It’s an outstanding article, but it begs some questions:

    1. Why was the dissent so well organized?

    2. How was the dissent organized?

    3. Why didn’t the bishops of the time smash the dissent? (of course, this question was answered when Cardinal O’Boyle disciplined a number of Washington priests who signed the document — and the Vatican refused to back him up. But that part is another story.)

    Now, let’s look at the time line. Within days of the release of the encyclical, a meeting of hundreds of priests takes place in a church basement. Said meeting does not resemble a debating society — it resembles a Soviet Communist Party meeting where it takes a very brave man to not sign on to the document of dissent.

    Such a meeting could not have been organized within mere days. There must have been a plan for this from the beginning of the establishment of the “birth control commission” — in fact, probably well before that.

    Now, the expectation and the hope of those that organized that meeting was that Pope Paul VI would accept the recommendation of the commission and loosen restrictions on contraception. Had that happened, there would have been a very different series of meetings — more on the order of a celebration.

    Instead, Papa Montini tossed a monkey wrench into their well-laid plans.

    The larger point is this: The soil for these noxious weeds to grow must have been cultivated in the American (and other) clergy well before the release of Humanae Vitae — in fact, well before the advent of the “birth control commission.” In other words, the cultivation of dissent began in the 1940s and 1950s — what are seen as glory years of American Catholicism.

    Look at the example Cardinal Stafford gives us — a U.S. Marine leads the dissenters! A U.S. Marine — certainly of that generation — would not betray his fellow Marines. And — you would think — a priest who had been a Marine would not betray his Bishop and his Pope. Instead, the Marine priest is leading the treason! Why? How?

    Again, that’s the story — how the roots of clerical dissent reached back much much further than “Humanae Vitae.” If it didn’t explode with that document, it would have found its release with something else. Someone — a bunch of someones — must have done the organizing, Leninist-style. That’s what needs to be traced.

  9. The larger point is this: The soil for these noxious weeds to grow must have been cultivated in the American (and other) clergy well before the release of Humanae Vitae—in fact, well before the advent of the “birth control commission.” In other words, the cultivation of dissent began in the 1940s and 1950s—what are seen as glory years of American Catholicism.

    While undoubtedly the dissent against HV followed some level of rot, it didn’t necessarily take twenty years — you state it began in the 40s — to set in. Moreover, at any given point in the Church’s history there are malcontents willing to take advantage of shifts in popular culture. The malcontents had a field day with the 60s (and 70s).

  10. mysticalrose says:

    Amen, Diane. I know so many people who have never even heard of Humanae Vitae (not because they are dumb, but because they are under 40), and most who have heard of it have only been taught about the document in a negative light. This is a travesty of catechesis. Many of the uncatechized are very receptive to the Church’s teaching once they learn of it and are quite angry at the way HV has been cast aside by their preists and teachers.

  11. Liam says:

    There was a setup for the reaction to HV. And it was just the pontifical commission and the expectations it set up (thought that surely added to the mix). Rather, in many places, there were confessors well know for their “pastoral” approach in the confessional to the issue of contraception. This predated the Pill, but the Pill surely exacerbated the problem. My mother, who did not contracept, has told me on several occasions about this, and I’ve read corroborating anecdotes from far and wide.

    In many parishes, you might have noticed one or two priests with a long line of penitents in those days, more than the other confessors. Often the lines were disproportionately filled with women of child-bearing age. Why, because contraception was largely a burden placed on them – most husbands were uninterested in condoms, and either expected their wives to contracept at times or overused their right to the marital debt, as it were, and many of these women found confessors who considered these subjective factors in the confessional, et cet.

    What happened at the end of the sixties is that fewer people felt obliged to go through the confessional process to deal with this.

  12. Sean Gallagher says:

    If you want to read more about the population implosion in Europe and to see it in its broader context, get George Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral.

  13. cathguy says:

    John Allen may be the greatest Catholic journalist working today.

    He is fair minded and an excellent writer.

    Sean: I disagree with your recommendation of Weigel’s The Cube and the Cathedral.

    By Weigel’s reasoning, Poland and the eastern European countries are the hope of the future. (This because they support American foreign policy).

    France, is the bane of the West’s existence (because it opposes US foreign policy).

    The FACT that France has a HIGHER birthrate than Poland (which has one of the lowest birth rates in Europe) doesn’t fit in with Weigel’s thesis… so he seems to ignore the data.

    He also seems less than concerned abut the liturgy.

    MANY traditionalists have SERIOUS reservations about him therefore.

  14. Crusader Airman says:

    We recently moved to northern Virginia, and went to Holy Mass for the first time in our new parish church. What a difference from “liberal” southern Illinois! St William of York in Stafford is a great treasure…the liturgy was reserved and traditional, but not stuffy (1970 RM, with Gk Kyrie & Latin Gloria, Sanctus, Angus Dei), 6 male altar servers, and plates under my chin to catch at fragments of the Body of Christ that might fall).

    But it was the homily that caught my attention…father preached..PREACHED!…for 15 min on HV. It was joyful to hear the truth proclaimed so forcefully and heroically from the pulpit. After several years of enduring, ahem, “spiritual” homilies and lukewarm preaching (not to mention “loose” liturgy), it was a joy to experience the Holy Mass without the adlibs, etc.

    Deo Gratia!

  15. Fr. BJ says:

    Priests don’t talk about it from the pulpit

    Dear Diane: I wholly advocate preaching about all the teachings of the Church, and I try to do so. As a fairly new priest, I must say that a concern I have is choosing the right language when talking about issues pertaining to human sexuality from the pulpit. I would be interested to hear your thoughts (and those of anyone else) on how a priest can preach about some of these issues (abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.) in a discreet way, i.e. when children are present at Mass. The last thing I want to do is be responsible for a child losing his innocence on this or that issue (a lot of homeschoolers in my parish — the public school kids, they probably wouldn’t be hearing much new) — I have mental images of the child asking in the car on the way home, “Mommy, what is this or that thing that Father talked about?”, and while it’s the parents’ problem how to answer those questions creatively, I don’t want to give them an undue burden.

    I am not interested responses such as, “Be a man, Father, and just preach the truth, and don’t worry about that!! “. I think this is a real concern, and if you don’t think so, then please say why. Many thanks.

  16. Fr. BJ says:

    The larger point is this: The soil for these noxious weeds to grow must have been cultivated in the American (and other) clergy well before the release of Humanae Vitae—in fact, well before the advent of the “birth control commission.” In other words, the cultivation of dissent began in the 1940s and 1950s—what are seen as glory years of American Catholicism.

    This point (more or less) is very well advanced by Dr. Janet Smith in one of her very fine talks. She has loads of evidence to support the claim. If memory serves, part of the claim that she makes is that even though use of contraception was not widespread among Catholics before 1968, there had been a growing resentment to the Church’s teaching over many decades, and this resentment was fueled by a lack of clear and courageous teaching on the subject by many priests and bishops (and sisters, in schools…). In other words, there was a cultural acceptance of the Church’s teaching, but it was assumed on the part of authority and begrudging on the part of those accepting it, and 1968 provided an occasion for the bubble of resentment, as it were, finally to burst.

  17. David says:


    Poland’s low birth rate is bad news.

    But, France’s higher birth rate is thanks to Muslim immigrants.

  18. Eric says:

    Humanae Vitae is, in my mind, one of the greatest arguements against Sede-Vacantism. Who but the real Pope could come up with that?

  19. Rose says:

    I’ve never read Dr. Janet Smith…can anyone recommend a book by her? Thanks.

  20. Amanda says:

    Fr. BJ,
    You might check out this site by Priests for Life specifically for clergy. I know that have an e-mail list with homily hints and such.


    I too attend a parish with a majority of homeschoolers, so I understand your predicament. This past weekend we had a great homily on HV, but I think Father only used the phrase “birth control” once or twice. He kept to phrases like “illicit relations” and “marital intimacy” that would go over the heads of most of the kids, but still made his points quite clearly.

    Just a thought! Keep up the good work.

  21. Saying things like:

    “the teaching of the Catholic Church seems secure”


    “The encyclical’s surprising resilience”

    or, when speaking about Church’s interpretation of the natural law, which cannot be changed:

    “Catholicism can and does change, but trying to guess how and when is almost always a fool’s errand”

    is all an unfair attack on the Church, an attack that has been so ubiquitous, for so long.

    “Nice”, neo-conservative things are said, only to dump everything out with the hermeneutic of a non-believer. The heremeneutic of non-belief doesn’t make one fair-minded. Purposely precinding from the faith, writing like an atheist for atheists — well, however much one congratulates oneself for continuing to believe in one’s down-time, all this prescinding only makes one attack not only the Church, but natural law. An irony.

    Faith and reason are not adversaries.

    The Church’s reasoned comments on the natural can be just that: arguments made from reason. Just because these arguments are always consonant with the faith doesn’t mean they can be dismissed so glibly with the hermeneutic of atheism.

    The hermeneutic of atheism is intrinsically dishonest, just as atheism is dishonest.

    The moral revisionists condemned by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae thought things could change. Let’s not be condemned.

  22. TNCath says:

    This is an excellent editorial. It seems that in the last few years, Mr. Allen has experienced a ecclesiastical/theological “metanoia” since the early days of his career when he wrote his biography of then Cardinal Ratzinger. It appeared that Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope (which completely caught him and so many others like Father Andrew Greeley off guard) was the defining moment when the direction of his columns began to change. This treatise on Humane Vitae 40 years later, along with Cardinal Stafford’s article mentioned in other posts, are extremely insightful commentaries on public reaction to this encyclical. While many of us (myself included) might express frustration over Pope Paul’s pontificate, Humanae Vitae is a prophetic witness for the truth and is a beacon of hope for the future of the Church.

  23. Jackie says:

    Crusader Airman –I’ve been a member of St William for over 15 years (since I was in 3rd grade). Welcome to the parish! I think I was at the same mass as you (1030 am)and it really was a great homily. The priest did truely preach the Truth. Both priests are brand new to our parish and we are blessed to have them!


  24. Brian Day says:

    The soil for these noxious weeds to grow must have been cultivated in the American (and other) clergy well before the release of Humanae Vitae

    Ralph McInerny’s book What Went Wrong With Vatican II, covers the history of the dissent from HV very well. Very much worth a read.


  25. Ed the Roman says:

    I would guess that Allen stays because he can write what he wants and they pay him well.

  26. Fr. Angel says:

    Fr. Z, thanks for the fine editorial by John Allen. Since I never read the NYT, I would never have seen it without your website. PMcGrath, thanks for the link to the article by Cardinal Stafford, who is an excellent eyewitness of the unraveling of the Church at that time.

    It is sad to read these things and be reminded of the devastation to marriage and family life caused by the dissent to Humanae Vitae. At the same time it is a wake up call. We cannot tire and grow weary in the battle to restore the Faith because our enemy never tires.

  27. Peggy says:

    Crusader Airman,

    It must be you, Mickey, who just left us suffering in Southern IL! I am so glad to hear that St. William of York is such a blessing for your family. Glad you had a safe move also.

    Fr BJ: In my experience (like Crusader Airman), priests in NoVa frequently preach on life issues. One can preach about a married couple’s obligation to be open to life and make references to natural family planning and Couple to Couple League, without getting into biological issues.

  28. Fr. Jeremiah Payne says:

    I would like to advance Fr. BJ’s request. Being a relatively new priest myself, I am trying to find the best way possible to preach on these issued of human sexuality without violating the parental right of providing children with this education. My parish is very large (5,500 families) and young. Would the parents here please comment, as parents, on how to best present these issues from the pulpit whilst respecting the innocence of children present and the aforementioned parental prerogative?

    Like Fr. BJ, I am not interested in either carping or in well-meaning but not-very-helpful “courage calls”, but concrete advice–especially from parents and brother priests living in similar pastoral situations.

    Fr. Jeremiah

  29. jedesto says:

    Fr. BJ
    You must preach; that’s your job. When children hear you and then question their parents about it, the parents must answer; that’s THEIR job!

  30. patrick says:

    I am a parent. Preach on it, but use words that will likely go over kid’s heads. Say, “Let us look at the Church’s teaching on marriage and openness to life. Couples that are not open to life, couples that close the door on God by using artificial methods and medication, wound their marriage in a profound, and lasting way and separate themselves from God’s grace.” Of course, say it much more charitably than this. Phrases like “openness to life” and “embracing the Church’s teaching on contraception” are totally fine.

    One of the best lines our old pastor used was when Pope Benedict was elected: “I know that some of you are hoping that Pope Benedict will change the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. I assure you that he will not. But, if for some reason he did, I would follow him. The challenge to you is if he does not change the teaching, will you follow him?”

  31. Regina says:

    The “bubble of resentment” burst because of the advancing socio-economic opportunities for women at that time.Prior to the late 60’s, professional opportunities for educated women were limited to teaching, social work, and nursing. All of a sudden, women could become lawyers, doctors, and CEOs. This must have seemed very appealing to a lot of women who looked around and saw the stay-at-home Moms marinating their livers in Valium in order to cope with their perceived daily stresses in managing a large family of justifiably demanding and needy little ones.
    Also, I suspect that the ensuing silence from the Catholic hierarchy regarding contraception may have been due to the increased revenue in the collection baskets resulting from smaller families and two-income families.But moreso,it was probably because this particular Catholic teaching was ubiquitous.What Catholic wouldn’t be able to understand and explain this one?
    We shouldn’t burden priests to find clever and surreptitious methods to address contraception from the pulpit.It is indeed a delicate subject for the young innocents in the congregation. More importantly,though,it could create animosity between the priest and most married couples who would resent a celibate man jumping into the marital bed with them.

  32. Tominellay says:

    How’d that ever get into the NY Times???

  33. Rob F. says:

    Allen is using the correct term here. “Fertility rate” is the number of children born to a woman over her lifetime. See the wikipedia article on “Fertility rate” for the full story. Birth rate is the number of births per year per 1000 people. Obviously, the two rates are related. Birth rates are more pertinent to government planners, fertility rates to scholars (and pastors) studying family life.

  34. Amy Horan says:

    Dear Fathers BJ and Jeremiah Payne,

    While I am not a parent (yet, if God wills me to be), I thought I could share with you my experience in Mass last Sunday. Our priest (famous or infamous, depending on who you talk to, for his fearlessly faithful and challenging preaching) gave a homily on Humane Vitae for its anniversary. He was also very worried about the children, and he gave two rather strong disclaimers that his homily might be “somewhat mature” for the younger parishoners, and said that he did not think they needed to be taken out, but he gave any parent more desirous to shelter their children plenty of opportunity to find an aisle-accessible part of the pew. I believe he made the disclaimers before he began Mass and just before his homily. My husband and I were rather nervous about what he would say, but I don’t believe he ever mentioned a word that I would be afraid for children to hear, and I didn’t see anyone move toward the door. Father used phrases like “the love between a husband and wife” and such. I’m afraid I can’t offer much more concrete advice than this, except to offer support and prayers for you, and all our priests.

    One thing I would like to add, though (as a convert who grew up in the thick of public schools with only peer whisperings, TV, and “Health Education” class for information sources) is my firm belief in parental education about sexuality. These days it is needed earlier and earlier, and pre-pubescent children and teens need to have their education from their faithful parents. I can easily imagine how awkward it must be for parents to talk about it (especially in our rather Puritan-influenced culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell”) but if something their priest says in his homily prompts a family discussion for a curious child, I do not think that is a bad thing, especially given the sacramental and faithful context. Far better than they come bringing what their friend Bobby said on the subject, their heads full of images the other kid created. I do understand your concern about throwing parents into discussions they are not prepared for, but perhaps it will be your example and courage that enables them to express to their children the beauties of Christian spousal love, to the extent the children are curious and able to understand.

    Again, that is not very concrete help, but hopefully parents will be able to fill in what I am only thinking out. May God bless you in your pastoral work, and in your service to Him!

  35. Shouldn’t it be standard protocolZ

  36. Ohio Annie says:

    Fr. BJ’s concern is legitimate. At my FORMER parish is a priest who delights in giving detailed sermons on sexual issues. The one on in vitro fertilization was particularly graphic. Afterward, there were knots of angry parishioners gesticulating around the mini-vans in the parking lot. I could imagine the lunchtime conversation, “Daddy, what’s a sperm donor?” “Mommy, are you a surrogate mother?” And this priest makes sure he gives the same sermon at all Masses so everyone can hear. There is no escaping Fr. Sexlecture. One wonders if this is the first step to something else.

    Also, are not priests required to give the homily on the lessons of the day?

  37. cathguy says:


    You are correct that priests are supposed to give the homily on the lessons of the day.

    BUT, as a parent of young children with a growing family, I have to disagree with you on this.

    I would guess that 2/3rds of the reason there were angry gesticulations around the mini-vans is that MOST of Fr.’s flock disagree with the Church’s teaching. I think this should be obvious.

    My guess would be that only a small part of the parishioners’ anger would be based on real concern for their kids. For instance, at my parish parents frequently complain about the young priest’s use of incense. “It smells,” “it makes them cough.” This using of their children is completely dishonest and repugnant. They hate traditionalism, and they hide behind their vocation of parents (of 1 or 2 materially spoiled, but parent-time deprived, children)

    It is not difficult to preach on this subject with children in the pews. It is OUR job as parents to explain Fr.’s homily in an appropriate way, but it is FATHER’S job to proclaim Church teaching. Using words like “sperm” and/or “surrrogate mother” may be over the top, but there are ways to say things without getting graphic.

    All Fr. from the pulpit has to do is speak the truth. “It is infallible Church teaching that ALL forms of artificial contraception, including the pill, condoms, and other such means, is immoral. So too is sterilization. Should you use such methods with full knowledge and consent of the will you will enter into a state of mortal sin. The reason is that every act of conjugal human love must recognize the unity and the procreative purpose of the act.” From here Father can talk about theology, love, and life, and the MERCY of Jesus Christ, the sacrament of confession, and the names/phone numbers of the NFP teaching couples in the parish. He does not need to use words like “sperm” or “orgasm.”

    It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that priests preach on this. They can easily make it relate to the lessons of the day. For too long our priests have used excuses like this to avoid preaching on the hard truths, and souls have been lost because of it.

  38. cathguy says:


    For further proof that these parents concerns were probably not over their children’s innocent ears, consider what they let them watch on TV and view on their computers.

  39. Ohio Annie says:

    The point I was making is that there is a right and wrong way to do it and I have seen
    The Wrong Way in spades. This priest has caused families to transfer their children to
    another school, etc.

    The suggestions about how to do it properly as given are great. But it must be recognized
    that your tarring of the parents like this is inappropriate. I know these parents and they were
    not happy at having to give sex education to children so young that was given so graphically
    and inappropriately. The one suggestion of issuing a disclaimer is great but Fr. Sexlecture
    makes it clear that he is enjoying this.

    I have never married and have no family but I eventually transferred to another parish over
    similar things. Maybe priests need encouragement on the proper way to do this?

  40. Ohio Annie says:

    By the way, the conservative parents I know prefer to do their own sex education and not
    get it from the pulpit. The parents I am referring to are very conservative though maybe
    they might not meet your standards.

  41. Gregory DiPippo says:

    It is truly embarassing that a writer of John Allen’s stature would write this: “In 1848, Pope Pius IX was driven into exile by Romans incensed at his refusal to embrace Italy’s unification.” BLESSED Pope Pius IX was driven from his city during the illegal occupation of Rome by the revolutionary forces of the Risorgimento. In 1848, the revolutionaries murdered Pelegrino Rossi, the papal minister of justice, an act which was to begin the uprising against the Pope.
    (see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13204a.htm)
    Pope Pius understood perfectly well that the Risorgimento would wreak upon the city of Rome the same havoc that the revolutionary forces had wreaked in France and much of the rest of Europe, and did well to oppose it with all of his might. He was welcomed with open arms by a joyous populace upon his return, among other reasons, because of the ruinous taxes imposed upon the Romans by the so-called republic. When this revolutionary movement finally conquered the Papl States in 1870, an act of naked aggression justified by no casus belli, it proved its dedication to the principles “a free Church in a free state” (Camillo Cavour), by stealing pretty much everything it could get its hands on from the Church in Italy.
    In an age when Pope Benedict XVI is trying to re-establish our Catholic identity, it behooves Catholic writers to move beyond the ignorance of our past that has characterized so much of what is putatively Catholic over the last 40 years.

  42. Melchior Cano says:

    To everyone encouraging the commenting priests to just preach on the touchy issues and let the parents sort it out, or that those parents are motivated by dishonest inentions, I think its important to grasp the mind of the Church on this. The Church explicitly teaches, in numerous pontifical statements and in the Catechism that something called a latency age, does exist. It is the age in which a child’s natural innocence still obtains, and it is strictly forbidden to violate it. A priest, even with the best of intentions, must choose his words carefully when preaching on issues such as the 6th commandment. It is not merely an option, it is a strict duty. If parents allow their children to watch television, where they’re exposed to immoral material, then they’ll answer for that. A priest, however, should never be responsible for the violation of a child’s latency period. It is a real issue, very dear to the heart of the Church and Our Lord, evidenced by His statement that it would be better for a millstone to be tied around one’s neck rather than “scandalize one of these little ones.” The true nature of evil is real and needs to be confronted. It doesn’t need to be forced upon innocent children. I know that everyone posting has the best interests of the Church and society at heart, but almost all need to do a little more research on the teachings of the Church.

  43. cathguy says:


    With all due respect, I cannot understand your post at all.

    Are you aware that 80 – 90 percent of Catholics either a) do not know, or b) are in dissent over, the Church’s teaching on contraception?

    Now… let me get this straight.

    You are arguing that priests should say NOTHING due to the fact that there are children in the pew. That leaves it up to lay folks like me to say something to my fellow Catholics regarding the Church’s teaching. So I do. When my wife and I bring up this topic with our adult Catholic friends we hear ALL sorts of counter arguments, the most common being this:

    “We are all good Catholics, just doing the best we can. We personally couldn’t do what you do. Its not that big a deal anyway. Its not like the Church really pushes this issue. Its not like we’re pro-choice or anything.”

    Do you see what has happened here? Abortion is a horror. Abortion is also a crime few Church going Catholics would consider. Therefore, hearing a homily on the horrors of abortion is fine. It enables the Catholic in the pew to judge “those people” and pray for “those people” and be concerned about “those people.”

    But a homily on contraception would hit 80 – 90 percent of the laity in the pew right between the eyes. It convicts the laity sitting in the pew, not “those people” Is it hard therefore to mention? YOU BET.

    If it will not be preached from the pulpit, with the full support of the priests and Bishops, can you explain WHEN the laity will get this teaching please? From the secular media perhaps?

    When laity open their mouths to their fellow laity on this topic we are EASY to dismiss. We are equals. We have no teaching authority. “There’s that Mr. and Mrs. so and so again… Ignore them… they are more Catholic than the Church you know! Father doesn’t even believe what they talk about. As a matter of fact, I overheard him telling them to not mention Humane Vitae to anyone anymore. It was making so many people upset!”

    Are you unconcerned that 80 – 90 percent of people are IN DISSENT or IGNORANT!

    I am sorry, but I think you are dead wrong. I have heard the EXACT same argument you make here used to kill Theology of the Body outreaches in Catholic schools. “Oh no! We couldn’t do that! That is the parent’s job!”

    Its like an endless circle where the only end is heresy. The priests say “we can’t talk about it.” The parent’s say “then it doesn’t matter.” And the schools say “we can’t teach that.”

    No WONDER 80 – 90 percent of Catholics risk Hell by using contraceptives every year. No WONDER they think nothing of presenting themselves for communion in such a state.

    One good thing about Vatican II: The laity should not be treated like knowledge will kill them. Only ignorance of the Church and her teachings is fatal.

    We can no longer allow the laity to wallow in ignorance because we are afraid to talk about sex.

  44. cathguy says:


    I am actually in agreement with much of what you wrote. This priest you mention seems over the top.

    HOWEVER, I STRONGLY disagree here: “The conservative parents I know would rather do their own sex education etc. etc.”

    I am not arguing from a perspective of sex education for our kids. I am arguing from a perspective of saving souls. The souls in question belong to married couples currently attending Mass.

    FACT: Using artificial contraception can get you to Hell.

    FACT: It is the Church’s job to keep people from going to Hell if at all possible.

    Therefore, the Church needs to stand against artificial contraception. If the pulpit is not the place for the contents of a Papal encyclical (Humane Vitae) then exactly WHERE is the place for this teaching?

  45. Melchior Cano says:


    I think you did misunderstand me. I’m not saying nothing should be said, or that the laity are required to do the teaching. Far from it, it is the pastor’s responsibility to save his flock, and this means defending and explaining the Church’s teachings, especially those that are under the most attack, such as sexual morality. What I am saying, is that we must think with the mind of the Church on this. A priest cannot say things that endanger the innocence of a child during their latency period. This is not something upon which you are free to disagree. This is the Church’s teaching. In fact, I would say that protecting a child’s latency age goes part and parcel with the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. Children are too immature for certain subject matters. It is not only imprudent, but immoral on a grave level, to expose them to certain evils for which they are not morally or mentally mature enough to handle. It destroys their innocence. So, whats a priest to do? This is exactly what the priests above were asking. They weren’t asking how to shirk their duty. Rather, they were asking how to accomplish their duty given their responsibility to protect the innocence of children.

    I’ll give you a concrete example. A priest speaking about self-abuse (as the Catechism terms it) can refer to self-abuse or solitary sins. The adults and teenagers will understand precisely what is being spoken of. Young children will not. If, at a later point, a child asks, “Mommy, whats a solitary sin,” the priest has not forced the parent into a corner. The parent has a lot of room to protect their child’s innocence, if (and this responsibility falls to them) they determine that the child is not ready to understand this particular sin. So, the parent could say, “Well, Father is talking about sins that we commit when we’re alone. So, if you do something bad, like break a toy, or steal a cookie, then God still sees that, and its still a sin.” Other examples, when a priest speaks of homosexuality, he can merely say, “sins against nature.” Its not rocket science. An adult can clearly understand, Father preaches to those who need to hear it, and the innocence of a child’s latency period is maintained, as the Church absolutely demands, not merely recommends.

  46. npabga says:

    Interesting debates here, so just wanted to say thanks to all.

  47. cathguy says:

    Ah… I see!!

    Melchior, on this you and I are in complete agreement!

    I had thought what you were saying that priests could not preach on this from the pulpit because children will be in the pews. That seemed silly. Why could he not preach on the “unitive and procreative nature of the conjugal act.” Seriously… how many kids would understand.

    On this, you and I are in complete agreement. I had thought you were saying something you weren’t. I apologize for misunderstanding you.

  48. jimmy says:

    These posts and Mr Allens article are what we have been waiting for, these last 40 odd years. I’ve been married for 20 years, childless, just one of those things. Guilty of many human failings. But we have always tried in our sphere, to promote the Churches values on pro life attitudes. From before Conception to natural Death.
    The blog-o-sphere is uniting a vast family, against the “Wickedness and Snares of the Devil” Well done Fr Z, keep the comments open and lively

  49. Paula says:

    Excellent article.

    Interestingly, thanks to my pre-conversion politics, I received a mailing from Planned Parenthood today. The envelope says, “They’re coming after our organization with everything they’ve got,” and, after saying, “It’s a battle between common sense and ideology,” appeals to the “silent supporters of Planned Parenthood” to stop being silent. I wonder if they figured, with the anniversary of Humane Vitae, there would be more publicity about the issue?

  50. Fr. BJ says:

    Thanks to all who responded but especially to “Melchior Cano” for such a balanced and well-informed comment.

    Incidentally, the latest article about Humanae Vitae in _First Things_ is superb and well worth a read: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=6262 I wish there were some way to get all my parishioners to read this!

  51. Paul Stokell says:

    I had thought what you were saying that priests could not preach on this from the pulpit because children will be in the pews.

    Sadly, many priests don’t for this same reason, or wait for the rare Sunday with “Children’s Liturgy of the Word” when the kids are dismissed and the readings are explained to them by a deacon or a trained layperson.

    More sadly still, this emphasizes to me the mediocre state of week-to-week parish-level preaching, to say nothing of homiletics formation in seminaries and diaconate programs.

  52. Ohio Annie says:


    We are in agreement. I think there just may be a difference in our regions, Ohio is pretty
    conservative culturally. The conservative
    Catholic folks around here would like to hear HELPFUL things from the pulpit but would
    generally prefer to do the sex education at home. I’ve had parents tell me (most of whom
    are homeschooling) they would rather get help with this when they need it and not get it
    thrust at them.

    Yes, there is a line between being helpful and explaining in detail about how the sperm from
    a donor gets into a surrogate and all the legal ramifications, including custody disputes.
    aaack. We have noticed that Fr. Sexlecture waits until Fr. Seniorpastor is away to do these
    stunts. And Fr. Seniorpastor goes on sabbatical for 3 months soon so pray for that parish

  53. Fr. BJ says:

    More sadly still, this emphasizes to me the mediocre state of week-to-week parish-level preaching, to say nothing of homiletics formation in seminaries and diaconate programs.

    Paul: I think we already knew this. That is why we were asking for suggestions on how best to approach the matter.

  54. cathguy says:

    Fr. BJ: “I wish there was some way to get all my parishioners to read this”

    You could contact First Things and ask for permission to print off copies of the article for the bulletin, or pay the fee they request. My bet is they say “yes” so long as you cite the source and let interested parishioners know where to subscribe.

  55. Fr. BJ says:

    cathguy: the article is something like 11 pages long. It won’t work in the bulletin. Anyhow, I am not the pastor.

  56. cathguy says:

    Fr. BJ,

    Nonetheless, I think it is doable.

    Perhaps you have thought about these possibilities already:

    Would the pastor be opposed to you handing out this article to the laity?

    I have seen this done a couple of ways. My pastor recently used an article from Christianity Today for the bulletin. In the section “Notes from the Pastor” (which all the priests in our parish occasionally write for) he included select quotes from the article, with no commentary by himself. You really get a taste this way. You would not even need permission from First Things for this, and the laity would be more inclined to read small but important snippets.

    If the article is 11 pages long, you can ask the Knights of Columbus or some other lay group (the pro-life committee?) to sponsor it. The can work to fund the printing off of copies, and place them on tables at the back of the Church. Then, as priests, you can mention during announcements that there are articles to take home on Humane Vitae to celebrate the encyclical’s 40th birthday.

    Where there is a will, there is a way.

    God Bless.

  57. Jeannette says:

    A lot of 14 page flyers would be tossed out. How about a mini-series of lectures? Or excerpts? Most of the HV dissenters haven’t read it. I usually suggest they start with part #17. Pope Paul’s warnings there are very prescient.

    Fr BJ,
    Don’t worry about my kids; they never pay attention! Though if you used inappropriate words, we’d hear about it, I’m sure. Seriously, living in today’s world, we’ve gotten used to explaining words at many different levels. We were married for 11 years before we ever heard a sermon against ABC, shortly after we moved to the Arlington, VA diocese. We immediately stopped. (Since we had just had our fifth child, it did seem silly to continue, since artificial methods didn’t work, anyway.)

  58. Jeannette says:

    oops. 11 pages, not 14.

  59. Francis Brennan says:

    Fr. Z.,

    Our pastor preaches against contraception regularly, and I rather like the subtle way he does it.

    He just drops the c-word into his homilies from time to time as an example of immoral conduct. So if the gospel on a particular day is illustrative of (say) selfish behaviour, he will refer in his homily to contraception in passing as being symptomatic of a selfish attitude. Or, if he’s preaching on the everyday sins that are hard to let go of, he will reel off a list, like “slander, gossip, impurity, contraception…” Or the “things to confess” homily will contain a list of miscellaneous examination of conscience questions, including “Have I and my spouse used contraceptives contrary to the Church’s teaching?”

    The adult contingent in the congregation gets the message that contraception is sinful without the priest needing to sound overly confrontational or having to go into details that would be inappropriate to raise in the presence of children.

  60. John says:

    Wow! I was a member of St William of York parish too!
    I know the priest of whom you speak: GREAT, holy man.
    I’ve since moved away from VA but fondly recall his homilies.

  61. RBrown says:

    Dear Diane: I wholly advocate preaching about all the teachings of the Church, and I try to do so. As a fairly new priest, I must say that a concern I have is choosing the right language when talking about issues pertaining to human sexuality from the pulpit. I would be interested to hear your thoughts (and those of anyone else) on how a priest can preach about some of these issues (abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.) in a discreet way, i.e. when children are present at Mass. The last thing I want to do is be responsible for a child losing his innocence on this or that issue (a lot of homeschoolers in my parish—the public school kids, they probably wouldn’t be hearing much new)—I have mental images of the child asking in the car on the way home, “Mommy, what is this or that thing that Father talked about?”, and while it’s the parents’ problem how to answer those questions creatively, I don’t want to give them an undue burden.

    I am not interested responses such as, “Be a man, Father, and just preach the truth, and don’t worry about that!! “. I think this is a real concern, and if you don’t think so, then please say why. Many thanks.
    Comment by Fr. BJ

    IMHO, it is better that controversial moral teachings be set in a broader context of Scripture or Dogma. And it’s not hard to find lots of opportunities. For example, in any homily on the Trinity the Fecundity of Love between a man and a woman can easily be linked to the fecundity of Love within the Trinity. Another opportunity can found in the 6th Chapter of John: The difficulty some might have with HV can be compared to the difficulty many Jews had with
    Christ’s own words on the Eucharist.

  62. RBrown says:

    My understanding is that the controversy arose in the 60’s not because many thought the ban on contraception would be relaxed but rather because of the opinion the use of the pill would not violate the ban.

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