Several years ago, when I was being interviewed about something or another by a lady from one of our Nebraska TV channels, she asked me before the interview started, apropos of nothing: “When is the Catholic Church going to change its teaching about abortion and contraception, now that these things have become socially acceptable?”
I remember replying, perhaps a bit more sharply than I should have, that the answer most assuredly is ‘never.’ I also recall saying that “social acceptability” has never been considered by the Catholic Church as a valid criterion for determining which human activities are moral or immoral, but rather that the objective norms of morality come from God’s revelation as well as from the natural law which God writes on every human heart, while the subjective norms of morality are found in a correctly educated and trained human conscience, which is in conformity with those objective norms. I reminded her of how racial genocide, the hideous murder of millions of innocent Jewish people, was heinously wicked and totally immoral, but was considered “socially acceptable” in the last century in Nazi Germany. I am not sure that I persuaded or convinced her about the matter, but I know that I did send her off a bit more thoughtful.
In 1991, the year before I was named the Bishop of Lincoln, my predecessor of happy memory, Bishop Glennon Flavin, wrote a simple, direct, clear, and courageous pastoral letter, directed to married couples and medical personnel in the Diocese of Lincoln. In that letter, which was fearless and yet compassionate, he proclaimed anew the continuous and unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church about the intrinsic evil of artificial birth prevention, echoing especially the teaching found in Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter, “Humanae Vitae,” which was published July 25, 1968.
Perhaps because it was so counter-cultural and unusual, Bishop Flavin’s letter received widespread publicity and was called by numerous knowledgeable people a masterpiece. It was translated into French and Spanish, and he received countless communications of praise from many countries, including England, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Mexico, etc.
In another fearless and compassionate masterpiece, the present Bishop of Lincoln, my successor in this See, Bishop James Conley, has now written and published a contemporary pastoral letter, reiterating the perennial doctrine of the Catholic Church about the grave sinfulness of artificial contraception. This new letter, standing in an unbroken line of doctrinal and moral truth from the time of Christ to the present, needs and deserves prayerful and thoughtful study and the consideration of all in our Diocese. The very title of this new pastoral letter, “The Language of Love,” situates the essential revelation of God about this issue in a wider and more easily comprehended context.
Pope Paul VI said, “The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married couples collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.” Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John Paul II said, “The Catholic Church is aware of the many difficulties married people can encounter, especially in the present social context, not only in following, but also in understanding the moral norms that concern them. However, the Church reminds them that the way to finding a solution to their problems always must come through full respect for the truth of God’s revelation in which they only can find the genuine truth of their love.”
Some devout Catholics curtail or even eliminate television viewing during Lent in order to give themselves some time for serious reading instead. If any of you, dear readers, are in that number, I would certainly recommend to your Lenten reading three great and significant letters: “Humanae Vitae”of Pope Paul VI, The 1991 Pastoral Letter of Bishop Flavin, and “The Language of Love” of Bishop Conley.
Allow me to conclude this article by repeating something I wrote in the Southern Nebraska Register March 13, 1998: Sometimes there are grave reasons why a couple might try to limit the number of their children. Such things as serious health concerns, provision for the children already begotten, the possibility of transmitting serious congenital defects, and so on, could be licit reasons for using Natural Family Planning. Of course, selfishness is never a valid reason for this or for any human behavior, nor is the simple desire for a wife to have a career outside the home or the wish for greater material prosperity. Natural Family Planning is something totally different from artificial birth prevention, although both can have similar practical results.
Our diocesan programs in NFP can assist couples in the most modern and yet fully moral techniques as well as helping them to a better and more complete understanding of the richness and beauty of their marriage vocation. The vocation of married life and parenting is, by God’s will, truly sublime. However, it is appropriate and important for married couples and for all adult Catholics occasionally to reflect seriously on the responsibilities and moral duties that accompany that vocation.