Saturday Jules and I went to a "Newman Night" gathering of local friends. We meet several times a year for a potluck dinner, lively debate and discussion over a selection of readings, then night prayer. The readings this time were all about the HHS mandate. They included this short article by fellow personalist Peter J. Colosi. The debate was about our focus. Should it be on protesting the violation of religious liberty, or should it be on explaining the evil of contraception? Or both?
One of those present and participating was our friend, Fr. Philip Forlano. Sunday evening he sent around the homily he had given at Mass. I asked him if I could publish it and he said yes. Here it is.
Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19
If you have been paying any attention to the news in the last few weeks, you might have noticed that contraception coverage as part of comprehensive health care has been a hot topic. The Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate requiring Catholic institutions to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion inducing drugs in their health plans is an affront to our 1st Amendment rights to religious freedom and would require faithful Catholics to violate their consciences if it is not rescinded.
It is the objective of the proponents of the administration’s policy to portray the Catholic position on contraception as irrational, immoral, and a violation of a fundamental human right—therefore making it against women’s health and progress. It is said that those opposed to the administration’s mandate are engaged in a “war on women.” This is political rhetoric designed to sway public opinion and boost the women’s vote while at the same time serving as a smoke screen while our rights to freedom of religion and conscience are eroded.
What is not addressed in this debate is the “why” behind the Catholic teaching. While the “why” is not necessary to oppose the mandate on the grounds of religious freedom (note the many non-Catholic denominations and religious leaders that are with the Church in this fight even if they do not agree with us on contraception), being able to articulate the reason for the Church’s teaching is important in order to counter the false premises that the administration and its allies are using to push their agenda.
In today’s readings, we see the hallmark of love and devotion: it is the willingness to give everything to the beloved—to not withhold anything or spare anything for the sake of the beloved. Abraham is willing to offer his beloved son Isaac - who is everything to him—to God. And St. Paul marvels in his letter to the Romans how God, “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (8:32). Abraham’s act of faith and love leads to abundant blessings and the promise of many descendants—great fruitfulness. The sacrifice or “handing over” of the Father’s beloved Son—who is everything to the Father—gives us the gift of new and abundant life. “How will he not also give us everything else along with him?” (8:32), says St. Paul. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Love is a total gift of self.
For the sexual act to be an act of love—a loving act, it must be an expression of this total gift of self—not withholding anything from the other. The contracepted act, by chemical or barrier, is a withholding of an essential part of oneself from the other. It says, “I do not wish to give myself totally to you.” Or conversely, “I do not wish to receive all that you have to give me.” Contraception fundamentally changes the act from something self-giving to something self-centered. When contraception is introduced, love is excluded. When the procreative dimension is intentionally shut down, how united can the two people be? The two cannot become one if one or both are holding back something essential of themselves.
If the conjugal union between husband and wife is the source of life and love and the way man and woman cooperate with God’s plan for salvation and receive his blessings, serving as co-creators with God in bringing new life into the world, what happens if this act gets twisted and distorted so as to sunder the procreative and the unitive dimensions? We see the breakdown of marital intimacy, the destruction of marriage and family life, the reduction of women to objects to satisfy men, an increase in violence and abuse of women, a rise in infidelity and illegitimacy, and a lowering of moral standards across the board. Along with all of the above, in 1968, Paul VI also warned that the widespread acceptance of contraceptives would also lead to government coercion in reproductive matters. We cannot look at the world honestly and say this isn’t happening.
The Holy Father reminded our bishops recently (Jan. 19, 2012 ad limina visit) that the Church in the United States “is called in season and out of season, to proclaim a Gospel that not only proposes unchanging moral truths, but also proposes them precisely as they key to human happiness and social prospering (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 10).” These cultural trends represent not just a threat to Christian faith but also to humanity itself. For example, in all the debate about the economic crisis, no one seems to mention that the economic downturn hit at the same time the baby-boomers began to retire. Without a population that replaces itself with younger workers paying into the system, the network of social services can’t be sustained financially. Without a growing population, you can’t have a growing economy. People consume things and create demand. No people, no progress. A contraceptive culture literally has no future—it is a dying culture.
What is implied when contraception, sterilization, and abortion inducing drugs are considered by this mandate as essential components of “preventive health care”? Human life and pregnancy are put in the same category as diseases to be prevented. The fertile woman is an unhealthy woman who is at risk of contracting the disease of pregnancy. Human life itself is now placed into a category of social burden which the government now claims the competence and authority to control and define. Human life itself has become a threat to “health”. Secretary Sebelius said a few days ago that providing free contraceptives would save health care costs in the long run because there would be less people in the system. In this mentality, people are the problem. This is not a Catholic or Christian way of looking at life and the human person.
Pope Benedict told the U.S. Bishops recently that “when a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth,” (e.g. eliminating the public witness of the faith), “it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey... to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society” (ad limina visit, Bishops of Washington, D.C, Jan. 19, 2012).
We must oppose this mandate not merely because it is a violation of our religious freedom, but because we as Catholics cannot cooperate with something that would inflict harm on women, that is bad for the family, and bad for society as a whole. We need to continue to write to our elected officials to voice our opposition to this unjust and dangerous mandate but also engage in a campaign of little conversations with our friends, neighbors, and relatives about the truth of Catholic teaching. Those who disagree with the Catholic position need to be asked to explain and to defend how suppressing a healthy and functioning reproductive system is “health care”, how permanently mutilating one’s reproductive system is “health care”, and how taking drugs that induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable to the implantation of a fertilized egg—and all the increased medical risks associated with such things are care or cure in any way.
Like Abraham, faithful Catholics are being put to the test. The Lord is asking us to trust him and not to withhold anything back from him. It will probably get much nastier than it is now, and we will be called to witness to the truth of the Gospel and to suffer for the faith. We can do it if we believe that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31b). At the Transfiguration, Jesus brought Peter, James, and John into intimate prayer with him to give them a foretaste of the resurrection and to strengthen them and to prepare them for the cross. Jesus invites us to this Eucharist today, where we enter into his prayer and receive a foretaste of the resurrection, in order to prepare us and to strengthen us for the cross. The beloved Son has given us everything. Let us listen to him.
Homily given at the 7:00 a.m. Mass, Sunday, March 4, 2012, St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Rev. Philip M. Forlano is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a parochial vicar at St. Stanislaus Parish in Lansdale, PA.