US bishop discusses his new pastoral letter on contraception

US bishop discusses his new pastoral letter on contraception

Kathleen Nabb

Contraception is getting more attention in the United States these days than it perhaps ever has before.

Due to the mandate issued by the US government as part of Barack Obama's healthcare reform package, employers are now bound to provide insurance that covers contraception and some abortifacient drugs and devices.

But there has been widespread protest at the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate, a protest that has reached all the way to the Supreme Court, which took up the case recently.

Coincidentally, on the same day that contraception was making headlines because of the battles at the Supreme Court, the Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, in the centre of the US, was making his own statement on contraception, in an attempt to promote the Church's teaching that contraception is not in God's plan for married love.

It is a teaching that the legal battle over the HHS mandate has in a sense spotlighted, showing forth what bishops already knew: that too many Catholics are ignorant about what the Church teaches, and even more so, why.

Bishop James Conley's pastoral letter, The Language of Love, was released on 25 March, the feast of the Annunciation.

ZENIT asked him to tell us more about the letter and the message he is trying to bring to Catholics.

ZENIT: Is it a bit scary to write a pastoral letter on contraception? Statistics seem to indicate even your Catholic flock will not be particularly open to this message.

Bishop Conley: Most people realise that many Catholics haven't heard, or haven't accepted, the Church's teaching about openness to life. Openness to life is characterised as foolishness or zealotry. But that couldn't be further from the truth. That is what makes it important to provide guidance on this issue.

If we want to convince people of the truth, we need to offer real, compelling insights into what we believe.

Sadly, the contraceptive mentality has affected even Catholics, so a bishop's job is to offer the opportunity to hear, and follow, the Gospel of Life.

Regarding widespread Catholic ignorance or non-conformity with the Church's teaching on contraception, many people lay fault with the bishops, saying it's the bishops who have failed to promote the Church's teaching on contraception, even as far back as the shoddy reception of Humanae Vitae. What's your perspective on this?

Over the years, I have known many very holy and courageous bishops excited about sharing the Gospel of Life. And the truth is that we all share in that responsibility.

Bishops and priests should teach these things, and so should lay families, who can witness to the beauty of the Church's teaching with their lives.

It is important to share the truth. But the best witnesses are joyful families, demonstrating the joy found in what we believe.

Your letter was released just as the Supreme Court has been considering a related issue in regard to the HHS mandate and religious freedom. As well, just recently Melinda Gates again defended her gift of billions to promote contraception in the developing world, though she is Catholic. Do these sorts of events affect your pastoral approach in broaching this topic?

Pope Paul VI predicted, in 1968, that the widespread use of contraception would lead to dangerous social consequences. And he was right.

Among those consequences is an erosion of what goodness is ; what virtue is. Fewer people today really know what liberty is about. But the heroic groups fighting the HHS mandate demonstrate that we still have a chance to restore a sense of the common good, of justice, and of freedom.

I said in my letter that God's mercy abounds. And I mean that. We should give all we have to preserve liberty and transform culture. But ultimately, we should trust in the mercy, and the providence of Jesus Christ. If we can entrust our families to him, and our Church to him, we can entrust our nation to him as well.

You encourage your priests to preach about contraception. Is there a risk that taking up this topic in the pulpit will turn Catholics away, presuming that a significant portion of the congregation might be using contraception? Is it better handled one-on-one, for example, in confession?

A priest is ordained to share the good news of Jesus Christ. He should do so boldly, as so many of our priests do. He should also do so compellingly, convincingly, and compassionately.

I know the priests of the Church in Lincoln. I love them, and respect them. I'm certain that they share the Gospel of Life in a way that is attractive to people. I'm proud that they have done so for a very long time.

We should talk about contraception in the confessional, but we shouldn't be afraid to preach about it as well. I hope that this weekend [as the pastoral letter is read at Masses] will make a difference in [people's] lives in the Diocese of Lincoln.

How would you describe your letter? (It is not, for example, an in-depth treatment of theology of the body).

The Language of Love is an invitation to encounter Jesus Christ in a rich way: through the love of a husband and wife, and through the ethical practice of medicine.

I wrote The Language of Love because I genuinely hope it will open hearts to the Gospel; it is a message from my heart to the hearts of the Catholics in my diocese.

Each family in this diocese is made for eternal life with Jesus Christ. I hope The Language of Love is an invitation to share in the life-giving love of God the Father.

With acknowledgement to Zenit

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