The following comes from an August 19 story by John Kippley on the Homiletic & Pastoral Review website.

While visiting the Twin Cities in June 2011, I learned that my home parish is slated for closure in mid-2012.  The Church of the Visitation in southwest Minneapolis was created in 1946 because married couples were having babies.  It was carved out of Annunciation Parish, our former home, and Incarnation Parish, each about a half mile from the new church.  Fortuitously, in that June visit, I met a former pastor who agreed with me on the root cause for the closure: contraception.  To be sure, in the last 65 years there have been some changes in demographics, but the area is still middle-class, with the homes well-kept.

In the spring of 2009, Father Timothy Sauppe, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Westville, Illinois, a rural parish in the far west of the diocese of Peoria, was forced by economics—too few children—to close the parish school.  He wrote to Bishop Daniel Jenky, to his parishioners, and posted on the parish website, that the root cause of the closure was the practice of contraception, including sterilization.

Over the last decade, I have read several articles accusing the users of natural family planning for the empty pews, but that is simply not the case.  The 2010 statistics make it clear that less than two percent of church-going Catholics are practicing any form of systematic NFP. But, those numbers do not take into account couples at the time of the survey, who were already pregnant, breastfeeding, or just accepting babies as they came.

With appropriate adjustments, it appears that the statistics are really saying that at least 90 percent of fertile-age, church-going, Catholics are using unnatural forms of birth control.  Statistics from once-Catholic countries in Europe indicate birth rates well below replacement levels, except among Muslim immigrants.  The Catholic Church in the West is closing its schools and churches.  In short, it is contracepting itself, either out of existence, or into a minor sect.

No one who cares about the Church, as the visible body instituted by Christ for the salvation of the world, can be happy about this.  In fact, no one who appreciates the great contribution to the public square made by well-formed Catholics can by pleased by this self-destructive diminution of its influence.

The problem has been recognized for some time.  In 1989, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices, published a book on marriage preparation entitled: Faithful to Each Other Forever. In it, they urged that every engaged couple be required to attend a full course on Natural Family Planning.  Recognizing that many couples would not appreciate this requirement at first, they expressed confidence that many would be very grateful by the end of the course.

Unfortunately, only seven dioceses (counting one on the way) currently have this requirement. Twenty-two years later, we are still waiting for the implementation of this recommendation.  Furthermore, two more recent USCCB documents about marriage do not reaffirm the NFP requirement.

Given that response, it seems to me that parish priests are called to be the real warriors in the effort to restore authentic Christian faith and practice to our Catholic parishes, and to the public square.

The problem of the rare use of NFP is not a lack of information.  There are NFP programs in every diocese, and anyone with access to a bookstore or the internet can teach themselves all they need to know about natural family planning—just Google “NFP.”  The basic problem is a two-fold lack of faith, and faith-based love.  Catholics, who read the papers, or watch the evening news, know that the Catholic Church officially teaches that it is immoral to use contraceptive drugs, devices, and behaviors.  These same Catholics may never hear this teaching from the pulpit, or see it in the parish bulletin, but the secular press takes a perverse delight in publicizing this doctrine, especially when the Pope reaffirms it.  The problem is that most Catholics today simply don’t believe the teaching.

Another serious problem is the difficulty of preaching Catholic teaching on chastity at Masses attended by a regular parish congregation including children.  It is a difficulty shared with the subject of abortion, but difficult is not the same as impossible.  The sexual revolution, and its consequences, simply cannot be completely off-limits, or else the entire area of sexual morality is surrendered to an aggressive, anti-Christian secularism.

I submit that the biggest need in the Church now, at least in the West, is the evangelization of Catholics who do not believe that, what the Church teaches as the demands of love, really are the demands of the Lord Jesus.  Pope Benedict XVI has recognized this by creating the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.  Benedict has also indicated what the emphasis must be when he wrote in his book on Jesus: “The organ for seeing God is the heart.  The intellect alone is not enough … {man’s} will must be pure and so, too, must the underlying affective dimension of his soul, which gives intelligence and will their direction.”

The content of the message doesn’t change, but there needs to be more effort made to help partial believers accept the entire message of faith, with a renewed attitude of personal gratitude to the Lord Jesus for his entire work of salvation, including his gifts of the Church, and its teaching authority.  I suggest that the right kind of NFP course offers a unique opportunity to teach these basic attitudes and doctrines and thus evangelize the young people who are the future of the Church.

The first thing a parish priest can do is to love his parishioners so much that he is willing to suffer some initial rejection.  The next thing he needs to do is to remember that he has three great gifts that are not available to anyone else at that particular place and time.  First, he has been given the authority to teach what the Church teaches in that parish at that time.  Second, he has been presented with the right to preach from the pulpit.  Third, he enjoys the gift of being able to meet with parishioners, one-on-one.  Closely related to this is another gift. Some of his parishioners truly want to do what is right, and others at least want to have their wedding in the church building….

A second great charism bestowed on the parish priest is the ability to meet with individual persons, and couples, to help them grow in faith.  Here, he has a unique opportunity to evangelize them, and to build upon whatever he has preached at Mass.  Have they truly accepted Jesus as the Lord of their lives?  In making decisions, do they ask themselves what the Lord Jesus wants them to do, or not do?  Do they understand that the ultimate purpose of every human relationship is to help the other person on the path to heaven, and that this applies especially to engaged persons, and married couples?  Do the engaged couples realize that the demands of chaste Christian love require them to be abstinent until marriage, and that loving chastity also rules out excessively stimulating activity?…

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