Last Sunday after the Epiphany/The Transfiguration of Our Lord
February 19, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”
Contraception. O what times are we in, that contraception is the center of a boisterous national debate. Part of me wants to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” We have more important things to worry about than that. Poverty, war, racism, climate change, a faltering economy… Then again, birth control is in fact a really big deal. Easily accessible contraception undoubtedly has had an impact on the character and practice of heterosexual sexuality, and that is no small thing in our species. In the end, all this recent hubbub about contraception and Roman Catholic institutions, beyond the question of who pays for the pill, the issue is how God reveals right and wrong to us, and what we do with that knowledge once we have it.
The Catholic doctrine that prohibits contraception is poorly understood. It is actually not as outlandish an idea as it might seem, and it is rather consistent with their whole doctrine of the sanctity of life. It says that the purpose of human sexuality is procreation. Our sexuality is a joyous gift from God, and it is for a single perfect purpose. So, if making babies is not your goal, you should not be doing it, therefore birth control is anathema to proper use of our bodies. You see, while sexual reproduction is an elegant and expressive way to propagate a species, it is also a primary center of human sin. This is a fact. We generate a massive amount of energy around our sexuality; some it a most poignantly loving, creative energy, and some of it the ugliest, most exploitive and violent energy we are capable of channeling, towards ourselves and others. And it is a part of our existence about which we are capable of being unbelievably careless and mindless. The Roman idea is that contraception enables mindless use of our bodies and blocks God’s plan, to in all things, increase the quantity and quality of life. And when you tie that into the larger Catholic doctrine of the sanctity of life, reflected in being against the death penalty, against war, striving to alleviate poverty and illness, even certain objections to abortion, it is pretty consistent if noting else. That’s the rough party line about why contraception is wrong. What do you all think about that? ____ I must say, that theoretically at least, it is not all crazy talk.
Sexuality is something that our culture and many of us personally take far for to cavalier an attitude towards. Culturally we have a disordered relationship towards sex, dangerously disordered. But, and that is a massive but, there are some major shortcomings in this theology. First, it is patently untrue that education about and availability of contraception encourages any kind of sexual activity.
Second, human sexuality is a gift, and birth control allows people to have more control over their own reproduction. Medical science has provided reasonably safe ways to have control over an important aspect of our bodies and lives. Sex can be for more than just baby making and that is perfectly fine. This means also that for gay folks, and others whose sexual lives do not include the possibility of pregnancy for whatever reason, a healthy sexual life is possible. And so long as it is done in love, it will be one that God smiles upon.
Next, pragmatically, folks are going to have sex no matter how wise it may seem from afar and easy access to contraception and access to safe abortion services are a necessary part of our medical landscape. That is just the fact. If you do not believe in these options do not exercise them. Finally, and most damningly to the interpretation and enforcement of the doctrine of the sanctity of life, it is really all about controlling and oppressing women. Really, if the bishops spent half the energy on ending capital punishment or ending war that they spend trying to control the lives and bodies of women, the world would be different. It would be better. What would it look like if senators who supported the invasion of Iraq, or supported the death penalty, or the procurement of nuclear weapons were denied communion and not the folks who support abortion rights? So much of the energy expressed under the guise of “life” are simply unsubtle programs to domesticate the enormous de facto power that women have in our society, in our churches, in our families and government dictating policy to religious bodies based on what the government sees as right and wrong. What if in hiring our new nursery workers, we could not use willingness to sing Christian songs or read bible stories in the nursery as a criteria in hiring? Or willingness to pray with the kids? What if you could not use nature of religious beliefs or theological positions in hiring someone, like, I don’t know, say me? What if the government tried to mandate that we support something with our health insurance that we did not believe in, I had trouble thinking of examples, we are liberal and by nature don’t say never very often, but say what if we were forced to pay for female circumcisions. Or pay for the quackery of Love Won Out, therapy to “cure” homosexuality. I don’t want our money paying for that. Or if a doctor could be compelled to preside over an execution. Or an abortion, for that matter. When it comes to the big things, life and death kind of things, or maybe even more importantly, right and wrong kind of things, the will of God kind of things, we need to be very, very careful about speaking in absolutes. We have to be very, very careful about making decisions for other people based on our understanding of God’s will. And very, very careful about whom we concede such authority to.
But then hospitals are part of the social infrastructure. They are heavily publically funded. What is it, 62% of Catholic Charities’ work is paid for with tax dollars? That’s what I heard on Colbert. They are public institutions, and denying basic medical care, i.e. in our species. It is shameful. Anti-contraception theology is anti-woman theology plain and simple.
Contraception. I disagree with the Church’s position on it. That said, I hesitate in discounting the whole argument against the contraception, to employees and patients, many of whom have no other option for employment or health care seems to me unjust.
The problem is that sometimes, often it is hard to know what God’s wants of us. It is hard to tell right from wrong sometimes, particularly in those murkier places where perhaps the theoretical right and the true nature of things do not line up. Or when people in good faith come up with different conclusions about what is right and what is wrong. And sometimes things are good and bad at the same time. No one is happy about having an abortion, it is always a tragedy; and countless people, men and women, are grateful beyond words that they are available and safe. It is, like so many important things, both/and, or many/also. How do we know what to do? What to believe?
“Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” The thing is, God is not usually as clear as God was in our Gospel this morning. This is called a theophany, which means God’s embodied appearance in the world. The burning bush; the whirlwind in Job; the baptism of our Lord; theophanies are scandalously rare. And I must admit that I am pretty suspicious when someone claims such a specific revelation of the will of God. God does not generally speak to us so clearly and we are still completely responsible for discerning God’s will, discerning right and wrong, discerning who we are supposed to be in this world and how. What are the faithful to do?
We are going to be talking about discernment a lot over the next couple of years. Discernment is the primary work of the church. We have to discern our collective vocation in the world. We have to discern the future of this relationship, between you all and me. Many of us have personal discernment needs, locating God’s will for our lives, finding our own vocation. The church needs to be a resource. We are about to assemble a discernment committee for someone hoping to become a priest. I’d love to explore convening discernment committees for others, not just the ordination minded. What about for high school or college juniors? The laid off? Recently widowed or divorced? The bored?
I’ll plant one seed of discernment today. It is a practice to add to your prayer lives, and it comes from the work of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. He was all about discerning what was from God and what was not from God. One tool he used was holding the choice, the topic, holding it in prayer, imagining it as a drop of water. As it drips, if it hits the ground like it were asphalt, hard, went slap, splat… Maybe it is not from God. However, if those drops fall on something soft, moss, a lichen covered branch or a cluster of ferns, drop, drop, drop… Perhaps that would be a sign it was from God. Hold it there. Is it gentle; or sharp? Soft or jarring? Moss or concrete?
God speaks to us, every moment of every day. Urging us towards wholeness, wholesomeness and life, towards what is a right and good and joyful thing, always and everywhere. Our task is to listen for that still small voice, to discern nothing less than the will of God. We’ve got a lot riding on it. AMEN