Among many mistaken claims that have been made in the last few weeks, one is that according to many in the media, I do not exist. Nor do many of my friends.
Who am I? A single, chaste, Catholic woman who has studied to understand church teaching on contraception, and finds herself happy as she freely lives out that teaching.
Who are many of my friends? Catholic parents who use natural family planning to space their children or avoid pregnancy altogether at times for good reasons. They claim— it seems justifiably—that self-control is their birth control. These men and women never claim that it is easy to raise a family in today’s world, but they do so with love. Most of the critics of natural family planning have never tried it. Others have tried it and found it difficult.
Jon O’Brien’s recent piece entitled, “Did the bishops forget about women?” was particularly striking. They have not forgotten me, Mr. O’Brien.
I understand that most people in America, including Catholics, have a hard time believing or understanding that contraception hurts them and their marriages. This is a bigger issue and one that I will not take on right now; but I would suggest that the church has many reasons for this controversial position, which it has held firmly after Protestants abandoned it in 1930 and even after it was urged from within the church in the 1960s to change the teaching. Blessed Pope John Paul II proclaimed it time and again. Blessed Mother Teresa advocated NFP at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, among other places, and she taught the poor and illiterate how to read the signs of fertility in their bodies. If anyone were to be immune from O’Brien’s criticism that the church needs to “meet people where they already are and find out what they need,” surely it was she. Perhaps a woman seeking contraception needs more than birth control pills. She needs compassion and love that calls her to a different kind of life— a life in which she does not have to fear conceiving a child.
O’Brien’s piece suggests that the bishops of the Catholic Church are a self-enclosed group of men who do not speak to or for the “real” Catholics out there in the world. This is simply not true and I appreciate this opportunity to set the record straight. I have worked with bishops in various capacities for years and have always been treated with respect. I have worked at the USCCB, the Archdiocese of Washington, and now I teach at a Catholic high school. Bishops have women on their staffs and seek them out for advice and counsel on issues; Cardinal Wuerl in particular believes strongly in collaboration.
Bishops are not CEO’s; they are stand-ins for Christ. The relation of a bishop to the people is not analogous to any ‘power’ relationships in the secular world. They are human and prone to mistakes, but they are also a way that God speaks to the world. Bishops serve lay Catholics by standing up for our beliefs, as they are doing now. I am glad that when the world wants to know “what Catholics think” there is a clear way to find out. I am grateful for the leadership of our bishops in these recent weeks.
O’Brien writes that on contraception, as on all matters of morality, “while the church may teach, the individual’s conscience must decide.” As any student in my class could tell you, the conscience can make mistakes and must be formed correctly. When your own conscience leads you to form a belief contrary to centuries of consistent teaching, it is at least worth a moment of self-doubt, prayer and reflection to examine that clash.
O’Brien ends with a poetic line asserting that the conscience is, “quietly, assuredly, directing ordinary people in the sacred task of living everyday life.” This is precisely what the bishops are pointing out: that living each day is a sacred task. For this reason, the conscience of all men and women should be respected. No one in America should be forced to do something that he or she believes is morally wrong. It is that simple. The current presidential administration is doing exactly what it claims is wrong: imposing its beliefs on others.
I am proud of my church, and proud of Catholics who are speaking out all over America—men and women— in favor of conscience protection. My church is not afraid of difficulty, hardship or cultural clashes. We’ve been around long enough to know that the mission of Christ in the world is not easy and is not always understood. For this reason, we need a dialogue partner who is willing to truly listen.