Recent articles on www.chiesa and articles by various bloggers have brought the Vademecum for confessors back into discussion. This document was published by the Council for the Family in 1997 and speaks, among other things, to the issue of contraception. Let us be clear from the start, THIS DOCUMENT IS NOT MAGISTERIAL TEACHING! However, it does have a certain degree of moral authority as coming from a board of distinguished theologians and published through the Vatican.
A second point we need to recognize: the vademecum does not require the confessor to do anything in particular in regards to questioning or advising penitents about contraception. Some people have read far too much into this document and have declared that the current policy of the Church is that confessors are to leave contraceptive couples “in good faith” – i.e. priests ought not to tell people about the Church’s teaching on contraception. This conclusion is simply not true. The document is not a part of magisterial teaching, nor does it make such a strong claim against educating the people.
Rather than go into a detailed analysis of the text of the Vademecum, I would like instead to invoke an equally powerful moral authority: Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. I point to Mother Teresa as an example to all Catholics, but especially to preachers – how prudently, lovingly, and courageously did she preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
The National Prayer Breakfast Speech
To any and all who would say that priests ought not to preach about contraception or ought not to speak of contraception in the confessionals – for fear that this could drive the people away or cause an undue burden for couples – to all such persons I lift up the example of Mother Teresa and the speech she gave to our nation at the National Prayer Breakfast, 3 February 1994.
Now I recognize that Mother’s speech was given three years before the Vademecum was released, but I think she is still a good example of how we ought to deal with the same issues which are raised in that document. What did she say regarding contraception?
“The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self. This turns the attention to self and so it destroys the gift of love in him or her. […] Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily. […] We cannot solve all the problems in the world, but let us never bring in the worst problem of all, and that is to destroy love. And this is what happens when we tell people to practice contraception and abortion.”
Oh! If only someone would have explained to Mother that it is better to “leave the people in good faith,” rather than to potentially drive them away through talking about such controversial issues! If only she had understood that we must “meet people where they are at,” rather than challenging them! How radically different the approach which Mother Teresa took – perhaps she knew something that we have forgotten?
Happiness is the goal of morality
If we believe that contraception really is destructive to married life and to the spiritual life of individuals, why would we want to leave anyone “in good faith”? If contraception is a poison, not only physically but also spiritually, why would we ever think it better to have a general policy of not challenging the contraceptive mentality of our nation? Now I know that there are certain extreme cases in which a confessor ought not to tell a penitent of the immorality of contraception; but these few exceptions should prove the rule, they should not become the rule.
Imagine a sheep who, in good faith and following its sheep conscience, wandered far from the sheepfold and off into another valley. Say that sheep is perfectly happy where it is. It has no idea it is no longer in the true sheepfold It feels secure and at home. But IN FACT this new valley is prone to invasions by wolves and IN FACT the sheep has already put itself directly in the path of a terrible wolf. Should the shepherd leave the sheep “in its good faith”? Should he respect the absolute authority of the conscience? Or, should he save that sheep from the terrible danger it does not even recognize?
If morality is not primarily about law and authority, but about happiness; then it is clear that preachers are obliged to preach the Gospel of Christ in its entirety – with love, compassion, and understanding, as well as fortitude. I will continue to preach on contraception because I am convinced that contraception destroys marriages and makes people unhappy. I will continue to question penitents about contraception because I am certain that they will only be happy when they live the life of virtue which has been revealed by Christ. It is not law or authority which drives my morality (neither the authority of the Church nor the authority of the personal conscience), but the very nature of the created order and the inherent structure of the life of grace.For me (following the Dominican Thomistic tradition), morality is about finding happiness. Mother Teresa spoke out against contraception because she wanted us to be happy. Priests must preach about contraception in order to promote happiness on earth and to lead their people into the blessed happiness of life everlasting.