The Wild and the Tame

Janet E. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

Over the last several years I have given well over three hundred talks on Humanae Vitae to many different kinds of groups; NFP groups, university groups, church groups. I have been idolized and I have been vilified. I rather enjoy both experiences!

Groups who promote NFP are predictably a most receptive and sympathetic group; they are grateful to hear defended the life they have chosen and find so satisfying. University professors are an argumentative lot but ultimately surprisingly receptive; they are intrigued by the arguments once they realize there are some. College students are initially very resistant but upon hearing HV defended are inclined to give it considerable respect. Priests and deacons as a group have undoubtedly been my most difficult audience; the dissenters are cold and hostile, the supporters display battle scars from having been marginalized for many years.

The job of a defender of HV is first simply to explain the Church's teaching. Many wrongly think opposition to HV is based upon powerful philosophical objections that defenders of HV are not able to answer. The facts are quite the opposite. Most Catholics who contracept have almost no knowledge of HV; their views have been formed completely by secular culture. One of my first experiences in defending HV was in a debate with one of my colleagues at the University of Notre Dame. The students were shocked when he confirmed my observation that most who live contrary to HV have never read the document, let alone studied, reflected upon and prayed over it. He acknowledged that until the day of the debate he had never read the document although he and his wife had been living in opposition to it for fifteen years. His first reading didn't serve to convert him but he did not find the document to be as ridiculous as he thought and hoped it would be.

Priests and bishops often shy away from preaching against contraception because they think people will be driven out of the Church. One of my most moving moments regarding HV was hearing Rex Moses, now of Corpus Christi, Texas tell how he and a large number of his extended family were converted to Catholicism after reading HV. Scott Hahn's experience and that of his wife Kimberly are also very telling. He and his wife stopped contracepting after she discovered the immorality of contraception while doing a research project on for a class in a Presbyterian seminary. The grace from that act of intellectual honesty and moral uprightness, I am convinced, was one of the major causes for their entry into the Church. Now their witness is drawing thousands closer to the Church and God. HLI's own Father Daniel McCaffrey, after four Sundays of preaching on HV and NFP, had 45 couples sign up for NFP instruction.

The "wildest" experience I had defending HV was at Boston College where a group of students spearheaded by a professor protested my talk by distributing condoms to the crowd. They heckled me throughout my talk and peppered the question and answer period with questions that verged on the obscene (some from the professor). At the close of the talk, my Jesuit host turned to the hecklers and thanked the "Boston College hospitality committee for coming to the party and bringing balloons". Not amused by this, the condom-distributing professor threatened my friend with punitive action at the university for having invited me to speak. The same group disrupted a talk I gave the next year; the mike was stolen; the leader had to be escorted away by the police. Oddly enough, I rather enjoy such confrontations for they tend to illustrate what is at stake; the Catholic condemnation contraception of contraception amounts to a condemnation of a lifestyle to which many have become accustomed. To condemn contraception is to condemn premarital sex and the sensuality and materialism that rules many marriages.

Priests and deacons are a difficult audience because their allegiance or dissent from HV is no casual thing; they do not just "hold" their positions; they are committed to them. The dissenters are not inclined to reconsider their dissent, though they may become less militant in the face of good arguments and the testimony happily married NFP practicing couples. Most priests have made up their minds years ago about the issue; many were taught by daring and flamboyant theologians that dissent was right and good and that approving contraception was a compassionate and enlightened position.

I think the dissenters are unlikely to change without a real conversion. After all, how many of us are capable of changing our minds radically about a belief of such importance especially if we have defined ourselves in terms of that belief? The good news is that in several orders and in some seminaries, virtually all the young priests are joyfully committed to HV. They have seen and experienced the wages of a contraceptive culture; they have seen and experienced the misery of a divided Church; they are eager to be brave and bold through their fidelity rather than through dissent.

Defending HV is not yet a terribly dangerous enterprise, though one can get booted out of some seminaries, be passed over for important Church appointments, lose jobs in Catholic universities, and alienate dinner table companions. My defense of HV has brought me some grief, but also immense rewards; I have traveled over the United States and in several foreign countries. I consider the greatest gain from this, the opportunity to learn that there are wonderful people everywhere giving of themselves most generously in promotion of an unpopular but saving truth. The work of promoting HV and NFP is truly a work of evangelization and it is a great privilege to be involved in it.