Reconciliation for sterilized couples

Anthony Zimmerman
Homiletic and Pastoral Review
July 1988
Reproduced with Permission

The following story was told by a sister who had been a bit shocked by women in one parish. This nun was not exactly naive, being a medical doctor who had once fled before the advancing Russian army, and who also knew about picking up bodies on the streets of Calcutta. This is her story.

About 100 young mothers came for First Holy Communion instruction of their children. The nun addressed one of the mothers who was waiting:

"You want to hear something about natural family planning?"
"Well, it can't hurt you. Maybe you'll need it later."
"Don't need it!"
"Don't need it? Why not?"
"Got my tubes cut! Don't need any more family planning."

But the good nun was not put off by just one. She approached another; and another; and another. Most of them were sterilized. Then she learned what happened. Young mothers of the parish had stopped going to Holy Communion; the confessor had apparently made his point. The ladies stayed in their places while others went to receive Holy Communion. But eventually one of their number broke ranks. She sallied up to Communion, and as she marched back she beamed to right and to left with a "holier than thou look" almost like a bishop dispensing blessings. The ladies rushed her after Mass: "How could you! We all know. . ." "No big deal" she said. "Tubes cut, one confession, and you're fixed for life." The nun estimated that maybe 85 of the 100 mothers present that day had the operation of sterilization performed, and then went happily to confession and Communion. Is it right?

The Pope told the bishops of the USA gathered at San Fernando Mission in Los Angeles on 16 September 1987 that there may be problems; dissent and receiving the Sacraments may not be a compatible mix:

It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teaching of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the Church's clear teaching on abortion. It has also been noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church's moral teachings. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic" and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere. I wish to encourage you in the love of Christ to address this situation courageously in your pastoral ministry, relying on the power of God's truth to attract assent and on the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given both to those who proclaim the message and to those to whom it is addressed.

Why should dissent cause problems about receiving the Sacraments? How should this problem be dealt with on a pastoral level? Shall we tell all dissenters and sinners to stay away from Church from now on?

St. Hippolytus (d. ca. 237), a brilliant theologian, thought he should be next in line to be Pope. Among other things, he wanted a clean Church. But he lost the election-to an ex-slave, Callistus. Hippolytus heaped scorn on Pope Callistus who was for admitting abortionists and contraceptors to penance; "women," scoffed Hippolytus, "reputed believers, who began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so as to expel what was being conceived . . ." (Philosophoumena 9:12). To save the Church Hippolytus led a schism, becoming an anti-pope. The story took a dramatic turn when Emperor Maximin banned Pope Pontian, second successor to St. Callistus, to the mines of Sardinia; and he made Hippolytus work in the same mines with the Pope. St. Hippolytus was reconciled there to the Pope and Church before lie died as a martyr (see Lebreton 994). He was back in the Church which admits sinners to penance.

The Church has had to deal with the prickly problem of living with the reality of human weakness while guarding the purity of doctrine throughout her history. The current ruling against inter-communion, for example, demonstrates her desire to demonstrate brotherliness with Protestants without pretending that a total unity has already been achieved. "The celebration of Mass is of itself a profession of faith in which the whole Church recognizes and expresses itself" (IQRC 2). There is no prohibition against attendance at Mass by Protestant believers. But reception of Holy Communion is permitted only under controlled and exceptional circumstances. An intimacy with Christ and with the Church is expressed and realized through reception of Holy Communion:

For the baptized, the Eucharist is spiritual food, a means by which they are brought to live the life of Christ himself, are incorporated more profoundly in him and share more intensely in the whole economy of his saving mystery. "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him" Qn 6:65).

Yet though it is a spiritual food whose effect is to unite the Christian man to Jesus Christ, the Eucharist is far from being simply a means of satisfying exclusively personal aspirations, however lofty these may be. The union brings about the union of the faithful themselves with each other. It is on their sharing of the Eucharist bread that St. Paul bases the union of all the faithful: "Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf" (I Cor. 10:17), IQRC III; Flannery 556).

There is no clear dichotomy between attendance at Mass on the one hand as a sign of unity in faith, and reception of Holy Communion as a sign of complete unity in charity. But the Church nevertheless makes her point by asking Protestants who attend Catholic Mass to wait with Holy Communion until a more perfect unity is reached. It is a practice which echoes in some manner the ancient division of the Mass into the Mass for catechumens, which sinners and those doing public penance could attend, and the Mass for the faithful, which was more exclusive.

Can one "dissent" and still love perfectly at the same time? We know that the kiss and the conjugal act can express complete unity; they can also bring about healing between conjugal partners if feelings have been roughed up. Unfortunately, we also know that kisses are not always signs of friendship, and that sexual acts are also a popular commercial commodity. And dissent may contradict the sacramental sign, thereby blocking out all effectiveness.

Qualis rex, talis grex, which I translate here to mean "the people reflect the faith of their pastor." The Pope challenges pastors to rely on the power of God to attract assent. This means that pastors must turn to God when ministering to dissidents. From God both parties can expect that extraordinary power for the dissenters which neither of them can generate by themselves. The Pope appeals personally to the faithful to come back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

To those who have been far away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation and forgiving Love I make this appeal: come back to this source of grace; do not be afraid! Christ himself is waiting for you. He will heal you, and you will be at peace with God! (Address, San Antonio, 13 September 1987).

He is asking all to come back; also those who did an abortion, those who were sterilized, those who have been committed to the practice of contraception. With confession comes reconciliation, an end to the dissent. From there one can go to the kiss of Holy Communion and find peace. The Bread will then nourish the faithful and support unity.

Giving sacramental signs of unity without ending dissent -what does it mean? Political rivals, business competitors, even polished thieves, can shake hands and give kisses, but the purpose is not union of hearts. The purpose is political, or commercial, or deceptive thievery. The Sacraments are not instituted for such extra sacramental purposes. They cannot produce their proper effects if we receive them solely for purposes which are alien to their nature; nor can they do so if we place an obex, an obstacle, against their function of giving grace.

We must not be anti-popes

We must not be anti-popes like Hippolytus, minded to drive dissidents out of the Church while they are still on the way. Christ told the servants not to pull out the weeds before the harvest time, lest too much wheat be uprooted with the weeds (cf. Matt. 13:24 ff). Christ hopes for a change, that gentleness will win the day:

He will not argue or shout, or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed, nor put out a flickering lamp. He will persist until he causes justice to triumph, and on him all peoples will put their hope (Matt. 12:20-21).

It means, however, that pastors are supposed to persist, like Christ, in efforts to bring dissidents to reconciliation. Which is the time to be gentle, and which the time to generate a towering anger, to drive animals out of the temple and to shake up the money-changers (cf. John 2:13ff)-that is a matter of pastoral work and prudence. Perhaps we should not make the loud speeches on Sundays, but sit on the powder until the parish mission or an opportune occasion comes around. In the meantime the quiet work of instructing the young for better things is intensified.

In Poland, instructions in the use of natural family planning are mandatory for couples who desire to marry in the Church. This regulation was not made overnight. Already during the 1950s a network of parish counseling centers had begun to operate. Therese Strzemboxz in Warsaw and Dr. Wanda Poltawska in Krakow helped to organize professional training of counselors; and Bishop Wojtyla poured coffee for trainees participating in the courses. In 1961 Bishop Wojtyla convened a national scientific congress on ethical birth regulation in Krakow, and the need for a national network for teaching natural family planning was recognized. Then, in 1970, the Polish Episcopate made it mandatory for all couples applying for marriage in the Church to attend the marriage preparation courses, which include instructions in NFP (see Wenisch 349-361).

31% of Polish women use NFP

It did not happen easily in Poland that by 1977 fully 31% of married women age 15-44 were using natural family planning (see World Fertility Survey). Teachers were at the parish centers weekly to teach, convince, consult, and instruct; they were mostly volunteers. Experienced couples, who had changed from contraception to natural methods gave witness. Yes to natural family planning gradually seeped its way up from young couples to their elders. And confessors worked hard. In Poland, at weddings and funerals, all the relatives come to Mass; and all are expected to receive Holy Communion. Persuasive confessors elicit a promise to have the IUD removed, and to attend the course in NFP, then absolve, etc. What had been considered impossible before has been made possible for the many, through the wide collaboration of all, bishops, priests, the laity. Here we see exemplified what Pope John Paul 11 wrote in Familiaris Consortio after he had recovered from gun shots:

On the other hand, authentic ecclesial pedagogy displays its realism and wisdom only by making a tenacious and courageous effort to create and uphold all the human conditions - psychological, moral and spiritual - indispensable for understanding and living the moral value and norm (Familiaris Consortio, 33). Pastors can help to create this attitude among their flock, in the dioceses and parishes. They can organize the teaching, and like Bishop Wojtyla, they can pour coffee for the teachers and learners. They can direct engaged couples and penitents to take part in the courses. We can all take a cue from Bishop Angelo Nama Son Kim, of Su Won, Korea, who told the Synod of Bishops:

We are all sons of lay people; of beloved fathers and mothers! ...The Christian family is the first seminary for a priest ...And yet, in our present time birth control is widely practiced and even one finds Christian families that have only one child or none at all. Should we not encourage Christian families to have more children? I do not say 10, but at least 3 or 4. If non-believers and those who are far from God were to have one child only or none at all, and good Catholics were to have three or four, then, within a century we would have that new world we are all awaiting. It is a shame that we pastors do not have the courage to tell our families to have more children. Are we afraid or too shy ...

This Synod should praise and encourage our Christian mothers, who even today have many children and who, therefore, undergo a variety of financial and social problems (Synod, Fifteenth General Congregation, 12 October 1987).

Pastors, together with the laity, are the Church. We can be healthy together, and we can catch sicknesses from each other. In Japan we are very sick as a Church, if we go by statistics:

Infant Baptisms per 1000 Catholics
Year Baptisms National Birth Rate
1952 32.6 24.1
1965 21.0 18.0
1986 10.3 11.4

The 438,762 Catholics (1986) among 120,000,000 people do not have enough infant baptisms to replace the adult Catholic body. Humanae Vitaewas not accepted with enthusiasm in Japan, and the clergy in general leave it to the people. We seem to be a dissenting ecclesial body. As dissenter Father Juan Masia, S.J. wrote recently:

We can recall the manner in which the Japan Conference of Bishops accepted the document on birth regulation HUMANAE VITAE issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. The Conference of Bishops, while showing an attitude of respect for the opinion of the Pope of Rome, nevertheless gave it a broad interpretation which would meet the circumstances of the believers. This present document (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin), since it is only a declaration issued by the Congregation of Catholic Doctrine, requires all the more that we explain it to the Christians in a way by which we distinguish for them the major principles which it contains from the matters which are of a secondary nature (KOE, a magazine for Catholics issued by the Archdiocese of Osaka, August-September 1987).

"I think there must be many believers," writes Father Masia in the same article, "who ...are under the impression that contraception is vaguely something evil. So in order to free such believers from this misunderstanding it seems that we will have to start by re-educating the priests who are providing them with guidance" (Ibid.).It is advice about how to commit ecclesiastical euthanasia in Japan. The way of dissent reeks with the stench of death. Dissent inflicts the faithful with spiritual dyspepsia which prevents the Sacraments from giving nourishment. Dissent is AIDS in the Church.

After the Pope's meeting with the USA Bishops in Los Angeles, a reporter asked Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk what he would now advise a parishioner who was on birth control and asked if she could still receive Holy Communion. His reply, "It's far too simple and easy to say anybody who does this should not receive communion ... I don't think the Pope is saying that everyone who practices birth control should leave the Church." We can agree with the Archbishop that discernment and pastoral prudence are always necessary, and that Christ also showed us the way of pastoral prudence. But what we look for now is a vigorous apostolate to gain control of that spiritual AIDS, the death-dealing virus of dissent, the widespread practice of contraception in the USA and in the world. Dissent kills Christ's life in couples, in the Church, in us all. What we look for now is a vigorous family life apostolate designed to "create" and uphold all the human conditions ... indispensable to understanding and living the moral value and norm" (Familiaris Consortio, 33).

What shall we say about the mothers who were receiving Holy Communion after having been surgically sterilized? Young Hippolytus would probably not have allowed them into his "clean" schismatic church. Whereas Pope St. Callistus -and perhaps the older St. Hippolytus - would invite them to penance and then Holy Communion.

You say: "But this is just too mechanical. Those mothers are still of the same mind as before; they are still contracepting, only now by surgery instead of by Pill. Not every confessor is a Cure d'Ars who can convert sinners so thoroughly."

Right, we are not confessors like the Cure, but Christ is with us, and in the penitent. He is greater even than the Cure. Let's give penitents a chance in our Church to find their way to penance and a change of heart. The surgical operation and what follows is a dramatic experience for them, and it should be rendered by us and them together into an occasion of grace. Reversal is usually not feasible; chances of success are not great, and they probably couldn't afford the cost of trying. [Addition, September 2000: It is no longer true today that reversals are too costly or have little chance of success. A group of doctors in the USA are pooling resources to do reversals at reasonable prices. Inquire at the Natural Family Planning email address: .]

Let's shoulder some of the blame ourselves for the sin of sterilization. We allow all that talk about overpopulation to go on unchallenged. We regulate the teaching of natural family planning to a codicil of the parish bulletin, instead of making it a top pastoral priority now, as Pope John Paul 11 asks us to do. We don't greet couples like Bishop Kim, asking "When can I baptize your next baby?" Those couples are confused, under pressure; like the libellatici under Decius who escaped martyrdom by pulling strings or paying money for false certificates; like the proditores under Diocletian who compromised to save their lives, or who delivered counterfeit books to salve their consciences. After the storms cleared, the Church lived with these people; rather, the Church was these people together with the rest of the faithful. And today we will be living with post-dissent faithful, in the same Church.

There must be millions of sterilized Catholics in America today. During 1974-1983, ten years, 10,030,000 surgical sterilizations were performed in the USA according to figures compiled by The Association for Voluntary Sterilization. If we add to this the 5.5 million before 1974, there are allegedly almost 20 million by the end of 1987. The percentage of Catholics among them is said to be high.

Sterilization can be a devastating experience for a couple. Marriage is not the same as before. The relationship with God is blurred, and so is the relationship with each other. Faithfulness, which has lost much of its meaning, is tested. And faith in God is tested. One may speak to the other as Job's wife spoke during a time of crisis: "You are still as faithful as ever, aren't you? Why don't you curse God and die?" (Job 2:9).

The mothers in the story above didn't stop coming to Church. They brought their children for First Communion lessons. Maybe, given time, they will be like Peter. He would never have been such a good pope had he not denied Christ, and then experienced the unbelievable extent of Christ's love, who forgave Peter. The prodigal son-would he ever have amounted to much had he not sinned and then experienced reconciliation? Thomas-would he have been the Apostle of India and martyr had he not once been stubborn as a donkey?

Dr. Bernharda Meyer, North Bay, Ontario, recommends that sterilized couples do penance by abstaining on what would have been the fertile days of the cycle. Thus they not only demonstrate to themselves and to God that "it can be done" and so truly convert; they can also heal their marriage by making this sacrifice together, and that is very necessary. In one year, if they work together, they can have a new marriage again; and both are wiser now. Christ, we must know, will be happier with the reconciled sinners than with the 99 who "don't need penance." Christ knows all about dissent and sin, and then change of mind. Let us allow Him to teach us:

"Now, what do you think? There was once a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today." "I don't want to," he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. "Yes, sir," he answered, but he did not go. Which one of the two did what his father wanted?"

"The older one," they answered. So Jesus said to them, "I tell you: the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matt.21:29-31).