Letter to the Holy Father: Contraceptive sterilization is a great problem in the Church

Anthony Zimmerman
In Re: Familiaris Consortio
Japan Family Life Association
December 26, 1981
Reproduced with Permission

His Holiness Pope John Paul II

Your Holiness:

Praised be Jesus Christ! May He be praised for bringing Christmas to our world.

First I want to thank Your Holiness for coming to Japan this year, to help so effectively with our mission work. On Christmas the television stations showed you at Mass and at the giving of the Message, which shows that the Japanese people love you and honor you.

Thank you also for FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO, a splendid and shining message for families of our day, showing them the way to live in accordance with the Gospel. It will be a mine of rich treasures for studies, sermons and conferences.

May I offer some reflections on FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO (FC). These are personal reactions, my thoughts about what should now be done urgently. Salva reverentia, they may even seem to be critical.

1. STERILIZED COUPLES: In Section IV. Pastoral care of the Family in Difficult Cases, no mention is made of couples who have been surgically sterilized in order to avoid conception. I fear that silence may not only be a failure of pastoral care of these unfortunate couples; silence may even be an occasion of sin for other couples. An example may illustrate the point. [N.B. to readers of this Home Page posting: the names and places were identified in the letter to the Pope, but with held in this posting.]

A nun told me what she learned when she was helping the sisters in a parish to prepare children for First Holy Communion. She also spoke to their mothers. She suggested to one of the mothers that it might be good to learn natural family planning. "I don't need it," said the mother. "Maybe not now, but it might be good for later," said Sister. "I don't need it." "Why don't you need it?" "My tubes are tied."

The Sister then asked a second mother. Her tubes were also tied. She asked a third and a fourth. Among about 90 mothers, about 85 had the tubes tied. How did it happen?

A priest in the parish was strict in the Confessional, and mothers using contraceptives stopped going to Holy Communion. But one Sunday a mother received Holy Communion. Other mothers surrounded her after Mass and challenged her, how could she do it? Simple, she said. I got my tubes tied, confessed only once. and now it is finished. So the other mothers thought this was a great idea and got their tubes tied also, and could go to Holy Communion again.

There must be millions of couples who are receiving Communion regularly, after having been surgically sterilized, and probably confessing. The latest figures I find indicate that 60,000,000 women have been surgically sterilized as a means of contraception in the world, and the drive is on to increase their number. Also men in large numbers have vasectomies performed. The last figure I heard for the USA is 1,600,000 sterilizations annually, with men slightly outnumbering women. Among married couples who have been married for ten years and longer, and who are in the reproductive years, it seems that over 30% have been surgically sterilized in the USA; among Catholics the number is said to be slightly lower.

But one also hears good examples; for example, a couple who repented and now abstain on the days which would be fertile if the sterilization had not been performed.

Your Holiness, if FC is silent about this problem of millions, will it not become an easy occasion of sin? Will it not suggest to more millions that sterilization is an easy way out? But we must do better for Christ. We must do pastoral work for sterilized couples, and must see that others are effectively deterred from this shameful mutilation of God's beautiful plan. If silence in FC is scandalous but others may have a better judgment about this than I do then the Church should say something now about not playing games with God by being sterilized, going to Confession once, and then think everything is okay.

2. HABITUAL CONTRACEPTORS: So many millions and millions of couples - including million of Catholic couples, are right here and now habitual contraceptors. It has become a pattern of life for so many, over the course of many years, perhaps. Perhaps the woman has an IUD in the uterus. Or she takes pills. Or uses the pessary. Or, as in Japan, the supply of condoms is watched carefully, and even monitored by enterprising condom vendors who go from house to house to replenish supplies.

How much pastoral sense does it make to tell families to be holy; to pray well, to educate their children well, if we know that these very families are habitual contraceptors? Shall we tell them to drop in to church to say a prayer on their way to the drug store to buy pills? Or to the hospital to have an IUD inserted? Shall we tell them to train the children in chastity when they keep replenishing the supply of condoms? Does not habitual contraception make a mockery of superficial attempts to imitate signs and gestures of holiness? The habitual contraceptor who uses the IUD, Pill, etc. is a step lower than the recidivist, because the habituate does not even intend to stop contracepting.

But FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO has not come to grips with this problem head-on, a problem which affects millions; perhaps even a majority of Catholic couples in the fertile years in some countries. A problem which certainly dulls the spirit of prayer, of thankfulness to God; a problem which causes such a great disturbance oil good relations between husbands and wives, and probably accounts for the epidemic disease of social life, rampant divorce.

Of course, FC is beautiful, is serene, is correct, is pastoral. But will some say that its message is not forceful, is timid, as though there is fear of crushing a bruised reed, of quenching the smoldering wick (cf. Mt. 12,20). The Spirit breathes in the Church, and perhaps my perceptions are erroneous, and I yield to better judgment. But it is my humble opinion that failure to confront the problem of millions of habitual users of contraception more directly is failure in doing the office of shepherd towards these sheep. Follow-up work is surely needed.

And so it is my opinion that there is need for some dramatics on part of the Magisterium, a show of thunder and lightning. A time to jar people out of dreamland. A time to take a whip in hand and cause some excitement as when Jesus did this in the temple, also knocking over the money-changers' tables and spilling coins (cf. Jn. 2,15).

There are pastors, of course, who are timid about telling people in so many simple words, that contraception is forbidden by God and by the-Church. If they say so, will not people stop coming to church on Sundays? And will not the money basket be lighter?

The people may not be so reluctant to accept the truth as pastors fear. The other day one of the Christians said to his pastor: "This ought to be said clearly in Japan. It would be better." And you said so beautifully some weeks ago: "For us failure consists in doubting the infinite power of God's grace."

The message of FC is clear, of course. But I think that it would be even more effective pastorally if it had confronted more boldly and head-on the widespread use of contraception, perhaps in a bold type, question and answer form:


And the answer:

YES, THAT IS WHAT GOD AND THE CHURCH ASKS. And we pastors will help with all our minds and hearts, praying, doing penance, encouraging, making accessible to those who wish guidance in natural family planning.

This is the time to help the millions to make a U-TURN in their lives, a tremendous change in habits.

Your Holiness, we love you, we trust you, and so I speak to you directly: are you not the only Pope we have at this time? Are there not millions who will live and perhaps die during your time, who have no other life but this one before they enter into eternity? And who would be helped if you confront them very directly with this challenge? Do not allow others to get between you and the people, if they destroy this message. The people have a right to hear thetruth, and if others do not tell them, then they have a right to hear it directly and forcibly from their Pope, in a manner which convinces them thoroughly.

My criticism is not against any doctrine of FC. This is a gift of God, and we must treasure it. But follow-up work is needed to help so many people who have tied themselves up into a pattern of life from which it is now difficult to extricate themselves. Pastors have been rather hesitant and timid. Salva reverentia, I think this is the time for the Supreme Pastor to show the other pastors how it ought to be done.

FC is the gentle call from the shepherd to the sheep as he leads them to pasture in the morning. But some sheep are running the wrong way. Follow-upwork is needed now to induce the sheep who are running the wrong way to make a U-TURN. Maybe the model to follow is Christ, cleansing the temple:

In the temple precincts he came upon people engaged in selling oxen, sheep and doves, and others seated changing coins. He made a whip of cords and drove sheep and oxen alike out of the temple area, and knocked over the moneychangers' tables. spilling their coins. He told those who were selling doves: "Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father's house into a market-place!" His disciples recalled the words of Scripture: "Zeal for your house consumes me." (Jn. 2,12-17.)

Dixi. I pray for you every day. Please give me your blessing.

Enclosed is a photo taken on October 9, 1980, when we presented to you the book on natural family planning, and I showed you the album of works of art done by our Father Weipert, SVD in churches in Japan. I treasure this picture.

Since His Eminence James Cardinal Knox, and His Excellency Archbishop Jozef Tomko are associated with follow-up, I am sending them a copy of this letter.

With filial respect and love,

(Signed) Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, SVD