Contraception, like Arianism, threatens the Church

Anthony Zimmerman
June 6, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Contraception, like a wet blanket, smothers holiness in most families in the USA.

The Church, to recover holiness, must throw off that wet blanket. There is no other way back to healthy Catholic life in America.

The Arian heresy of the fourth century likewise eclipsed true Catholic life in the Eastern churches of Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria. Great bishops fought it, but conditions went from bad to worse for decade afer decade. Then sixty years after wearisome defeats and some small victories, 130 bishops at the Council of Constantinople in 381 said "enough." They adopted again the doctrine of Nicea of the year 325, and sent heretical bishops packing. The life span of Arianism was roughly sixty years.

Contraception has prevailed in the USA during more than four decades now, since the rebellion by 600 priests in 1968. We look to bishops in the USA - especially Metropolitan bishops - to give a knock-out blow to contraception today, as 130 bishops did to Arianism in the year 381.

Metropolitan bishops, as most readers know, are those who head ecclesiastical provinces, such as for example Anchorage, Boston, New York, Washington, New Orleans, Saint Louis, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles - a total of 35 in the USA. It is my hope that the metropolitan bishops, being newly encouraged by a directive from Rome to strengthen specific metropolitan activities, will decide to take wise measures to overcome the bane of contraception in the USA. But before we discuss that aspect, let us turn briefly to review the history of the rise and fall of Arianism.

Learning from the history of Arianism

Arius was by outward appearances a fervent priest who became obsessed with the novel idea that Christ was not God. He insisted that Christ was God's first creature, through whom God then created all else.

Bishop Alexander of Alexandria dealt gently with Arius at first, ordering him to renounce the novel teaching. He refused. Encouraged by many followers, Arius defied his bishop. Bishop Alexander then summoned the hierarchy of Egypt to a synod in 318 One hundred bishops attended. The bishops supported Bishop Alexander, condemned Arius, and deposed his followers. Arius cried unfair. He appealed to friends. Bishop Eusebius of the Diocese Nicomedia welcomed him to his diocese. He had been a fellow student with Arius under Lucian of Antioch. Trouble brewed and spilt over into other dioceses of Asia.

Arius ... found a welcome among his friends in Nicomedia, and set himself to organise a body of supporters. Letters, pamphlets, and popular songs embodying his doctrine, pored from his pen. His bishop replied, the other bishops took sides, and soon all the East was ablaze with the controversy - Egypt condemning Arius, the bishops of Asia, led by Eusebius, supporting him (Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, I, 190).

It was at this critical time that Bishop Alexander did an important service to fellow bishops in the East. He warned them not to allow Arius to set foot in their dioceses. He informed them that the Egyptian bishops had expelled Arius because of his heretical teaching that Christ is a creature and not God:

Anus, therefore, and Achilles,.. endured no longer to be subject to the Church; but building for themselves dens of thieves, they hold their assemblies in them unceasingly, night and day directing their calumnies against Christ and against us... (We) by the common suffrage of all have cast them forth from the congregation of the Church which adores the Godhead of Christ (1-2 ANF 6); see Quasten III, 14).

Emperor Constantine then summoned the Council of Nicea in 325 to deal with the issue. Three hundred bishops from East and West congregated at Nicea. The priest Hosius, representing Pope Silvester I, presided. Magnificent ceremonies opened the Council, as the Church was now free. Many of the bishops bore the marks of persecution which they had suffered before Constantine freed the Church in the year 313.

Individual bishops spoke out at the Council against the heresy. Discussions followed. Only 17 of the 300 sided with Arius, led by Eusebius. Arius was given his chance to speak. He presented his usual mantra: Only God creates; Christ is not God but the first creature of God through whom God created all else. The bishops disagreed. To express their faith they composed the Nicene Creed, including:

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

With two exceptions, all the bishops signed against the heresy. Even Bishop Eusebius signed, though facetiously, at the urging of Constantia, Constantine's sister (Hughes, 192). Arius and the two dissidents were exiled. The Council dispersed. The heresy was finished. So it seemed.

But Bishop Eusebius was a cool and capable leader. He remained bishop of the capital and as such became the emperor's advisor in religious matters. A strong pro-Arian faction continued to reside in Antioch, the city where Arius and Eusebius had learned their heresy under Lucian. The resident bishop Eustathius had tried to drive them out. There were riots. Eustathius next accused Eusebius of being an Arian. But Eusebius now had the ear of the Emperor. Rising to the occasion, Eusebius convinced the Emperor that Eustathius is a Sabellian heretic, one who does not believe in the Blessed Trinity. He must go.

The Emperor had savored the taste of Caesaro-Papism at Nicea. A new untraditional procedure is to begin to function; the new circumstance of Caesar's being a Christian is to be brought into action. Eusebius cleverly assisted Constantine to exercise of a new unlawful power, to "create in him a taste for it, and habituate him to its exercise" (Hughes, 193). Emperor Constantine nominated a new bishop to the See of Antioch, with the backing of Eusebius, who replaced Eustathius and was protected by imperial troops.

The events of Antioch were a pattern for subsequent Eusebian procedure. One city after another saw them repeated, and bishop after bishop who had fought Eusebius was deposed, exiled and provided with a Eusebian successor. The machinery of this ecclesiastical revolution was consistently the same - orders and directions from the emperor himself (Hughes 194).

In the year 360 Arianism was so firmly in place in the East that St. Jerome exclaimed that "the whole world groaned to find itself Arian" (Hughes 213). But Athanasius, staunch defender of Nicea, five times exiled, was still the bishop of Alexandria. Ambrose of Milan spoke the famous words that indicates how the Church of the West differs from the Church of the East: "The Emperor is within the Church, not above the Church." To make a long story short, in 380 the Catholic Emperor Theodosius ended by imperial edict the State's connection with Arianism, and in 381 at Constantinople, the 130 assembled bishops pronounced again the Credo of Nicea and added the sentence about the Holy Spirit: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life; he proceeds from the Father, is adored and honored together with the Father and the Son; he spoke through the prophets."

Although skirmishes for the control of churches would continue for more decades, the orthodox faith was now in the ascendency in East and West. For many the dissent had been more a matter of words than of content, and of loyalties, antagonisms, linguistic ambivalence, and political pressures rather than of raw dissent.

Parallels between the fourth century and twentieth century dissent

A series of remarkable co-incidents parallel each other in the dissent from Catholic teaching during the Arian Heresy and the revolt against Humanae Vitae:

"Sentinel, what of the night? Sentinel, what of the night?" The sentinel says: "Morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again" (Isaiah 21:11-12).

A glimmer of dawn has appeared. An announcement was made at the November 2003 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that a committee was appointed to draw up a statement of the Bishops on doctrine concerning contraception. May we respectfully and prayerfully hope for a turn of the tide. May I suggestion caution, and then make recommendations.

Caution: Sterilization tends to follow contraception

When the USCCB document re-affirms the ban on contraception and abortion, contraceptive sterilization may appear to couples as the solution of choice. The story that follows should give us a warning.

About 100 young mothers came to this city parish for First Holy Communion instruction of their children. A nun, a veteran teacher of natural family planning, 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!"

But the good nun was not put off by just one. She approached another; and another; and another. Negatives all. Then she learned what had happened. Because a confessor had insisted, the young mothers who had been contracepting stopped going to Holy Communion. Then one Sunday, one of them broke ranks, received Holy Communion, and marched back with a "holier than thou look". "How could you do it?" The women crowded around her after Mass. "No big deal" she said. "Tubes cut, one confession, and you're fixed for life." Maybe 85 of the 100 mothers then did the same.

Contraceptive sterilization is now the preferred method of birth control in the USA. A news release issued on June 5, 1997 by NCHS states that the leading method or contraception remains female sterilization (10.7 million women), followed by the oral contraceptive pill (10.4 million women), the male condom (7.9 million), and male sterilization (4.2 million). Among couples with at least one child, in which women were in the age category of 35-44 years, 68.3% were surgically sterilized for the purpose of contraception (figure for1988, see Advanced Data issued by NCHS Dec. 4, 1990).

The figures indicate a gradual migration from pill to tube-cutting as couples age. At the woman's age 25-34 the Pill is still on top: 23.7% Pill vs. 23.6% surgically sterile. Ten years later at ages 35-44 the Pill plummets to 6.3% vs. 54.0% female sterilization.

My hope is that the Declaration against Contraception by the USCCB will provide pastoral teachings on sterilization, as well as on contraception and abortion. A standard penance for sterilization, if reversal is not feasible, might be abstinence for one year on the first ten days of each month. By doing this penance couples can teach themselves that this is what they should have done before, instead of having the tubes cut.

Public rite of reconciliation for seminaries and religious houses

Among the more than 600 priests and theologians who rebelled publicly with Fr. Curran against Humanae Vitae, many did so ostentatiously as members of seminary staffs and of religious congregations and monasteries. The Bishops, in their coming declaration on contraception, would do well to provide a formula for public renouncement of that rebellion by said seminaries and religious institutions. Canon 1211 provides instructions that might serve as a model. It reads:

Canon 1211: Sacred places are violated by acts done in them which are gravely injurious and give scandal to the faithful when, in the judgment of the local Ordinary, these acts are so serious and so contrary to the holiness of the place that worship may not be held there until the harm is repaired by means of the penitential rite which is prescribed in the liturgical books.

Teach natural family planning in parishes and Catholic schools

The good news about natural family planning ought to be proclaimed in the USCCB statement, together with the ban on contraception. Wisely, the Bishops might incorporate into the statement this paragraph found in Familiaris Consortio 33:

But the necessary conditions also include knowledge of the bodily aspect and the body's rhythms of fertility. Accordingly, every effort must be made to render such knowledge accessible to all married people and also to young adults before marriage, through clear, timely and serious instruction and education given by married couples, doctors and experts. Knowledge must then lead to education in self-control: hence the absolute necessity for the virtue of chastity and for permanent education in it.

During his 25 years as pope, John Paul II has urged bishops and pastors to promote the apostolate of natural family planning. For example: "The promotion and teaching of the natural methods is, then, a truly pastoral concern, one that involves cooperation on the part of priests and religious, specialist and married couples, all working in cooperation with the bishop of the local Church and receiving support and assistance from him" (Address to Convention on the Theology of Reproduction, June 8, 1984). But until now, contraception has dominated, whereas the lucky families that know natural family planning are few. Must it always be so?

I have suggested to bishops in the USA, so far without success, to institute the teaching of the "rhythms of fertility," to girls in Catholic schools, with the involvement of parents. This should become a normal fixture in the education of girls for their future lives. If they become thoroughly familiar with their "rhythms of fertility" during six years of schooling, with the help of the school nurse and thermometers and charts, they will enter adult life with enormous advantages. Competent knowledge of natural family planning ought to be a normal requirement for marriage in the Catholic Church. Holiness of family life should again be made to prevail in Catholic America, to set the pace for fellow Americans and the world.

Priests should not remain ignorant of NFP

Priests, pastors of parishes, teachers in seminaries, need to discard childish ideas about natural family planning. If priests do no better than joke about it, bishops will have a hard time. I think of Bishop Hirata of the Fukuoka diocese in Japan, for example, who organized a teaching day, but no priests came. He invited the clergy and leaders of the Catholic Women organization. He sat in the front row all day as Mrs. Bonnie Manion and Dr. Joseph Roetzer explained signs of the fertile and infertile days. I asked the bishop where the clergy were. Sadly, he observed, not one had come. Not a single one. The same situation might occur in the USA today if individual bishops would try that. However, if the bishops of a province would work together to educate themselves first, and in turn their clergy, the situation might improve dramatically.

Priests can say foolish things about natural family planning, as I know only too well from years of work in this area. "What's natural about using a thermometer?" "Does a condom hold back sanctifying grace?" "Will you take care of the extra babies?" Such levity is beneath the level of priestly standards and capability. Priests are better than that. Their real intent is to serve their people well. What they need is education.

Dr. Elizabeth Wojick wrote that she replies to priests in this manner: "No, the method is not complicated. No, it is not a big bother that takes lots of time. No, it does not require leisure and a very regular life. No, temperature measurement is not practically impossible. Yes, I know many couples who practice nfp successfully" (see the book Natural Family Planning, De Rance, Milwaukee, 1981). If the metropolitan bishops of thirty-five provinces in the USA would educate their clergy concerning the art of nfp, and if clerical promotions and demotions would fortify the policy, the ignorance and naivete of the clergy about nfp could be overcome overnight.

A New Directive from Rome for Metropolitan Bishops

Recent instructions from Rome, prompted no doubt by the sex scandals, direct metropolitan bishops in the USA to monitor their regions actively for mishandling of abuse cases and other matters. The directive, contained in a pending updated manual of bishops' duties, promotes the hierarchical custom of "fraternal correction." It urges prelates known as metropolitan archbishops to confront bishops of smaller neighboring dioceses about "abuses and errors" and report the cases to Rome.

In view of this initiative, might we look forward to a new and powerful thrust powered by the thirty-five metropolitans in the USA, to boldly confront the problem of contraception? Contraception is THE black hole that sucks up holiness in the USA, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from north to south. Expect no real recovery from abuses, no remarkable increase in vocations, no growth of vigorous Catholic virtue, until the Church in the USA escapes from the trap of contraception. Bishops overcame Arianism in the fourth century. Bishops can overcome contraception in the twenty-first century. Let us pray.