No to Birth Control: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

No to Birth Control: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

The introduction of the topic of birth control into the current Republican presidential debates has been called a ‘gift’ to Obama and the Democrats.  Interestingly, it was the Obama administration which moved the issue of birth control to the forefront by stipulating that Catholic institutions would have to offer contraception coverage in their health plans for employees.  Reacting to the ensuing outrage from Catholic leaders, the Obama administration has shifted the requirements from the Catholic employers to the health care insurers themselves.  Far from placated, opponents of the law say that the real issue is not contraception but, rather, the freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters pertaining to religion.

While the law does indeed challenge religious freedom, it also brings to light the glaring disconnect between the Vatican’s stance on birth control and the practices of American Catholics. Despite the fact that there is no Scriptural support for banning contraception,  the Roman Catholic Church in 1930 officially rejected the use of artificial birth control, even by married couples, charging that it interfered with God’s will and therefore constituted a mortal sin.  In 1968, eight years after the arrival of “the Pill,” Pope Paul VI issued his Humanae Vitae encyclical, which again proscribed all forms of artificial contraception.  In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed that ban.  Recent surveys reveal, however, that from 90 – 98% of American Catholic women have used artificial birth control at some point in their lives.

USpresidential candidate Rick Santorum, a Catholic, has described birth control as “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”  It is not the Pill or any other form of artificial birth control, however, that is responsible for society’s ills.  “Doing things in the sexual realm that run counter to how things are supposed to be” is evidence of moral failure.  Whether one chooses to live a promiscuous lifestyle, or to engage in sexual activity that makes the Pill necessary, or to remain “childfree” rather than raise a family—these are personal, lifestyle decisions.  Having access to birth control, whether paid for by one’s church-affiliated employer, or by a secular health insurance company, does not determine one’s behaviour, ultimately.

Instead of viewing the introduction of birth control into theUSpresidential debates as a negative, American Catholics should look upon it as a unique opportunity to re-examine the role of artificial birth control in this the twenty-first century.  It is time for a prominent American Catholic, whether political or ecclesiastical, to talk about the great blessing that artificial birth control has been in the lives of women in committed relationships, many of them Catholic women, women who have been freed from the worry of unplanned pregnancies and liberated from an interminable cycle of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care.

On the Frontier of the Spirit

The expression “spiritual formation” was not one I had heard from the pulpit, until recently, although I had seen it on the printed page. One Sunday not long ago, the pastor in his sermon linked spiritual formation with Bible study and journaling. Curious as to what others had to say about the subject, I turned to the book credited with the growth of interest in spiritual formation among Protestants, namely, The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (1978 Revised 1988) by the Quaker author Richard J. Foster.

The reader soon discovers that Celebration of Discipline reflects Foster’s own Quaker theological convictions; indeed, one can’t help but imagine that it was in the deep silence of a Friends meeting house that Foster conceived the idea for his book.  A core belief in Quakerism is that each one must take it upon himself or herself to practice the disciplines associated with personal spiritual growth, rather than relying on pastors and professional theologians.  In his Celebration of Discipline, Foster sets out twelve Spiritual Disciplines for achieving that desired spiritual growth.

The first Discipline that Foster encourages is the practice of meditation, reflecting another fundamental tenet of Quakerism:  belief in the possibility of direct, unmediated communion with God.  Quakerism’s founder, George Fox (1624-1691), experienced a spiritual revelation which convinced him to reject church and state, and to turn instead to his own “inner divine light” as the ultimate source of authority.  He referred to this inner authority as the “Inner Light,” the “Christ Within,” the Spirit of God within us.”  This inner divine light that Fox possessed, moreover, was universally resident in humankind, however obscure it might be.  To encounter one’s inner divine light required a journey down into the centre of one’s being, to a silent place where the human spirit and the Spirit meet. Quakers have a practice called “centering down,” a contemplative technique whereby the mind is emptied of all conscious thoughts in order to create that requisite non-verbal, silent listening place at the center of one’s being.

For my pastor, spiritual formation is about Bible study and journaling, and he’s right.  But in Foster’s scheme of things, spiritual growth involves meditation and contemplative practices as well. The author challenges his readers to “live on the frontier of the Spirit” and many Protestants have taken up his challenge, engaging in contemplative exercises once practiced solely by medieval mystics.  As we all know, however, the frontier can be a place fraught with danger.  I can’t help but wonder:  How trustworthy are subjective mystical experiences?  Also, what manifestation of the Sacred do contemplatives encounter—or believe they encounter?  Do ‘progressive’ Christians, panentheists, Catholic mystics, Quakers, and evangelicals all encounter the same Spirit in that silent place, when their notions of God frequently differ?  I think I’ll stick with Bible study and journaling.