Homilies on Hot Topics?

Note to New England readers: TCT Editor-in-Chief Robert Royal will be speaking in Nashua, New Hampshire this afternoon at a conference organized by the Center for the Restoration of Christian Culture (see the ad at the bottom of this column; full information, including registration, is also available by clicking here). The Center was founded recently by our colleagues Phil Lawler and Anthony Esolen in affiliation with Thomas More College. The subject of the conference is “Lessons from the Carnage: What Might Be Learned from the Horrors of the 20th Century.”

I was surprised in the last couple months to hear two homilies – one on the abuse crisis and cover-ups, the other on abortion. My surprise is based on the fact that I have never heard these two topics discussed at any Sunday Mass since Vatican II. And I have attended Masses in quite a few states.

I suppose this could be a harbinger of some progress towards orthodoxy – although it just so happens that these subjects are prominent in mainstream media. With the sad stories of the demotion and resignation of Cardinal McCarrick and his penchant for sex with seminarians, news stories about abusive Catholic priests are everywhere.

And on top of all that, the Democrats’ massive campaign to prevent the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where he might be influential in repealing Roe v. Wade, brought about a nationwide rage of pro-choicers fearful of losing a right granted by a few Supreme Court Justices in 1973.

So two hot-button topics are now so prominent in the secular sphere that, just maybe, they’ve forced homilists to notice.

I would be really shocked if the subjects of homosexuality and/or contraception ever came up in a homily. With contraception, we would be touching on what seems to be the source of the whole social and ecclesiastical mess.

For the widespread use of contraception, even by the vast majority of married Catholics is, without doubt, implicit or even explicit testimony that the traditional connection of sex (and marriage) with procreation has been severed.

This severance is very clear in simple forms of contraception, such as the use of condoms – which changes a sexual act to nothing more than mutual masturbation.

It is a bit more complicated with the use of hormonal contraceptives, IUDs, sterilization surgery, etc. Still, we here witness a clear refusal of procreation, leading often to non-implantation of human embryos, or, if the fertilized embryos escape, destruction by (in Pope Francis’ phrase) medical “hit men” or women, i.e. abortionists.

It is ironic and hypocritical for heterosexuals who engage in non-procreative sex to criticize homosexuals who are trying, by various maneuvers, and no little fantasizing, to imitate the sex acts of similarly non-procreative heterosexuals.

But if we are speaking about contraception as a sin– a grave sin, subject to eternal punishment – I am possibly underestimating the difficulty that ordinary parish priests might have in discussing the subject.

As a young man, I spent a few years studying for the priesthood, before going on to other things. And it occurs to me: what if I were ordained, and situated as a pastor in a large congregation, giving a homily before a motley grouping of adults and children and teenagers?

Wouldn’t I find it difficult, as a celibate priest, to speak about things like contraception or even sodomy, as sins? Could I just presume that all the adults would already know the Church’s teaching on such matters, and also presume that parents at the proper time would pass on this knowledge to their children?


Well, maybe not. It all depends on how individuals have been instructed – and for those who have attended public schools, the information on all this may amount to zero, or worse.

Or maybe I could just use the word, “contraception,” emphasize that it is a sinful way to prevent children being born, and let couples draw the necessary conclusions – and explain the issue as best they can to their children in the pew, wondering what the pastor was talking about.

Or maybe I could just use the word “sodomy,” whose meaning probably the majority of adults understand, and may explain to children in their own way, as necessary.

(Still fantasizing myself as a priest:) If I wanted to go further and talked about the effect contraception is having on teen fornication, or about the sinful damage young females are doing to their own bodies by putting themselves for years into a virtual state of menopause by the use of hormonal contraceptives, or about God’s reasons for punishing Sodom and Gomorrah, etc., etc. – well, such discussions would depend on the audience, and on my persuasive powers.

But clearly, the difficulty of priests talking about sexual sins is analogous to, and probably no more difficult than, a parent talking to teen sons or daughters about why they should not follow what peer groups are doing, or making family-rules about behavior and friends.

In families, such things have to be done, and procrastination can at some point be an abandonment of the duties of one’s vocation – and sinful.

I am not a pollster, and, of course, it is quite possible that my experience of parishes and pastors is too limited, and discussion of sexual sins is frequent enough in many parishes. If so, I will gladly admit that I have been focusing on a minor problem connected with a small number of priests and, therefore, the current issues making the news are thankfully just an anomaly resulting from isolated incidents and individuals.

But I don’t think so.

And of equally great significance, all this skips over the problem of parishes in which great numbers of parishioners come to Mass only at Christmas and Easter, baptisms and funerals. So even if pastors were the finest and most orthodox homilists in the world, they would miss most of their messages.

We know from surveys that three-quarters of Catholics don’t attend Mass regularly and that’s even after discounting ex-Catholics, who make up the second largest religious group in America (self-identified Catholics make up the largest group).

Here’s a thought experiment then: What if the pope announced to the world’s media the truth (formerly widely known) that for Catholics, Mass attendance is an absolute obligation under pain of mortal sin – not an “option,” as for Protestants?

He’d lose popularity, but at the same time he would establish his case for sainthood.

And getting people in the pews where they could occasionally hear real Catholic teaching might then be a small start towards real Catholic “reform.”


Image: Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Giovanni Lanfranco, c.1625 Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy]


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.