On Sept. 8 in the Chiesa section of the Italian newspaper L'Espresso, analyst Sandro Magister highlighted a recent book that shows a link between the usage of contraception among Catholics in the early 20th century and the silence of clergy in presenting Church teachings on the subject. Reasons cited for Catholic use of birth control were the permissiveness of priests in the confessional as well as clergy refraining from speaking openly on the subject.
In a follow up piece on Wednesday, Magister delved more deeply into the role of priests in addressing the issue during confession, also touching on the responsibility Catholics have to form their consciences.
CNA contacted canon law expert Fr. Gerald Murray, a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, who gave his insight into the controversial topic in an e-mail on Sept. 15.
When asked if he believes that silence on the part of clergy today on contraception has in fact contributed to Catholics’ use of it, Fr. Murray said “yes.”
“Even worse,” he continued, “it is incontestable that some clergy have contradicted Humanae Vitae and have stated that contraceptive use is not sinful.”
“So there is confusion among the faithful,” the priest asserted. “It would be good for the bishops of the United States to speak more often about the grave sinfulness of contraceptive use and encourage both generosity in receiving more children into our families, and the use of Natural Family Planning, not artificial contraceptives, to postpone pregnancy for serious reasons.”
Fr. Murray then offered clarity on the subject of how the issue of contraception should be broached in the confessional.
“If someone confesses that he or she has used some form of contraception, that ordinarily means that he or she knows such actions were sinful and that they wish to be forgiven this sin,” he noted. “The priest should first tell the penitent to thank God for the grace to make this good confession. He should then help the penitent to arrive at a firm resolution to avoid such sins in the future.”
“He should encourage the penitent to pray more, to receive Holy Communion frequently, to confess regularly even when the penitent only has venial sins to confess. He should also recommend that the person learn about Natural Family Planning in the case of a penitent who is married or is preparing for marriage.”
When asked he thinks there are mitigating factors for Catholics who contracept and whether or not a delicate approach is necessary on the part of priests, Fr. Murray responded, “a delicate approach is always necessary when hearing confessions.”
“But a delicate approach does not mean moral relativism which would subvert God's law by calling contraceptive use not a sin,” Fr. Murray underscored. “Church teaching on the gravity of artificial contraception is clear and binding on all. If the penitent confesses this sin, the priest must never contradict the moral law under the guise of pastoral charity. The repentant sinner needs to be encouraged to leave sin behind.”
“We should also remember the timeless maxim for priests in the confessional: 'Qui excusat non accusat,'” he added. This translates to “He who forgives does not accuse.”
“It is not for the priest to question the penitent about contraceptive use if that subject has not been brought up,” Fr. Murray said. “An exception to this is the case where an adult penitent asks for help in confessing, as in the case of someone who has been away from the sacrament for a long time.”
“Note that the priest may himself offer to help the penitent with the examination of conscience if such assistance seems to be called for. But the priest cannot require such an examination against the will of the penitent.”
.- Adding to Vatican analyst Sandro Magister's recent commentary on the issue of widespread contraception use among Catholics today, a noted canon law expert told CNA that the silence and even contradiction of some clergy regarding Church teaching on the issue is “incontestable.”