interview with Father Phil Bloom
ROMAN CATHOLIC STANCE
The Roman Catholic Church offers couples contemplating marriage two options for birth control: total abstinence or Natural Family Planning (NFP) which is avoidance of the sexual act during a womans fertile cycle. Many Catholics do not have a problem with NFP, praising it highly and having no conflict with it. Their rate of success has made them enthusiastic and strong advocates in favor of it. But Catholics who choose other modes are struggling under the heavy weight of what the Church terms a mortal sin. From another viewpoint some otherwise faithful souls have left the church because they could not come to terms with this strong ruling on something they feel should be a matter of conscience. There are also those who want to be faithful but are unable to understand the logistics of NFP and are trying to grapple with this edict; despite the fact that many cannot afford to feed and care for yet another child. Bypassing the churchs ruling that they consider cruel, unfair and controlling, others are dealing privately with this issue without guilt or remorse.
CatholicView welcomes Father Phil Bloom, pastor of Holy Family Church in Seattle, Washington who is speaking on the timeless issue The Roman Catholic Stance on Birth Control Father Bloom has been a priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle for 30 years, having served seven of those years (1987-94) as a Maryknoll Associate in Peru. Father Bloom received his religious education at public elementary & secondary schools, B.A. in Philosophy from St. Thomas Seminary, Kenmore, WA; S.T.B. from Gregorian University, Rome and S.T.L. from Angelicum in Rome. He was ordained at St Peters Basilica, Rome in 1971. He is a diocesan priest, not belonging to a religious order, but is directly under the authority of the bishop. Unlike a religious order priest, a diocesan priest does not take a vow of poverty.
CatholicView: Fr Bloom, we are all familiar with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on Birth Control. Has this changed in any way in recent years?
Fr Bloom: The Church has the responsibility to hand on what she received from Jesus. The basic teaching regarding birth control remains constant, but advances in medical science pose new questions. We now know, for example, that many forms of birth control (e.g. Depo Provera, Norplant, the Pill, the IUD) work not only by preventing conception, but also by weakening the lining of the uterus so that a human embryo will be expelled. What we originally thought was only contraception turns out to be abortifacient. This greatly raises the stakes.
Also the new reproductive technologies (e.g. in vitro fertilization) confront us with enormous questions. For instance, who owns all those frozen human embryos? And what do we do with the ones who have become orphans?
CatholicView: How does NFP (natural family planning) differ morally from other forms of birth control?
Fr Bloom: Once a doctor and his wife gave a presentation on NFP. A young woman, defending her use of the Pill, asked him, "Aren't natural and artificial methods really the same thing?"
The doctor replied, "If that is the case, why don't you try our method?"
She thought, and then said, "No, I couldn't do that. They are totally different."
At that point, a married couple jumped in. Having used the Pill before switching to NFP, they mentioned these differences:
-- NFP (when used to avoid pregnancy) involves some days of abstinence during each menstrual cycle. While this first seems negative, they discovered a positive value. It became a monthly renewal of engagement when they would express their affection by other means: holding hands, a hug, a walk together, a poem, a flower, etc. After that would come what was a sort of mini honeymoon. Thus NFP strengthened their affection.
-- It also gave them greater confidence in each other. She knew that if he could exercise self-control during her fertile times, he would be more likely to exercise that same self-control when he was away from her. Also, when the wife is on the Pill, she is "available" to him at any time - but he also knows in the back of his mind that she is potentially available to other men. Since the Pill was introduced in the 60's, infidelity has skyrocketed along with marital breakdown.
-- They are respecting the integrity of each others bodies. Do you know any prescription - besides birth control - which is meant to make the body function abnormally? Birth control is not medicine; it takes away a normal capacity. The Pill, Depo Provera, Norplant, IUD, tubal ligation have one purpose - to render a young woman infertile.
-- By focusing on pregnancy avoidance, birth control leads to a "contraceptive mentality, If a "failure" occurs (only complete abstinence is 100% effective) the couple will be tempted to abortion. A Guttmacher study showed that most of the women who obtained abortions were using birth control the previous month.
-- Even more serious, birth control can involve not just preventing conception, but the destruction of tiny human lives. Chemical birth control weakens the endometrial lining of the uterus. If conception takes place, the new human life cannot implant. Thus it dies and is expelled at the next menstruation. Birth control not only makes a couple more open to abortion, it is abortion. (This mechanism mentioned is no secret, although doctors seldom explain it to their patients. For verification, check out the description of birth control methods on the Planned Parenthood website: Both types of pill can also prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. PP does not elaborate what the fertilized egg is.)
-- The pill is expensive. NFP is free. (Something to keep in mind as people pressure health insurance plans to pay for contraceptives.)
--NFP empowers women. It gives her knowledge of her own body and a greater initiating role regarding sexual relations. Husbands appreciate that.
-- NFP teaches men to regard womans fertility. Birth control often reduces women to pleasure objects, who must always be available. NFP inculcates respect for woman as the bearer of life.
--Most important, NFP strengthens the relationship with God while birth control harms that relationship. (Why this is so will become clearer as we progress with this interview.)
CatholicView: When did the NFP edict become church law within the Catholic Church?
Fr Bloom: It began with Gen 1:28 & 2:24, which define the basic purposes of human sexuality: procreation & lifelong union. The Bible shows disapproval of two forms of birth control: coitus interruptus and sterilization (Gen. 38:9-10, Deut. 23:1). Also Rev 22:15 condemns pharmakoi who at that time prescribed drugs to induce abortion or regulate birth. When the Church went out from Jerusalem, they encountered rampant birth control and abortion among the Gentiles (non-Jews). These practices were strongly condemned by early Christians. Even after the Reformation, all Christians (Catholic, Orthodox & Protestant) affirmed the grave immorality of these acts. Martin Luther called it a sin worse than adultery or incest! In 1930 the Anglicans made a slight concession which eventually led to abandoning the traditional teaching. Although most Protestants followed their lead, Pius XI issued an encyclical called Casti Connubii, which reaffirmed the original teaching. In spite of enormous pressure, Pope Paul VI restated it in Humanae Vitae (1968). The current pope has not only reiterated the unpopular doctrine; he has put it into a broader context by developing an entire theology of the body.
CatholicView: If one partner is not happy with NFP and this causes a division within the marriage, how does the church handle this?
Fr Bloom: This is a delicate issue best handled in the confessional or some other confidential setting. The Vatican sent out a Vademecum for confessors to help them with this whole area. Facing the birth control issue can sometimes be the prescription for a troubled marriage.
CatholicView: Marriage is a Sacrament and therefore holy. Would the birth control issue take precedence over this sacrament should it endanger the marriage?
Fr Bloom: NFP flows from the Sacrament. I do know couples feel almost compelled to resort to barrier methods in certain circumstances. Although they are far different from abortifacient methods, still what couples should do is practice loving abstinence until they feel reassurance. The other sacrament important to married couples is Penance. A priest will certainly understand a couples difficulties if they are truly striving to live Jesus teaching in their marriage.
CatholicView: Do you feel it is fair for the Church to intrude so intimately within the Sacrament of marriage?
Fr Bloom: I dont belong in any couples bedroom (except maybe to do a home blessing), but Jesus definitely belongs there. Hes the one who brings joy and abundance to all Christian marriages (see John 2:1-12). The Church merely points out his presence in each chaste marital act. If couples would kneel down beside their marriage bed, join hands and invite Jesus to be with them in that most sacred moment, we would have no divorce.
CatholicView: Be fruitful and multiply is cited in Genesis 1:28. Does the Church use this as the basis for NFP? If so, how was this determined?
Fr Bloom: Well, it was the first command God gave to human beings. One translation says, Have many, many children. Our society has turned this upside down. Having more than two children is now the great sin. I know a young mom, pregnant with her fourth child, who meets open hostility from strangers and even family members.
Couples face social and economic pressure against having a child during the first years of marriage. My advice to newlyweds is to use NFP in a relaxed way, getting accustomed to signs of fertility, always with openness to life. Many have started out with the pill, waited until what they thought was the right moment, and then found themselves facing infertility nightmares. (Some doctors have suggested that, because the Pill atrophies the glands that produce cervical mucus, it may contribute to fertility problems.)
Parents naturally want to give the very best to their children. To couples with their second child who think their family is now complete, I would only ask them to consider the greatest gift they can give their children. Is it a private bedroom, a college education? Might it not rather be a little brother or sister? Like many people I grew up in a home that would be called impoverished by todays standards. I wasnt aware of our poverty. However, I now know the best gift my parents gave me is my sister and four brothers. I only wish I had more sisters.
CatholicView: Fr Bloom, what do you feel is the reason Catholic couples are not allowed to use some other non-abortive means of birth control if it is available?
Fr Bloom: The question is why Jesus challenges them to resist enormous pressure from the schools, health care providers and media. As Pope John Paul II said, The Church proposes, she imposes nothing.
The Bible teaches that human sexuality is designed for both union and procreation. Couples who use artificial birth control deliberately frustrate the procreative end. What is not so obvious is that they are also frustrating their mutual self-giving. They are withholding something important. The man says, I love you, but I not all of you. I fear your fertility. NFP, on the other hand, is based on appreciating the great gift of fertility.
CatholicView: In Genesis 38: 1-11 Onan, son of Judah, was killed by God because he spilled his seed on the ground as a form of birth control. Does this passage affect the Churchs teaching on this issue?
Fr Bloom: It is a complex passage. Some people say Onan was punished simply because he did not fulfill the Levirate law (that is, to make sure his widowed sister-in-law had a child). However the punishment for violating that law was not death, but public humiliation (Deut. 25:7). Onan did something more than break the Levirate law - he went against Gods natural law by taking the pleasure of sex, but not the responsibility. Therefore his punishment was more severe (Gen 38:10). Pius XI mentions this in Casti Connubii. Recent documents have focused more directly on the natural law argument.
CatholicView: There are portions of Genesis that many priests say is symbolic such as the beginning chapters dealing with the creation of earth. What do you think about this and how then could Genesis be used for a basis on birth control?
Fr Bloom: Vatican II teaches, the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. (Dei Verbum 11 ) The same document speaks about the importance identifying literary forms. For example, the account of the six days of creation has an intricate poetic structure (three acts of separation with three corresponding acts of filling). To say that it is a poem does not mean the events described are unreal. Its interesting how Gen 1:3 (the creation of light) adumbrates to the Big Bang theory. Regarding the command of fecundity (Gen 1:22 & 1:28): Would the first chapter of Genesis make sense if it were eliminated?
We cannot fully understand any given without taking into account the whole of revelation. Vatican II insists, Serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. (DV 12) This principle is vital because with so many different interpretations of the Bible, we easily fall into division and error if we do not accept the authoritative guide Jesus has given us. The Catechism has a nice section on the three criteria for interpreting the Scriptures. (#112-114)
CatholicView: With shortages of food stemming from overpopulation as well as the poverty and lack of education some countries face, do you feel it is fair to impose such a ruling?
Fr Bloom: During my years as a missionary in Peru what was being imposed was contraception and sterilization. Women in their early twenties, yielding to great pressure, had tubal ligations. I remember one girl coming to me with a terrible pain turned out she had an infection because of the shabby work. Health officials received incentives from the government and USAID to perform sterilizations, but nothing for follow up. Peruvian doctors who investigated the scandal have amply documented all this.
At the same time I knew large families who, because of strong values, were rising from poverty. They would sacrifice to get one daughter through the university, and then she would obtain a job to help young brothers and sisters. Peru has twice the territory and half the population of France. The country has abundant natural resources, much greater than France, but lacks the skilled people to properly develop them.
CatholicView: Is the Church fostering the idea that birth control pills are health risks simply to add strength to NFP?
Fr Bloom: Im not aware of any official document taking that tack. However, the Planned Parenthood website does point out some serious risks (like clotting and tumors) as well as side effects (like weight gain, headaches, depression). I know young women who stopped taking the Pill because of side effects. I wonder how often medical workers take time to explain the risks or even the basic mechanism of the Pill. How many doctors tell their patients the Pill can work post conception?
CatholicView: The Church believes contraceptives such as condoms; diaphragms, IUDs and chemicals intrude upon a natural act. How does the Church address the issue of frustration a couple must live out each month for a very natural act of love?
Fr Bloom: Some have shared with me those frustrations. Still, as I mentioned before, abstinence (when done for the right motive) can also bring great blessings. Also, according to Jesus teaching contraceptive intercourse is not a natural act of love, but intrinsically evil. (Catechism 2370, Humanae Vitae 14)
CatholicView: If the natural or the rhythm cycle is used, thus avoiding conception, are we following what God teaches when He says go forth and multiply? How does this differ from any other form of birth control other than the fact that it is non-abortive?
Fr Bloom: A married couple must first ask Gods will for them in terms of number and spacing of children. With a natural method the question is always before the couple. Unnatural methods tend to block out the question, often assigning it to only one party (usually the whole onus is put on the woman) thus short circuiting dialogue. The Church does not teach an ideal family size. Variables such as parental health and financial problems will affect a couples decision. Jesus asks couples to be responsible, generous parents always open to the gift of life. No method will remove all unpredictability. CNN reported that, of women using the Pill, less that 80% had perfect compliance, meaning the method was used as directed. (Quote was from article in Journal of American Medical Association.) Are they trying to say something by their non-compliance?
CatholicView: Would you say the Church limits a womans options when it insists on a woman bearing a child even if she cannot effectively use the rhythm method?
Fr Bloom: NFP provides more options than the rhythm method. Much scientific research has been done on signs of fertility. The Billings and Sympto-Thermal methods take advantage of that research to provide methods which are reliable even during difficult circumstances such as coming off the pill, menopause, nursing, etc.
CatholicView: Some think that the procreative act should not be tied to every sexual act but belong to marriage as a whole because it is a unification of two people who love each other, not necessarily for procreative purposes. What is your opinion on this?
Fr Bloom: The English philosopher G.E.M Anscombe said You might as well accept any sexual goings-on, if you accept contraceptive intercourse. She has an important article titled Contraception & Chastity (http://www.tcdsb.on.ca/external/schools/chaminade/oac-philosophy/public_html/anscombe_chastity.htm). I will limit myself to noting that much of our modern misery has come from separating union from procreation. Conversely, the separation of procreation from union (e.g. in vitro fertilization) has resulted in the dehumanization Huxley described in Brave New World.
CatholicView: Fr Bloom, what will happen should there be an extreme shortage of food and the Catholic population continues to grow? Do you think the church would change its stance?
Fr Bloom: Credible experts say with current technology and the quantity of arable land, which now lies fallow, we are capable of producing two to three times the present amount of food. Although population has doubled in the last forty years, we face not a food shortage, but an agricultural glut. The farmers in Eastern Washington could tell you about it. But even if the cupboard were bare, would that justify measures that violate our basic humanity?
Also unfortunately in many places the Catholic population is not growing. In some traditional Catholic countries like Italy and France more die each year than are born. The influx of Moslems, who still cherish large families, helps prevent a greater demographic decline. (For more information on population issues, check out Population Research Institute, http://pop.org)
CatholicView: If a couple practices a form of birth control other than NFP, are they excommunicated from the Church?
Fr Bloom: They are not excommunicated, but, objectively, they are committing mortal sin. The fact that people react so strongly against the Catholic teaching on birth control indicates some level of discomfort. The Catechism says, no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. (#1860)
CatholicView: If not excommunicated for this, are they allowed to receive Holy Communion?
Fr Bloom: They must first seek the sacrament of reconciliation, which of course implies a sincere desire to amend ones life. The fact that so many Catholics have poorly formed consciences concerning birth control, cohabitation, etc. does not make these practices right nor does it take away the harmful consequences. I know couples, who for whatever reason are not following this teaching, that go to Mass, but refrain from communion. That is hard, but better than receiving communion outside the state of Grace. (See I Cor 11:27)
CatholicView: Fr Bloom, do you believe that Catholics will, should they die and are using birth control other than NFP, lose their immortal souls?
Fr Bloom: If they are doing so knowingly and deliberately, yes. Of course, no matter what the weaknesses and compromises, one should always pray for the grace of final repentance both for ones own self and others.
CatholicView: If a couple does use another form of birth control and feel it is right for them, would the church accept their decision and let their conscience guide them?
Fr Bloom: People do a lot of wrong things and feel it is right for them. I mentioned cohabitation. A more extreme example might be someone joining the KKK or Aryan Nation. Would anyone tell a racist or an anti-Semite to just let their conscience be their guide? We need to help young people form correct consciences.
CatholicView: Realizing that many have left the Church under the weight of this ruling and knowing that some Catholics do not adhere to NFP, do you think in time the Church will approve of other means of non-abortive birth control measures?
Fr Bloom: The Church will probably be smaller in the future. Already the majority of our young people have drifted away or joined Bible churches. My conviction is we need to teach the fullness of Jesus teaching (which includes marital fecundity) and let people decide for themselves. Its not fair nor does it work in the long run to try to keep people in by watering things down. Jesus offers unlimited mercy, but also heroic sacrifice and the grace to do it.
Cardinal George made an important observation in his Lenten retreat to the Holy Father and Roman Curia. He said we must be like the early Christians. They recognized they were a small minority, but they spoke as if they were a majority because they were already conscious of the Churchs universal mission. Even if only a small number listen, we must proclaim Jesus message to all. The Internet is a good vehicle for that.
CatholicView: If it is dangerous for a woman to become pregnant, is she then excused from NFP?
Fr Bloom: She needs more support from trained NFP instructors and knowledgeable medical professionals, as well as a very loving husband. According to the World Health Organization, when used correctly, NFP is as effective as the Pill.
CatholicView: On a sinscale, if you will, how do you rate using a form of birth control other than NFP with having an abortion?
Fr Bloom: It would be hard to put anything on the same plane as taking an innocent human life. Abortionists usually have someone else piece together the tiny arms, legs and head before disposing of the fetus. To do such things requires an incredible numbing. Its similar to the numbing that made possible concentration camps or bombing civilians during World War II. Today we are surrounded by a culture of death, which anesthetizes us to what is really going on. We are called to be counter-cultural. The culture of life begins in homes with married couples striving to live Jesus full teaching on marital chastity. Furthermore, everyone - priests, single moms, divorced, widowed, gays, teenagers - we all called to the liberating meaning of chastity. We must teach young people and we ourselves learn what St. Paul called the wisdom of the cross. (I Cor 1:18)
CatholicView: Thank you, Father Bloom for giving CatholicView this interview. This highly volatile subject continues to be of prime interest to Catholics and CatholicView believes that you have honestly expressed in depth many answers to questions our readers face. All of us can benefit richly from your vast experience. Hopefully we can visit with you again at some future date. May God continue to bless you greatly in all that you do in your service to Him.
Interview 5/2001 with Kathy Bernard-Publisher