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Diocese of Rockville Centre's bishop reaffirms ban on contraception

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop John Barres in

Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop John Barres in January.   Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The spiritual leader of Long Island's 1.5 million Catholics is reaffirming the church's half-century-old doctrine on birth control.

Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” or “Of Human Life,” by writing a 14-page pastoral letter to members of the diocese's 133 parishes.  

Pope Paul VI released his treatise on contraception on July 25, 1968, at a time when Americans — and the wider world — began to challenge traditional social mores of sexuality and marriage. The pontiff acknowledged the sexual revolution, laying out the changing role of women and the importance of fidelity and family.

In his letter, Barres makes the case that Pope Paul VI was prophetic in predicting the plethora of problems that oral contraception or "the pill” and other forms of birth control would usher in, such as a general weakening of morals, men losing respect for women and increased infidelity. He pointed out that Pope Francis will canonize Paul VI in October , making him a saint.  

“Contraception introduces a lie into the marriage,” Barres wrote. “In fact, contraceptive sex places a physical and spiritual barrier between the spouses, and so pushes them further apart rather than bringing them closer together. It is destructive of love.”

Barres tells diocese members that there is “nothing more important that I could do for you, as your bishop, than to teach you the important truths of Humanae Vitae. These truths are timeless, as well as timely, and very much need to be re-examined today in light of the problems we face in our time.”

Artificial birth control, Barres wrote, is linked to more abortions, in vitro fertilization, gender fluidity, unisex public bathrooms, “graphic sex education for young children in our schools,” along with “an epidemic of pornography, sexting, cyberbullying, television programs and movies that routinely depict graphic sex and violence and popular music that uses lyrics that are sexual, violent and demeaning to women.”

Five decades ago, many Catholics in the United States openly criticized the encyclical and nearly 100 moral theologians wrote a formal dissent. Today, opposition remains overwhelming, polls show. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Forum estimated 8 percent of American Catholics think contraception is morally wrong.

Barres’ letter received mixed reaction from Catholics on Long Island — some praising it as a much-needed reminder of the wisdom of Paul VI and others calling it out of touch with modern Church life.

“The bishop, unlike too many of his weak-kneed brothers, is bravely reinforcing authentic, timeless and, yes, infallible church teaching ... more relevant in today's culture than ever,” said John Picciano, a retired lawyer from Melville and a lifelong congregant at St. Kilian’s Parish in Farmingdale. “I wonder if the dissidents recall that even Pope Francis once referred to those who attacked Pope Paul's 'Humanae Vitae' as ‘wolves’ circling the flock.”

Jamie Manson, a columnist for The National Catholic Reporter who lives in Long Beach, pointed out the need for birth control in the developing world where, because of "poverty, illness and violence, the need for a family to choose the timing and number of births can be a matter of life or death."

Manson characterized the church's argument that contraception has weakened morality and increased infidelity as "an unfair exaggeration." Many Catholic families, she said, use artificial birth control "to practice responsible parenthood, which is morally good, and they make those decisions in good conscience.”

Richard Koubek, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Wyandanch, wants Barres to devote his attention to what Koubek considers more pressing issues.

“As the world experiences what Pope Francis called the most serious refugee crisis since World War II, I question why Bishop Barres is devoting his teaching authority to the issue of contraception rather than the treatment of immigrants in the United States and right here on Long Island,” Koubek said.

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