Question 64



5) Role of Bishops 

“We make this urgent request of you:  We ask all of you to take the lead with the priests who assist your sacred ministry and all your faithful.  With complete zeal and no delay, devote yourselves to keeping marriage safe and holy, so that the life of married couples may draw more closely to its proper human and Christian perfection.  Truly consider this as the greatest responsibility of your mission and the greatest work committed to you at the present time.”  -- Pope Paul IV in Humanae Vitae, To Bishops #30 

On the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, we need to reconsider the irreplaceable role of the bishops in promoting these values.

Bishops have the crucial role of leadership to provide.  If there is weak leadership in a diocese, then it is not realistic to expect improvements from the malaise the diocese may be in.  The ineffectiveness of weak leadership is evident both in the secular world and in the Church.  Grace builds upon nature; it does not replace it.  If a bishop chooses to ignore these problems, or thinks that his clergy and his people are not ready for this message, or turns his attention to other less challenging projects that hold prospects of some measurable success, then there will be no change from the status quo.   

Most good Catholics will follow a good priest, and most good priests will follow a good bishop, but who will take the initiative and lead? 

A good leader addresses the problems among his people.  He analyses the root causes of these problems, and then searches for effective ways to address these causes.  The root causes for widespread contraception and sterilization among Catholics are several:  1) a great silence in the pulpits and diocesan newspapers while the culture strongly advocates these aberrations; 2) a lack of leadership from the bishop in teaching these values to his clergy and people; 3) an inability to defend the Catholic sexual ethic in the face of its critics and dissenters; 4) a lack of understanding about the merits and effectiveness of NFP as a means of responsible parenthood; 5) the inability to recruit an adequate supply of NFP teachers so as to make this easily available throughout the diocese; and 6) an unawareness of the role of the lay apostolate in the areas of promoting strong marriages, family life, supportive legislation, and a culture that is supportive of, instead of antagonistic to, these values. 

Some bishops are not reaching out to their natural allies in this effort.  They do not know how to reach their Catholic doctors and nurses.  They are hesitant to recruit good couples to become teachers of NFP, or to help with marriage preparation programs.  They seem to think that many of their clergy cannot be brought around to accept the teachings ofHumanae Vitae. They are hesitant to challenge young Catholics of high school and college age to acquire the virtue of self-possession and chastity.  They are reluctant to challenge all the teachers in Catholic institutions to advocate the Catholic sexual ethic.  But all of these people are the natural allies of the Church in promoting God’s plan. 

To reach their clergy and help them understand the values that support God’s plan, a bishop can offer clergy conferences.  NFP Outreach has given many of these conferences on the theme “How to Preach God’s Plan for Marriage and Spousal Love from the Pulpit.”  These conferences also show the priests and deacons where to find good resources for understanding these values, and how to articulate them.  There are many resources available today: CDs, books, articles, and websites.  NFP Outreach has a website ( that provides sample homilies, “Helps for your Homily,” and “NFP Q&As” which could be used for parish bulletin inserts.

The first step in retrieving God’s plan is to reactivate the pulpit, where everyone hears the same message proclaimed with charity and clarity. 

To reach their professional medical people, a bishop can invite them, on a regular basis, to “An Evening of Reflection with the Bishop.”  This is relatively easy to arrange.  An invitation, over the bishop’s name, goes out to all the doctors, pharmacists and nurses.  A light desert is provided.  The bishop speaks to the group, encouraging them to become active artisans of the culture of life.  Then a doctor, trained in NFP or a related topic, makes a presentation and answers questions.  These gatherings place heavy emphasis upon Catholic medical ethics, and help the medical professionals understand how the Faith relates to their profession. 

To explain the Catholic sexual ethic, while answering questions and refuting dissent, a bishop can draw upon the help of competent moral theologians who sentire cum ecclesia. Weekly columns in diocesan newspapers, or a weekly hour on Catholic radio, are a strong support to the evangelization effort coming from the pulpits.  Many Catholics, upon hearing the Catholic sexual ethic, express their astonishment, not at the contents of the teaching, but at the fact that it is being addressed in their parishes and diocese. 

To promote NFP, a bishop can draw upon his resources within the diocese, keeping in mind the natural division of labor.  The clergy explain God’s plan for marriage, spousal love and family from the pulpit, drawing heavily upon the Scriptures and major Church documents.  The actual teaching of NFP belongs to married couples who have been trained in depth.  This is the lion’s share of the work.  To recruit more teachers, a bishop can make a direct appeal to married couples.  This is part of their apostolate: to prepare young couples for a strong marriage and a healthy, happy family.  There are many couples waiting for a bishop who endorses NFP.  They want to lend their help to spreading the knowledge and use of NFP, if they have the support of their bishop. When medical questions arise, these are directed to NFP trained nurses and doctors.  Catholic medical doctors and nurses can explain the effectiveness of NFP, and how it accords so well with our physiology. 

To tap into the energy and talents of the laity is an important task for a bishop.  The laity must come to understand their role in the lay apostolate.  Since they are the vast majority of the Church, they will do the lion’s share of the work in bringing the values of the Gospel to the broader society.  At this point in time, they must also focus upon revitalizing the Catholic community with regard to marriage and family.  This will require encouragement and motivation from the bishop. 

Cordially yours, 

Fr. Matthew Habiger OSB