Interview: Liberal Catholic turns orthodox by embracing Humanae Vitae
LOS ANGELES, December 8, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) - It is often said that the hardest journey to faith is when one approaches it, not from the outside, from atheism or lapsed faith, but from within, with just enough Christian teaching mixed with error so as to be inoculated against authentic faith.
So what does one who has traversed this arduous journey look like? What does he do, and where does he go with his newfound faith?
In the case of Patrick Coffin, he is now a radio show host on Catholic Answer’s Live, which airs on EWTN, and has authored a book explaining his path to authentic faith. That journey was, he says, primarily about surmounting the stumbling block of Humanae Vitae, which is seen by orthodox Catholics, and even many non-Catholics, as a cornerstone of the Culture of Life.
LifeSiteNews spoke with Coffin about his journey and his new book ‘Sex Au Naturel: What it is and Why it’s Good for your Marriage’. The book has received rave reviews from philosopher Peter Kreeft, Sydney Cardinal George Pell, Kimberley Hahn, Fr. Frank Pavone, and Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, among others.
In addition to tracing his conversion, Sex Au Naturel presents Theology of the Body in an easy-to-understand nutshell, contains a Biblical guide through the proofs for the God’s stance against contraception, and blasts the myths of overpopulation. Coffin’s wit and style come through loud and clear in the book, on radio and in this interview…
Q. When most Catholics come to the stumbling block of Humanae Vitae, for you it was the cornerstone which led you to fullness of truth. Why?
A: This is hard to answer succinctly because my “cradle reversion” did not happen in an instant or even a series of instants. Owing to the fact that I am clever but not wise, I took an abnormally long bit of time to understand the message of Humanae Vitae.
Growing up under the long shadow of the Winnipeg Statement, which for all intents and purposes made the encyclical into a toothless lion, it was never explained to me how the norms Paul VI was spelling out were actually binding on everyone, not just conservative Catholics.
Sitting down and reading the thing with as open a mind as I could muster was a big first step. So was discovering the writings of people like Janet Smith, Mary Rosere Joyce, and Servant of God Fulton Sheen. In the end, I saw that what was at stake was not just an arcane man-made rule (not to mention prudish and unrealistic) but the possible loss of salvation.
The Church has never wavered, and has only deepened her treatment of contraception. It’s an ineluctable part of the whole of the deposit of faith. As I describe in the book, it was like a big game of Jenga, in which the whole structure of the Catholic sacramental life, and of marriage and sexuality, stood or fell with the main “wooden block” of Humanae Vitae; namely that each and every marital act must be open to new life.
If that principle is false, then I had no consistent ground on which to stay Catholic or even to believe Jesus rose from the dead. Another discovery was that Paul VI did not make any arguments, per se, about the evil of contraception. Instead, he bore witness to 2000 years of Christian teaching and practice. Of course, he also made what we may now call prophetic utterances about what would transpire if the teaching was rejected.
If one is a dissenter - as I have been - what I am saying here probably will not, on its own, make a dent in the dissent. Acceptance of Humanae Vitae is bound up with the acceptance of the lordship of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is not Lord of our sexuality, He is Lord of nothing.
Q. Describe life as a liberal Catholic vs life as a fully believing Catholic.
A: That’s a very good question. My personal preference is the term heterodoxy over liberalism, but I think the basic answer to your question is that my “liberal Catholic life” was a life half lived.
The liberal Catholic project wants the trappings of the real thing but without the substance. It wants the lion of Judah, but without the teeth part of the lion. My theological training was also geared toward loving the journey (liberals are big on “The Journey”), but not exactly loving the destination. The search for truth was held in very high esteem, while finding it - not so much.
When I gave my life to the Lord and finally (albeit slowly) understood that the Catholic Church cannot be separated from her Founder, I got the biggest shock of all: that the Truth had been searching for me all along.
Acceptance of Humanae Vitae is a nearly perfect litmus test for orthodoxy in other areas. If you hold to this vital part of Catholic teaching, you will also hold to the whole. Dissent from Humanae Vitae, on the other hand, is invariably joined to dissent from other “life issues,” as we call them nowadays. When was the last time you saw a gay activist group walking alongside pro-lifers at an anti-abortion rally? How many pastors who dissent from Humanae Vitae preach homilies against co-habitation? Humanae Vitae is the wall hook that holds up the entire garment of the Catholic sexual ethic.
Q. Did you lose friends over this transformation?
A: Fortunately, the Lord was very kind to me in this regard. Honestly, the answer is no. I left Halifax to start a graduate program in the philosophy of Catholic education at McGill University, and then taught high school in and around Toronto for three years, and before I began my master’s degree in theology at Franciscan University, I spent a wonderful year discerning the priesthood with the Companions of the Cross in Ottawa.
This is a long-winded way of saying that as I grew in Catholic orthodoxy, God put great people in my life as encouragements and friends in Christ. Virtually none of my high school pals or college buddies trod a similar path as mine. So if I had been in one city the whole time, I know I would have felt the sting of losing friends because of my deepened commitment to the faith. Jesus gave us ample warning about what friendship with Him entails, and the shifting of priorities that must take place if that friendship is to flourish.
Q. How long did your reformation process take? Did your girlfriend/wife come along on the journey or did you meet her afterward?
No, I met my wife in Los Angeles long after I truly “poped”! In my case, I knew so little about what the Catholic Church taught that it’s more accurate to call it a rediscovery of the intellectual and spiritual gifts I got at Confirmation, rather than a true reformation. For this late bloomer and dedicated slowpoke, it took a number of years.
Q. You have a provocative headline and use provocative and biting wit throughout. Your friends note that’s just your personality shining through. What gave you the chutzpah to be so personal about such a touchy topic?
Hah! Well, it’s not as if I made a public confession of all my sins in the book, but what I did want to do was to take Humanae Vitae out from under the bushel basket under which it’s been placed, and simply let it be seen and heard.
While chastity has always been, rightly, at the heart of the Catholic approach to discipleship, prudishness has not. My goal with Sex Au Naturel (or, sex that is free of the albatross-like encumbrance of birth control) was to make people think by making them either laugh, or by making them realize in my own little off beat way how many misunderstandings they’ve been carrying around for years about contraception, natural family planning, and the other teachings that touch upon the mystery of human sexuality.
The Foreword written by Peter Kreeft for the book summarizes this better than I can.
Q. What significance do you see in this topic of human sexuality in the world today?
It’s good that you put it that way, as opposed to “in the Church today.” I mention this because the moral content of Humanae Vitae is addressed to “all men of good will.” It is based not on sectarian considerations but on the natural moral law, which universally applies as much to Manhattan mavens as to Polynesian pygmies.
The fact is, the sexual revolution could never have gotten out of first gear without contraception. This is a truth so obvious that even Raquel Welch could defend and articulate it recently. And is there a more potent symbol of the hopes and dreams of the sexual revolution than Raquel Welch?
If love and life can be separated by contraception - if man can tear asunder what God has joined - then we must prepare for the brave new world into which our logic leads. For behind the horror of abortion lurks an implicit acceptance of contraception, which also directly animates the arguments of the homosexualist movement.
The premises of contraception have also led to the mainstreaming of pornography. Same with the drive for in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem cell research, the latter of which has produced what? Only a long roster of dead little persons and a grand total of zero medical cures.
The good news is, a counter sexual revolution has gained a solid foothold in the Secular City. Thanks be to God that the truth and beauty of sex as God intends it to be is gaining new respectability.
Who among the half naked, rain-drenched throng back at Woodstock in 1969 would have predicted today’s burgeoning chastity movement, or the impact of the theology of the body, or a swing dance craze on college campuses?
More to the point, the younger priests being ordained today - along with the “John Paul II priests” who are now being consecrated as bishops - these men love Jesus Christ and want to make him better loved and the truths He taught to be better known.
I wrote Sex Au Naturel to be of help to anyone - Catholic or Protestant or atheist - who is looking for accessible way to understand and explain an issue more notorious for its heat than its light.
The book is available for purchase here.