The Rev. Roger Landry in
on Thursday at the gathering Theology on Tap. North Providence, R.I.
By MARK OPPENHEIMER
Published: February 18, 2012
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — It was last Sunday morning, and the Rev. Roger J. Landry, whose accent is from working-class Lowell, Mass., but whose college degree is from nearby Harvard, had just finished officiating at the 8:30 Mass at St. Anthony of Padua, his church in this old whaling town. After his fiery sermon attacking the Obama administration, several people in the pews applauded — a sound striking for its echoes in the cavernous, awesome church, and for its rarity. One does not applaud in
But Father Landry did not mind the enthusiasm. He is a traditionalist, and he is eager to share his opinions with his flock. This is a priest who believes official Catholic teaching about contraception, and who is not afraid to say so.
Such men may not be the exception, but it’s not clear that they are the rule. As the furor over the Obama administration’s mandate for employee health insurance has made clear, Roman Catholic bishops condemn contraception, equating some forms of it with abortion. But many parish priests are conflicted. Some disagree with the teaching, and others agree with it but avoid discussing the topic, knowing how thoroughly their parishioners have embraced birth control.
Father Landry worries that other priests’ reticence keeps Catholics in the dark on church teachings on contraception. “In most places,” he said, “they don’t hear about it because there are a lot of priests who are conflict-averse, and when you preach in a way that people aren’t pleased, not only do you lose parishioners, but you lose their budget envelopes along with them, and you’ll also get some nasty e-mails and face-to-face conversations.”
Father Landry, 41, is balding, ruddy and blue-eyed, and he speaks quickly and confidently. He gives his parishioners the stiff, 80-proof doctrine: the church hierarchy bans all artificial contraception, and the withdrawal method. The only permissible forms of birth control are abstinence and “natural family planning,” using knowledge of a woman’s cycle to restrict intercourse to times when she is unlikely to conceive.
He was just a small boy at morning Mass, watching the priest give Communion, when he first heard a whisper of a calling: “I just had the little insight as a 4-year-old that the priest must be the luckiest man ever, to be holding God in his hand and giving him to others.” He entered seminary after graduating from Harvard in 1993, and he arrived at St. Anthony’s in 2005, after stints in
and Hyannis, Mass.
As a priest, Father Landry has tried, gently, to lead couples away from contraception. “I know from their having told me that many of the couples here have stopped contracepting,” Father Landry said. “In terms of the numbers, it’s probably between 15 and 20 couples who have explicitly told me that.”
Father Landry gets his message across in several ways. First, he talks to engaged couples about their plans for a family. To facilitate that conversation, he gives them a questionnaire.
“The last question,” Father Landry said, “is always ‘Are you planning to have children? Are you planning to start right away after you’re married?’ The vast majority of couples answer, ‘Yes, we definitely want to have children, but we want to wait two or three years.’ ”
The priest asks if they are aware of church teaching about contraception. “Shockingly, 50 percent of the couples that I prepare for marriage have never heard that the church teaches about contraception,” he said.
Father Landry also gives sermons on contraception, something very few priests do. He says he relies on Pope John Paul II’s argument against contraception, which he summarizes. “That God has made us fundamentally for love,” Father Landry said, “and that marriage is supposed to help us to love for real. In order for that to happen, we need to totally give ourselves over to someone else in love, and receive the other’s total self in love.
“What happens in the use of contraception, rather than embracing us totally as God made the other, with the masculine capacity to become a dad, or the feminine capacity to become a mom, we reject that paternal and maternal leaning.”
Father Landry argues that contraception can be the gateway to exploitation: “When that petition is made for contraception, it’s going to make pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end. And we’re actually going to hurt the people we love.”
Many non-Catholics — and many Catholics — see the church’s teaching on contraception as cruel toward women. But Father Landry says it’s women who intuitively get how divorcing sex from procreation allows men to use them; in his experience, it is almost always the woman who moves a couple toward abandoning artificial contraception.
“They have a lot of times experienced having been used in their marriage or their previous relationship,” Father Landry said.
After Mass, during the coffee hour in the church basement, parishioners expressed a range of views on the pastor’s teachings.
One couple with grown children agreed that if they had benefited from Father Landry’s teachings years ago, they would have had more children. “We definitely would not have used contraception,” the wife said, “not if we had it to do over again.”
An older woman with white hair, sitting near the doughnuts being sold for $1, appeared to disagree. “Don’t get me started on him,” she said, rolling her eyes when asked about Father Landry’s teachings on contraception.
Father Landry does not think contraception is the most important issue he faces. He worries about couples living together before marriage, not to mention the poverty and violence that afflict
But he sees the Catholic sexual ethic as crucial to his message — and not just
the part about contraception. New Bedford
Last spring, scenes of a movie called “
” were being shot in St. Anthony’s.
During the filming, the priest noticed that the church’s rack of sexuality
pamphlets was being depleted. Whaling City
“I saw all the camera men and sound guys,” Father Landry said, “and in their back pockets, coming down the main aisle, one had one on pornography, the other had ‘Sex and Contraception’ hanging out of his pocket, the other one had ‘In Vitro Fertilization.’ ”
Father Landry aimed his cellphone camera at one of the men and “snapped a photo of his derriere,” he said. “Because it’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”