Sex and the bishop

SN&R speaks frankly with Bishop Jaime Soto about the church, Obama and birth control

Bishop Jaime Soto supports the position of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which decries the Obama administration’s new contraception-coverage rule.

Bishop Jaime Soto supports the position of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which decries the Obama administration’s new contraception-coverage rule.

Photo by Anna Stokes

Catholic Bishop Jaime Soto offered a recent Marriage Day Mass, for couples wishing to renew their wedding vows, at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Afterward, he joined SN&R president Jeff vonKaenel in the basement of the church for a one-on-one conversation about the recent political firestorm about whether employers at Catholic institutions should be required to provide their employees with health-care plans that cover contraception. Bishop Soto—who oversees dozens of Catholic churches, elementary and high schools, and social services organizations in a huge diocese encompassing 20 counties, including the Sacramento region—was content to answer vonKaenel’s questions about everything from birth control to premarital sex. The following is an edited version of their conversation.

Jeff vonKaenel: I want to ask you about the recent controversy. The Catholic bishops are opposed to President Barack Obama’s plan to require health insurers to provide free birth control to women, even if religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, aren’t forced to pay for it. Why are the bishops so vehemently against this?

Bishop Jaime Soto: What’s happening is the administration is redefining what a church is, and that’s problematic. Because Obama will say, if you’re this kind of church, and you only serve your members, then that’s a church. But these other things—like hospitals and schools—are not a church. And that’s a problem for us. Because those other things are a part of what the church is. So that’s what got the bee in our bonnet. Contraceptives are very prevalent in society, but what’s profoundly troublesome about this ruling is that he is redefining religious organizations.

It’s even hard to believe contraception is still controversial. I’m imagining a married couple coming in to you saying, “Your Excellency, we’ve had three kids, we can’t have anymore, we can’t afford it. We want to be good Catholics, but we want to keep our marital relations going.” What advice would you give this couple?

Contraceptives, unfortunately, have become the default position for marriage. I know many Catholic couples whose relationships start out with contraception—their relationships, from the very beginning, are defined by this.

We have taken sexual intercourse, sexual union and said that procreation has nothing to do with that. And what’s happened with what I call the contraceptive culture—it’s basically reinforced that idea that sex has nothing to do with children. That’s a problem for us, because the church believes that sexual union has a lot to do with children, and that that is part of what the expression means. Our primary concern is how the contraceptive culture has redefined sexuality and also redefined marriage so that procreation is something else.

The church does teach that it’s important for a family, a young couple or any couple to plan their family and give it serious thought. We try to encourage natural family planning and that, in some sense, is a contraceptive practice. The church is against, how should I say, against a chemical and in many cases a toxic means of contraceptive. So a young married person who says, “We’ve got three kids, yada, yada, yada,” I would counsel her, and it’s usually a her, that she and her husband need to sit down and talk.

OK. So talking is the alternative to birth control?

We counsel a woman to have a conversation with her husband so that the two of them make that decision together and look at and explore and learn that there could be better ways for them to plan their family in a way that would be not just healthier for her body, but also could be healthier for the relationship. In my own experience, listening to women in the confessional, I find that contraceptives become the solution for the distrust that she has in her spouse. Instead of dealing with ambiguity in the relationship or mistrust or lack of communication or violence, the women opts for, or is even sometimes encouraged to just take contraceptives, and then you won’t have to worry about those things. Well, that isn’t going to save her marriage.

I’ve read that 98 percent of Catholic women, at some point in their lives, have used some form of birth control. So, it seems they aren’t buying the church’s position, right? It’s kind of bizarre.

Well, human life is bizarre in a certain sense. Let me give these examples. A lot of Catholics in this church come and listen to me and compliment me and say what a wonderful job I’m doing. But they also know that I am very supportive of immigrants and believe in immigration reform, and they think that’s terrible. And if I brought that up in the homily, they wish I wouldn’t have brought that up.

The bishops came out in support of this SAFE California—which seeks to end the death penalty in California. But I bet you there are probably a good number of folks here who think that’s a terrible idea. But they still say, “Wasn’t that a wonderful homily,” and “Wasn’t that a wonderful celebration.” Catholics are struggling with a lot of different issues, not just contraceptives, because the church’s teaching is difficult. It’s a challenge.

If I surveyed 100 priests and asked them their views about the death penalty, I think the vast majority would be against the death penalty. If I asked them about helping the poor, the priests would be for helping the poor. But if the Vatican announced “We’re going to change our mind on birth control,” my sense is the priests would say, “Oh, thank heavens.”

Well, I don’t know. I’ve spoken to a lot of priests who are probably uncomfortable on the church’s position on death penalty and immigration. And if I write a letter about these things, they will put it in the bulletin, but they don’t talk about it. Actually, you know, I will preach on the death penalty and immigrants and marriage and sexuality, and most priests aren’t going to do that because they are just going to stay away from anything controversial. So, it’s not just contraceptives, it’s almost any social issue. It’s a challenge for us, and not just for priests, but most preachers. It takes courage and creativity to preach a difficult message.

Some people say the absence of contraceptives will lead us to 12 billion people in the world, and that is going to lead us to bad outcomes.

I don’t necessarily think that is the case. Because what happens in the current environment is that contraceptives are promoted while other things are not. And so it becomes the default position that poor women should use contraceptives, because we don’t want any more poor kids, as opposed to saying poor women need an education. Poor women need better health care. Poor women need more economic opportunities, because the level of education and health care also brings down the size of families.

Today I was sitting in the pews, and the couple next to me was delighted to be having their 50th anniversary. I asked if they had any children, and they said they had three children, ages 45, 43 and 41. Now, my guess would be that there’s a reason there wasn’t a fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh child.

Oh, I don’t know, yeah. Could be that both of them worked (laughs).

Well, not having contraceptives would have weakened my marriage.

My response is that the “contraceptive way” has become the habitual way that couples manage a marriage, and they can’t imagine a marriage without it. And that’s somewhat problematic. Marriage has become chemically dependent.

As an outsider, frankly, I’m confused by all this. I like the poverty message of the church, but I don’t understand why the bishops have picked this issue to focus on.

We didn’t pick this issue—it was thrown at us. It’s what’s happening and how religious organizations are now going to being defined. We have a significant portion of religious organizations [schools, hospitals, social-service groups] that are being taken out of our control. And that is what’s upsetting to us. The federal government now says they can deem what is acceptable or not. We used to have the conscience clause for these organizations, and we will no longer have that. For example, if we wanted to serve immigrants, if we didn’t want to do euthanasia, if we wanted to serve the poor.

So you think this is a slippery slope?

No, I don’t think it is. These organizations are ours, and we have always been granted the conscience clause that allows our institutions to remain Catholic and to also remain under the church’s control. And that’s been defined differently by this administration. And that’s really the crux of this issue. And we didn’t pick that issue. We were begging the administration to give us the conscience clause.

But think of a woman employee at, say, a Catholic school. She has to pay $600 a year on contraceptives—that’s a huge bill for her. She’s struggling to make things work, but she’s hooked in this twilight zone between the religious and the secular world.

Let me ask this other question: What about those other areas? We serve immigrants, we serve the poor, and what if the federal government says, “Well, I don’t want you to do that.” I have folks that think it’s great that the bishops are standing up [to] the Department of Health and Human Services thing, and then they beat me over the head when I talk about immigrants. And that’s fine, I take it one way or the other (laughs). My job is not to take a poll on these issues, but to try teaching what the integrity of the Gospel is about. But in some sense, contraceptives are one thing, the contraceptive culture that we have has made it the default position on a lot of different things. I don’t want to harp on this, but one of the things that I talk about with regards to marriage preparation—I say if we aren’t teaching young people a good healthy Christian sense of sexuality, pre-adolescent and adolescent years, by the time they ever walk into the marriage preparation class … they are already oriented to having contraceptives as a habitual part of their lives.

Speaking as a parent, the thought that I would ever urge my kids not to take advantage of contraceptives—it just wouldn’t happen. I would be so afraid of the outcome.

The good thing is that if you talk about sexuality with your kids, you will have already made a significant impact. Just bringing it up and trying to create some kind of environment for talking about it with your kids. A lot of families don’t.

I don’t think I ever did. I don’t think I ever talked about sexuality with my kids.

Oh, you didn’t?

I was really bad. I let Planned Parenthood explain it to them. (Both laugh.)

One thing we advise parents to stress with their children, obviously in an age-appropriate way, is to have respect for their bodies and to have respect for their sexuality and to realize what a wonderful gift it is. And it’s a gift that you have to be responsible with. And you also have to treat the other person with respect. I think those are really important things that can go a long way. Now, helping young people understand what they are going to be hearing outside and what the church teaches and I think not to speak to young people about what the culture is teaching them, including about contraceptives, would probably be naive.

Honestly, I had [sexual] partners before I met my wife, and she had partners before she met me. And I am glad we did. Frankly, I think if I had to marry the first person I had sex with, it would have been a disaster. To be really candid, it would scare me if my kids married the first person they connected up with.

We’re kind of going off the deep end of the pool on this. I guess I see it really differently in the sense that the presumption that sexuality is intimacy is a mistake. Because sexuality can be a very intimate expression, but a lot of times sexuality becomes a way of avoiding intimacy.

I certainly in my life have had both. So, I’m not disagreeing with you. But I think not to have experiences before you get married is frankly more dangerous.

Well, I don’t know. I guess I disagree on that.

How unreasonable do you think my position is? I really believe in trying to have a successful marriage.

There was a time when there was a double standard with men and women about this. You know, where the guy goes out and fools around but, you know, “My wife has to be a virgin.” And that still exists in a lot of cultures, and in that sense, the church is pretty consistent in that it’s not a good idea for either. Now the current cultural situation where the women have become like men in that exploratory phase, I’m not sure we’re better off. And I wonder about the impact. And I wonder in some sense whether the experience has more impact on women than it does on men. And I’m basing that in some sense on more anecdotal experience. I listen to a lot of people when they come to confession.

If there’s anytime that people are irrational, it is when sex is involved. So to speak against contraceptives knowing our poor brains are hardwired for a lack of rationality at that very moment it is most needed—isn’t that playing with gasoline?

Yes, in some sense. I realize that this is very counter-cultural what I’m saying. But we Catholics and preachers and teachers, we do our own tradition a disservice by not speaking more about sexuality from the pulpit or in the classroom in a way that begins to help shape young peoples minds and consciences and the decisions they make. The fact that we don’t, it creates this vacuum, where the young begin to form habits that will not serve them well.

That’s one paradigm. The other paradigm to me would be that Catholics are looking at this problem is a way that runs counter to brain circuitry.

One thing I would say about the sexuality focus, some people would say that we are obsessed with it. From another point of view, we think the culture is obsessed with it.

Well, the two are not mutually exclusive.

We didn’t pick this issue. We have a lot of other issues that people don’t agree with us about and that we are pretty vocal about. But people only get upset with us when we talk about sex.

I would wish the Catholic Church would come in with the same level of passion and concern about issues like the destruction of the safety net.

But we have been fairly vocal about it. For example, the bishops in California, we published a letter on the budget. The media just ignored it.

That’s fair. Now what did you think of the budget?

Well, we raised a lot of different issues, and one of them is the safety net and mutual sacrifice, and how California is getting into some very tough times. We all have to make sacrifices, not just the poor. And we also actually try to address the issue of taxation, hopefully in an articulate way. And again, the media just ignored that letter. And then Obama comes out with this contraception thing, and all of a sudden now, this is sex, this is what these guys care about. But we don’t care about it, you do!

That’s fair, that’s fair. But let me ask you this: What about Catholic voters in November? Are they supposed to choose a candidate who supports the church’s idea of religious freedom on this issue, but not your position to help the poor, since that candidate will likely be ready and willing to destroy the Social Security system and give greater tax relief to the rich?

Folks are going to have a tough time making that decision, and I’m not going to say who they should vote for, because we don’t even know who the candidates will be; we know who one of them will be. But I think that from a preacher or teacher point of view, I don’t think my job is to tell somebody what candidate that they should [vote] for, my job is to try to illuminate the issues and try to help people understand the issues.

Shouldn’t poverty trump contraception in importance to the Catholic church?

Human dignity trumps. It’s got to be a package.