Tough Questions, Timeless Moral Truths

Father Brian Mullady on same-sex marriage, contraception, the death penalty, and other pressing moral issues

Father Brian Mullady is a priest of the Western Province of the Dominican Order. Ordained in 1972, he has served as a parish priest, high school teacher, seminary professor, retreat master, and mission preacher. He has been featured on EWTN, and is a prolific author who has for many years penned a question-and-answer column for Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He is not only well-grounded in the teachings of the Catholic Church, but also has a special talent for articulating them to the faithful. He recent spoke with Jim Graves for CWR, offering the Catholic perspective on some key moral issues currently being debated in American society. 

Father Brian Mullady, OPCWR: The states of Washington and Maryland recently allowed same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, becoming the seventh and eighth states in the union to do so. Initiatives are underway to legalize same-sex marriage in additional states. Critics of the Catholic Church’s position against same-sex marriage argue that it wants to deny equal rights to people who identify themselves as homosexual. How do you respond?

Father Brian Mullady: There are no rights to things that are contrary to the natural law, and same-sex marriage is contrary to the natural law. Homosexual activity is a sin. It’s not the same as racial equality.

In lieu of marriage, some support civil unions for same-sex couples, basically granting same-sex couples the same legal standing as married couples without calling it marriage. Is that an acceptable alternative for Catholics?

Father Mullady: The state may choose to recognize something as marriage in regards to the civil effects of marriage, such as property sharing, or common insurance or retirement, but that would be silly to do so. It isn’t the same as marriage. The civil effects should be connected to the true nature of marriage for the law to be correct and to encourage proper marriage in society.

Some states, like California, not only allow same-sex couples to adopt children but even encourage it. Is this something Catholics can accept?

Father Mullady: To have a child adopted by a couple in a same-sex relationship is also contrary to the natural law and the true nature of marriage. It’s not a healthy way for a child to first observe marriage.

The Catholic bishops have been outspoken in their opposition to the recent Health and Human Services mandate that Catholic employers offer contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees in their health insurance policies. The mandate and the surrounding controversy have brought the issue of contraception into presidential politics. Why does the Church teach that artificial contraception is wrong?

Father Mullady: [Contraception] denies the procreative and educative union of marriage, which is one of the basic human goods of marriage. It reduces marriage to a common egotism for the sake of pleasure, it decries the responsibilities of human love, and it reduces the child to an object of use. “No child but a wanted child” means that a child must fit into my life, as opposed to the view that a couple accepts children as a gift from the hands of a loving Creator.

We recently saw the 50th anniversary of the introduction of “The Pill.” What effects do you believe widespread contraception has had on our culture?

Father Mullady: In his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI predicted that if contraception was accepted it would lead to widespread divorce, the destruction of the family, the compromising of the institution of marriage, abortion on demand, and the devaluing of human life. People laughed at him. But these predictions have come true.

We’re living with a society that has completely destroyed the institution of marriage. But marriage is central to the proper development of society—it is the primary social cell. It’s no wonder that so many people in our society are addicted to drugs and alcohol and sexual perversions.

Many more people are choosing to live together rather than get married.  And, for those who do marry, they think that if they have problems, they can always get out of it.

Critics of the Church allege that the vast majority of Catholics disregard Church teaching on contraception. Do you believe this is true? 

Father Mullady: First of all, you have to define “Catholic.” Do you mean someone who practices Catholicism and goes to Mass on Sunday, or do you mean someone who was baptized but does not practice the Faith? I’ll bet among practicing Catholics most do not use birth control.

Also, there has been an effective propaganda campaign waged on behalf of contraception by governments in the Western world and by dissenting Catholics in universities and seminaries. This includes priests who teach at these places, but themselves dissent from Church teaching. They tell their people that the Church teaching on contraception isn’t important, and that in conscience you can dissent. They suggest that one’s conscience is infallible and whatever it decides must be true. 

I don’t believe that many priests or laypeople can provide a real explanation of why the Church is opposed to contraception. They accept that the culture demands it, and that in order to fit in, we must not oppose it. They have no idea why it’s wrong, except perhaps that the pope says so. 

I enjoy the work of a Catholic psychiatrist, Conrad Baars (1919-1981). He was convinced that contraception was not only morally evil, but that it caused emotional illness or neurosis. If he’s right, it can offer an explanation as to why there are so many dysfunctional families in our society who engage in neurotic behaviors. The root of much of it is our society’s contraceptive mentality.

Critics say the Church’s opposition to contraception is “anti-woman.” How would you respond?

Father Mullady: Actually, the Church is “pro-woman.” The Pill is extremely destructive to a woman’s health, hence there are many warnings placed on it. 

But contraception is not specifically a male or female issue. Some people characterize it as such because the woman has to carry the child. Hostility can develop among some women toward their unborn children; Simone de Beauvoir, companion to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, used to say, “The child is a predator on the mother.”

But the Church’s perspective is that the child is a gift from God. It’s not anti-woman to encourage women to have children and, of course, for fathers to be involved. The Pill, in fact, has allowed men to completely absent themselves from any responsibility for their sexual practices. 

The Church is not anti-woman in any sense. It is pro-life.

Polls indicate that more Americans are describing themselves as pro-life, but often with exceptions: abortion should be permitted in the instances of pregnancy due to rape or incest, or because having the child would be a threat to the mother’s life, for example. The Church, conversely, has always been 100 percent pro-life. Why not allow for special circumstances?

Father Mullady: Because children have rights, too. An abortion is a violation of the child’s right to life. It’s not the child’s fault that the mother was raped or his parents committed incest. We can’t punish the child, who is innocent, for the sins of his parents.

In cases where the mother’s life is threatened, the medical community still can’t take a human life. It doesn’t matter whose life it is. To kill one innocent human being for the sake of saving another smacks of utilitarianism. It’s a calculation in regards to whose life is more important. The medical community can’t do that, and we can’t do that. Both lives are equally important and we have to do the best we can to save both.  

The Internet has helped make pornography widespread in our society. Why is it wrong for people—most often, men—to view pornography? Isn’t it a victimless crime?

Father Mullady: No, because people who view pornography are committing a sin. They’re committing an action against the order of justice. They’re introducing into their lives desires and tendencies which are contrary to reason, and that makes it much easier for them to succumb to actions which are contrary to reason. 

There is, however, a difference between an artistic representation of the human body and a pornographic one. Michelangelo’s David, for example, emphasizes the nobility of man and calls forth our respect. A pornographic image merely seeks to induce habits or desires which look upon the person as an object of use. It tends to destroy the idea of personhood.  People who view pornography try to get a sexual high without any kind of a relationship whatsoever with another person. 

A question about the death penalty. In 2003, a young college student living in North Dakota, Dru Sjodin, was kidnapped and murdered by Alfonso Rodriguez, or so it was determined by the court that tried him. Rodriguez was a registered sex offender who had just completed a 23-year prison term for multiple rapes. When they finally found Sjodin’s body, she had been beaten, raped, stabbed, had her hands tied behind her back and her neck slashed and had a plastic bag tied over her head. There was ample evidence to prove Rodriguez was the killer, such as having the victim’s blood inside his car. Rodriguez was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Perhaps due to the heinous nature of the crime, he was the first person sentenced to die in North Dakota in more than 100 years. Assuming Rodriguez received a fair trial and the evidence was there to prove his guilt, isn’t it just that he die for his crime? Also, won’t it prevent him from raping and murdering another woman after he serves another prison term?

Father Mullady: According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Fifth Commandment forbids the unjust taking of innocent human life. “Innocent” is the important word there. When a person commits a capital crime, the state has the right to invoke the death penalty.

Pope John Paul II was very much against the death penalty, partially because he experienced genocide in Poland. But even in the Gospel of Life he falls short of saying that it is evil.

There are three things that have to be determined for something to be good according to the Catholic faith: the object, the intention, and the circumstances. The object of the death penalty is good. The intention has to be not for personal vengeance, but to save society and defend the right to life of its citizens. But the circumstances have to be good, too. There is a debate over whether life imprisonment would correspond to the proper circumstances.  That’s what the Catechism invokes when it says if bloodless means can affirm the right to innocent life and prevent further harm, then they should be used. That’s why it says that the death penalty should be used in rare cases, if ever. 

But there is plenty of room for debate about this. In fact, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter to both Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory in which he said that there was no right of any kind for Catholics to dissent on the teachings of the Church regarding abortion and euthanasia because they were objectively evil and involved the death of innocent human life. But when it came to a particular war, or a particular use of the death penalty, people could disagree with positions even of the Holy See and still in conscience be good Catholics and receive Holy Communion.

There was this “seamless garment” theory that if you were against abortion, you also had to be against the death penalty. This is nonsense. In one case you’re dealing with an innocent life and in the other you’re dealing with someone guilty of a heinous crime. Now whether or not a society invokes the death penalty is something for its citizens to decide.

Many Catholic texts written before Vatican II, such as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, not only seem to accept the death penalty, but encourage it. Prominent theologians and saints supported it. Popes, such as Pope St. Pius V, when acting as temporal rulers of the Papal States, imposed the death penalty on criminals. From 1929-1969 capital punishment was legal in Vatican City for the attempted assassination of the pope. What’s changed in Catholic thinking?

Father Mullady: I believe it was because of the mass murders that occurred in Europe during World War II. They made human life seem cheap.  People who experienced that, like John Paul II, wanted to be certain that if the death penalty was ever used, it would be used properly.

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About Jim Graves 223 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.