Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Not everyone can receive this saying"

I suppose the day after the birth of a child is a good time to post about issues related to the Church's teaching on marital sexuality, but not (and hopefully never) from the perspective of moral superiority or crowing. Having a child is a moment of great humility and awe that truly makes me wonder if I can manage the tremendous commitment and responsibilities that come with being a husband and a father. This kind of humility was described to me once by a non-religious friend in this way: after he and his wife had their first child he told me that before he held her, he looked at her and thought, "I can never care for her, love her, provide for her." After a few minutes after holding her he said he became pretty certain that nobody else could do as good a job. True confidence is born from humility.

I find it lamentable that so many people disagree with the conclusion arrived by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae without reading it and seriously engaging the points that he raises, especially in light of the fact that the predictions he made about the societal effects of making the means of birth control cheap and widely available are true, which causes many (including myself) to revere Humanae Vitae as truly prophetic. By prophetic I do mean accurately predicting the future like some kind of divine fortune-teller, but prophetically giving witness, like Jeremiah, to the natural and inevitable consequences of certain courses of action, thus requiring the prophet to tell people things they do not want to hear, often provoking virulent and even violent responses. In writing about the consequences that would naturally follow making methods of contraception cheap and widely available, Paul VI wrote that such a change
could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection (underlining emphasis mine)

Pope Paul VI and then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla

On this basis alone dismissing the conclusions arrived at with no consideration for the solid foundation on which the Church's teaching in this regard is based strikes me as truly operating on the basis of preconceptions that either arise from or give rise to an ideology. Pope John Paul II courageously called the ideology to which this perfunctory and absolute rejection is part "the culture of death." It is certainly the culture of self first, the rejection of the kind of self-emptying love that constitutes the very heart of the one vocation to follow Christ, which is what makes marriage a truly Christian vocation. It always bears noting that what JPII proposed as the remedy to the pervasive "culture of death" was not a the "culture of life," but the "culture of love," which implies life and much more. Indeed, for Pope Paul VI to go along with the spirit of the age in this regard would've been an abject dereliction of his duty not only to preserve the depositum fidei, or even to transmit it, but to apply the Gospel, which, given the fallen-ness of the world in which we live, is always deeply and profoundly counter-cultural, to the issues of the day.

Nonetheless, the fact that Humanae Vitae is a very progressive statement about the positive nature of conjugal love gets lost in the political and ideological clamor that any mention of it inevitably enjoins because, as truth tends to do, it convicts consciences. After all, the letter begins with these very pastoral words:
The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.

The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings
Section 12 of Humanae Vitae is particularly relevant to what I want to convey:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

The reason is that the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life—and this as a result of laws written into the actual nature of man and of woman. And if each of these essential qualities, the unitive and the procreative, is preserved, the use of marriage fully retains its sense of true mutual love and its ordination to the supreme responsibility of parenthood to which man is called. We believe that our contemporaries are particularly capable of seeing that this teaching is in harmony with human reason
NFL Hall of Fame linebacker and coach, Mike Singletary (who is not Catholic) with his wife Kim, 7 children, a few in-laws and a grandchild

One thing that often goes missing, even among those who support the Church's teaching and endeavor to live by it, is that the various methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP) (which no longer includes the so-called rythym method and has not for decades) are not just natural means of contraception. When we teach it in this way the inevitable and understandable response is, "What's the difference between using, say, a barrier method (a diaphragm and condom, being sterilized) and a so-called natural method?" Well, if we are merely proposing NFP as an acceptable method of contraception, it is a distinction without a moral difference. Of course, not only are Christian couples not required to have every child they can possibly have, but that they have a moral responsibility to limit the number of children they bring into the world to the number they can materially support and spiritually and emotionally nurture. It is exactly in charting this course that the Church gives us sound moral guidance, which also leaves room for the wild unpredictability that real loves requires.

Living the Gospel in any aspect is always a matter of the heart, it always encompasses our intentionality, thus making it important not just to do what is right and good, but to do good with the intention of doing good, as a response in freedom. This means recognizing and embracing the inherent sacrifice this normally entails. The self-emptying sacrifices to which marriage calls us are no less and, in fact, are often greater than those that arise from priestly or religious vocations. In this realm the sacrifice takes two forms: parenting and seeking to master our sexual desires by working to develop the virtue of chastity and working towards to real intimacy in marriage, which is more spiritual than physical; enjoying having sex together doesn't seem to pose too great a problem for most couples, but praying together daily certainly seems to present issues. It seems that prayer, not sex, is the final frontier of intimacy!

It is easy to miss what Jesus teaches about marriage in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel According to St. Matthew because He is also discussing celibacy and continence, becoming a "eunuch" for the kingdom of heaven. After His teaching on the impermissibility of divorce, Jesus' disciples say, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." To which the Lord responds, talking directly about marriage, not celibacy and the continence to which it gives rise- "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given" (verses 3-12- ESV). Of course, marriage as a vocation arises from Christ's teaching. It is a vocation because it is a sacrament. Not all vocations are sacraments, but all sacraments draw us more deeply into the divine life of God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, enabling us to heed to the one vocation to follow Christ.

5 comments:

  1. Excellent Scott!

    May I add; there are those who seem to find little difference between NFP methods and artificial contraception, however, I think there is one very important distinction.

    NFP recognizes the natural patterns of the human body, and the practice of NFP is used for times to avoid conception through a non-act. A short time of continence is a non-act, therefore it cannot be "contra-ceptive" because a non act is passive, not active. By comparison, contraceptives such as a condom, diaphragm or the birth control pill are active agents that seek to prevent the union of sperm and egg, or seek to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg (a.k.a new human life).

    That doesn't mean that NFP is easy. On the contrary, it involves time of sacrifice, and I think there needs to be a lot of "de-programming" of our sexual attitudes about sexual intercourse any-time anywhere for any reason. If our sexuality is meant to be a gift for an other, then it is caught up to a higher order than a mere biological function, eventhough these biological factors can play a strong part in this whole issue.

    We (society) really needs to adopt the paradigm of sexuality as a gift given fully to another. Right now, the paradigm is self-fulfillment as its primary end. It's extremely difficult to change the world's paradigm when all of the media around us is so highly sexualized.

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  2. Congratulations to you and Holly, Scott! Blessings on all your family.

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  3. Thanks, Sharon. I've missed you recently.

    Dan, I agree with what you write and very much appreciate the insight you offer. I must say that I have no hope that society will even begin to move in that direction. I look to the church to give clear witness to the truth, which is but a way of making the God who is love because He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit concrete and real.

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  4. Part of the problem is that this issue is not a simple case of catechetical teaching. This is part of the "advanced" course, if you will. Most people, in my opinion, act in good faith and simply don't see the compelling reason why contraception is not consonant with a responsible married couple. It has to do with a sacramental view of our sexuality (as you well know), and that takes time to develop in a person's formation. Most people simply aren't at that level. I don't mean that as a put-down, but if you try to explain a person how the Eucharist is nuptial and how marriage is Eucharistic, they're gonna look at you like you're speaking Greek.

    he Church needs an effective way to reach married couples on this subject.

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  5. I agree, Dan, wholeheartedly, plus the joyful witness of those who seek not merely to live the truth, which implies "in love," but who incarnate it! Married permanent deacons seem to me ideal people to convey all of this. As with many things, the timidity and even dissension of the clergy does not help matters.

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