Saturday, February 8, 2014

Teaching the truth about marital love

As both of my readers know, I write a lot about marital sexuality, particularly in support of Church teaching as set forth in Humanae Vitae. In his very good book, Sex au Naturel: What It Is and Why It's Good For Your Marriage, Patrick Coffin observed concerning Humanae Vitae
Paul VI didn't deploy any arguments to speak of. In fact, he doesn't appear to have written it to persuade at all. Apart from setting out some basic principles, Paul VI simply reiterates the ancient teaching, albeit in language more in sync with the modern ear (18-19)
While I agree that it seems fairly clear that the Venerable Paul VI did not write what would be his last encyclical in an apologetic manner, he did address several arguments aimed at bringing about a change in Church teaching. To give one example, he addressed the "principle of totality" in paragraph three.

A recent study conducted by the German Bishops Conference revealed something utterly unsurprising, namely that the vast majority of German Catholics reject fundamental Church teaching on matters concerning human sexuality, not only the intrinsically disordered nature of artificial contraception, but the reasons for not engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, etc. Perhaps most telling is that the vast majority of those surveyed had never heard the term "natural law." I try to be careful not to make invalid inferences, but I can't help thinking that one of the major reasons for this state-of-affairs is the reluctance and even failure to teach clearly on these matters, laying out the teaching objectively and persuasively.

Laying out what the truth about human sexuality in light of Jesus Christ is exactly what Bl. Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (see Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body) did. In addition to John Paul II's comprehensive teaching, when I think of setting forward Church teaching on sexuality persuasively, I cannot help but point to the fifth chapter of Fr. Timothy Radcliffe's book What Is the Point of Being a Christian?, entitled "The Body Electric."

This brings me to a recent article written by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion for our diocesan newspaper, "Reconsidering the Catholic Church's teaching on birth control." Msgr. Mannion is a mentor and teacher of mine, a priest and theologian whom I admire greatly. In fact, without his initial encouragement and subsequent support I would likely never have pursued becoming a deacon. Hence, I was very happy to read his very down-to-earth "take" as to why it would be wise for many people, clergy and laity alike, to reconsider what, in many cases, is merely a reflexive reaction in rejecting Church teaching. I have but two minor critical thoughts concerning the article.

First, is that a more accurate title might be "Reconsidering the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception." When discussing Church teaching on this matter it is important to distinguish between birth control, which, at least as I see it, is an end, and contraception, which is but one means to achieving the desired end, one that the Church teaches is immoral, as opposed to other, morally acceptable means, such as the various methods of Natural Family Planning. My second critical observation is that, while I agree that those Catholics who continue to choose to use contraception should not be made to feel like second-class citizens in the Church, it seems that the greater danger is to treat those Catholics who choose to live in fidelity to what the Church teaches as such.

One reason I can be sanguine about Msgr Mannion's plea to treat married Catholics who choose to live in a manner at odds with Church teaching so leniently is because, as the German study demonstrates, their choice usually has to do with conscience formation. In other words, the greater responsibility is on those of us whose calling it is to teach. What seems clear to me in reading the findings of the German study, and other like studies, as well as my own pastoral experience, is that not many of the faithful have had their consciences well-formed by sound teaching. In fact, it is often the case that couples who use contraception have been told that that what they are doing is just fine, perhaps even good, at least for them. In the Letter of St. James we come across this warning: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly" (3:1). Before closing out that sentence, the sacred author notes, "for we all fall short in many respects" (3:2a). I take this to mean that, even for those who teach, repentance is possible.

Don't get me wrong, the answer is not beating people about the head and shoulders with a hardbound copy of Humanae Vitae. When we're not busy getting our "takes" on what Pope Francis says from the secular media, we might notice that what the Holy Father is trying to communicate, at least it seems to me, is that the Church's teaching on human sexuality is part of a greater whole, that is, it has a context. When we lose sight of the overarching context we come across as unhinged in the opposite direction than those who simply reject or ignore Church teaching.

An insight that I would love to have the time to follow-up on in detail is that, along with Populorum progresso and Evangelii nuntiandi, Humanae vitae constitutes the core, the heart, what I have termed a "triptych," of Venerable Pope Paul VI's unique papal magisterium, the largest part of which was implementing the Second Vatican Council.

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