Last week I posted on the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, looking at the aftermath and the effects on the individuals, families, the Church, and society as a whole. While not explaining the teachings per se, that post inferred from the predicted effects (which were seen as inevitable consequences should contraception be widely adopted, which was the case) that Humanae Vitae was clearly right.
One response (read it here) that I received took fundamental exception to both that conclusion and Humanae Vitae itself. This is a response to those comments.
I need to start by point out that what you oppose is not the Church’s teaching, plain and simple. Even more to the point, the reasoning that you attribute to the Catholic Church is not part of the Church’s thinking.
It is true that what you oppose is commonly attributed to the Church, yet it remains not so – perhaps it would be better labeled as common misperception.
Bear with me a moment, and I will try to offer some things up for you to consider, clarify what the Church does in fact, teach and why, and perhaps raise some questions for you to ponder. By necessity this will be the barest of overviews, so it is my sincere hope that you will find this intriguing enough to investigate further. Therefore, I will finish with a few resources for going deeper.
Foundations of Teaching
What the Church proposes for our belief in sexuality (of which the teachings on contraception are only a small, but important part) are precisely intended to bring us closer to the one who made us, to conform us more closely to Him, to enable us to understand and experience real joy.
In short, to teach us how to love.
On the other hand, what the world proposes for our belief about sexuality is entirely centered on ourselves – how does my partner make me feel, how am I most fulfilled, what will make my life better … this isn’t really authentic sexuality at all, but simply a shallow counterfeit, a caricature of what could be. It most definitely does not lead to genuine love … and the world is relentless.
Christ teaches us another way. In fact, His entire life teaches us that love is truly much more about sacrifice, self-donation, about losing our self, even losing our very lives … and as we know, that very disregard for ourselves is precisely the center in which we find who we really are, where God returns everything we could have been and far, far more.
The contrast could not be more fundamental.
Every parent knows this, of course, though not all see the gift. Admittedly, it’s hard to to truly appreciate our “school of love” while trudging down the hall in the wee hours with no sleep, a screaming baby or two in tow, and barf running down our clothes. Or perhaps when our tools or favorite book is lost or damaged, and not by our hands. Or yet again when when we receive some large medical bills even while we have bills – even the most basic ones – that remain unpaid.
Yet in each of these – and so many more, the list is nearly endless – we are presented with a chance to turn away from ourselves, and to turn toward others. Turn away from ourselves, and towards God. To learn how life is truly designed to be.
In fact, it is in just this sort of mutual self-donation, in marriage as a continual mutual gift of self, that we are truly gifted with love.
A Central Role
Where then, does our sexuality fit in?
“Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). These words of Christ sum up the meaning of life and the meaning of human sexuality. At its core, sexual morality is about expressing God’s love through our bodies. This is why Pope John Paul II can say that if we live according to the truth of our sexuality, we fulfill the very meaning of our being and existence.
Ponder that a moment, and see if it sounds repressive.
West goes on to say
Sex, then, is by no means a peripheral issue. In fact, Pope John Paul II says the call to “nuptial love” revealed through our sexuality is “the fundamental element of human existence in the world” … He even insists that we can’t understand Christianity if we don’t understand the truth and meaning of our sexuality.
Marriage as a Revelation About God
God is, in Himself, a family. The Father makes an eternal gift of himself to the Son, as does the Son to the Father. The love between them is is so profound that it is an entirely new person, the Holy Spirit … and this is the pattern for our families.
Again from West
This is what we embody as male and female. Sex is so beautiful, so wonderful, so glorious, that it’s meant to express God’s free, total, faithful, and fruitful love.
In our marriages we image the reality of God, in our marriage embrace we reaffirm our marriage vows. Not just in words, but in deed … sealing our mental and spiritual commitments with out physical bodies.
In that embrace, fully understanding where we are and what we do, we can express our total and complete gift of self to our spouse. We learn how to love.
I think that if you reflect on this a bit, perhaps you will begin to see why the Church teaches that separating the physical act from the possibility of life is, by definition, a non-starter. Shorn of meaning, our actions descend from their intended place, and we drift farther from our intended dignity.
Or to put it another way, the very possibility of life is so inexorably intertwined in the very meaning of marriage, that we will choose a certain poverty of existence to separate the marital embrace from that possibility.
Pleasure and Meaning
Though lacking this transcendant meaning, it is still safe to say that a really good meal is likewise enjoyable. Of course I’m not making relative comparisons here – I’m simply observing that eating a good meal does result in pleasure.
The pleasure itself is a great thing, certainly a gift from God … and most Christians thank God for the provisions of each meal beforehand.
Of course at least part of that thanksgiving comes from the simple fact that we need nutrition, and the meal will satisfy those needs (at least for the moment!). So in addition to being pleasurable, eating food has an intended purpose.
What then, do we say happens when somebody purposefully throws up after eating? Obviously it is a disorder … bullimia. A person who purposely separates the act of eating from the intended purpose of consuming food has a problem. It doesn’t matter that they get more and more pleasure from eating more and more food … what matters is that they regain balance, learn to connect the act of eating with its intended biological purpose.
Of course the pleasure itself was good, so far as it went. But it wasn’t the ultimate meaning. Besides, anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder (and here I speak from my own experience) will also tell you that the pleasure itself diminishes, that it takes on a hollow quality when separated from it’s natural place.
In Meaning Comes Fulfillment
Notice that I am not saying that each time a married couple has sex it must result in a pregnancy – that would be absurd. I am also not saying that couples that contracept either get no pleasure nor benefit in their relationship in any way. What I am saying is the fullest richness of married life will come when our sexual lives are lived as intended by the one who made us, who knows us better than we know ourselves … and that means being open to the possibility of life, allowing God to make the final decision.
That is why the Church forbids all contraception – both artificial and otherwise. It has always done so (not just 40 years ago … I discussed that in several places in the last post), and will always do so. All Humanae Vitae did was acknowledge that the Church did not have the authority to rule differently in this area – that it had to continue to proclaim what was always understood to be true.
Truth simply cannot be subject to a vote.
In fact, when asked years later to reflect on each of his encyclicals (teaching documents, Pope Paul VI is reported to have spent five or ten minutes for each encyclical excitedly recounting what was on his mind, what points he was trying to convey, what needs of the Church he was trying to address, and so forth.
Yet when he got to Humanae Vitae, he grew quiet and simply said “I did not betray the truth”.
Natural Family Planning
With regards to Natural Family Planning (here, here and elsewhere), the difference is clear – NFP simply is not contraception. That is, couples who use NFP are not separating the meaning of the sexual act from the act itself … rather, they are acknowledging that meaning and living it in their very lives. Choosing to refrain from sex at any particular time is just not the same thing as changing the sexual act itself … these are no more alike than skipping a meal is the same thing as gorging and barfing.
There are tons of benefits and practical aspects to NFP – and yes, there can certainly be some frustrations as well – but that is really a discussion for another day.
The Authority of the Church
So where does the Church fit into all this? Simple – the Catholic Church has always understood (see Matthew 16:18+ and more), and faithful Catholics acknowedge and appreciate, that the Church has the responsibility to represent Jesus here on earth, to proclaim the Good News till the end of time, to faithfully teach what is true and right (whether or not it is fashionable or easy to accept), to guide Christians in their journeys towards God.
This does not mean that members and leaders of the Church have not sinned and strayed far from the truth – this is a sad reality of our battle with sin – but it does mean that Catholics can trust the Church to be right on matters of faith and morals.
While it is true that many people who call themselves Catholic dissent from teachings of the Church, that does not make the teachings wrong. In fact, something that I heard a few years back has been a big help to me in this area.
Clearly for all of us there are times when it may be difficult to understand or accept particular teachings – after all, we are all still on our journeys towards God. A more profitable approach to teachings that don’t yet make sense is to first accept them as true, then pray for understanding. That understanding will inevitably follow, and this approach has a big added benefit – we learn to trust God, then are drawn closer to truth, and therefore to God Himself. This is a direct result of trusting God to do as he says … “seek and you will find”.
Faith and Science
Faith is never in opposition to honest science – it can’t be, as they both reveal aspects of truth, and truth can never in opposition to itself. Faith reveals aspects of spiritual realities, and science reveals aspects of the physical world. Not only can these go hand in hand, the truth is they must go hand in hand. It is when they don’t that the trouble begins.
Keep in mind that science can tell us how something works, or what is involved in making something happen. What it cannot tell us is why something happens, or whether we should take a particular action or not – that is, whether it is moral and just. That is the domain of faith.
The Church has always understood this to be true – that is why the father of modern chemistry is St. Albert the Great, why Catholic priests largely developed the scientific method, and much, much more. For that matter, the man who discovered genetics – Gregor Mendel – was a Catholic priest.
This is why the Church encourages the advancement of science, and reveres great scientific and engineering accomplishments … and will continue to oppose those that contravene spiritual realities. You might find it interesting to note that in Humanae Vitae itself Pope Paul VI contained an appeal to scientists to apply their skills and talents into this area, that we might benefit from the knowledge gained.
A Few Parting Thoughts
In your last comments you stated that “there are plenty of dogmatic church teachings that create a repressive attitude about sex and I think that this is one of them”. I would hope that if you reflect on what the Church actually teaches about sexuality (of which this is the very briefest of introductions) that you will see that far from being repressive, what the Church teaches enables us to understand and participate in the real meaning of sexuality, and in doing so to learn how to live truly free.
After all, what greater freedom can there be than to live as God intends us?
Places to Look for More
Early in his pontificate Pope John Paul II developed what came to be known as the “Theology of the Body” … a fantastic set of teachings that show how God reveals Himself through our physical bodies.
Christopher West has a very good apostolate dedicated to spreading these teachings in popular forms and language. Here are some select resources:
- The Good News About Sex and Marriage.
- Theology of the Body for Beginners.
- Theology of the Body Explained.
- Body Language, a periodic commentary on the intersection of faith, sex, and culture.
- Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. This is the real deal – all of the talks by Pope John Paul II.
- A six part series of columns commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Four have been released to date: Contraception and Cultural Chaos, Does Contraception Foster Love?, Contraception and the Language of the Body, Sex Speaks: True and False Prophets.
Christopher West also has a number of good talks on video and audio.