I recently received a letter from a young Catholic husband and father in which he observed: “Peers of mine who are converts or reverts have specifically cited teachings like ‘Humanae Vitae,’ ‘Familiaris Consortio,’ and ‘Veritatis Splendor’ as beacons that set the church apart from the world and other faiths.” What he suggests might seem counterintuitive, but it is borne out by experience: The church does not grow by going along with the world, but by confidently proclaiming the truth about the human person revealed by Christ.
This proclamation is now at odds with dominant sexual mores, which see no real differences between men and women other than a few incidental anatomical factors. And so the sexual revolution, coupled with new types of contraceptives and their widespread use, was supposed to liberate women so that they could enjoy sexual pleasure without the inconvenient consequence just as freely and frequently as men. But, as the #metoo movement is demonstrating, somehow it didn’t work out that way. What went wrong? Let’s begin with looking at how the human body is designed.
Every system of the body is complete unto itself: The digestive system processes nourishment for the body and then stores and discharges the waste, the nervous system sends signals between the brain and the rest of the body, the cardiovascular system pumps blood throughout the body that is replenished with oxygen from the pulmonary system, and so forth. But there is one system of the body that is not complete unto itself: the reproductive system. For that system to achieve its end it needs the complementarity of the reproductive system of the opposite sex. This points to the sacramental meaning of the human body: God created us for communion, not isolation, and this truth is borne out by our understanding of the meaning of human sexuality.
We must, then, always maintain a deep respect for the body, and honor it for the purposes for which God designed it. And here is where I believe we get to the root of the problem of so much moral and cultural corruption and confusion that Blessed Paul VI foresaw in “Humanae Vitae.” What I’m referring to here is the time-honored teaching of the church regarding the properly ordered relationship between the two ends of marriage, the primary end being the procreation and education of offspring, and the secondary end being the unity and mutual good of the spouses. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et spes,” did not directly speak of primary and secondary ends, although one could infer it from its treatment of the nature and purposes of marriage: It uses the term “ordained for” only with reference to the procreation and education of children, which it calls the spouses’ “ultimate crown” (n. 48). However, it did also emphasize the end of the unity and mutual good of the spouses. So how are we to understand this?
Beginning again with the design of our bodies, we can say that objectively, at the level of our being, the procreation and education of children is primary. However, on the subjective level – that is, psychologically – it doesn’t quite work that way, for when someone sees a member of the opposite sex to whom that person feels attracted, that person feels a spontaneous urge to unite with the other person because of the attractiveness seen in the other person, without first giving thought to children or, for that matter, any other consequences of such a relationship. That is to say, the impulse that one feels in this attraction is an impulse toward the other person and being united to that person him/herself, and not initially an impulse toward having children with that person, which is something that comes later as a consequence of their union.
The primary end of marriage forces a couple to live beyond themselves, to live for another. They cannot ignore the demands that childrearing places on them (someone has to get up in the middle of the night when the baby is crying!). If they were to live primarily for their own mutual good, they could easily deceive themselves into believing that they are thinking of their spouse when actually they are just satisfying their own desire.
This is a difficult truth for some – probably many – people to accept. But that is my point: It is precisely the hard truths of our faith, those which the culture ignores and even despises, that have the greatest power to move people to conversion and be transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed, only this has the power to bring about true conversion, in which one encounters the person of Jesus Christ, comes to know and love him, and thereby attain eternal salvation. This is what that young father who recently wrote me discovered, and many other young people in our church as well.
The worst thing we could do, if we truly want to fulfill our purpose as Catholics, is to downplay the demanding parts of discipleship, those teachings where we encounter the most resistance and even hostility in the culture. How could we do such a thing, if we are convinced that this is true, and for the true good of all people? Of course, we need to find attractive ways to present these truths; we must begin with that respectful encounter to which Pope Francis is continually urging us. We must cherish and affirm the other for his or her unique humanity. But we must encounter others with the hope of being able to share this treasure with them in a way that will help them to become truly happy by being aware of God’s presence and living in a way that pleases him.
While we give thanks to God during this 50th anniversary year of “Humanae Vitae” for the prophetic vision of Blessed Pope Paul VI, let us remember that there are many people waiting to know the peace, freedom and authentic happiness of this truth of our human nature, and that we are the ones whom God calls to proclaim it to them in word and, most especially, in deed.
Full story at Catholic San Francisco.