Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

08 April 2014

Daring Conversation on the Delicate Condition

My friend Fr. Joseph Faulkner was a couple of years behind me at Saint Charles Seminary. The title of his blog, "Father Talks Too Fast," cleverly and self-effacingly points to the cadence of his homilies. Although fast talking was not among my recollections of him from seminary days, intelligence and wit certainly were.

His diocesan bishop, the Most Rev. James D. Conley of Lincoln, recently published a pastoral letter on contraception (available here). While people might not expect a Catholic cleric to speak about the topic in an encouraging and compassionate manner--if at all!--Bishop Conley does. He exhorts married couples to be open to life. Alongside fidelity, permanence, exclusivity, and totality of investment of self, openness to life is a constitutive dimension of the Sacrament of Matrimony. When any of these dimensions is absent and the offending spouses do not repent, marriages tend to fail, if they happen at all. Thanks to the chemical, mechanical, or otherwise intentional separation of babies from bonding, the sexual expression ideally reserved for sacramental marriage happens more easily outside of sacramental marriage. Even in a sacramental marriage, contraceptive sex is a reservation of self contrary to the covenant context that demands "all of me."

Father Faulkner has published (and I include here) the recent homily that develops his Ordinary's viewpoint. He provides insightful background to the current landscape, detailing not only the widespread abandonment of the established teaching among non-Catholic denominations, but also the provenance of Pope Paul VI's watershed encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the Holy Father courageously reaffirmed Church teaching against the suggestion of most of his chosen advisors. Father also discusses the effects of contraception on marriages--on the erosion of trust and sacrifice and every other aspect of Christian Love.

Various preachers around the country have begun once again to promote an integrated vision and practice of marital love. Fear undoubtedly inhibits some preachers, but at this point we may wonder what more there is to lose by keeping silent.

Human respect is one of the last strongholds. No priest or deacon longs to hear the usual barrage:
"Where do celibates get off preaching about such things, when some of them can't keep themselves in check?"
"How do they know what it's like to try to raise children? Maybe they'd change their tune if they tried just for a day."
"They don't know all the situations that have led me/us to my/our decision. How dare they judge?"
There are other objections, too. I won't answer any of them here. It's enough for me to wonder how the Catholic Church could possibly maintain her comprehensive reverence for human life for so long, amid so many objections, if the Church herself weren't true and her teachings weren't true. I don't propose that thought as a solid, discussion-ending argument, but it ends the discussion for me. From there I can listen with an open mind and heart to good presentations such as Fr. Faulkner's, or from Dr. Janet Smith, or others.

I wonder aloud whether the contraceptive tendency betrays a lack of gratitude, if not latent disdain, for the gift of our own existence. In any case, fear lies at the root of directly-willed infertility; and "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 Jn 4:18).

By month's end, the Church will be canonizing Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. The latter was a fearless force behind Humanae Vitae. In the early 1980s, John Paul developed his "Theology of the Body" out of earlier reflections that had supported his predecessor's 1968 encyclical. An entire generation of priests and religious, the present blogger included, has claimed JPII as a chief inspiration behind their calling. Without having sired a child, Pope Wojtyła has given birth to thousands of vibrant Catholics. His successors continue, in their own ways, to breathe new life into the dry bones of this post-Christian century.

I have great respect for Catholics and other people of good will who "struggle" with the Church's teaching, if by "struggle" they mean "try to understand and live it, who occasionally or often fail, but repent and try again." As for those who do not "struggle" by the above definition--those who reject it or casually ignore it, or who might even be unaware of it--I desire their salvation and every other blessing I would desire for myself. Foremost among those blessings are knowledge and love for the truth. If I were a married man, or a permanently or provisionally unmarried man, I would also "struggle," by the above definition. I'd hope, however, that my wife and I, or prospective wife and I, would want to do everything possible to live according to the Church teaching.

In the upcoming Bishops' Synod on the Family in 2015, we can be assured that openness to life within the marital embrace will continue to be a matter for conversation. I do not know the exhaustive list of synodal topics, but I would venture to include the increased divorce rate, the decrease in children, the increase in artificial means of conception (as well as contraception), and the increasing legitimization of same-sex marriage. Like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, these issues are synoptic (i.e. they can be considered side by side and are "related" to each other).

Following Pope Francis' example, we begin always with the basic Gospel: Jesus Christ has saved us! In light of that message we then can talk about controversial matters. Catholic clergy can relate the motives and benefits of ongoing openness to life; joyful Catholic couples can share their struggles (trials and triumphs) in the practical realm. But it will require boldness, both in terms of the willingness to face objections and the willingness to field questions. Like the Greeks who gathered to hear Paul at the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17), people may want to hear more about this Good News, and as they accept it they slowly will attempt to live it. The Church's compassion (manifested most clearly in the Sacrament of Penance) can bolster those who find themselves unable and unwilling to walk this challenging way.

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