Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the encyclical by soon-to-be-saint Paul VI, Humane Vitae. This brief document addressed the Church’s constant teaching regarding human life and the teaching that contraception is not a morally acceptable method of family planning. The entire document is worth reading (https://bit.ly/1KSrQG2), but I call special attention to paragraph 17 here:
“Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action 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. Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife. Consequently, unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed. These limits are expressly imposed because of the reverence due to the whole human organism and its natural functions, in the light of the principles We stated earlier, and in accordance with a correct understanding of the “principle of totality” enunciated by Our predecessor Pope Pius XII.”
In the era of #MeToo and countless examples of criminal misconduct, of political parties making contraception the centerpiece of their platforms, and a general lack of respect and awe for the gift of human sexuality, we should be able to see the prophetic nature of Paul VI’s words. But it is too easy in our society to write off what the Church teaches because we so often begin with phrases such as “The Church is against…” or “The Church prohibits…” The dumbed-down bottom line cannot capture the full depth and beauty of the Church’s teaching on any number of important topics! The Catholic Church is very much for marriage, for human life, for respect for the body, for the dignity of every person regardless of gender, race, class, or any other category! Sometimes the moral teachings we hear from the Church challenge us – and if we accept a simplified bottom line, we are likely to reject those teachings.
But if we recognize that they are intended to help us flourish and live as God truly intends, in the freedom and peace of God’s sons and daughters, then our hearts should be filled with a desire to understand those challenging teachings more profoundly.
I want to encourage this parish community then, not to settle for a reductionist version of the teachings of the Church. If some element of the moral law is a puzzler, we ought to examine it more carefully and ask the questions burning in our hearts. We will find the teachings of the Church to be a source a great freedom if we genuinely engage them with open hearts and minds. I encourage you to take advantage of the many resources available. Our parish has a subscription to formed.org, a fantastic online library of talks, videos, and books that can help you engage those vital faith questions. You can set up your own account by visiting https://st-pius.formed.org. I also encourage you to join our monthly Lifelong Faith Formation gatherings which will begin in September. These gatherings will provide us with the opportunity to come together as a parish family after Mass to continue breaking open God’s word and the beauty of our Catholic faith. You can sign up for these sessions at https://www.st-pius.org/lff-monthly/. Our faith is a treasure; its true value can only be understood by constant prayerful reflection, study, and action. So let us not be quick to reject teachings we find hard, but rather enter into an honest study of them and so rise to the challenge, not just of a teaching, but the challenge Christ Himself offers when he invites us to follow as His disciples.