One of the Catholic Church’s most criticized teachings is the one about artificial birth control. The main reason for this is that many people do not know the Church’s teachings on sexuality; heck, they do not know her teachings on anything. Even many Catholics do not know them, which is a disgrace. I would add that in many cases there is not only misunderstanding and ignorance but also an open rejection of these teachings simply because they are hard to live out. It is erroneous to assume that their difficulty renders them false. I would go as far as to claim that it is precisely this difficulty which proves them right, since experience has taught us that easy solutions are usually the wrong solutions.
The fact that we are in the midst of a nation-wide controversy involving contraceptives —despite the efforts of politicians and others to turn it into a non-issue— makes this a prime time to discuss the effects that artificial birth control has had not only on women, but also on men and on society in general. It is also an ideal time to share what we as Catholics believe about contraception. It is our duty to share the truth with all those who surround us. If society is being subtly and slowly destroyed by the contraceptive mentality, it is to a great extent our fault for failing to proclaim the truth. Many have blamed our priests and bishops for not raising their voices until now. However responsible they may be, we, laymen and laywomen, are equally responsible. We cannot —we should not— blame the hierarchy for our own ignorance. We must accept our own responsibility in this crisis. And we must also work to end it.
As I said, the main reason people do not accept Holy Mother Church’s teachings on contraception is because they do not know them. It is appalling to see how many Catholics are completely unaware of what the Magisterium teaches in this respect. I have decided, therefore, to bring to light this old series of posts where I do my best (though I have come to realize that that is usually not enough) to explain the most important Church document on this topic: Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae: On the artificial regulation of birth. My target audience with these posts is Catholics who are interested in really understanding why the Church makes such a big deal of artificial contraceptives. If you are not Catholic, feel free to read and, more importantly, to think, but remember that I am writing from a purely Catholic perspective and take many Catholic beliefs as given. I promise I’ll write on the subject from a secular perspective in the future. So, without further ado, I give you: “Humanae Vitae Explained.”
Paul VI opens his encyclical with a preamble which strikes most of us as odd. In it, he talks about the many changes that have taken place in our civilization. He classifies these changes in three main categories: changes of a social and economic nature, changes of a philosophical or ideological nature, and changes of the technological order. This might seem like a strange place to begin a discussion on contraception, for it seems to be completely unrelated to the subject at hand. However, the Pope is stressing that all these changes have altered our understanding of ourselves and, therefore, have an impact on our understanding of sexuality. For Paul VI —and for the Catholic tradition in general— sexuality is something more than mere biology. It is something that involves the entire human person as a spiritual, physical, social, and cultural being. Hence, the subject of sexuality and procreation cannot be studied in isolation; it must be seen as part of a broader understanding of man. We will return to this preamble later on.
This wider view, which I argue is the traditionally Catholic view, is what will allow us to place sexuality in its proper place, to order it, if you will. As the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, “Love includes sex, but sex does not include love” (Fulton J. Sheen, Three to Get Married). That is, sex is only one aspect of human love and, if it is to be understood properly, it must always be seen in relation to love. Love is the goal of which sexuality is a means. In particular, it is to be understood as a specific manifestation of marital love. For this reason, Paul VI considers it appropriate first to clarify the meaning of marriage and the conjugal act within it. These meanings have been corrupted and altered and no rational discussion on contraceptives can take place if they are not made clear and understandable to all. Confusion and ambiguity are characteristic of a weak reason while accurate definitions are needed to think correctly. Good definitions ought always to be our starting point.
The essence of married love, declares Paul VI, is a gift of self. This brings with it many implications. First of all, the object of this gift of self is a human being who possesses not only a body, but also a soul. This person freely gives of himself to another human being. Love is not simply a physical or biological thing; it cannot be reduced to a chemical reaction in the brain. It is also a spiritual reality. It is not an emotion or an instinct (however important and influential these may be), but an act of the will. This makes sense since a gift must be given freely, otherwise it is not a gift. Therefore, since it is dependent on the will, married love becomes capable of permanence and it is enabled to survive even the difficulties of married life. The second characteristic we can deduce is that this love must be total. A gift must be given away completely; you cannot give away parts of the gift, nor can you take it back once you have given it away. Hence, husband and wife ought to share everything they have but, more importantly, everything they are. Very closely tied to this second characteristic we have the third one: fidelity. A person can give herself completely to one person only. This is a limit imposed by our material nature, by our body itself. Lastly, it is a love that is fruitful. A natural consequence of married love is the bearing of children. That is the way in which it has been since man first roamed this earth. Love naturally tends to diffuse itself. As I said before, Paul VI teaches that sex is inseparable from married love; it is defined by it. In consequence, the nature of sex and its properties are determined by married love. How these properties manifest themselves in the conjugal act is what I will deal with in my next post.Tags » contraception, sexuality
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