Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Humanae Vitae Expounded 6

Humanae Vitae and True Sexual Freedom — Part 6 of 6

By Christopher West
August 5, 2008

This column concludes my series of reflections on Pope Paul VI’s document Humanae Vitae, which we have been reviewing in light of its fortieth anniversary [[1] Part one, [2] Part two, [3] Part three, [4] Part four, [5] Part five]. In the last installment we examined the difference between rendering sex sterile with contraception and choosing to abstain from intercourse during the fertile time. If one can see the difference between telling a lie and remaining silent, one can tell the difference between contraception and periodic abstinence.

One of the main objections to Humanae Vitae is that following its teaching (that is, practicing abstinence when avoiding pregnancy) impedes couples from expressing their love for one another. But of what “love” are we speaking: authentic conjugal love that images God, or its perennial counterfeit — lust?

God is the one who united marital love and procreation. Therefore, since God cannot contradict himself, as Vatican II taught, a “true contradiction cannot exist between the divine laws pertaining to the transmission of life and those pertaining to the fostering of authentic conjugal love” (Gaudium et Spes 51). It may well be difficult to follow the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but it could never be a contradiction of love.

Following the Church’s teaching is difficult because of the internal battle we all experience between love and lust. Lust impels us, and impels us very powerfully, towards sexual intercourse. But if sexual intimacy results from nothing more than lust, it’s not love. On the contrary, it’s a negation of love. Love is being ready to sacrifice oneself entirely for the good of the beloved, and for the good of the offspring that might result. Lust seeks the pleasure and sensation of the sexual act, but without the sincere gift of oneself.

If one is unprepared to receive a child, the only responsible choice is to abstain from that act that leads to a child. And as any married couple knows, abstaining from sex can be a profound act of love. In fact, there are many occasions in married life when a couple might want to engage in sexual intercourse, but have a serious reason to abstain. Maybe one of the spouses is sick. Maybe it’s after childbirth. Maybe they’re at the in-laws and there are thin walls. If a couple can’t abstain in these situations, their love is actually called into question. It’s the same thing with needing to avoid a pregnancy. If the couple cannot abstain, their love is called into question.

What purpose does contraception really serve anyway? This might sound odd at first, but let it sink in. Contraception was not invented to prevent pregnancy. We already had a 100% safe, 100% reliable way of doing that — abstinence. In the final analysis, contraception serves one purpose: to spare us the difficulty we experience when confronted with the choice of abstinence. When all the smoke is cleared, contraception was invented because of our lack of self-control; in other words, contraception was invented to serve the indulgence of lust.

Why do we spay or neuter our dogs and cats? Why don’t we just ask them to abstain? If we spay and neuter ourselves with contraception, we’re reducing the “great mystery” of the one flesh union to the level of Fido and Fidette in heat. What distinguished us from the animals in the first place? Freedom! God gave us freedom as the capacity to love. Contraception negates this freedom. It says, “I can’t abstain.” Hence, contracepted intercourse not only attacks the procreative meaning of sex, as John Paul II observed, “it also ceases to be an act of love” (TOB 123:6).

If you can’t say no to sex, what does your “yes” mean? Only the person who is free with the freedom for which Christ set us free (see Gal 5:1) is capable of authentic love. Authentic love, as the Catechism observes, requires “an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339).

This is what is at stake in the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae: man’s true peace and happiness. I’m convinced that the teaching of Humanae Vitae — which is still being rejected in the name of sexual “liberation” — will one day be vindicated as the only path to authentic sexual freedom: the freedom to love.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Humanae Vitae Expounded 5

Contraception v. Natural Family Planning — Part 5 of 6

By Christopher West
August 4, 2008

For several columns now we’ve been reflecting on the Church’s teaching on contraception in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s letter Humanae Vitae [[1] Part one, [2] Part two, [3] Part three, [4] Part four]. We’ve observed that sexual intercourse is meant to incarnate the marriage commitment itself, and that an integral part of that commitment is openness to children.

So, does fidelity to the wedding vows imply that couples are to leave the number of children they have entirely to “chance”? No. In calling couples to a responsible love, the Church calls them also to a responsible parenthood.

Pope Paul VI stated clearly that those are considered “to exercise responsible parenthood who prudently and generously decide to have a large family, or who, for serious reasons and with due respect to the moral law, choose to have no more children for the time being or even for an indeterminate period” (HV 10). Notice that large families should result from prudent reflection, not “chance.” Notice too that couples must have “serious reasons” to avoid pregnancy and must respect the moral law.

Assuming a couple have a serious reason to avoid a child (this could be financial, physical, psychological, etc.), what could they do that would not violate the consummate expression of their sacrament? In other words, what could they do to avoid conceiving a child that would not render them unfaithful to their wedding vows? You’re doing it right now (I presume). They could abstain from sex. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from sex when there’s a good reason to do so. The Church has always recognized that the only method of “birth control” that respects the language of divine love is “self-control.”

A further question arises: Would a couple be doing anything to falsify their sexual union if they embraced during a time of natural infertility? Take, for example, a couple past childbearing years. They know their union will not result in a child. Are they violating their vows if they engage in intercourse with this knowledge? Are they contracepting? No. Contraception, by definition, is the choice to engage in an act of intercourse, but then do something else to render it sterile. This can be done by using various devices, hormones, surgical procedures, and the age-old method of withdrawal.

Couples who use natural family planning (NFP) when they have a just reason to avoid pregnancy never render their sexual acts sterile; they never contracept. They track their fertility, abstain when they are fertile and, if they so desire, embrace when they are naturally infertile. Readers unfamiliar with modern NFP methods should note that they are 98-99% effective at avoiding pregnancy when used properly. Furthermore, any woman, regardless of the regularity of her cycles, can use NFP successfully. This is not your grandmother’s “rhythm method.”

To some people this seems like splitting hairs. “What’s the big difference,” they ask, “between rendering the union sterile yourself and just waiting until it’s naturally infertile? The end result is the same: both couples avoid children.” To which I respond, what’s the big difference between killing Grandma and just waiting until she dies naturally? End result’s the same thing: dead Grandma. Yes, but one is a serious sin called murder, and the other is an act of God.

If a person can tell the difference between euthanasia and natural death, he can tell the difference between contraception and NFP. It’s the same difference. I’m not equating contraception and murder. That’s not the analogy. Rather, Grandma’s natural death and a woman’s natural period of infertility are both acts of God. But in killing Grandma or in rendering sex sterile, we take the powers of life into our own hands — just like the deceiver originally tempted us to do — and make ourselves like God (see Gn 3:5).

This is why Pope John Paul II concludes that contraception “is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God” (address Oct. 10, 1983).

If you have resisted the Church’s teaching on contraception, maybe it’s time to give it some more thought.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Humanae Vitae Expounded 4

Sex Speaks: True and False Prophets — Part 4 of 6

By Christopher West
August 1, 2008

July 25th marks the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s famous re-affirmation of the Church’s constant teaching on contraception. In commemoration, we continue our reflections on this critical issue [[1] Part one, [2] Part two, [3] Part three].

I ended my last column by asking: How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their wedding vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever increasing commitment to them? Then I stated, if you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

This is what is at stake: fidelity to the wedding vows; fidelity to love. At the altar, the priest or deacon asks the couple: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” The bride and groom each say “yes.”
In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with the “language of their bodies” whenever they become one flesh. Sexual intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. Or, at least, it’s meant to be.

Everything the Church teaches about sex begins to make sense when viewed through this lens. The Church’s teaching is not a prudish list of prohibitions. It’s a call to embrace our own “greatness,” our own God-given dignity. It’s a call to live the love we so ardently desire. It’s a call to embrace divine love and share it with one’s spouse bodily.

John Paul II goes so far as to describe the body and sexual union as “prophetic.” A prophet is someone who speaks for God, who proclaims his mystery of love. This is what the marital embrace is meant to proclaim. But, as the Pope adds, we must be careful to distinguish true and false prophets (see TOB 106:4). If we can speak the truth with our bodies, we can also speak lies.

As a sacrament, marriage not only signifies God’s life and love, it really participates in God’s life and love. However, for sacraments to convey God’s life and love, the physical sign must accurately signify the spiritual reality. For example, through the physical sign of cleansing with water, baptism truly brings about a spiritual cleansing from sin. But if you were to baptize someone with mud or tar, no spiritual cleansing would take place because the physical sign is now one of making dirty. This would actually be a counter-sign or an “anti-sacrament.”

All of married life is meant to be a sign of God’s life and love. But nowhere do spouses signify this more profoundly than when they become “one flesh.” Here, like no other moment in married life, spouses are called to participate in God’s life and love. But this will only happen if their sexual union accurately signifies God’s love. Therefore, as John Paul II concludes, we can speak of moral good and evil in the sexual relationship based on whether the couple gives to their union “the character of a truthful sign” (TOB 37:6).

Insert contraception into the language of the body and (knowingly or unknowingly) the couple engages in a counter-sign of God’s mystery, a kind of “anti-sacrament.” Rather than proclaiming, “God is life-giving love,” the language of contracepted intercourse says, “God is not life-giving love.” In this way spouses (knowingly or unknowingly) become “false prophets.” They blaspheme. Their bodies still proclaim theology, but not Christian theology; not a theology of the God who reveals himself as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit. Contracepted sex, whether we realize this or not, attacks our creation in the image of the Trinity at its roots. From this perspective we can see that contraception is actually a sly betrayal of the deepest truth of our humanity.

The language of the body has “clear-cut meanings” all of which are “programmed,” John Paul II observes, in the vows. For example, to “the question: ‘Are you ready to accept children lovingly from God …?’ the man and the woman answer, ‘Yes’” (TOB 105:6, 106:3). If spouses say “yes” at the altar, but then render their union sterile, wouldn’t they be lying with their bodies? Wouldn’t they be speaking against their vows?

Why, then, does the Church accept the practice of natural family planning? We’ll see in the next column.