Well now, this is a first! I haven’t shared the pen on my blog (except with my husband) until now. I don’t plan to make guest blogs a regular feature on my site, but this works for me because Stephen Sparrow, a good friend from Christchurch, New Zealand, wrote on a topic that I just haven’t gotten to: HUMANAE VITAE.
So thank you, Stephen, for stepping up to the plate and talking about the Theology of the Body and the profound and consistent teaching of the Church on this important topic. Sorry I didn’t get your post up last week, when we celebrated the anniversary of the encyclical’s release.
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© Stephen Sparrow – August 18th 2008
Recently I heard a priest deliver a homily couched around the Theology of the Body – a relatively new term concerning a subject as old as humanity itself – sex. After Mass I congratulated the priest both for the manner in which he dealt with the subject and for his courage in tackling it. These days the infrequency with which contraception is mentioned from the pulpit would make you think that apart from one forty year old encyclical (Humanae Vitae), the official Catholic objection to contraception has no relevance in our “modern” post Christian culture. Well, one of the advantages of growing older is that from the “safety” of the sideline it gets easier to criticize the players, especially when they continually ignore the coach while inventing their own game plan.
Anyway, the sermon I heard put me in mind of the definition of evil proposed by St Thomas Aquinas. “All evil exists in mistaking or misusing the means for the end”, and I cannot think of a single example of things gone morally wrong where this template of Aquinas’s doesn’t fit exactly, and nowhere is this more obvious than when it is applied to sex separated from responsibility. Well the Sex In The City crowd have got it all wrong – they’ve been conned; and beneath their apparently blissful pursuit of sterile erotica lies the seabed of boredom, bitterness and chronic depression. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians talks of our Gospel being veiled from those obsessed with the things of this world, and certainly many of these people resemble modern day St Augustines – searching for God in all the wrong places before being “struck” by the light.
These days you would have to be blind not to notice the current widespread belief that enduring heterosexual relationships are a thing of the past—a belief that is very damaging to the institution of the family. It was this scenario that was foreseen by Pope Paul VI when he wrote and published Humanae Vitae back in 1968, and it should be kept in mind that the prohibition against contraception was only one part of a comprehensive document dealing with how human beings should relate to each other. Like any sin, sexual hanky panky is a fact of life. The Old Testament is not afraid to tell us about Tamar from Genesis, Lot’s daughters, David and Bathsheba, and Absalom; and without these stories, the Bible would lose much of its unique essence. But even today, if each of us in our own cases were somehow able to rewrite our ancestry and expunge from it all sexual misbehaviour, I doubt that any of us would even exist. I must, however, break a lance on behalf of Lot’s daughters, whose behaviour may be overlooked on the grounds that what they desired most of all was children—illustrating that in biblical times, mothers loved and valued their children, and children in turn honoured their parents—resulting in that happy state of affairs known as the stable family unit, without which any civilization must come unstuck.
Well, Western Civilization is on a sure path to coming unstuck. Just look at your daily newspaper: Page after page detailing family breakdown, abuse of the vulnerable, quick fix abortion, STIs, advertisements for prostitution services and—on the horizon—euthanasia and human cloning. But from the days of the pre-Christian Roman Empire, nothing much has changed. Starting with Adam’s fall from grace, we’ve always disliked authority; and as a result, obedience has become a dirty word and we tend to look at Christianity the way we inspect an A La Carte menu. “Yes please, I’ll have some of that being nice to strangers as well as the ban on adultery, stealing and murder, but I’ll pass on the contraception thing – I can easily handle that without a bunch of interfering celibates calling the shots.” Um, pardon me, but wasn’t Jesus a celibate, unless of course you defer to The Da Vinci Code for your “faith”?
One of my favourite excerpts from the Gospel of Luke concerns the cost of discipleship. Jesus illustrates it by talking of the king who marching to war sees his adversary coming toward him with vastly superior forces. “Sensibly” he sues for peace, and that’s what we do when we try to go it alone. We conclude an agreement with the enemy, instead of drawing on the inexhaustible reserves of God’s grace, because we’ve somehow perceived that the cost of victory is totally beyond our means.
That in a nutshell is a form of despair—it’s giving up. Now nobody has said following Christ would be easy, it definitely is not; but serious risk attaches itself to those who, through pride or indifference, try to manage without God’s help. Of course, saints like The Little Flower were well aware of how to open the door to God’s grace; humility and obedience were the keys, which means that nothing worthwhile comes without some effort on our part. So returning to the question of sex and contraception, let us never forget what St. Paul told the Church members of Corinth, ‘that their bodies were Temples of The Holy Spirit to be used only for God’s glory’, meaning that God is exalted in the exchange and gift of the self in marriage; whereas sexual immorality—using others only for pleasure or gain, whether inside or outside marriage—was a sin against the body given to man by God.
So we find St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas and Paul VI all rowing in the same boat and proclaiming that for those who realize what is at stake, taking the soft option and making peace with the enemy is a dangerous game. Yes, the society we have surrounded ourselves with now is exactly the fruit of cutting deals with the enemy, and things are almost certain to worsen before any improvement comes about. And however much we may dislike part of the message in Humanae Vitae, had Catholics been obedient to it instead of squabbling, many things might have been different. We may even have not had to endure being stroked by the wire brush of clerical sex abuse. What price laissez-faire on the sanctity of life front? Anyone?
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