Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one's partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife.
If they further reflect, they must also recognize that an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life. Hence to use this divine gift while depriving it, even if only partially, of its meaning and purpose, is equally repugnant to the nature of man and of woman, and is consequently in opposition to the plan of God and His holy will.
But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.
Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source. "Human life is sacred—all men must recognize that fact," Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. "From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God."
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 13
Reflection – So we’re back to ‘weekends with Humanae Vitae’ once again. We are into the heavy sledding part of the encyclical, the part where the Pope in his own conscience and conviction as shepherd of God’s people had to reiterate teachings and truths that proved to be most unwelcome in the modern world and were the occasion of outright rebellion and widespread rejection of the Catholic moral order by millions of its members.
Nonetheless, it is what it is, and I believe firmly that it is true. So let’s look at what it is. Essentially, it is that the sexual act has a meaning which both flows from the very physical structures of the human body but which we who are believers recognize as coming from the creative will of God.
So ways of expressing the sexual act that do not conform to its divine-human meaning are unnatural in the real sense of the word in that they do not do what they are designed to do, and hence morally wrong.
A word about the phrase ‘morally wrong’. It seems to me that this needs to be explained these days, since people seem to have an almost visceral reaction against the word ‘morality’. Moral wrong is distinguished from physical wrong. A physical wrong is something that simply causes some privation or suffering—hunger, sickness, an accident that injures or kills a person, a tornado. A moral wrong is a way of acting (a ‘mores’) by a free agent who has choice among various mores, and chooses one that contradicts the good.
We cannot get away from moralism, in the sense that no matter what our world view is, we live in a world where human beings make free choices, and at least some of those choices are towards ends that are simply not good. The most determined moral relativist is nevertheless going to say that, for example, Adam Lanza should not have killed those school children. But that is precisely all that we mean by ‘moral wrong’. He did it, and he should not have done it.
So here, the sexual act is meant to express mutual committed love. This is why marital rape is deeply wrong—there is no expression of love in this, but usage and violence. The sexual act is also meant to welcome the gift of life. So acts taken to sterilize the act, whether by making the woman temporarily sterile or by placing physical barriers between the man and woman in this intimate act, are also deeply wrong.
It is this whole business that the human person does not ‘have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.’ This is deeply confronting for us.
It is hard to see how anyone who believes in God can actually reject the truth of that sentence. Our bodies do belong to the Lord, and the creation of life is, indeed, his gift. So how can we think we can just do whatever we please in these sexual matters? It doesn’t make any logical sense, does it, not from a Christian world view, anyhow?
Human life is from God, and made for God. Our bodies are from the Lord and for the Lord. In a sense, that which I as a consecrated celibate communicate by being faithful to my promise of chastity, a married couple live out by being faithful to their marital fecundity and the integrity of their sexuality in marriage. We are not a closed circle, beginning and ending with ourselves. The whole of human life is open at the top, so to speak, open to God and from God and intimately bound up with God.
And because we are embodied creatures, this openness to God is intimately bound up with the choices we make to dispose our bodies according to the revealed truth of God, in a spirit of deep humility, discipleship, reverence, and dedication to Christ. And that is the heavy sledding, not just of Humanae Vitae, but of life as a Christian, period.