Friday, May 16, 2014

Heavy Sledding

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.


  1. Most people believe in God. In our culture that is primarily a Christian God. Morality is not necessarily directly related to an institutional religion to which they may be affiliated. Children learn at an early age that priests are not morally sound individuals and this knowledge is reinforced by the teachings of their parents and the related experiences of their peers. They pick role models for personal morality from among those people prominent and proven trustworthy, with whom they interact frequently in their activities of daily living. These individuals are rarely big advocates of Humanae Vitae, since as you correctly state, very few people are.

    The mother that takes her daughter for an abortion, so that her childhood is not abruptly and cruelly brought to a premature end, is seen in child culture as heroic, allowing her daughter to continue on the path of childhood with them. They are comforted knowing if they were ever to be in the same situation they would be similarly supported. Likewise the parents who facilitate contraception and STD screening and treatment for their children who for whatever reason have become sexually active. Children also can appreciate from an early age that if there are many more children, their own opportunities for development and even well being may decrease. You think children don't notice and think about these things? They do. A lot.

    I doubt the church and it's nefarious, all male, deeply self loathing, pseudo celibate. closeted Gay clerical establishment ever had much influence over how people really live their lives and the time when there was a pretense that they did is over. Everyone is better for it.

  2. Slocum Moe makes an important point: many people believe they can save themselves, and that they can ignore God with impunity. Tragically they will discover that this was never possible and will not be possible.

  3. Most young people of my acquaintance spend time, a substantial amount, cohabitating before marriage. Many have children during this period. Many stay together in a committed relationship but never marry.

    Many older married people, following the death of their life partner form a new primary domestic relationship. Many decide not to marry again. They find this arrangement more suitable for themselves, their family and social situation.

    The one group that can be counted on to remarry are those previously divorced. There seems to be a need for remarriage to finally bring closure to their previously fractured domesticity. They also are more likely to feel slighted by not being allowed a church sanctioned union. You're missing a market opportunity there.

    Marriage is becoming rare and increasingly irrelevant. Ain't that a hoot? Most people seem to think being open to life is more about Carpe Diem than Humanae Vitae.

    My partner and I are still a steady date after 37 years. As long as we don't look in the mirror and take our non steroidal anti inflammatory meds, sometimes it's hard to remember we aren't 17 anymore. How cool is that? Adolescence with grandchildren.

  4. There is another point that is often overlooked when dealing with the naturalness of the conjugal act which is ordered to life within the marital structure that can nourish all this new life's dimensions. On top of the duty to remain open to life the christian is faced with the command of God to Adam and Eve to increase and multiply. We are not working merely within the parameters of nature as God intended but also with a mandate which God commanded.

  5. How could "marital rape" exist if there is a marital debt? Consent is given when the two take their vows. I haven't read that whole document, but I don't think the concept of "marital rape" follows from the quoted portion.

    1. I've been trying to figure out a way to answer this civilly for some time, with little luck. Do you really think that the marital vows gives the husband the right to force his wife into sex at all times, no matter what is happening in their lives? What if she's just given birth? What if she's sick and in pain? What if... well, all sorts of things - surely there is no end to times when it is more than reasonable, but entirely just and proper and needful for a wife to say 'not now, dear' to her husband. And if he physically forces her into the act, yes, that is marital rape - what else could it possibly be?
      Yes, there is such thing as the marital debt, and it is seriously wrong for either of a couple to routinely and selfishly deny the other the gift of sexual intimacy. But how on earth can that translate into the kind of sexual 'open all day convenience store' that you seem to envision marriage to be? Sorry to be rude, but I'm fairly repulsed by your seeming assertion that there can be no such thing as 'marital rape.'

  6. It seems that he does have a right at all times and shouldn't have to force anything or barter or beg. "Routinely" isn't a caveat included in the scripture, I don't think. I don't think it would be rape because it isn't something he isn't morally entitled to. It could be unkind or unwise, but that still isn't rape.

    1. Well, all I can say is that I find that an entirely repulsive picture of marriage, and I am absolutely opposed to that. And that's the last word from me on that subject. God bless you!

  7. But that's Christian marriage with the husband as the head and the wife as the submissive helpmate.

    1. I know you're not looking to get into an argument, but I must say I'm troubled that a priest is repulsed by Christian, hierarchical marriage.

  8. I mean, why not say that the wife is wrong to refuse since she should be submissive in all things? Then the issue would never come up. And since men love their wives it's unlikely that they would try to engage in it immediately after a birth or if she's ill.

  9. So IOW, a wife could say, "not tonight, honey," but only as a request to her husband's authority. "Please not tonight, my lord, but I'll do what you ask" kind of a thing, as per 1 Peter 3, instead of erasing or reversing legitimate authority, which is what your conceptualization does.

  10. I do realize I'm talking to myself now, but I keep thinking about this. I read Humanae Vitae and I do not see how you could arrive at that conclusion from this work. I think the principle underlying the views presented in your post is only destructive of marriage and is in fact a big reason the institution is in the shape it's in. Speaking for myself, to me, it makes marriage seem revolting because the ultimate effect is to turn men into pathetic beggars and slaves.


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