Thursday, June 5, 2014

B..b..but - It's Hard! Surely That Can't Be Right!

Our words would not be an adequate expression of the thought and solicitude of the Church, Mother and Teacher of all peoples, if, after having recalled men to the observance and respect of the divine law regarding matrimony, they did not also support mankind in the honest regulation of birth amid the difficult conditions which today afflict families and peoples. 

The Church, in fact, cannot act differently toward men than did the Redeemer. She knows their weaknesses, she has compassion on the multitude, she welcomes sinners. But at the same time she cannot do otherwise than teach the law. For it is in fact the law of human life restored to its native truth and guided by the Spirit of God. (24) Observing the Divine Law.

The teaching of the Church regarding the proper regulation of birth is a promulgation of the law of God Himself. And yet there is no doubt that to many it will appear not merely difficult but even impossible to observe. Now it is true that like all good things which are outstanding for their nobility and for the benefits which they confer on men, so this law demands from individual men and women, from families and from human society, a resolute purpose and great endurance. 

Indeed it cannot be observed unless God comes to their help with the grace by which the goodwill of men is sustained and strengthened. But to those who consider this matter diligently it will indeed be evident that this endurance enhances man's dignity and confers benefits on human society.
Humanae Vitae 19-20

Reflection – Well, it’s time to get back to our reading through of HV, even though it’s not quite the weekend. I’m in poustinia tomorrow (prayer and fasting day, for you non-MH types), so no blog.

We move here into a new section of the encyclical. The Pope has laid out the case for the Church’s teaching about the use of artificial contraception, that it is a violation of God’s law and hence the doctrine is not simply a human artifact that can be discarded when we see fit. I won’t go into all of that again – click on the Humanae Vitae label at the bottom of the post and read the whole thing again, if you’re murky on what the Pope said.

All of that was the strictly doctrinal part of the document: this is the truth, we cannot change it, here’s why. Now we move towards the pastoral part of the document, where the Pope grapples with the fact that this teaching is, so to speak, a hard pill to swallow for many. And so the Church needs to support married couples as they strive to live this doctrine.

It is worth noting here that the pastoral theology of the Church is not a matter of ‘well, now this is a really hard teaching, so let’s never talk about this teaching, and let’s just let everyone go their own way with it without making any effort to explain, explore, teach, present what the Church teaches.’ That is not ‘pastoral’. It is not pastoral to say, going full Jack Nicholson, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’

It is not pastoral to make vague noises about freedom of conscience, ignoring what the Church actually teaches about that subject, and then trail off in a cloud of vagueness. It is noteworthy that in our modern Church scene, where this non-pastoral approach has been more or less the norm, people have freely exercised their consciences… and largely marched in monolithic lockstep according to the prevailing mores and norms of secular culture. It is not freedom we are seeing in the modern approach to sexual morality and fertility, but conformity and brain washing, often exerted with considerable social pressure. Just talk to any teenager or young adult striving to keep their virginity until they are married, or any married couple who have more than the socially approved two or three children.

The proper pastoral approach of the Church is to say, as Pope Paul VI says here, ‘yes, we know this is incredibly hard. It may seem to you to be impossible. You will need God’s help. But it will be incredibly good for you in the long run if you resolutely take on this challenge. It will enhance your dignity, your greatness, and will contribute to the building of the kingdom of God. Don’t give up.’

People accuse the Church of patronizing its lay members in its sexual teachings. I think it is the secular world that patronizes people, by assuming that self-control is impossible, that we are merely a mass of unruly desires that must be appeased, that the easiest path is always the best path, and to invite people to do something that is inherently difficult is unthinkable, since (I guess) we’re all a bunch of weak, selfish babies.

The Church calls people to the Cross, as Christ calls us to the Cross. This is not patronizing, but is actually a great compliment. There is an assumption that within every human person is a capacity for heroism, for greatness, for the long endurance of heavy burdens and for sacrificial love.

And so the pastoral care of the Church, if it is to be genuinely pastoring, shepherding according to the heart of the Good Shepherd, must be to call the ‘sheep’ (which is not just the laity, you know – I’m pretty sheepish!) to the true pasture of life, which is Golgotha, where all the spiritual grace of mercy, love, strength flow in streams of blood and water from the side of Christ, and where he hands over the Spirit to believers.

Without this fundamental perspective, none of what the Church teaches about the moral life makes any sense; with this perspective, it is luminously clear and, while it remains anything but easy, we can at least begin to see that it is life-giving, liberating, and beautiful. It is not self-indulgence and self-determination that brings life and freedom to the human person, but union with Christ in selfless love.

And the fundamental pastoral care of the Church is to call people ceaselessly to the union and the love, no matter how high the  price may be for them, because it there that our true and only happiness lies.