The Truth About Love and Sexuality
It is said that Saint Paul VI was so heartbroken by the outpouring of dissent to Humanae Vitae, he couldn’t bear to write another encyclical in the final decade of his pontificate. Certainly, one can feel the pope’s anguish in this homily, given just months before he died – already seeing many of his worst predictions about the consequences of the embrace of artificial contraception coming true.
“[Humanae vitae] was inspired by the immutable teaching of the Bible and the Gospel, which confirms the norms of the natural law and the irrepressible dictates of conscience regarding respect for life and its transmission by fathers and mothers who practice a responsible parenthood. The document has acquired new and urgent relevance in view of the wounds now being inflicted by civil laws on the holiness of the indissoluble marriage bond and the sacredness of human life even in the maternal womb. In face of saddening defections in the Church and society, We, like Peter, feel compelled to go to Him as the only source of salvation and cry out to Him: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” — Saint Paul VI, Homily on June 29, 1978 (available here in French, Italian and Spanish)
Yet even still, bishops, priests, and lay Catholics persist en masse in ridiculing and ignoring his warnings. In the face of the failures of so many pastors, and the apparent futility of his encyclical, Paul VI could only cry out with St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”
Since our foundation, Human Life International has committed itself to emphasizing efforts to teach the truth about contraception. This approach is based upon the belief that the contraceptive mentality is the root cause of many of the greatest evils of our age: the abortion holocaust, the explosion of divorce, the epidemic of fatherless children, the legalization of same-sex “marriage,” the advent of brutally enforced population control programs, and more.
To many, this claim is still nothing short of absurd. The apparent “benefits” of contraception seem to them so obvious, and its connection to the above-mentioned evils so tenuous that they casually dismiss that prophetic encyclical as the backwards and repressive musings of an uninformed celibate who couldn’t possibly understand the “real” struggles and needs of ordinary, married men and women.
Despite the enormous amount of empirical data that has piled up in support of each of Paul VI’s predictions, it is astonishing how widespread this dissent to Humanae Vitae, despite fulfillment of predictions on what would happen if contraception became normalized. In other respects, however, it is perfectly understandable, if only we understand the truth about human nature, in particular the wounds that affect our nature after the Fall.
The Blindness of Concupiscence
Before the Fall, human beings possessed what theologians call the gift of “integrity.” What that means is that man’s lower passions completely obeyed his reason. Things changed after Adam’s sin, however, at which point humans became subject to concupiscence. That means that our lower passions are no longer subject to reason. We all experience this reality on a daily basis, when we desire things that we know to be harmful for us and contrary to God’s law.
Concupiscence means that we are constantly subjected to the restlessness of our own hearts, and the illusions of our passions. Sometimes, this restlessness results in obviously destructive and evil behaviors – the abuse of drugs or pornography, for instance, or violence towards other human beings. In the pursuit of happiness, we seize upon and relentlessly pursue the very things that make us most unhappy and that harm others.
But such is our brokenness, that we often misuse even things that are morally good in themselves. For instance, a man might be so anxious to support his family by working hard (a very good thing!), that he becomes a workaholic. If he is not rooted in God and His truths, his anxiety about the future, or need for affirmation from others, instead leads him to abuse a good thing (work), possibly without his even consciously realizing it.
Often, the temptation to pervert something good by misusing it is so subtle and convincing that it takes long experience, spiritual discernment, and the constant practice of self-denial. This is one reason we Catholics are so fortunate: in the pursuit of holiness, we have the wisdom of the Scriptures, 2,000 years of Church teaching, the Sacraments, and the support of a church community committed to God’s law.
There is, perhaps, no area of human life in which we are more subject to illusion, and more in need of divine wisdom, than sexuality. The Church teaches that sex is a great good – and so it is! (“The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.” – Catechism, ¶2362) And yet, so virulent are our sexual passions, that we can easily fall prey to destructive illusions about sex. One need only take the briefest glance at the world around us to see the immeasurable pain and suffering caused by the many lies related to sex: so many broken hearts, broken bodies, and lost and hurting souls!
The Illusion of Contraception
To many people alive 50 years ago, contraception seemed the near-miraculous “solution” to much of the chaos caused by sex. One can easily understand why. For the first time in history, human beings had invented reliable, affordable, and seemingly harmless and non-invasive methods of birth control. For the first time in history married couples could (it seemed) enjoy the pleasures and intimacy of sexual intercourse, without having to worry about having babies they felt they weren’t prepared for or couldn’t afford. Contraception (it was said) – especially the pill – would thus strengthen marriages. Many even claimed contraception would eliminate the need for abortion and would reduce poverty.
To most people – including Saint Paul VI’s own advisors at the Vatican – it seemed obvious what the Holy Father should do: he should get with the times and follow all the other Christian churches and teach that artificial contraception was morally permissible for married couples. It turned out the Church’s past condemnations of contraception were short-sighted. Technology had changed everything.
So, why didn’t Paul VI follow this seeming obvious path? Why did he alienate and anger so many Catholics and non-Catholics by issuing words that would provoke dissent to Humanae Vitae?
A Jesuit priest, Fr. John Ford, recounts a startling and revealing conversation he had with Paul VI, while the two were discussing the arguments put forward by the papal commission on birth control. Fr. Ford recounts: “[W]hen I said to Pope Paul, ‘Are you ready to say that Casti Connubii can be changed?’ Paul came alive and spoke with vehemence: ‘No!’ he said. He reacted exactly as though I was calling him a traitor to his Catholic belief.” Casti Connubii, of course, was the encyclical by Pope Pius XI, in which the pope had clearly reaffirmed Catholic teaching on Christian marriage and against artificial contraception.
In other words, for all the enormous pressure being placed on Paul VI to change Church teaching, he knew that teaching was there for a reason. Even if human reason could find all manner of arguments to prove that contraception was a blessing for humanity, the Divine Reason that inspires Church teaching saw further and deeper into the heart of things. For the papal advisors on the birth control commission, the promise of consequence-free sex was too powerful a temptation; it appeared to them to be an unmitigated good. As the Supreme Pontiff, however, it was Paul VI’s duty to see with the eyes of Divine Reason, and to do that, all he had to do was to look to the wisdom of the Church and the Scriptures.
And that is what he did. And what he saw chilled him to the bone: humanity, he saw, was obliviously careening straight towards a cliff. And as a Shepherd, he did what he had to do and proclaimed the truth – not because he viewed sex as evil, but because he understood its profound goodness and power.
“Lord, You have the words of eternal life!”
The wisdom of the Church’s teaching on contraception, in Humanae Vitae and elsewhere, is not always obvious, even to faithful Catholics determined to follow that teaching. During extended times of abstinence, or when an unplanned pregnancy occurs, the temptation to question that teaching may arise.
At such times, the answer is to remember the words of St. Peter, quoted by Paul VI. Because of His teaching on the Eucharist, many of Christ’s disciples were abandoning Him. They did not understand how they could eat His flesh. Neither, for that matter, did St. Peter. But when Christ asked him if he, too, would abandon Him, St. Peter’s heart welled forth with that great cry of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”
We may not always understand. But as Pope St. John Paul II assured us, God never commands the impossible: “As the Tradition of the Church has constantly taught, God does not command the impossible, but every commandment also entails a gift of grace which helps human freedom to fulfill it.” “Yet,” he added, in order to follow the Church’s teachings on sexuality, “constant prayer, frequent recourse to the sacraments and the exercise of conjugal chastity are needed.” (John Paul II, Address to Participants in a Study Meeting on Responsible Procreation, June 5, 1987)
The world does not understand. It may never understand. But that must never stop us from proclaiming and living the truth. Divine wisdom sees deeper and further than we do. The world has been scarred by the lies of the sexual revolution, and men and women are starving for the truth about love and sexuality.
“Today,” said Pope St. John Paul II, “more than yesterday, man is again beginning to feel the need for truth and right reason in his daily experience. Always be ready to say, without ambiguity, the truth about the good and evil regarding man and the family.”