Life-giving Love and Humanae vitae

Ancient Israel had a problem: there were too many prophets. With so many competing voices, the Jewish people couldn’t tell a true prophet from a false prophet. They eventually found a solution, and they wrote that solution down in Deuteronomy 18:21-22. It’s very simple: wait a little while and see if the prophecies come true. If they don’t, the prophet does not speak words from God. If the prophecies do come true, then the prophet is from God, and we had better listen up and do what was said! This rule is intuitive and simple: everyone could follow it. Whether the people actually changed their lives and followed the prophet was a different issue, but at least they knew that the prophet was from God.

The spiritual gift of prophecy did not end in the Old Testament. Fifty years ago, on July 25, 1968, a document was released which closely followed the prophetic model: it reminded us that we must always follow God’s law. Then, it predicted what would happen if we didn’t:

  1. The way would “open wide” to marital infidelity.
  2. Because of human weakness, failing to follow this teaching in one way would make us accustomed to evil, and society’s moral standards would decrease.
  3. Men would forget the reverence due to women, and they would treat them as objects, not as humans with equal dignity in God’s eyes.
  4. Public authorities would use the evil practices which were condemned in the document to achieve their own goals.

That document was Humanae vitae, or in English: Of Human Life. The author was Blessed Pope Paul VI. He reminded us of the beauty of marriage, of how marriage is an image of God’s own love, of how marital love is a fully human kind of love, and of how, through the marital act, a man and a woman become, in cooperation with God, the creators a new human life. Because of the immense goodness of marriage and of the marital act, Blessed Paul VI also reminded us of God’s teaching that the use of artificial contraception is morally wrong, and that if we were to use it, those serious consequences I mentioned would be the result. People didn’t want to hear this, and so they didn’t listen. Sadly, every single one of Paul VI’s predictions came true:

  1. Marital infidelity is rampant in western society. We see alarming rates of adultery, divorce and remarriage without having the first marriage annulled, and epidemic-level misuse of the internet to find obscene images and videos. You get the idea.
  2. Moral standards haven’t just declined—they’ve nearly disappeared. Look at the recent scandals involving so-called leaders in sports, politics, and the media. Look at what passes for quality television and movies these days. Compare a movie from just 20 years ago and to a similarly rated movie now. We’ve changed, and not for the better.
  3. Our society has lost any sense of reverence due to women. Things weren’t perfect before, don’t get me wrong, but we at least tried to respect women.
  4. Public authorities have used society’s acceptance of contraception for their own ends. In China, it manifested in the brutal One Child policy. In our very own USA we’ve dealt with the HHS Mandate and public funding of organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Blessed Paul VI predicted that these things would happen. No one, not even Catholics, sadly, expected him to be right, but he was. Now, that we’ve seen his predictions, his prophecies, come true, we must look again at what Blessed Paul VI called us to do, and we must do it. Every time the Jewish people failed to follow God’s prophets, the results were terrible: they were conquered, enslaved, or worse. We may not be physically conquered or enslaved for not following God’s teaching on contraception, but we will certainly be conquered by evil and enslaved to sin. This is not where we want our society to go.

Brothers and sisters, today, 50 years after the release of Humanae vitae, we stand at a crossroads. Our culture is suffering. Our families are suffering. Something is wrong. But we are not helpless. We have the power to change this. We do not have to accept the status quo. We must not accept it. Change will take sacrifice. It will take all the courage and virtue we can muster. It will take prayer. It will take faith in God. I will be blunt here: it will take each of us here accepting Catholic teaching on contraception. That teaching is clear: “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after [marital relations], is specifically intended to prevent procreation” is wrong. (HV 14) Furthermore, the Church has repeatedly condemned “direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary.” (HV 14) This issue touches the very meaning of human life, and it is therefore incredibly important. It is sometimes difficult to tell people the truth, especially when it is about an issue that is so personal, but Jeremiah warns against misleading the flock in the first reading today, so I have a moral obligation to be absolutely clear. It is not simply a moral obligation, though. I am motivated out of love for all of you here and out of a desire to see every person here today go to Heaven, and so I must be absolutely clear about the truth on this issue. The use of any birth control pill, implant, mechanical device, or medical procedure that is designed to prevent conception or pregnancy is against Catholic teaching, against God’s teaching, and against what it means to be human. If I had any reservations at all, I would not be so adamant that we must rid ourselves of the evils of artificial contraception. We cannot do these things. Our eternal lives are at stake if we do.

We shouldn’t get the wrong idea from this teaching, though. The Church is not demanding that we have as many children as biologically possible, nor is she saying that we don’t care about women’s health. God calls us to use reason to govern our lives, including family size. This is possible without violating Catholic teaching! The Church doesn’t just leave us hanging! Many ways exist that don’t violate Catholic teaching which can help postpone or achieve pregnancy. Together, we call them Natural Family Planning.

You may have heard people—especially doctors, sadly, even Catholic doctors—claim that NFP does not work or joke about it. They are, at best, wrong; at worst, they are being dishonest. The old rhythm methods were ineffective, but medicine and science have developed. Modern NFP, used correctly, has been scientifically proven to be more effective than artificial contraception at postponing pregnancy. Artificial contraceptives, as they are commonly used, are between 82% and 98% effective. NFP, as commonly used is 89.4% to 99.5% effective.1 One of the NFP studies was done here in Wichita at St. Francis hospital! If that’s not enough of a reason to stop using artificial contraceptives, consider this: NFP—unlike “the pill”—has not been declared a Group I carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Some other Group I carcinogens are asbestos, arsenic, mustard gas, plutonium, and engine exhaust. NFP has never been linked to severe health conditions, such as those which can arise from implants. NFP can strengthen marriages, because it requires both spouses to work together. NFP can even save lives, because the regular observations involved can give an early warning for certain cancers that would not be seen otherwise. NFP is not just for postponing pregnancy though, it can also be used to achieve pregnancy! NFP, together with new medicals treatments consistent with Catholic teaching (NaPro), is more effective than IVF.2 NFP requires sacrifice. It’s not always easy, but it is a good thing. It works better; it’s more flexible; and, it’s better able to help women with health issues than artificial methods. Finally, NFP is more respectful of women and their inherent dignity. Most artificial birth control methods work by harming the normal functioning of a woman’s body, this increases the chances of health problems for women, such as depression, blood clots, stroke, several types of cancer, and many others.3 Additionally, NFP is a shared responsibility, and yes, challenge, between a husband and wife, while using artificial contraception is a one-sided burden that largely falls on women. If you want to learn more about NFP, there are classes across Wichita all the time!

Our bodies are gift from God. They are meant to be used in a certain way if we want to be happy. We can’t continue to separate marriage, sex, and babies. Whether we want to admit it or not, at the deepest levels of our humanity we know they belong together. We must do better, because we deserve better than artificial contraception. We deserve to be loved, not used. In Humanae vitae, our holy Church stood up to society and, again, said “no more” to people who desire to use others for their own pleasure. The Church will never stop trying to help us understand ourselves, and today she reminds us that we are not made for pleasure, but for true, life-giving love. Thankfully, when we do make mistakes, the Church is always there to help us pick ourselves up and to set us on the right path again by providing the Sacraments for us. In the Sacrament of Confession, God forgives our sins. He wants to forgive our sins, especially those that touch us so deeply and personally as the use of artificial contraception does. After we have received forgiveness of our sins and have become clean in that most intimate encounter of God’s mercy, God then invites us to share in the most excellent of all the Sacraments, that heaven-on-earth encounter with God’s love: the Eucharist. The Eucharist reminds us of God’s love for us and teaches us that God made us for greatness: he made us to receive his life-giving love, and to share that life-giving love with others. For those who already are following this Church teaching, thank you for being witness to God’s love and for being witnesses to God’s amazing plan for us. For those who are not following Church teaching, I invite you to simply try it out, and I want you to know that the Church will be here for here each and every step of the way.

Today’s Readings:
16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
50th Anniversary of Humanae vitae on Wednesday, July 25.
July 22, 2018
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalms 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

Reflection for the Seventh Friday of Ordinary Time / Year I

Today’s Readings: Sir 6:5-17; Ps 119:12, 16, 18, 27, 34, 35; Mark 10:1-12

The reading from Sirach today tells us to test our friends, and to not be too ready to trust them. It then tells us why: not all people who initially seem to be our friends actually are our friends. But when you find a true friend, we must cherish that friend. “No sum can balance his worth.” St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a short book called Spiritual Friendship. In the third part of the book, he outlines just how to do this: we test the trustworthiness of the potential friend slowly and by a progressive revelation of ourselves to him or her.

While this understanding of friendship is much more general than marriage, one of these cherished friendships should be at the heart of every marriage. “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure… A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy…” Spouses become a sturdy shelter under which a family can be built, and in which they can help one another grow. Spouses treasure each other with all that they have, with their treasury of love always growing. Spouses help each other get into heaven—saving the eternal lives of one another.

This bond of friendship is the bedrock upon which a marriage must be built. Mutual love for God and one another allows them to grow in these wonderful ways. The book of Sirach says that one “who fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be like himself.” By loving God and one another, they become more like God every moment that they are together.

In marriage, this friendship is sealed by God himself in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The man and woman publicly pledge to God and the world that they will stand by one another, and work for the salvation of themselves and their brand new family. They promise to be the best of friends. God joins them together, and nothing may separate them.