Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Urbi et Orbi: Of Human Life

I recently received an e-mail that, among other things, posed the following query:
Admittedly, some of the more delicate faith questions I have posed to my friend [Code Name: JULIETT], who became Catholic a couple of years ago. Though, she and I are still a bit unclear on why birth control is wrong. I can see it from both sides I guess. Thoughts? Or, perhaps I should find another resource for this info.
What follows after this paragraph is my e-mailed response. I was in a foul mood when I set about writing this. I wasn't particularly eager to defend one of the Church's most oft-attacked positions—I would have preferred something cute, almost silly, like "Why do we call priests 'Father'?"—but as I wrote I found my mind & my fingers guided by so much that I had learned in just the last five years, how much I had come to appreciate the beauty & coherence of Catholic social teaching. I'm pretty pleased with what I produced on the spur of the moment, if I do say so myself. (Herein we treat only the morality of contraception, not any of the physical mechanics & deleterious side effects.)

The short version of why contraception is wrong: The world, the flesh, & the devil say that sexual intercourse is a mere biological act, that humans being are no more than rutting animals. One person has the right to use another person (with that person's consent) as a sexual appliance, as the living blow-up doll meant to provide pleasure to Person A, with Person B's pleasure or dignity an optional afterthought. The logical consequences of this view include (note that I'm not implying moral equivalence between these acts) fornication, adultery, promiscuity, prostitution, pornography, contraception, & abortion. After all, if sexual intercourse is mere animalistic rutting, what is the logic in constraining it inside suffocating moral structures such as monogamy or non-monetized couplings? The pornographers sell a T-shirt that reads, "Relax, it's just sex."

The Church, as the Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit, knows that the conjugal act has both biological & spiritual dimensions. At the after party bar crawl following a wedding & reception I attended last fall, I had occasion to speak with a rather slutty girl who lamented, as we talked about how God created sex & made man to be a sexual being, "I know, I know, sex is just for procreation." This is not so. This is not the Church's teaching. The conjugal act (the very term "conjugal" indicates that it is limited to the validly married) is first & foremost a profound expression of love. As we know from Christ's earthly ministry, divinely inspired sacred Scripture, & the reason that informs the Church's Tradition, love is not selfish, but self-giving. The sacrament of matrimony is an earthly reflection of the Triune God's espousal to His Church because it is totally & unreservedly self-giving. God gives everything to us: life itself, the necessities of life, a myriad of gifts & abilities, & through the selfless gift of Christ's death for our sins, eternal life & perfect communion with him, for ever & ever, world without end, amen.

The married couple give themselves to each other without reservation. The husband is not meant to be using the wife as a mere instrument of his own pleasure nor is the wife to be using the husband as an instrument of her own pleasure. Instead, they are meant to be giving themselves totally to one other, including giving each other pleasure. Giving each other everything. Upon occasion, as God determines, these instances of sexual intercourse result in the conception of children, as a blessed fruit of the couple's self-giving love. One of Saint John Paul II's greatest gifts to the Church was to remind us that sex is meant to be, &here I am very, very loosely paraphrasing, mind-blowingly awesome. Sex is not just about procreation, though procreation is a great gift of that proper self-giving love.

Now, to use "birth control" inside an otherwise sacred marriage is to say, "No, I will not make a total gift of my life, of my very self, to my spouse. Instead, I will hold back my fertility. I will not give myself totally, I will give myself only as little or as much as I want on a case-by-case basis." The physical act of love is therefore no longer without reservation, as is Christ's love for His Church—the People of God—but has become essentially transactional in nature: I'll give you this in exchange for that, but I won't give you everything. Christ didn't give Himself partially on the Cross, He gave Himself totally.

Now, of course, many persons who consider themselves Christians argue that birth control is morally acceptable, even a positive good. In the same way, there are many persons who consider themselves Christians who insist that Christ didn't really mean "no divorce" when He said "no divorce." After all, that was teaching in first century Judea, not twenty-first century America. Life was essentially different then than it is now. Each of us has to determine for her- or himself how to apply Jesus' teachings to our lives. We can pick & choose those teachings that will help us to be better persons without seriously inconveniencing ourselves; after all, we have busy lives to live & Jesus would never want us to deny ourselves any pleasure or convenience. This is a shabby, bargain-basement, cafeteria Christianity: we pick those teachings we like & disregard those teachings we don't. This sham Christianity is a problem in the Catholic Church, it is a problem in the Protestant & Evangelical churches (which includes the "non-denominational" churches), it is a problem in the Orthodox churches; it was a problem among the Twelve Apostles, both during Christ's earthly ministry & after the Ascension.

This is one of the perils to which the Lord alludes in Matthew, 7:13 & 14:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide & the road broad that leads to destruction, & those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate & constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.
If I seem particularly aggressive against cafeteria Christianity, it is only because I used to be a cafeteria Catholic before my awakening, following Christ when it was convenience & ignoring Him when it wasn't. Christ did not come to earth, did not suffer the indignity of becoming a human being, so that we could settle for comfort & convenience. He came, & died, so that we could follow Him, could pick up our cross daily, to do the hard work of working out our salvation with fear & trembling. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
"The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."
Helpful references if you want to read the Church's official teaching:
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 6—The Sixth Commandment § 2331-2379 (especially § 2364-2372).

YOUCAT (Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church), Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, The Sixth Commandment § 400-425 (especially § 420 & 421).

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