Recently, an Australian food company aired a commercial where parents and children were asked, “Who would you most like to have dinner with?” The adults named various celebrities, television stars, and famous people they admired. But the children, almost without exception, named their parents. They wanted to eat with them, spend time with them.
The goodness of family and marriage is written on our hearts; everyone longs for family and intimacy. Even people who don’t believe in marriage want “marriage rights.” Our modern Western culture longs for stable, loving families but doesn’t know how to get there. All the experts tell us to follow our hearts, listen to how we feel, to think about ourselves, and we’ll be happy.
But is this true? We live in a world that promotes contraception to let us have so-called worry-free nights of sex; that tells us that “experimentation” and “sowing your wild oats” is healthy; that says couples bound in holy matrimony can separate without consequence. The voice of the Church is seen as old fashioned and out of touch – perhaps even cruel and inhuman. Whose voice should we follow?
We have been given a sure guide to happiness – to eternal happiness! In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).
These words were given not only to Peter but also to all his successors. When we hear the various voices that compel us to different things, we know that, where Peter is, there is Christ. Peter has the care of the Church.
The Church in turbulent times
On July 25, 1968, Bl. Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”), an encyclical on human life and its transmission. Almost fifty years after the release of this beautiful document, we can see how God inspired the Holy Father in everything he wrote. We need to go back and ponder Humanae Vitae. Blessed Pope Paul VI gave an exhortation to bishops about marriage to which it is even more necessary for all bishops to listen today:
We invite all of you, we implore you, to give a lead to your priests who assist you in the sacred ministry, and to the faithful of your dioceses, and to devote yourselves with all zeal and without delay to safeguarding the holiness of marriage, in order to guide married life to its full human and Christian perfection. Consider this mission as one of your most urgent responsibilities at the present time (Humanae Vitae [HV] 30).
God has given us a blueprint for a happy married life. We have spent more than fifty years ignoring it, and we can see the results in a broken society. We can be silent no longer. The Church must speak out, boldly and without fear, as Pope Paul VI taught: “The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings” (HV 1).
Let’s look at the context of Humanae Vitae. Giovanni Cardinal Montini was 65 years old when he was elected Pope Paul VI in 1963, in the middle of the Second Vatican Council. He served faithfully as pontiff for fifteen years, perhaps some of the most difficult in the history of the world and the Church.
It was the era of the so-called Sexual Revolution and cultural upheaval. It was the era of rock and roll, the moon landing, the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King. In a reflection on Humanae Vitae when he was the major apostolic penitentiary, James Cardinal Stafford, then a priest of Baltimore, described how, in the 1950s and ’60s, out-of-wedlock pregnancies skyrocketed, and he first encountered hard-drug users and, increasingly, broken families.
His ordinary, Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, Archbishop of Baltimore, was a part of the papal commission that had advised to allow the use of contraceptives. Other Christian churches had allowed contraceptives since the Lambeth Conference in 1930, and when Humanae Vitae was promulgated, oral contraceptives had been on the market for about eight years.
What was happening in the Church? The Second Vatican Council had ended three years earlier, and there was upheaval and confusion about what the council actually intended. Between 1962 and 1970, there were five new missals issued by the Church. (Remember how much upheaval and confusion a single new edition in 2002 and a single new translation in 2011 caused? Imagine a new book every two years!)
In short, there was a ball of confusion in the Church and outside it. Morality, liturgy, and the Faith itself seemed to be up for grabs. This is what the pope was trying to clarify and heal.
Warnings and remedy
It is time, then, to regroup and listen to Pope Paul VI. It is time to restore what has been forgotten in our understanding of marriage. It is time to reread and take to heart the warnings heard in the prophetic voice of Humanae Vitae.
Remember, it’s not all doom and gloom: there is hope. Pope Paul VI didn’t merely show us the evils of forgetting God and his plan for humanity; he provided a remedy. What remedies did he prescribe for our culture of death?
The first thing he reminds us to do is to look to the source of marriage: the grace of the cross of Jesus Christ:
[L]et Christian husbands and wives be mindful of their vocation to the Christian life, a vocation which, deriving from their baptism, has been confirmed anew and made more explicit by the sacrament of matrimony. For by this sacrament they are strengthened and, one might almost say, consecrated to the faithful fulfillment of their duties (HV 25).
God has called each couple to marriage. It flows from their baptism.
There is a modern temptation to romanticize the wrong parts of a wedding and marriage. It is not the candles and the lighting and the flowers and the dress that are important; what is glorious is fidelity, and fruitfulness, and the fact the fact this man is unique and irreplaceable to this woman, and this woman is unique and irreplaceable to this man. It is the fact that they share together a privilege that God does not give even to the angels: to be the means through which new persons, destined for heavenly glory, are created. It is the fact that, for Christian marriage, God has decided that the love of husband for wife and wife for husband is the means through which he bestows his own love, his grace, and his salvation. They take on new duties in the heart of the Church: they are called to help each other to heaven, to raise up new members for the Church, to raise up new thrones in heaven.
Marriage is not simply about trudging through life: it is about eternal, heavenly glory. God himself has called couples together: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). Jesus Christ has married couples from the cross, uniting them with the graces won by the piercing of his Sacred Heart. It is the path Jesus chose for the greatest of all saints, his own blessed Mother.
Since the heart of Jesus is the source of Christian marriage, and the cross of Christ is where he won the grace for human couples to enter into holy matrimony, we must go back to the cross and to the heart of Christ in order to restore and heal marriages. Pope Paul told his priests, “Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the sacraments of the Eucharist and of penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness” (HV 29).
The fruits of self-discipline
We must once again learn the value of generosity and self-discipline, to learn that I am not “number one.” That title belongs to God. I’m not even number two. By putting the good of others before my own urges and desires, I learn to love. By learning control of myself, I give myself the freedom to love. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI described eight values of training our hearts in self-discipline, especially in the sphere of marital intimacy.
- It gives love more a human character, since it isn’t animalistic or consuming the other.
- It develops the personalities of husband and wife, especially spiritually.
- It brings tranquility and peace.
- It fosters thoughtfulness and loving consideration.
- It repels inordinate self-love.
- It rouses a consciousness of the couple’s responsibilities to each other and to God.
- Control for the sake of love gives a couple a deeper influence on their children.
- It gives children a right sense of values, helping them achieve proper use of mental and physical powers (HV 21).
Recently, actor Terry Crews made it public that he and his wife went on ninety-day “sex fast” as part of his recovery after his porn addiction threatened to destroy their marriage of twenty-five years. He discovered that learning self-control enabled him to love his wife better and made their marriage stronger.
Part of learning generosity and communication comes from learning about the rhythms of the body—that is, to learn about the real-life person you’ve promised yourself to forever.
If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which we have just explained….But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love (HV 16).
Three to get married
But this means more than just faithfulness, generosity, and communication between the couple. God has also entered into their marriage. It is not simply between a man and a woman that the sacrament occurs but between a man, a woman, and the Creator himself. This means there must be faithfulness, generosity, and communication with God. It means allowing God to direct us; it means following the beauty of God’s grand design.
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. . . . “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” (HV 13).
To live true generosity, to live true love, we need God, we need his grace. It’s funny, but so many of us are uncomfortable asking for God’s grace. We almost think we are more free or better people if we can “do it on our own.” We get a little embarrassed to involve God when we are struggling. But, you know, no one finds it embarrassing that we rely on food or air. No one says, “You won’t believe this, but I had to eat today” or “I had to breathe this last five minutes.”
Of course we do! Why do we think we need God any less? To leave God out of our marriage, to thrust him from the bedroom (or the kitchen, or the garage) will only end in disaster and misery. Proper use of the rights of marriage and the true regulation of birth “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” (HV 20).
Humanae Vitae teaches we must learn responsible parenthood (HV 10). But the pope’s use of the term is vastly different from the culture of death’s definition. There are four parts to this responsible parenthood:
- Knowing the body and respecting it
- Having control of our emotions and drives
- Evaluating real-life conditions and deciding to generously have more children
- Or, “for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decid[ing] not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time” (HV 10).
The pope continues with the key to it all:
Responsible parenthood, as we use the term here, has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society (HV 10).
In the garden of Eden, when man rebelled against God, nature and our own flesh rebelled against us. God is the Source of all good—to separate life and human love from him is to cut out the heart of marriage. It will bleed. To heal, we need to reorganize our lives according to God’s plan—God’s good plan, which is the only plan that can make us truly happy.
Pope Paul VI tells us:
Marriage, then, is far from being the effect of chance or the result of the blind evolution of natural forces. It is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the Creator, whose purpose was to effect in man His loving design. As a consequence, husband and wife, through that mutual gift of themselves, which is specific and exclusive to them alone, develop that union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (HV 8).
He continues by explaining what married love means: “Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (HV 9).
Your spouse is your neighbor
In all of this, Pope Paul VI anticipates St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body. If you place them side by side, you see the same themes, the same focus, the same truths being explained.
It is easy to look at abstract questions, but it’s hard to look at real people, especially when that person is oneself. This was the struggle of the scholar of the law who asked Jesus the question that led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): “Who is my neighbor?” Who does this truth really apply to?
If you are married, this applies first and foremost to your spouse. Restore your own marriage. Renew in your heart the vows of your wedding day—perhaps even this evening, whisper them into the ear of your beloved. All of us, even the unmarried (especially the priests and bishops) must recommit ourselves daily to the truth—the happy truth—about authentic married love. And this ultimately means a recommitment to God. Our world needs authentic witnesses to the truth—the Truth personified in Jesus Christ.
This article is adapted from Bishop Wall’s keynote address at Catholic Answers’ national conference in March, “Restoring Marriage Today.”