We need to be challenged to live according to chaste ideals, and we can handle the challenge
Wednesday, July 25, will mark 50 years since Blessed (soon to be “Saint”) Paul VI’s iconic encyclical Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth. Over the course of approximately the last year, in the midst of my various other writings on matters of faith, I have known that I would write something related directly to Humanae Vitae, although I was unsure of what, precisely. An academic tome for a journal? Perhaps a position paper, replete with numerous graphs and statistics? These have their place, and fortunately they have been produced by other writers, and are readily available. In the end, I decided to write what follows, in a conversational and anecdotal form; hopefully, it shall be received with the supportive demeanor that I have intended (as an indication of my goodwill, I promise to only include one grouping of statistics).
Earlier on the day of my writing this piece, I was with my kids at home while my wife Bernadette was spending the morning volunteering elsewhere in town. My 3-year-old daughter Thérèse was sitting with me on the couch. As our third of four fun-loving children, Thérèse had taken it upon herself to dangle upside down, with her back on the couch, her feet in the air, and her hands on the floor. Looking up at me and smiling, Thérèse said jocularly, “Daddy, help!” I responded with similar playfulness, “Uh-oh, are you OK?” She replied, “I’m OK.” After righting herself and sitting back next to me, Thérèse said something that, despite the levity of the moment, was brief, yet instantly sobering and equally thought-inducing. She said, “Daddy, I say ‘help’ when there’s danger!” Throughout the day, spent with my family, Thérèse’s words have reverberated throughout my mind as I have ruminated upon them: I. Say. Help. When. There. Is Danger. Many familial fathers – whether biological or adoptive – will be able to relate with the existential anxiety that my innocent little girl’s words provoked in me, at the prospect of her or her siblings being endangered. I imagine that our priests and bishops, as spiritual fathers of many more children (not to mention a divinely eternal mandate [recalling that my earthly fatherhood is temporal, whereas the ordained priesthood is eternal]), have experienced a comparable concern when it comes to the ultimate well-being of their flock.
Circumstantially adjacent to this flock, as far as the global populace is concerned, we live in times of profound confusion regarding broader moral dilemmas. Perhaps nowhere is this seen more than in the category of morality regarding sexuality, marriage, and personal identity. If Humanae Vitae was met with backlash upon its publication in 1968, then repugnance from the secular realm has only been exacerbated during the last half a century. Yet, the Sexual Revolution has left many in its wake: a widespread disrespect for human life (especially the millions lost in the womb), broken families, infidelity and the decline of marriages at all, promiscuity and a “hook-up” culture, a pornographic mindset pursuant to the objectification of the human body (especially of women), a rise in sexually transmitted infections, an increase in the variety and perniciousness of sexual immorality, and many other factors that stem directly from the Sexual Revolution. Things were not always this way. Admittedly, have all of these outcomes been due to artificial contraception? Of course not. Yet, they are linked to a breakdown in cultural norms – a breakdown whose trajectory has been seen throughout the West, with the systematic and persistent demise of the family (with children bearing the brunt of these circumstances).
It is with good reason that Pope Francis declared during his Oct. 19, 2014, homily for the beatification of Paul VI that this saintly man provided a “humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his Church.” After all, even back in 1993, Dr. Janet Smith had already asked, with a lamentably affirmative response: “Have Humanae Vitae’s Bold Predictions Come True?” In the United States alone, the breadth of the rejection of the Church’s teachings on matters of human sexuality and marriage has been staggering (consider, for instance, the statistics that I promised, courtesy of the Pew Research Center [you may want to focus on 2015 and 2016 in particular, to see the prominence of this dissent]). Yet, during his earthly ministry and thereafter, the Lord has never been interested in how popular any of his teachings were, whether as they appear in Matthew 19:1-12 or elsewhere in the Gospels (has anyone justifiably ever found any one of Christ’s teachings to be “easy” to live?); rather, his interest is reliably in calling us to be holier than we ever thought possible. This is not pharisaical or “fire-and-brimstone”; rather, it is the basic expectation of every disciple: “So, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
There are numerous opportunities that the entire Church – not just the clergy or laity, but those in religious life, consecrated life, and the single life as well – have to share the beauty of the Church’s teachings on marriage. However, I thought to address this to our beloved priests and bishops, given your uniquely pastoral role. Attempts to live chastely have been reinforced by Blessed Paul VI in light of Humanae Vitae, by Saint John Paul II in light of his “Theology of the Body” (preceded by his Love and Responsibility and other writings on sexuality, marriage, and the human person), and various other bishops throughout the last few decades in particular.
As a relevant aside, although Paul VI and John Paul II were renowned travelers, the 21st century has given humanity vast mobility per the platform of social media, and many priests have faithfully used the web to encourage laity to live holier lifestyles, including by embracing chastity, within the more extensive moral dynamic. Among them, if you have a Twitter, I would encourage you to join me in following priests such as my dear friend Fr. Daniel O’Mullane of the Diocese of Paterson (New Jersey), my fellow Dominican Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., Msgr. Charles Pope of my native Archdiocese of Washington, Fr. Mike Schmitz, Fr. Matthew Schneider, L.C., and [fortunately quite a few] others who provide a consistently orthodox approach to living the Gospel, whether as it pertains to chastity or otherwise.
You will know the other leaders for times such as these, because they are open and proud about the exquisiteness of the expanse of the Church’s teachings, no matter how popular, and these men tell you what you have to hear, rather than what you want to hear… much like Jesus did. In the words of a holy priest from around 1,600 years ago, who probably would not have required Twitter to become a Doctor of the Church if he lived in this century, Saint Jerome (347-420) wrote: “The true priest, therefore, must have… the power of communication, that he may bring forth and impart to others what he conceives in his mind and heart. Yet, all these powers are vain if chastity has not been a precaution and an adornment” (Homily #45, on Psalm 132 ). Likewise, if you are seeking a prelate who fearlessly challenges us to all live holier lives, you may want to follow Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence (Rhode Island). Based on their advice offered to their readers and followers online and elsewhere, I have found these men to serve as the epitome of professing and exemplifying “clarity with charity” in terms of the Church’s most challenging – yet timeless – teachings on a variety of moral concerns.
I must take a moment to remark on the upcoming (Oct. 3-28, 2018) Synod of Bishops on “Young People, the Faith, and the Discernment of Vocation.” I am optimistic about the Synod and the discussions surrounding it. Simultaneously, it is evident that, according to a June 19 piece by Elise Harris at the Catholic News Agency, “Questions on Sexuality Loom Large Ahead of Youth Synod.” It is no exaggeration to note that a fair number of youth in the Church are interested in seeing the hierarchy and other personnel within the institutional Church place less emphasis on sexual matters, if not overhaul them altogether. This would be disastrous to many souls, in much the same way that the Church should not diminish any doctrine oriented toward reconciliation and redemption. In fact, I wonder how many of those who would have it this way are themselves parents in the pews, attempting to raise children in the midst of a broader culture whose ideological agenda demonstrably, relentlessly, and aggressively impels parents and their children collectively to accept society’s lowered standards of morality that are alien to the Gospel. As a couple of examples – of various possible – recent scenarios that I have encountered: 1) turning on Netflix to show the kids a children’s program, only to see the trailer displayed for a racy Hollywood feature film as one of the previews available (parent filters will only withstand so much before this stuff finds a way through), or 2) still awaiting wealthy and heavily influential multi-national corporations to also modify their logos, advertisements, and other messages in celebration of “Chastity Month” every year. And we will not even discuss what children’s books have become, but suffice it to say that my wife and I have to be highly vigilant and selective with what we bring into our home library… yes, even when it comes to the younger ones’ board books. These are the times in which we live. Let the disciple of Christ recall, of course, his opposition to “unchastity” (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21). Speaking of Scripture, for the time being, we will leave alone Saint Paul’s subsequent remarks, which are thereafter more illustrative.
In the midst of this morally lean epoch facing humanity (at least in the West), thank you, our wonderful priests and bishops, who faithfully lead your flock. The modern world is beset with numerous categories of iniquity, and humanity seems increasingly confused regarding what it means to regard others with the inalienable human dignity with which God has inscribed all of us. The Church has come a long way in terms of how to dialogue with those living in professedly unchaste settings, and enhancements to pastoral proximity have proven more meaningful in the long run than downplaying the need for doctrine outright. Of course, human sexuality is only one dimension of morality, yet as I have hopefully elucidated, it is of vital ethical significance. This is particularly manifest relative to the marital ideal (one might even refer to it as a “paradigm”) of saving sex for marriage, and subsequently, the husband and wife living a faithful, fruitful, and permanent union, for the benefit of their children and future generations. This may be just as difficult to hear now as it was when Jesus reoriented marriage back to this original paradigm, despite the Pharisees’ attempt to “[test] him” (see Matthew 19:3a) and therefore shift his focus or otherwise dissuade him from the ideal.
To begin to conclude these points of discussion, as even my toddler daughter noted with far more perception than she probably realized: “I say ‘help’ when there’s danger.” We in the laity need the help of our priests and bishops at this time. Let us not become akin to the “sheep without a shepherd” whom Jesus observed in “the vast crowd” (see Mark 6:34). We need you, we respect you, and we love you. We need to be challenged to live according to chaste ideals, and we can handle the challenge. Let us remember, as chronicled by Patrick Madrid in his 2017 book Surprised by Life: 10 Converts Explain How Catholic Teachings on Life Led Them to the Church, that many people come to better understand the Catholic faith – indeed, are brought into full communion with the Church – based on being presented with its tough[est] teachings. By that token, speaking of another fellow author within the laity, Obianuju Ekeocha has indicated what is at stake regarding promoting chastity on an international scale with her new book Target Africa: Ideological Neocolonialism in the Twenty-First Century. I recommend that clergymen, religious, and members of the laity read these two books that I just mentioned. Here in the United States, the USCCB has aggregated a wealth of resources on Humanae Vitae that can be referenced both during “National [Natural Family Planning] Awareness Week” (July 22-28, 2018) or throughout the entire year. I also recommend that you read Fr. Matthew Schneider’s piece on a captivating Humanae Vitae movie, a trailer of which is included therein, providing an overview of the historical context of the Sexual Revolution.
As a final point, July 25, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, is simultaneously the universal Church’s celebration of the Feast of Saint James the Apostle, who was the first of the 11 surviving disciples to give his life for the Lord, rather than to acquiesce to the discouragement that came with the prospect of palpably certain persecution per Matthew 10:16-33. It is worth positing: I wonder how much discouragement – similarly to Saint James – Paul VI experienced himself during the remaining 10 years of his pontificate between 1968 and 1978, facing abandonment and rhetorical dismissiveness by fellow bishops and other priests whose moral vision was clouded by more worldly mentalities. Yet, Paul VI was resolute – clearly, charitably, and patiently so. The next day, July 26, is the universal celebration of the Memorial of Saints Joachim and Anne, Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary (and perhaps the Church’s most famous grandparents by extension). Just as priests are our spiritual fathers, is it not theologically accurate to consider that priests can thus serve in the role of spiritual grandfathers as well? After all, there are many experienced priests who have seen what has occurred within society over the last half a century, and perhaps originally did not see the perils of moral waywardness in the Church, but now observe it. It is therefore productive to posit that what the Church needs in the modern era is the continual witness of older generations, whether of familial grandfathers or spiritual grandfathers in the form of our veteran priests and bishops.
As we join together to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, including the demands of the Gospel, let us ask for the powerful intercession of courageous witnesses whose help we need now more than ever when facing the wily dangers of the present age: Saint James the Apostle, pray for us! Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us! Blessed Paul VI, pray for us!