Recently, a priest friend of mine was recounting to me his experience of an appreciation dinner for “liturgical ministers” in the parish where he is an associate. I must confess, the first image that came to my mind when he said this was the bar scene at Mos Eisley Space Port from the original Star Wars movie. As he continued with his story, this image was confirmed. The food was excellent, the beverages, delightful. But, predictably, the conversation turned to the topics that seem to interest everyone who wishes to be known as a “liturgical minister” (or a “lay minister” of any variety)—contraception, women’s ordination, democratically-elected bishops, inviting President Obama to be a member of the parish council, etc.
Obviously my priest friend, recognizing that these questions deserve a more extensive treatment than a simple soundbite between bites of hors d’oeuvres, prudently spoke the truth in a way that was called for by the circumstances. I bring this anecdote up as something that needs to be addressed in our Catholic parishes and institutions across the country. Do our leaders in the Church hold the divine and Catholic faith? Do they display both in word and deed the requisite religiosum obsequium (“religious submission”) of mind and will to the Pope and the Magisterium of which the Second Vatican Council speaks (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25)? Do they see the Church as inseparable from Christ? Indeed, as we are approaching the anniversary of the prophetic and crucial encyclical Humanae Vitae, we would do well to recall its binding teaching and its non-negotiable nature. Instead of focusing on its prophetic aspects, I wish to highlight adherence to it as an act of reason and faith. Might I also suggest that this be something to consider in hiring authentically Catholic personnel for our parishes, schools and chanceries.
The first thing to recall about the Church’s teaching on contraception is that it is rooted in the natural law. Thus, first and foremost, it is not a theological mandate from the hierarchy, it is inscribed in the human person as to the proper ordering of his life. When one acts contrary to how he was created, he is in for a difficult time. No one needs a degree in theology to see how this happens. One of man’s natural inclinations is to preserve the species—i.e., to procreate. The drive within each human being is very powerful and the action of procreating has a very predictable and specific result. This should cause people to reflect. Whence does this come? Nature, sure. But who is the author of Nature? God. Thus, the drive within us to procreate is a good and wholesome thing as intended by the Creator. But another aspect must be noted. Human persons are qualitatively different than the rest of the animal kingdom. In that we have spiritual souls (which include an intellect and will), we have the ability to control our acting on our sexual urges. Indeed, because the human person is so different in this way, the education and development of the human person takes longer than an animal in the wild; for the intellectual and moral powers must be developed alongside the bodily. Indeed, the optimal and natural place for such development is in the context of the family founded on marriage. It follows therefore that sexual activity—because of its natural consequences—should be reserved for a stable and permanent relationship.
Unfortunately it has only been in the last century that our silly age has begun to deny the intrinsic and natural link between the procreative and unitive aspects of the sexual act. I should make clear that sexual perversions have been around since the time of the Fall; yet, even among the great philosophers, there was a notion of that which was in accord with nature and that which was a perversion of it. The teaching of the Church has always affirmed that the twofold purpose of the sexual act is a participation in the creative act of God and may in no way be frustrated. This position is derived primarily from the natural law and respect for God’s plan, but it is also affirmed by Revelation (cf. Genesis 38:9, among others). The sexual act of husband and wife is God’s intended and desired way of bringing souls into the world, souls made for union with Him. This is serious business. Thus, acceptance of contraception breaks, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “the connection—which is willed by God and which man cannot lawfully break on his own initiative—between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and the procreative” (Humanae vitae, 12).
Blessed John Paul II powerfully reaffirmed this teaching in words that will strike American ears as harsh. But ferocity in defense of the moral order and against the lie of the Ancient Serpent is not only called for but is the duty of the Roman Pontiff:
Men and women are not the arbiters, are not the masters of the procreative capacity, called as they are, in it and through it to be participants in God’s creative decision. When, therefore, through contraception, married couples remove from the exercise of their conjugal sexuality its potential procreative capacity, they claim a power which belongs solely to God: the power to decide, in the final analysis, the coming into existence of a human person. They assume the qualification not of being cooperators in God’s creative power, but the ultimate depositaries of the source of human life. In this perspective, contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful, as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God. (Address to Priests, September 17, 1983).
While lack of common sense and catechesis have contributed to the state in which we suffer fools in our parishes, we can reverse the trend. Asking the simple question: “Is there a time or situation where we need not recognize God as God?” may spur a discussion of the issue of contraception. Of course, prudence is necessary, but a discussion of this type with Church personnel (especially those charged with the education of youth and young adults) is necessary. Not only will this discussion clarify a theologically correct and Catholic understanding of God and His Providence, it will also demonstrate how to be the human persons we are intended by God to be. For falling short of this, we will embrace evil and, reaffirming Augustine, become less human–disfigured beings, alien to our nature, not unlike the creatures seen in the Star Wars bar scene.
So, acceptance of Humanae Vitae as a litmus test for a service in an official capacity in the Church? Many have criticized this approach, including many moral theologians. But if we take the words of the Supreme Pontiff to heart, how can we say otherwise? For in this very practical example, nowhere else do we hear the ancient whisper “you will be like gods” more clearly. Nowhere else will we affirm more explicitly the sovereignty of God over all creation.