Is Marriage Defensible?
Orange County Thomas More Society Presentation
November 20, 2013, Fr. Joseph IlloThank you for participating
Thank you, Greg, for that introduction, and to Steve Contungo and all of you for inviting me to your meeting this month. Steve’s children attend Thomas Aquinas College, where I serve as chaplain, and I had the privilege of helping his daughter Sarah with her senior thesis last semester. I am pleased to say that in our college Student Center, we have only three paintings of saints: St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Joseph, and … St. Thomas More. The patron of Catholic jurists is quite well loved at Thomas Aquinas College.
Arguably, Catholics make the best lawyers, since you have 2000 years of legal tradition behind you, and belong to the organization most responsible for developing the western system of rule of law. I saw on your website that you’ve organized an annual diocesan Red Mass. In my last parish, we held an annual Blue Mass to honor and pray for first responders, and a White Mass for physicians, but never quite got the Red Mass off the ground, even though we had a lot of attorneys in the parish. Every time we held a planning meeting, the lawyers could never agree among themselves…. Is a priest competent to speak on marriage?
I’ve been asked to speak on the question of marriage, and of course, never having been married, I immediately agreed. Priests, perhaps like lawyers and doctors, imagine that we are experts in every topic, or at least can talk like we are experts. I don’t claim to be an expert on marriage, but I began life in a marriage (my parents celebrated their 60th anniversary this year), and for 23 years have been “marrying” all the finest ladies in my parish. Not only do priests prepare couples for marriage, and celebrate their weddings, but more importantly we talk them through the difficult times after the wedding, and in the process learn a certain amount of inside information about marriage dynamics. And I might say, that celibacy affords us a certain objectivity, a disinterestedness, when engaging the emotionally-charged difficulties couples must face. Finally, priests study and teach theology, and so are able to apply some fundamental principles to the question of marriage.
One further disclaimer: I am a parish priest by trade, not a professional theologian, sociologist, or legal expert. At my disposal is a basic grounding in theology and many years’ parish experience, but I am not an expert and scarcely the last word on the subject. Although I would suspect you all would be less likely to succumb to the fallacy that “whatever father says is true,” many take what a priest says on a spiritual subject like matrimony as magisterial. My talk centers mainly on natural-law arguments for marriage, although of course it depends on ideas developed in the Christian tradition. We are here to think through this question together, and I encourage your questions and comments after my presentation.What is marriage: framing the question
Is marriage defensible? To answer that question, we must first ask: What is
marriage? It seems an obvious question, but suddenly, nobody can agree on a definition of marriage. But the simplest things in life are often the hardest to define. St. Augustine famously said in the 11th chapter of his Confessions
, "What then is ‘time?’ If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it, I know not."
Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, has written a little book on this question, along with co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson, entitled: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.
Defining marriage turns out to be a complex question, difficult to encompass and articulate. Even this book, which I highly recommend, having made an essential definition, circles around and about that core trying to articulate just what it is. Robert George and his co-authors, however, have come up with a most succinct definition: marriage is a “comprehensive union.” That is, marriage is a union of body and soul inherently oriented toward the generation of new life
. As I will explain, and is perhaps already self-evident, this can only obtain between one man and one woman.What distinguishes the marriage bond
There exist all sorts of friendship bondings among humans: coffee klatches, business partnerships, a grandfather and granddaughter, two bachelor brothers keeping house together, communes of like-minded adherents, from Catholic monasteries to nudist colonies, reading clubs, sports clubs, scout troops, etc. What makes the marriage bond
distinct, and why would the state want to regulate it? The government doesn’t issue “friendship licenses” for hiking clubs, or require divorce procedures for two elderly sisters who had lived together but go their separate ways after an argument. Why does the government involve itself in marriage at all? The reason must be that marriage—the union of will and body between man and woman (ratum et consummatum)—generates new human beings, new citizens, the care and education of whom greatly affects society. Government must help rightly order our societal goods, among which children are the most precious. Children are our future, and our present, and we neglect their health and education to our common demise. Even if we don’t care about children as individuals, our own public security and peaceful retirement depends on them. That’s why you see billboards on the freeway promoting “responsible fatherhood;” even the most radical secularist in “fatherless America” understands that children growing up without parents turn out very badly for everyone concerned.
This, then, is what distinguishes marriage from any other type of human bonding or companionship or relationship: it is naturally and essentially oriented toward children. A side note here: we often fall into the trap of speaking about “traditional marriage,” which concedes that there are
different kinds of marriage. In the western legal tradition, at least until a few years ago, there have never existed various forms of marriage, such as “traditional marriage,” “open marriage,” “flexible marriage,” “same-sex marriage,” etc. Despite the recent iterations of the courts, there is still only “marriage,” which is distinct from any other kind of friendship, companionship, legal arrangement, or human bonding, precisely because it is capable of generating new life. We need to be precise in our use of the term; certainly those who want to redefine it are willing to wage protracted legal battles just to do that; we need to insist on its proper use, for our use of words indeed affects our concepts. So, when I use the word “marriage” in this talk, I’m talking about marriage,
which is the comprehensive union between a man and a woman. Some may argue that this begs the question of what marriage is, but it makes sense to start from the concept as commonly understood before we determine if it should be redefined.“Comprehensive Union”: Total gift of self
Again, let us attempt to define “comprehensive union.” Marriage is comprehensive in the sense that it comprehends everything in the human person. It is total, it is a complete
self-gift of body, soul, mind, and heart. Can marriage be partial—can I be “kind of married?” Is marriage a compromise? For years I’ve worked on Engaged Encounter and Retrouvaille weekend workshops with married couples. Any of those happily married couples will tell you that once you begin thinking of marriage as a compromise—I give 50% and she gives 50%, and maybe this week I can get by with 48%—once I start thinking like that, my marriage is headed south. Marriage requires 100% from each partner. It is not only
a business relationship (certainly it includes
a business arrangement) where contracts are drawn up and one party is not obligated beyond narrow contractual requirements. Marriage requires the whole
person. No-fault divorce, which began the process of redefining marriage forty years ago, reduces
marriage to merely a contractual arrangement. I was talking with my 80-year-old mother yesterday, who has been married for sixty years to my father, and raised six children with him—she knows a thing or two about marriage. She visited my older brother last week, who is caring for his wife after her surgery. “Bobby is caring for her, changing her dressings and her drains, bathing her, feeding her.” She was amazed that this little boy to whom she had given herself fifty years ago was now giving himself to his wife. He could have just hired a full-time nurse (he has hired a part-time nurse so he can get to work), but he wants to care for his wife as personally as he can. This kind of arrangement is not merely contractual
—it represents a total gift of self.“Comprehensive Union”: Faithful and permanent
Marriage is “comprehensive” in that it touches every aspect of the human person and requires a total gift of self until death. Nothing less can hope to bring about happiness in such an intimate relationship. It requires exclusivity, or what we call fidelity (monogamy), because the human person can only love one person at a time. Certainly, we can appreciate and love groups of friends, and both parents, and all our children, but when it comes to total surrender to another person, the human psyche needs a single object of that gift. Ideally, marriage should be lifelong, or “permanent,” because the human person finds it emotionally repulsive to surrender to another in complete trust, to build a life together over many years, only to see it collapse and then have to start over again. A comprehensive union takes all that we have to give, and we find it exhausting to do it more than once. Commonly those who have lost a spouse to death, or gone through a divorce, will tell you that he or she “isn’t ready to do that again” or “is not interested in marriage again.” The nature of a comprehensive union demands that spouses enter into marriage intending lifelong fidelity, even if that goal is not realized in every marriage.
Thus, if marriage is a comprehensive union of mind and body, it demands of that union totality, meaning fidelity and permanence. But fidelity and permanence could be said of same-sex “marriage” as well, although same-sex couplings do not have a very good track record when it comes to fidelity and longevity. You could say the same, however, for most marriages today, after thirty years of no-fault divorce. Most Americans are serial bigamists, if we could say so, a phenomenon of which we are perhaps even more aware here in Southern California.
So what is it about marriage—again, I’m referring to the exclusive, lifelong comprehensive union of one man and one woman—what is it about this type of human relationship that distinguishes it from other types of friendship bondings? It is not sex—anybody can have sex. It is not common interest, or emotional attachments—any kind of group or couple can have emotional involvement, but we don’t call them marriage. “Comprehensive Union”: Orientated toward procreation
The only factor that distinguishes marriage from any other human relationship—and this is my main point—is its inherent orientation
toward the generation of new life. No other human relationship organically results in new life. And if one man and one woman produce a child, then that child needs what we call a “home;” he has a right to his own natural father and natural mother, who are best suited to provide a safe, loving, nurturing, and educating environment for him. Children flourish optimally when their own father and own mother love each other and thus render themselves capable of providing a nurturing environment for their children’s development. Of course, this ideal is not always possible. Death, or irreconcilable differences, or work or war, or illness, may destabilize the relationship between mother and father and break the child’s home apart. But to deny marriage and family life as the norm, as the goal
, of societal development is to deny human nature. You may be unconsciously thinking that two men can be a marriage and a family, but I repeat, because we are inundated with revisionist propaganda: any arrangement other than one man and one woman does not a marriage make, certainly not according to the natural law.
To unpack this a bit further: marriage must be inherently open to the generation and nurturing of human life, or it is not marriage at all. Even infertile couples—either marriages of those who discover they cannot have children, or marriages of elderly people—are still oriented
toward the generation and care of children by the very physical and psychological nature of husband and wife. Not every marriage must bear children to be valid, but every marriage must be oriented and open to new life to be valid. Otherwise, why would the state have any interest in regulating and supporting it? Manifestly, then, marriage cannot be confected between two people of the same sex, because they are incapable of organically generating new life. The question of polygamy is less obvious, but it is fairly obvious that exclusivity—the total gift of self between individuals—recommends itself best to the care of children. If I have children with various women, it is likely that I will favor some children over others, as it is unlikely that I will love all their mothers equally. It’s hard, well nigh impossible, for a man to love two or more women equally with his whole heart; his heart will be divided; and of course, I would say it is even harder for a woman to love two or more men equally with her whole heart. The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother, as they say. A man with two “wives” can only love each mother of his children with part of his heart, and as we’ve said, marriage requires totality, a complete gift of one’s person.The Inherent Link between Sex and New Life
How do advocates of same-sex marriage, or serial marriage, or open marriage, argue against what seems manifestly evident from simple biology and more complex psychology? They do so by refusing to admit the crucial link between sexual intercourse and new life. Before technology permitted us to separate sex from babies (before hormonal contraception, and in vitro fertilization, and artificial insemination, and human cloning), society depended on marriage to generate and educate offspring. Marriage was the best way to provide for a stable and flourishing population. But with the advent of artificial generative technologies, and as the Christian ideals of fidelity and sacrificial love waned, we have quietly been separating sex from babies, and marriage from children, at least in our minds.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, apart from his duties as Archbishop of SF, serves as chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. In June he spoke to all of his priests on the subject: “
To put it succinctly,” he said, “sex is either for babies and bonding, or it is for fun and games.” The two views are mutually exclusive. All the world’s cultures, but most clearly the Christian culture, have defined marriage as oriented toward the generation and rearing of children. But how many of us think of marriage like this today? If I say to you, “marriage is about children,” I venture to think that you would say “no, marriage is about me and her. Marriage is about us
, not any children we might decide to have.” And therein lies the difference. If marriage is just an emotional bond between two adults, if marriage is not intrinsically ordered to the generation of new life, if marriage is essentially about adults, then marriage can take any shape those adults wish. It can be for a year or ten years, it can be with one partner or several partners, it can be with members of the same sex or a different sex, it can be based primarily on financial gain, or sailboating, or travel, or any other common interest. Marriage would have no intrinsic definition if it exists only at the whim of the adults concerned. Only
if marriage is intrinsically ordered to children can we define it in reference to an unchanging biological reality: that is, the generative process. Only
if marriage is fundamentally ordered to offspring does it need to be a monogamous, permanent commitment (most same-sex couples prefer “open arrangements” rather than exclusive, permanent bondings, and there seems to be no inherent reason to prefer one over the other).
We will never understand marriage if we don’t understand the intrinsic connection between sex and babies. One of my friends, who lived in a contracepted marriage for many years and then “went natural,” described procreation as the essential “glue” that holds spouse together. A few years ago, over hors d’oevres and some fine wines at a dinner party, the conversation veered into the decay of marriage over the last fifty years in America. An Episcopalian woman blurted out to me, “Father, it all started with the pill.” I solemnly agreed, but discreetly kept silent on the fact that it was her
church, the Anglican church, that first permitted use of artificial contraceptives at their Lambeth conference in 1930. At the time, contraception was illegal in most state constitutions; it was tantamount to prostitution or mutual masturbation—using another’s (or one’s own) body simply for pleasure, without accepting the responsibilities that authentic love requires. The widespread use of artificial contraception has since radically destabilized marriage, and ultimately rendered the concept of marriage unintelligible. If marriage is not about babies, it is not about anything, and it is about anything.Marriage based on love, not power
When couples come into my office for marriage preparation, I find it effective to lay the cards on the table in the first meeting: “marriage is about children, not only about you.” Couples “in love” tend think of nothing but themselves, understandably, but marriage based on no more than self-interest, or even common interests, does not last a lifetime, because interests change. Married love, to be all that it is designed to be, must be effusive
, to go beyond itself. Since I’m Catholic, and the couples are seeking Catholic marriage, I use the image of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to describe the Christian
ideal of marriage. In the Holy Family, the child was the most important (Jesus), and the woman (Mary) came next, and the man (Joseph) quietly supported both in the background. Post-Christian cultures, like pre-Christian cultures, see family life exactly upside-down from this: the man is the most important, since he has the most power, and then the woman, and last in consideration is the child. These are relationships based on power, not on love, and the divorce culture manifests how deeply we have bought into this. Disregard for the child in non-Christian cultures—evident in abortion, infanticide, child abuse and neglect, and divorce—is the inevitable consequence of power-based societies. We aspire to a society based on self-giving love.“Conjugal” and “Revisionist” views
Robert George and his co-authors describe the current controversy as between two opposing concepts of marriage, what they call the “conjugal view” and the “revisionist view.” You might call the “conjugal” view the traditional view, marriage as understood by virtually all cultures in human history up until the last forty years. In the “conjugal” view, marriage requires a physical bond in addition to an emotional bond, while in the “revisionist” view, marriage requires only an emotional bond. Paradoxically, bodily sex is more important to the conjugal view than the revisionist view, which includes any kind of “open” marriage—divorce, promiscuity, same sex arrangements, polyginy, etc. Only the conjugal view, which requires lifelong exclusivity to one spouse that is open to children, understands the body as a vehicle of a greater love. Only the conjugal view is “natural,” respecting the human body’s functions and structures without manipulating or forcing them into unnatural behaviors.
An interesting scientific fact is that sexual activity triggers the release of neurochemicals in the brain such as dopamine, serotonin, and various endorphins. These chemicals narrowly focus bodily energy and mental attention on one object; they minimize pain and maximize pleasure; they sear into the memory centers of the brain an intense bond with the object of one’s affection. These chemicals naturally lead to permanence and exclusivity with the object of our sexual activity. In merely biological terms, then, our nature seeks to preserve the species by encouraging permanent, monogamous bonding. Sexual bonding is as natural as breathing. If the individual doesn’t breathe, he dies, and if the race doesn’t generate children, it dies. And the best really the necessary
, environment to beget and raise children, on which our social survival depends, is the permanent, faithful comprehensive bond we call marriage.
Sexual union has an objective bodily dimension, what we call coitus, the joining of complementary
sexual organs. But sexuality is broader than mere genital contact—it involves the total person as male or female. Every cell in a man’s body is male, and every cell in a woman’s body is female. In the sexual confusion of our time, some undergo what they call “sex change operations.” This plastic surgery, however, only fabricates non-functional imitations of male or female genitalia. It does not change a person’s sexual identity. You would have to replace every cell male cell in a person’s body with a female cell to do that. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over seven hundred American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” Sexual union is a matter of body and soul, since the human person is a body-soul composite. Sexual union does not mean merely achieving orgasm; it means the union of bodies and souls that are capable of being so united. Conjugal view in culture: Casablanca
The other night the College showed a classic movie to the students, Casablanca.
It has been some years since I watched the 1942 film, and it struck me how clearly the concept of marriage was assumed in that movie. Ingrid Bergman (the Norwegian beauty “Ilsa”) is in love with two men, but only one of them is her husband. She had been told he perished in a concentration camp when she fell in love with Rick in Paris. When she finds her husband still alive, she leaves Rick so as to be faithful to her vows. When she and her husband find themselves in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub some years later, she realizes she does not have the strength to see him a second time. “You will have to think for all three of us,” she pleads of Rick. Deeply in love with her, Rick thinks correctly, respects her marriage vows, and arranges safe transport for Ilsa and her husband to America. He is left quite alone in German occupied-Africa, but one gets the sense at the end of the movie that Rick will find happiness because he has done the right thing. Despite his seemingly overwhelming feelings, Rick has upheld the permanent monogamous bond between Ilsa and her husband.
People no longer assume that respecting marriage vows is the right thing, because marriage does not mean the same thing it did. It has been some years since vows have taken precedence over “falling in love,” or that feelings trump promises. Behind Rick’s decision to respect the vows his beloved had made to her husband was an understanding of marriage radically oriented toward children and family life. Much more was at stake for Rick and Ilsa than their own emotional bond: at stake were any children that might be born to them, and even more importantly, the children born to any married couple. Rick knew, if I may surmise it, that his adultery with Ilsa would scandalize and cheapen other people’s marriages, and even if only in a small way, lead to the general destabilization of marriage and family life. Adults suffer when their marriages decline, but the first victims are always the children. My last parish supported a sister parish in Vladivostok, Russia. I spent two weeks there one year with a group of parishioners, painting, wallpapering, and building the youth center for our sister parish and got to know the state of Russian society today. The divorce rate is 95%, the economy is irreparably disabled, and more than half of the men in Vladivostok are alcoholics. Soviet Russia, too, redefined marriage, distributed free contraceptives, and paid for people’s abortions. Russia today is a wasteland of human wreckage, especially in places like Valdivostok, far from the wealth of Moscow. It is always the children and the poor that suffer the most when the educated and the wealthy decide to redefine social structures.Marriage: A sacred institution oriented toward human life
Either sex is essentially sacred, or sex is essentially profane. It’s possible to posit aspects
of sexuality in both terms, but it’s not possible to posit the essential purpose
, the final end, of sex in both terms. A minority understands sexuality as essentially salvific, that is, oriented toward an end beyond this world, to the ultimate salvation, or perfect health, of the human being: what we call heaven. To understand sexuality in this way, of course, you have to believe in heaven in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, another minority understands sexuality as essentially recreational, with no deeper significance than immediate personal pleasure. For this minority, I suppose, transient human pleasures are as much as one can expect from this life. But the vast middle hasn’t thought through the question enough to have any clear ideas about a deeper meaning for sexuality or marriage, which rightly orders our sexuality. Most folks, I would bet, think of sexuality vaguely as something fun and important and a little sacred, but mostly kind of what you make of it. We have not so much rejected as forgotten
the essentially sacred nature of marriage and sexuality.Conclusion
There is much more that can be said on this topic. For example, we must more fully articulate the sociological and psychological benefits of marriage for spouses and children compared to the damage and dysfunction resulting from other forms of sexual bonding. Many studies, most of them disregarded or suppressed by the same-sex marriage lobby, have demonstrated this. We should also look at the legal questions—why should the state be involved with marriage at all? How and to what degree should government regulate marriage? But for our purposes this afternoon, I would just say that once we lose sight of the essential purpose of marriage—that is to generate and care for new life—we have lost any objective definition of marriage. Marriage is about love between spouses, certainly—that is the hook that brings two people together. But it must go further than this. It must blossom, develop, perfect itself in the generation and education of new life, and in every case be open to new life. Even if the spouses are not given their own biological children, their relationship’s radical orientation towards new life defines
their marriage. Without this orientation, marriage cannot be defined, still less defended.
Recent funeral Mass for the Founding President
of Thomas Aquinas College, Dr. Ronald McArthur
Today, I repost a photograph of Dr. Ron McArthur’s funeral in our College Chapel last month. The photograph drives me batty, however, because in such a perfectly-proportioned chapel, with perfectly aligned priests, the black pall on Dr. McArthur’s casket is lopsided. I’ve done a lot of funerals in my time, and the funeral directors, God bless them, rarely place the pall evenly. Funeral directors and priests (mostly men) seldom have an eye for detail. How ironic that the man who spent his life straightening out crooked thinking lay beneath a crooked pall at his funeral Mass.
The evening before our Founding President’s Requiem Mass, the College showed a 60-minute talk he gave last year describing why he and his colleagues founded Thomas Aquinas College in 1971. “We had to do it!” he declared. Catholic education was collapsing throughout the country, and someone had to meet the need to preserve an authentic liberal arts curriculum in the Church’s venerable tradition. Christendom and the great Western Civilization it engendered—that’s all gone, Dr. McArthur asserted with characteristic hand chops. Yet we can and must preserve what we can of the liberal arts so there is some good seed that may germinate in years to come.
Among the first casualties of Catholic education’s demise, Dr. McArthur pointed out, is marriage. We can no longer think in a straight line from first principles to final ends, or even from intermediate causes to their inevitable consequences. Contraception, he said, is just such an intermediate cause: it has destabilized marriage, which shattered family life, which has inexorably destabilized society. Western civilization had rejected the common pre-Christian practice of contraception for 1900 years, but by 1950 religious “liberalism” (which denies that man can know first principles, and divorces spiritual causes from their effects) had won the day. The world began contracepting like no one’s business, and inevitably marriage, family, and society began to unravel. Those who had been educated in the Western tradition foresaw this, but as liberal education declined, fewer could see the straight lines between sexual health and societal health.
Contraception is still the root problem, followed by its consequences of promiscuity, divorce, and traumatized children. The current manifestation of sexual dysfunction is “gay marriage:” the complete rejection of marriage per se. Yesterday Illinois caved in to the terrorist tactics of the homosexual and secularist bullies. “If you don’t deny marriage and family life, we will destroy you politically; we will target your businesses; we will break your windows and vandalize your cars.” All this because we’ve given up on the hard work of liberally educating ourselves, and so we stumble and bumble about, mostly blind, unable to see or think straight.
Dr. Ronald McArthur knew what he was seeing in 1970, and he did something about it. As I say, it’s unfortunate that the pall on his casket was crooked, but perhaps it reminds us that much remains to be straightened out. He leaves a successful project—the founding of an authentically Catholic liberal arts college—which must continue after his death. Be assured that the next generation of Thomas Aquinas tutors, staff, and students are doing just that.
"Rumbo al Socialismo del siglo XXI"
Towards Socialism in the 21st century
I’m in a little pueblo in Venezuela, giving a retreat to 25 Missionaries of Charity sisters (or rather, I hope that Jesus is giving the retreat to all 26 of us). I escaped the convent complex the other day for a brisk walk through the town with hopes of finding a path into the mountains. At the end of the road, I met the farmers Rigoberto and Edgar, who showed me a path up into the dense forest. Most folks along my way through town didn’t return my hearty renditions of ola! and buenas tardes! They regarded me oddly and remained silent, but the farmers accepted my gringo accent and American attire (REI hiking shorts and a bright orange cycling jersey). Their honest faces reflected the honest earth for which they cared. Rigoberto gracefully led me to the upper cow pasture (they have eleven bovines), and from there I began hiking up the dry arroyo under towering jungle trees and impenetrable banks of leafy vegetation.
I wondered if my newfound farmer friends were “Chavistas.” Hugo Chavez’ grinning face and upthrust arm appear on almost every wall and billboard, with the words “Yes, there is a revolution!” He died in April, but like Vladimir Lenin, he seems determined to preside over his country even from the grave. His hand-picked successor’s face (Senor Maduro) also appears on election posters everywhere, even though the election took place three months ago. The slogan is canned and never varies: “I swear to you, Chavez, that I will vote for Maduro.” I heard it was a close race, but I’ve not seen one trace of the opposition. I guess there is no opposition. Meanwhile, Venezuela, after a decade of socialist government, and sitting atop fountains of petroleum, is still depressingly poor.
Venezuela languishes in the grip of socialism the way America languishes in the grip of consumerism. “The Party” dominates every public venue and every bit of the national imagination. Hugo Chavez dominates Venezuelan billboards like Taco Bell dominates billboards in the USA. Even the rarely-seen ad for a restaurant or hotel will have “we stand with Chavez” on the bottom—and his grinning face. Just when I thought I could not take one more depiction of Hugo’s grinning visage, I turned a corner and saw, painted on a wall two blocks from the convent, a sex ad. Actually, it seemed to be government promotion for Sex and Birth Control training, complete with some crude drawings (Hugo’s face did not make an appearance).
It became blazingly clear to me: birth control is all about control. Of course, we all knew that. But what I realized is that contraception is about government control. What stronger leash can the government tie around people’s throats than control of their sexual appetites? “Careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power [contraception] passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law….” Who wrote that? Pope Paul VI wrote it 45 years ago, in Humanae vitae #17. For a citizenry addicted to sex-on-demand, government-sponsored birth control programs wield immense power, power to shape society into its own image and likeness. It has only to convince its citizens that birth control means that they control their sex life, when in fact folks accustomed to sex-on-demand cannot control themselves. In steps the government to help bring a little control into the situation. Soviet Russia famously did away with religious sexual disciplines and began doling out free birth control and abortion. Within a generation of state-controlled family life, society began to unravel.
The Venezuelan government’s control of its citizens is crass and obvious. Every two or three miles on the main roads cars must slow down for a “government inspection,” a quick review by scowling soldiers wielding machine guns. The U.S. government’s control of its citizens is less obvious, and less advanced, but certainly using some of the same techniques. Forcing birth control programming into national health care is certainly one of those strategies.
I don’t know whether my farmer friends are Chavistas or not. I don’t know whether they have bought into the government’s birth control plan, or whether they have kept true to their Catholic faith (I assume they are Catholic because, when I identified myself as a Catholic priest, they smiled broadly and offered me two big lemons from their trees). I don’t know whether these two farmers are still believers in God, or whether they have given up God for the government. I’ll have to ask them on my next hike, but I suspect that honest people in this beautiful country trust God, and His laws, more than Hugo Chavez’s socialist government. Let’s try to keep “In God We Trust” part of the American dream.
Pope Paul VI (Official Vatican photo)
Which Paul was right?
We welcome our seminar guests to Sunday High Mass here at the Thomas Aquinas Chapel, and we thank our choir for assembling during summer vacation. Over the last two days we studied texts on Marriage, and some pointed out the connection between contraception and the decline of marriage. I heard not a few people say that rarely if ever have they heard homilies on this topic. So let me give you a little homily on birth control.
You might ask: What do the scripture readings have to do with contraception? Nothing, but on Thursday we observe the 45th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae. This summer I’ve been giving the seminarians of Sacramento, Santa Rosa, and San Francisco talks on how to create a culture of life in their parishes. I recommended they preach on contraception at least once a year, perhaps on the Sunday nearest July 25. So I had better follow my own advice.
In September 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb hit the bookstores. It opened with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The book scared a good many people and governments, who turned to sterilization and birth control to head off the alleged catastrophe. Two months earlier, Pope Paul’s encyclical on the regulation of human births, Humanae Vitae had come out, affirming society’s perennial rejection of contraception (contraceptive drugs were illegal in the United States until 1938). In paragraph 17, the Pope predicted four negative consequences should contraception become the prevailing mentality: “Let us consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. …Another effect is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman…. Finally, …this power [will pass] into the hands of public authorities who care little for the moral law….Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” So which Paul was right in 1968? Whose predictions came true, those of Paul Ehrlich or those of Paul VI?
Contraception is Intrinsically Evil
It’s pretty clear to everyone that the terrible unrest in our culture results from the breakdown of the family, which hurts poorer people most of all. 60% of white working class women are struggling to raise children in fatherless households, and studies abound demonstrating the personal and social damage resulting from single-parent households. What everyone does not know, but we Catholics had better make it our business to know, is that family collapse results largely from artificial birth control. The Church could not be clearer, in magisterial document after document, on the inherent evil of sterilizing the conjugal act. I quote the Catechism 2370: “Every action which … proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil.” How to plan our families? First, love the child, and count your fertility as among one of God’s greatest gifts. And then, if you need to space births, use natural family planning. Again, from the Catechism: “The methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom.” Artificial contraception, which is essentially different from natural family planning, is intrinsically evil—a mortal sin if committed with full knowledge and full consent.
So what to do, given that most of us Catholics contracept? We must begin the long road back to right reason, to submission to the natural law, to disciplined and authentic conjugal love. We must begin to practice the truth ourselves, and then help others to choose nature’s way of spacing births. There. Now you have heard a homily on contraception, and I don’t want to hear any more complaints.
Right Marriage and Right Worship
But there is a little more. The breakdown of marriage and the family coincide with another lamentable phenomena: the breakdown of right worship (in Greek, “ortho-doxy”). In the 1950s, when family life flourished in America, most folks went to church every Sunday. Now only about 25% worship God regularly. In the Catholic Church in particular, a mistaken notion of worship has overcome us, parallel with a mistaken notion of sex and marriage. That is, most Catholics have come to imagine that the Mass is about us rather than about God, and that we “own” the liturgy.
The Scriptures portray divine worship as a sacred banquet, from the Old Testament Passover to the Gospel Last Supper to Revelation’s Wedding Feast of the Lamb. But whose banquet is it—God’s or ours? We have come to think of the Mass as “our” meal. It’s “our” church (after all, we paid $23 million for this chapel). We set the altar. We provide the bread and wine. We say the prayers. But consider more carefully. Whose chapel is this, after all? Who provides us with everything we have?
In the First Reading (Genesis 18), Abraham puts on a banquet for the mysterious “three men” at Mamre, the famous Old Testament Trinity. He serves God—it is an act of worship—but who is really serving whom? One of the “men” tells Abraham he will be holding his firstborn son within the year, the fulfillment of the Promise. Abraham makes no mistake: even though he gives his best to these three men, he knows that they are giving infinitely more to him.
In the Gospel, Martha puts on a banquet for Jesus, a fine act of worship. But gradually she slips into the “ownership” mentality, becomes controlling of her sister Mary, and ends up ordering God to do her will: “Lord, tell her to help me!” Martha makes the mistake Abraham didn’t make: she thinks she is doing Jesus a big favor by serving him. And so most Catholics come to Mass a bit begrudgingly: “Lord, I hope you appreciate what I’m doing for you this Sunday morning.”
Our marriages, our bodies, our homes and families, our jobs, our Mass: it is all from God. And it is all going back to God. St. Paul describes himself as a steward in the second reading. Read it again after Mass. We are stewards, not owners. Let us follow the example of the saints, and especially of Our Lady, who received God’s gifts with joyful humility, never imagining that we actually deserve his blessings. Let us use these gifts in accord with his will, in submission to the revealed laws of His Church, so that we may live peaceful and ordered lives here on earth, and so attain perfect joy in the life of the world to come.
Pope Benedict, and now even more Pope Francis, both urge us to reverence God’s gifts in nature. Some call them “Green Popes;” they actually wear white and are simply “Catholic Popes.” The Church has promoted the good stewardship of earth’s resources since Jesus asked the Apostles’ to gather up the fragments from the loaves and fishes, “that nothing be wasted.” Catholic saints and religious orders practice simplicity and frugality, eschewing the lavish materialism practiced by most cultural elites. Most Catholics, of course, have gone along with our culture’s wasteful disrespect for God’s gifts. But the Church’s teaching and ideal has ever been authentically “environmentalist.”
That the Church authentically respects nature is proven by her respect for the natural processes of the human person. She promotes natural, rather than artificial, family planning. She defends natural, rather than artificial, marriage and sexual practices. And for this consistency in respecting nature she is condemned.
Is it not curious that many “greens,” who advocate strict respect for nature, also advocate decidedly unnatural sexual practices? What true environmentalist would chemically interfere with nature’s fertility cycles? Artificial contraceptives not only throw the human endocrine system into chaos, leading to higher rates of cancer, but they also poison our water systems and kill entire populations of marine life. What real Green would violently interrupt natural reproduction through forced abortion? What person respectful of the natural order would promote homosexual unions, which is found in nature only in aberration? But the most outrageous hypocrisy, perhaps, is the support of “naturalists” for so-called “sex reassignment surgery” (SRS). One cannot change one’s sex just by sewing on fake genitalia and taking artificial hormones. A man cannot become a woman, but only the appearance and artificial illusion of a woman. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over seven hundred American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” This is not to discount the real pain men and women suffer from sexual trauma. In a sexually-dysfunctional society, an increasing number of people grow up with sexual identity crises. But so-called SRS, while it may grant the appearance of a solution, only worsens their condition. It is a surgical response to a psychological condition, rather like cutting someone’s head open who suffers from depression. (Linked to this blog is a good article on SRS from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.)
How is it that we imagine we can change our very nature? Man will always wonder about his identity, which is mysterious. But if we deny the fact that we did not make ourselves, then the mystery of our identity takes on terrifying dimensions. If we doubt God’s existence, we are cast into terrible doubt of our own nature. Without Nature and Nature’s God, we don’t know where we came from and where we are going. This is particularly so in the question of sexual identity.
I got on a bus one night in San Francisco. At the following stop a lesbian got on, dressed in tough clothing with a butch haircut. But she was tired, and her feminine nature was impossible to hide. Also at that stop a transvestite man got on. His long hair, false breasts, and flamboyant clothing did not mask his masculine nature either. The lesbian seemed so feminine compared to him, and he so masculine compared to her—I suppose they were both too tired to maintain their respective illusions. I chuckled at their attempted disguises, and rejoiced in spirit that their natural beauty could not be hidden. Certainly they needed help to accept their nature, but a sex-change operation they did not need. They needed real compassion, not a city-funded mutilation of their natural and healthy organs.
At conception nature makes us male or female. Our sex is written on every cell of our bodies, and determines the development of our brains from our mother’s womb. If it seems that confused people, angry at nature (just as I wrote these words the Superior of the convent here in Peru brought me a newspaper with the news of the bombing of a Boston metro station), are destroying the natural order, let us not be too disturbed. Yes, many will suffer from the chaos gripping our society. All of us will suffer when man disrespects the natural order. But God’s harmony, expressed in this beautiful world, will always recover. We cannot destroy nature, nor even the nature of our own bodies. Nature’s beauty and order, guided by Nature’s God, will always right itself eventually. We are not so mighty as we think: nature will always have the last word.Additional Study:
I was a parish priest for 20 years, and now I am a college chaplain. What’s the difference? In the parish I prepared people for divorce, and in the College I prepare them for marriage.
In the parish, people generally don’t come to the priest until they have a problem, and most of those problems are marriage problems. Some couples come with strong faith in God and solid hope for their marriages. Most, however, come for the last rites. Usually they’ve been living a “married singles” lifestyle for years before I see them. I would ask: “Do you pray the rosary together?” No, father, we don’t know how.
“Do you attend Mass on Sundays?” No, father, we haven’t gone to Mass for years.
“Are you contracepting?” Not anymore—we don’t sleep in the same bed.
“Have you seen a counselor?” No, father, it’s too late for that.
I felt like asking them sternly why they disregarded the Church’s precepts, and why they ignored her wisdom, and why they didn’t come to a priest sooner. But all I could do is comfort them as their marriage broke apart, and as they entered into the dreary and painful desert of the divorced. They could still be saints, if they faced the ongoing trauma of custody battles, financial crises, and darksome loneliness by turning to God in prayer. Many do become saints precisely through the tragedies of divorce, in the way that widows and widowers turn to God. Nevertheless, “preparing people for divorce” greatly pains and discourages the parish priest.
In the College, on the other hand, most of the people I serve are under 21. They are too young to drink, but not too young to prepare for lifelong marriage. Courtship at the two dozen or so serious Catholic colleges in the United States is a major occupation, and rightly so. Not only does College afford them intellectual, social, and spiritual formation—it affords an unprecedented pool of faithful and marriageable Catholics. Interestingly, a significant percentage of students at these colleges have been called to the consecrated state. But living with authentically beautiful men and women anneals their call to virginity for the sake of the kingdom. For the rest, those called to the married state, a lifetime of happy marriage awaits them. They have only to follow the rules. They prepare for marriage by learning to pray alone and together, by sharpening their minds and their bodies for the contests ahead, and by assimilating the patrimonies of art and science. No one expects perfect happiness in their marriages, and they know grave marriage problems are always possible. But the smiles and lightness of foot among these couples lift us all up.
In the parish, a priest can come to resent marriage preparation. Precious few engaged couples take their faith as seriously as they must to avoid divorce. As we witness their vows, we wonder how many will file for divorce within the decade. In the college, however, I have rediscovered the joy of marriage preparation. These young couples—witnesses to purity and joy—have restored my confidence in marriage. If we have despaired of the very nature of marriage (as is evident in the ludicrous push for homosexual “marriage”), we need look no further than these young people to be reassured. Resources:
For those in courtship, I recommend Steve Woods’ The ABC’s of Choosing a Good Husband or The ABC's of Choosing a Good Wife
, as well as a CD set by Steve Woods called Catholic Courtship - A Challenge to Teens & Twenties
. If you are engaged, there is Kimberly Hahn’s Life-Giving Love: Embracing God's Beautiful Design for Marriage.
If you are having difficulties in your marriage, I recommend Michael McManus’ Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Avoid Divorce
Archbishop of Philidelphia,
From the Chaplain’s Laptop: Catholics elect persecution for the Catholic Church
September 28, 2012
Last week the Archbishop of Philadelphia stated unequivocally that it would be impossible for him to vote for Barak Obama. “I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. The other day the Pew Research Center released a poll indicating that Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney among Catholics by 54%-39%. Is the Archbishop out of touch, or are most of the nation’s Catholics out of touch?
Most of the nation’s Catholics are out of touch: out of touch with Catholicism. A Catholic who knows and embraces the teaching of his Church could never vote for a candidate who promises to provide more abortions, both here and abroad. A Catholic could never vote for a candidate who promises to further destroy marriage and family life by promoting homosexual practices. A Catholic could never vote for a candidate who has promised to force the Church to violate her own conscience.
You might be thinking that the Catholics who favor Mr. Obama are not “practicing” Catholics, and certainly among those who attend Mass “seldom or never” the margin jumps to 61% to 32% in favor of Mr. Obama. But even among Catholics who attend Mass every week, Mr. Obama leads Mr. Romney by nine points.
How is it possible that any Catholic who attends Mass every Sunday would vote for a candidate who has promised to persecute the Catholic Church? It is possible because of a fundamental ignorance of the faith among most Catholics (in the words of Pope Benedict, “a profound crisis of faith”). It is possible because bishops and priests have failed to make real converts of most Catholics. The Church in North America and Europe has failed to preach the Gospel with conviction and clarity. Thankfully, in recent years, a significant number of bishops and priests have begun to preach the Gospel, and many valiant laypeople are teaching Catholic truth through powerful means. Only time will tell if it is too little too late.
Tragically, we have largely failed in our stewardship of the Gospel. But God has not failed. The Word of God is not constrained (2 Tim 2:9) and no darkness can overcome it. Certainly, we will suffer for our sinful failure to speak God’s Truth, but the Lord will purify his Church through the very afflictions to be visited upon us. In the end, the Bride will return to her Lord and recover the joy of her youth. But we must pray to God, and to His holy Mother, to joyfully persevere in whatever persecutions may come to Holy Mother Church.
Homily: Real Love
Ten Commandments: a building plan for God’s temple
For the last ten weeks we’ve been covering the Ten Commandments in my 6th grade catechism class. “Today,” I say to the class, “we will study the 8th commandment. Does anyone know the 8th commandment?” They all look at the wall, to the Ten Commandments poster. “Thou shalt not lie!” they shout. Let me try that right now with you all: what is the 4th commandment? Honor your father and mother. The seventh commandment? Thou shall not steal. The tenth commandment? Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. Now, which is the most important commandment? Yes, that’s right, it’s the First Commandment, Commandment Number One: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God commands us to love him above all else. If we get that first commandment right, everything else will follow. But because we are a little slow sometimes, and a little forgetful, God spells out what loving Him looks like: no cussing, lying, stealing, fornicating, or killing. And go to church on Sundays!
These Ten Commandments reflect the natural law. They make us all—even atheists—better people. They make for an ordered and peaceful culture. Those commandments are a building plan for God’s temple on earth, but if we invite Christ’s Holy Spirit into this temple, the Church becomes a living body. We are that living body, and each of us temples of the Holy Spirit. These temples need cleaning out from time to time, as we see Jesus doing in the Gospel. In Jerusalem, the god, “money,” was edging out the true God. Jesus had to clean it out, like he cleans out our souls every Lent. He sweeps out our lust, impatience, selfishness, cussing, gluttony, and material greed, through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We all need a good Lent every year to keep His temple pure.
Scrutinies: Jesus thirsts for you.
Today we move sixteen people one step closer to Catholic Church by having them undergo a “scrutiny,” part of the long process of initiation. The Gospel for this Mass is always the Samaritan woman at the well, John 4. Jesus is thirsty—for water, of course, but much thirstier for the love of this woman. He thirsts for your love and my love, and we give Him so little. He will end up dying on the Cross, abandoned by almost everyone, with these words on his parched lips: “I Thirst.”
When you think about it, this is our greatest thirst and our greatest hunger: to love and be loved. When I was in 10th grade, the teacher asked us all what we really wanted in life, more than anything else. I think I wrote something about a red Ferrari. But the girl next to me, a somewhat expansive individual with a big heart and even bigger voice, slipped me a piece of paper. I read these words on it: “I want to be loud.” I looked at her: “You want to be loud?” I was thinking that she was already loud enough. But she laughed loudly but then said shyly, “No, silly. I want to be loved.” I had misread her handwriting. But I’ve never forgotten that insight. “I want to be loved.” Of course, that’s what we all really want, even more than a red Ferrari. This first scrutiny asks our 16 candidates two questions: do you know Jesus’ thirst for you? Do you know your thirst for Him?
Let’s talk about love. This Samaritan woman by the well was thirsting for love, but not finding it. She had been married five times, and was on Man Number Six, though not married to him. Jesus knew this of course, but does not condemn her. He loves her utterly. In time, she comes to know of His tender love for her, His enduring love, his perfect love for her.
Enochs: “it feels so good…”
I want to talk to you about what happened at Enochs High School recently. Some call it love, and some call it disgusting. You know the story: 41-year-old Mr. Hooker left his wife and three children to move in with his 18-year-old student. I want to entirely respect Mr. Hooker and his young friend, Jordan. Like Jesus, we must not condemn them, but evaluate what they did. Letters flooded the Modesto Bee after this incident, and every one of them expressed disgust. But we must ask: why are we disgusted? We used to object to unmarried people living together, but that was long ago; we don’t find homosexual relationships disgusting; we don’t find pornography disgusting—I mean the stuff you see all the time on HBO and MTV. We have accepted all these sexual aberrations. We say, that’s their choice. Elvis Presley wrote a song in 1965 called “It feels so right; how can it be wrong?” If you google that line, you will pull up dozens of rock songs since then that say the same thing. If it feels right for me, it must be right for me. Mr. Hooker and his young friend insist that they feel so very right about their relationship. So who are we to say it is wrong?
I think we object to a teacher having sex with his student because we do, after all, want to believe in real love. Genuine love is not defined merely by feelings. Feelings come and go, but love is a decision. It is a decision to give to a wife and children rather than to take from them. It is described by words like fidelity, reverence, sacrifice, commitment, and devotion. We are disgusted when someone is so selfish as to leave his wife and three daughters for a private fantasy. He disregards not only his own family but all of us, because a stable society is built on marriage and family life, not personal fantasies. How long do you think Mr. Hooker and Jordan will stay together? Do you think they will build a beautiful family together? What will happen to Mr. Hooker’s wife and children, to whom he has already committed himself?
Contraception: Why Not?
How did America get so confused about love and sex? It started, of course, with Adam and Eve eating that darned apple. But more recently, it was the artificial contraceptive pill—hormonal contraceptives—that pushed us from genuine love into self-centeredness. Now, I apologize if you’ve never heard the Church’s teaching on contraception presented well. The Church, up this point, has not done a decent job of teaching it, and she has lots of enemies who love to confuse the issue. Artificial contraception is much in the news these days—everyone’s talking about it, so I too will talk about it.
When the hormonal pill was first marketed in the 1950s, marriages and families were strong. So were our school systems, our social structures, and our economy. As artificial contraception gained acceptance, the Church reaffirmed her constant teaching: that every act of marital intercourse, to be a genuine act of love, must be open to the transmission of new life. That teaching stands, while the culture around it has disintegrated. If you separate sex from babies, then the whole culture will disintegrate. Marriages will disintegrate, and with them families and eventually society will revert back to a kind of dark ages, where the strong rule the weak. Love and trust will fade from public life, to be replaced by violence, distrust, and fear. Is this happening?
There is a much better way to plan our families. There is a natural way, more effective than drugs, a way that respects a woman’s natural cycles and enriches relationships. Those who plan their families in the natural way almost never divorce—less than 3% compared with the national rate of 55%. It costs no money, but it does take commitment, discipline, and trust—the very stuff of true love.
Trust the Church
So, dear brothers and sisters, let us trust the Church. She knows what she’s talking about, because she was established by Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit. Even if you are not Catholic and don’t believe in the Church, you must admit that couples who plan their families naturally—who refuse artificial contraception—have healthier, longer-lasting relationships. Despite this evidence, the government and the media pundits insist that natural family planning does not work. Almost every political cartoon in the Modesto Bee over the last three weeks has mocked the Church’s proven wisdom on contraception. Now is the time for Catholics to understand what has always been taught. Now is the time to do our level best to live the genuine nobility that Christ calls us to through his holy Church.
The Battle for America goes on, now centered on the government’s “Mandate” that the Catholic Church pay for contraceptives and abortion drugs. The current Administration, and the News Media which serves it, insists that the issue is about contraception, while the Catholic Church insist that the issue is about religious freedom. Actually, both issues are at stake, but the government/media wants to talk about contraception, so let’s talk about contraception.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi declares that since most Catholic women use contraception, the Church should promote contraception. That doesn’t make sense. It would be like saying that because most college students cheat on exams, universities should promote cheating. Rep. Pelosi also falsely states that the Church (her Church, by the way) seeks to deny contraception to Americans. Also not true. Actually, what the Church seeks is simply to avoid being forced to purchase something that is gravely harmful to her employees.
The presidential administration insists that contraception is necessary health care for all Americans. But the only reason contraception would be necessary healthcare is if fertility were a disease. But fertility is the normal, healthy state of any organism. Infertility is the disorder that needs to be treated. Certainly we have to plan our families, but simply throwing artificial contraceptives at folks is hardly effective family planning. Contraceptives harm women, on a number of levels.
Contraception harms a woman’s body. In 2005, the World Health Organization declared the hormonal contraceptive a Class One Carcinogen. Is this “healthcare?” Our President would force employers to distribute artificial, cancer-causing drugs to their employees, while more effective, natural methods are available. Last year, the contraceptive companies sold $15 billion of their product and got lots of free advertising from the government. Follow the money trail to the proposed legislation…
Contraception causes immense social damage. If contraceptives are so good for society, why has family life deteriorated with their increased use? 50% of couples who contracept end up divorcing; more than half of Americans are not even getting married anymore. But only 4% of couples using natural family planning end in divorce. Is contraception good or bad for us? Most of us, as Nancy Pelosi correctly states, are dependent on contraception. But we can, and must, break the dependency. We must regain true health.