By Bishop James Conley
Before he was elected pope, St. Pope John Paul II wrote, in a book entitled “Love and Responsibility,” “Take away from love the fullness of self-surrender, the completeness of personal commitment, and what remains will be a total denial and negation of it.”
In 2014, I wrote a pastoral letter The Language of Love addressed to Catholic families and healthcare providers in the Diocese of Lincoln. In this letter, I addressed the Church’s vision for married life and human sexuality.
In this letter, I noted that living out the true nature of married life is not easy. In fact, it requires sacrifice. Sacrifice is the language of love. Sacrifice is the language that God speaks.
As children of God, we are made to reflect the love of God. Divine revelation teaches us that God is a Trinity—a community of persons, a community of love. For all eternity, the Father gives himself to the Son, who receives that gift and gives of himself back to the Father. The love between them is the person of the Holy Spirit.
We come to know the love of the Blessed Trinity profoundly through Christ’s paschal mystery. Jesus does the will of the Father, even though it leads to his death. We are made to reflect the Blessed Trinity. God made us to love and receive love, and this means we are called to self-surrender, and, at times, to sacrifice.
From the beginning, God designed marriage as an institution to ensure permanence, unity and fruitfulness within the relationship. To be sure, throughout human history we observe that sin has harmed the institution of marriage, but sin does not have the last word. Jesus, through his paschal mystery has redeemed us, and, in turn, raised the dignity of the institution of marriage to that of a sacrament. Through the sacrament of marriage, married couples reflect the life of the Trinity and Christ’s love for the Church.
God has created human beings to delight in the marital act to bring forth greater love in the married couple, and also to bring forth new human beings. The Lord gives couples the ineffable blessing of allowing them to be cooperators with him in the creation of these children of God, created with immortal souls, created to be with God for all eternity.
As Jesus says in the Gospel, “everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required…” (Lk 12:48). With this great gift comes responsibility. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has always taught that rejecting the gift of children erodes the love between husband and wife: it distorts the unitive and procreative nature of marriage. The use of contraception gravely and seriously disrupts the sacrificial, holy, and loving meaning of marriage itself.
On October 14, 2018, we celebrated the canonization of St. Pope Paul VI, a man who was known for guiding the Church through difficult times during his 15-year pontificate. His predecessor, Pope St. John XXIII, died during the Second Vatican Council. The council was suspended, but St. Paul VI re-opened the Council after he was elected pope in 1963. After the Council was completed in 1965, St. Paul VI spearheaded the implementation of the Council, which was a challenge, given some of the confusion and misinterpretation of its reforms.
St. Paul VI led the Church at a time when atheistic communism was spreading throughout the world. It was a time of great anxiety, as the threat of nuclear war was on the hearts and minds of many in the world.
Perhaps most memorably, St. Paul VI dealt head-on with what is often referred to as the “sexual revolution” and the rise in the use of contraception, especially after the invention of the birth control pill. In his famous encyclical letter Humanae Vitae, promulgated in 1968, St. Paul VI expressed clearly the two ends of marriage: the procreative and the unitive. He knew that contraception violated what marriage really is.
In Humanae Vitae, St. Paul VI predicted the effects of a contraceptive mentality. He taught that a contraception mentality would lead to an increase in marital infidelity and a “general lowering of moral standards,” disrespect for and objectification of women, and government intrusion by way of aggressive population control programs that violate the sovereignty of the family.
Unfortunately, St. Paul VI’s predictions were correct. Contraception has conditioned men and women, and therefore the cultures which they form, to deny the obvious and intrinsic relationship between sex and the conception of new life.
The week of July 21-27 is National Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week, which always falls near the anniversary of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, June 25. The Church recommends NFP as a method for making choices about engaging in fruitful sexual relations. NFP does not destroy the power to give life: instead, it challenges couples to discern prayerfully when to engage in life-giving sexual acts.
Natural Family Planning is a reliable and trustworthy way to regulate fertility, is easy to learn, and can be a source of unity for couples. Using NFP requires sacrifice and patience, but sacrifice and patience are not obstacles to love, they are a part of love itself.
Bishops, priests, theologians, and catechists need to continue to teach clearly and charitably Our Lord’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. The truths of Jesus Christ do not change because of the changing of cultural norms. They are to be taught when they are popular and unpopular. However, for these teachings to make a greater impact on our culture, there needs to be witness.
There are many Catholics who make the sacrifice to abide by the perennial teachings of the Church in regard to marriage and sexuality. I would encourage you to share this light with those around you. Those living it should be expressing, couple to couple, friend to friend, the joys—and sacrifices—of living married life as God designed it.