I was pleased to see a recent notice on the Archdiocesan website indicating that a local couple was advancing an apostolate on the Sacrament of Marriage, named “Marriages For Mary”, imploring the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and endeavouring “to lead couples to live out fully and joyfully the vocation of marriage.”
Immediately I was curious as to whether these retreats, talks and teaching specifically and deliberately promote official Church teaching, as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2366-2372, on the matter of contraception. I wondered whether, in their efforts to restore and strengthen marriages and help spouses onwards in holiness, did they emphasize the importance—and obligation—of each and every conjugal act being open to the gift of life, as outlined and set forth in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae? Did they point couples to Natural Family Planning whenever serious reasons existed to limit family size at a particular moment in time?
Reading through some of the apostolate’s material, I noticed that sessions were offered on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which would seem to indicate recognition of the urgency and truth of Church teaching in this matter. Far too many Church leaders today either ignore or outrightly deny the teaching of Christ and His Church on this subject, or carefully avoid the subject and follow the “safe” route of silence.
I recently blogged on this very alarming reality after a recent conversation with a priest:
Naturally, given this local response and the history of Humanae Vitae in Canada, I would be hesitant to assume official Church teaching was being promoted in our Archdiocese in connection with this apostolate. Unfortunately, and this is one very sad aspect of the reality of our present day Catholic Church crisis, I cannot help but wonder (doubt) whether Catholics attending such marriage seminars are hearing the fullness of truth possessed by Holy Mother Church, more especially since dissent and denial in this area of theology is rampant today in the Canadian Church.
I wondered also about the full import of claiming the motto "Do whatever He tells you" if leaders were not at the same time boldly proclaiming the fullness of Catholic doctrine which Christ committed to His Church. If they were equivocating—as a great many are doing today—on this most crucial aspect of the truth of God's plan for marriage, they were risking a great deal, not only in their own relationship with Christ and Mary, but also in the very marriages they sought to strengthen, and which might be hinging on that exact truth.
I am happy to report that after contacting the leaders, Gerard and Rita McCarthy, of this bold initiative, I have been assured that all that they do is “in line with the truth of Church teaching”. They indicate they are supported and guided by several Holy Priests and the Archbishop. Daily Mass, Adoration, Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Rosary are included at all retreats. I have committed to keep these folks and their apostolate in my prayers.
I was very happy to hear these affirmations. Archbishop Currie has indicated his support for the work of this Apostolate by way of notice on the Archdiocesan website.
Unfortunately, there is much confusion in my mind where Archbishop Currie stands in regard to the Church’s teaching on contraception. The majority of Bishops in Canada since Humanae Vitae have hardly taken that encyclical seriously, many of them dismissing its truths as too radical and difficult for the average Catholic. In fact the Bishops Conference in 1968 wrote a dissenting response to the papal encyclical and it has never been withdrawn.
For the record, I have NEVER EVER heard a homily or any other preaching-teaching reference to contraception or to Humanae Vitae since I became a Catholic in 2003 and returned to Newfoundland. References even to abortion have been very rare indeed, especially from priests; not surprising, given the connection between the "two fruits of the same tree" (according to Pope John Paul II). Even prayers for an end to abortion seem to be relegated to the backrooms and private prayer. Taking the matter one step further, even references to other aspects of the Moral Law, such as non-marital sex, masturbation, adultery, homosexuality are also extremely rare, if not non-existent, depending on the parish.
My recent blog article, noted above, illustrates the shocking truth of what one local priest said to me in regard to church teaching on contraception, and, incidentally, I have a great deal of respect for this otherwise outstanding priest. However, he denied altogether that it was a grave sin, let alone intrinsically evil and contrary to married love. As far as he knew other priests of the diocese and in Canada believe likewise and see absolutely no connection whatever between contraception and abortion. To him, there really wasn’t such a phenomenon as the “contraceptive mentality.” In the confessional he did not treat contraception as a sin.
It’s difficult to imagine then that Archbishop Currie adheres in heart and mind to Church teaching on contraception. It appears that he would rather allow Catholics to persist in routine, copious actions which are objectively evil than make any public statements or inform his priests how they should handle the truth of Church teaching regarding the moral law. A search on the archdiocesan website for the term “contraception” yields no results. A search for “Humanae Vitae” finds no results, even though other encyclicals can be found. The page on marriage reads like a how-to manual on the sure steps to take to end a marriage and secure an annulment. The majority of the information is NOT about marriage but about getting out of a marriage with the blessing of the Church. Not a word is mentioned about what is perhaps the greatest evil that destroys marriages today, i.e. contraception, or not a word about how adherence to Church teaching on marriage as outlined by Humanae Vitae ought to be the Catholic norm. I am not aware of any related statement on the subject by Archbishop Currie which might warn the faithful or set them on the straight and narrow road.
To my knowledge, Catholics in our diocese are quite typical of Catholics elsewhere, in that the rates of contraception, divorce, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and yes, even abortion, are approximately equal to that of the general population. Isn’t this a crisis of epidemic proportions that needs urgent addressing? Yet no record of one letter, such as this one, from the shepherd of the diocese to guide the sheep. Perhaps he is too timid and greatly fears controversy but if that is the case, then our Lord cannot be pleased, but rather provoked, given the grave and destructive consequences of remaining silent, some of which are linked to the terrible holocaust in Canada of unborn children. Evil actions must be exposed and condemned for what they are.
Needless to say, I was very encouraged to hear the leaders of “Marriages For Mary” maintain that they were permitted to teach the fullness of Catholic truth on marriage. However, the blatant dichotomy presented I find quite astounding.
And so what remains to be said at this point? What would I say to any leader who hopes to help couples repair and strengthen their vocation of marriage and live out a fulfilling and God-glorifying marriage? I am no expert myself in this area although after 40+ years of married life I have learned a little. But personal experience aside, as a serious-minded, faithful Catholic, I must affirm that no marriage can be truly successful without coming into conformity to the standards of God as revealed in the teachings of Christ entrusted to Holy Mother Church. Granted, everyone fails at some point to live up to these objective standards in one way or another but the grace of God is given to assist us in our efforts to make our marriages reflect the love that Christ has for His Church, making them “an efficacious sign or sacrament of Jesus’ presence.”
Clearly then, it is not sufficient to emphasize only the easier aspects of our duties to God and to our spouse in the Sacrament of Matrimony. We must move on to the weightier—sometimes more basic—aspects as well if we expect, and rightly so, that marriage will help conform us to the image of Christ, again, only by the grace of God. Even more important is it to move on to the hard—but soul-satisfying—teachings of the Church on marriage if we hope to lift couples out of the quagmire of self-indulgence and relativism that is about to, or will ultimately, destroy their marriage.
What are these hard but indispensable teachings that are essential to bring renewal and new life to all married couples seeking help?
1. Every marriage must possess openness to fertility.
CCC1652 By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.
CCC2366 Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful. A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment. So the Church, which is "on the side of life," teaches that "it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life." "This particular doctrine, expounded on numerous occasions by the Magisterium, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act."
2. Contraception is forbidden by the Church.
CCC2370 Periodic continence, that is, 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. In contrast, “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil:
Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality. . . . The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality.
[NOTE: Hard truths numbers 3 and 4, which follow, are not exclusive to marriage but are rather the standard battle gear of the Catholic for dealing with sin and forgiveness. Given the current crisis in catechesis in Canadian parishes due to the failure of priests and Bishops to teach the Moral Law, a great number of Catholics are either ignorant of these teachings or have been subtly programmed to avoid taking them seriously. A strong argument can be made, I believe, for attributing the pervasive breakdown in marriage to failures by ordinary Catholics to recognize and deal with the everyday dynamics of sin in their lives through traditional (Magisterial) directives. Marriage seminar leaders are first of all Catholics and have a duty to watch out for the souls of fellow Catholics, which makes it imperative that they be discerning with their audience and deal thoroughly with fundamentals, wherever warranted, before moving on to enrichment topics. The most potent resolution to moral failures by a Catholic is a new found respect for the Church’s wisdom in helping sinners save their souls. However much might be the temptation or pressure to avoid any of the hard truths, the truth cries out to be heard, to the salvation of souls.]
3. Intrinsically evil actions, such as contraception, constitute objectively grave, or mortal, sin. All Catholics need to be educated, if they have not been already, on the nature and conditions of mortal sin. Any understanding which is less than Catholic and less than complete on this subject places the soul of the Catholic in an extremely precarious position. Discussing and educating on the keys to a successful marriage while avoiding a full treatment of the possibility of grave sin is utter folly, similar in recklessness to teaching a driver to keep within the speed limit, all the while driving on the wrong side of the road!
CCC1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
4. All mortal sins must be confessed to a priest in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, outside of which there can be no absolution of sin. Mortal sin is a state of definitive self-exclusion from God, which is a sure pathway to Hell if not dealt with properly.
CCC1456 Confession to a priest is an essential part of the sacrament of Penance: "All mortal sins of which penitents after a diligent self-examination are conscious must be recounted by them in confession, even if they are most secret and have been committed against the last two precepts of the Decalogue; for these sins sometimes wound the soul more grievously and are more dangerous than those which are committed openly."
When Christ's faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon. But those who fail to do so and knowingly withhold some, place nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, "for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know."
CCC1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
These teachings are in no way debatable or subject to an argument of “conscience.” Any attempt to avoid or minimize the seriousness of the sin of contraception in marriage is fatal to both marriage and to the faith. In rare teaching situations today where the Church teaching, as outlined above, is presented, there is immense pressure to cite these statements as ideal, controversial, perhaps unrealistic, goals which everyone may not agree with. Furthermore, the listener may be left with the impression that marriage partners must work this teaching out between themselves over time, coming to a suitable agreement. Is the underlying message heard too often that you needn’t worry about contraception right now; you’ve got bigger things on your plate? Dangerous subtleties such as these negate the urgency and non-negotiable nature of this vital truth of the marriage covenant and place souls, as well as marriages, at risk.
As Bishop Galeone cautioned in his pastoral letter to the faithful “Marriage: A Communion of Life and Love”:
Many Catholics who make use of contraceptives claim that they are doing nothing wrong since they are merely obeying the dictates of their conscience. After all, doesn’t the Church teach that we must follow our conscience to decide if a behavior is right or wrong? Yes, that’s true provided that it’s a properly formed conscience. Specifically, we must all conform our individual consciences to the natural law and the Ten Commandments, just as we have to adjust our clocks to sun time…
Not until married couples understand the basic demands of marriage, as a whole entity, along with the Catholic dynamics of sin and forgiveness, will they be able to respond in complete obedience to the Lord’s command regarding this mysterious Sacrament. Only after such obedience will they discover the truly heavenly dimension of marriage, that is, its “sacramental character as a fountain of grace.”
To sell marriage short of the “hard” truths is to deny the grace of God to those souls whose very joy in marriage depends upon it. More basic and thus more important than praying together, conflict resolutions, renewal of marriage vows, talking together, intercessions, practicing love languages, eating together, playing together, etc. is individual adherence to essential Catholic teaching which instructs us in our “Life In Christ” and the maintenance of a healthy relationship with God, free from sin and other earthly encumbrances.