Monday, January 14, 2013

IHS or HHS: Proposing or Imposing?

SPOILER ALERT:  In this month of reflection on the theme of the Holy Spirit as
“Lord and giver of Life,” the following reflection takes seriously the beauty of
the Catholic vision of love and human sexuality.
 If you are open to (re)considering it, please read on!
Were you ever fortunate enough to have a teacher who helped change your life?  As a junior in college in the mid-80s, I took a morality class with Prof. Janet Smith who had the audacity to make us read and debate Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on the transmission of human life, Humanae Vitae.  I can say with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t have my marriage and family without having read this papal document. Quite simply, it opened my mind and heart to the beauty of the Church’s vision of married love and human sexuality.

In that class, many of us were 20 year-old masters of self-justification.  Even if we weren’t simply rationalizing our own moral decisions, we were all pretty clear that no one was going to tell us how we should live our lives—particularly the Church!  Prof. Smith was persistent in proposing the fullness of the faith, however.  She made it clear that we were being invited to a way of life which not only required virtue, but also brought the potential for lifelong transformation.  And we knew from experience that, if we didn’t open ourselves to the Christian vision of love and sexuality, the world was more than ready to impose its way of life on us.

After all, the “Free Love” of the 60s and 70s had proven itself bankrupt.  It turns out that such “freedom” has lots of price tags (unplanned pregnancies; sexually transmitted diseases; emotional scars; etc.).  In the 80s, the secular agenda had morphed into the “Safe Sex” movement.  Of course, this would quickly be unmasked as another fallacy, once the failure rates of contraceptives became more widely known and the STDs continued mutating.  It turns out that so-called “protection” does not bring “prevention," and now secular forces have turned to “Reproductive Rights” as the latest euphemism for a failed social experiment (i.e., a 50% divorce rate, over 50 million abortions in the past 40 years, babies being born out of wedlock at a current rate of 40%--not to mention an epidemic of STDs).

As a junior in college I couldn’t see into this future (though Pope Paul VI prophetically predicted all this and more in paragraph 17 of the encyclical).  In fact, I apparently couldn’t really see myself getting married, since I told friends I’d be at least 30 or 35 if and when I wed.  Needless to say, they teased me relentlessly when I got married at 24 :)

So what happened in those discussions of Humanae Vitae and in subsequent months, as I continued my slow reversion and immersion into the faith of my childhood?  I basically heard the Good News as if for the first time:  Life is beautiful.  Love is meant to be shared—fully and forever.  Sex is God’s invention, and it is meant for both the procreation of children and the uniting of husband and wife.  Both babies and bonding are blessings.  Catholicism isn't a bunch of medieval rules; it's a timeless way of life handed on from Christ himself.  It's the path to Happiness.

I also came to believe in true love:  Why couldn’t an infinite and loving God have a plan for each and every person on the face of the earth, including me?  And if I was called to the vocation of marriage, why couldn’t I live a life of fully human love in accord with God’s plan for man and woman?  Of course, I knew it would require some self-sacrifice and plenty of authentic self-giving, but wouldn’t I be willing to do that for my beloved?  And hadn't Love become Incarnate, promising all the grace necessary to live a sacramental marriage?

Fast forwarding 25 years, I am somehow more grateful for my incredible wife than ever before.  Besides exhibiting a heroic sense of humor and somehow managing to laugh at almost all of my jokes, Tracy has demonstrated a courage and gracefulness that are hard to find--particularly as we married and raced off through 4 moves and the birth of our 5 children in 3 different states, all within the first eleven years of our marriage.  After all, she didn't have the same teacher I had my junior year, and she didn’t have as much time to work through the Church’s teachings when we got engaged.  She had to trust me and then begin exploring on her own.  She had to open herself to the invitation of the Church to “come and see,” and to believe in the possibility of more for our marriage and family.  Indeed, as we explored the University of Creighton's method of Natural Family Planning and discovered the wonders that modern science had discovered about a woman’s fertility cycle, an almost common-sense attitude came over my wife.  It just made sense.  And it has made all the difference for our marriage ever since.

So why does the world not know the beauty of the Church’s vision?  Why has NFP been dismissed as your great-grandma’s “rhythm method,” rather than explored as the cutting-edge, marriage-enhancing and holistic method of both achieving and spacing pregnancies which it is?  Why haven’t people heard that the divorce rate for couples who follow the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception have a divorce rate of only 2%? 

It’s time for Catholic lay men and women to share the beauty of our now counter-cultural vision of the human person. After all, Catholicism and secularism propose alternative world-views—alternatives claims about the meaning of life, love, sexuality, and the human person.  And each is a distinct way of life.  Catholicism proposes self-giving and self-sacrificing love, the call to make a sincere gift of one's self, and the integration of sexuality within the human person through the virtue of chastity.  One of the prime expressions of this is Bl. John Paul II's groundbreaking Theology of the Body.  Secularism imposes a world defined by self-seeking and self-gratification--and the quest for a sterile sexuality in which the only governing law is the "rules of consent" (both parties want to, so therefore they ought to).  Evidence for this can be seen in the HHS Mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, which is being challenged by dozens of lawsuits in federal courts across the country.

It is a tragedy that many good Christians have never been presented with the fullness of the Gospel’s vision of life, love, sexuality, and the human person.  It’s disappointing that many Catholics were misled about what the Church actually teaches, or never heard the “why” behind the “what.”  But Christianity is the religion of fresh starts: Now is the time to rediscover the wisdom and truth that comes both through God’s revelation and the natural law.  After all, we will either give witness to true love, or we will accommodate our principles to those of the secular world. 

For centuries, Christians have looked to the Cross and heard the words, “In this sign, you will conquer” (In Hoc Signo--or IHS--in the Latin).  Jesus not only shows us what self-giving and self-sacrificing love look like--full, faithful, fruitful, and forever.  But he also gives us the grace to live this love. 

If you've read this far, thank you.  Let's continue (re)considering how the Holy Spirit is calling us to witness to a life and a love that's worth sharing!