Some years before getting married I was gifted with the beautiful grace of stumbling my way back to the Catholic Church. Part of what shattered my selfish ways and sinful living was the Church teachings on human sexuality and the attractiveness of chastity.
Perhaps that is a place of tough teachings and an unlikely spot to begin embracing a life in Christ. Many remain divided. It surely is a complex matter and speaks to an area that is very vulnerable and fragile to us as individuals. It is rightfully so, because our bodies and the gift of our sexuality is incredibly sacred. To state this often rouses the defense of those who embrace life contrary to Church teachings in this area; “freedoms” perhaps feel trampled upon. There are numerous misunderstandings that further confusion and dissent.
At Mass on Sunday the second reading particularly welcomed a furthering on this topic. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
I remember concentrating on this many years ago as I sought to understand what this could mean. The idea of my body not being my own was puzzling, for I imagined that it was rightfully mine and to do with what I want and what I pleased. Yet in coming to understanding my own belonging to God, it provided the clarity to recognize the true goodness of my body and the dutiful privilege of glorifying Him.
After having spent plenty of time living in accordance to my own apparent freedoms I well understood and experienced the emptiness of life obedient to my flesh and found instead the freedom of obedience to God and striving to a fullness of life in Christ.
This naturally enabled me to embrace the teachings of the Church not in a spirit of repression or ignorance, but with an honest understanding of the good, of great love, despite the apparent difficulty, or better yet, maybe even because of it.
I well understood that we follow a crucified Savior, who was nailed to a cross, and did not sail away unscathed, but through great suffering and sacrifice. It is naturally fitting that His precepts and commands should stretch us and shatter us, yet be ever laden with great love and the building up of new life, and a freedom that we cannot know bound to the baseness of our often selfish inclinations.
Perhaps there is this assumption that those who do strive to live chastely, and those who live out marriage mindful of God’s design do so with great ease, or repression, or better yet some entitled grace limited to a selected few, and a U-Haul size van filled to the brim with children devoutly praying the rosary. All of this is incredibly misleading.
This year the Church will mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae.” In it Pope Paul VI speaks to the Church teachings surrounding sexuality, and rather beautifully shares the many ways that disobedience to these teachings would negatively impact the relations between man and woman, the family, and society at large. Perhaps greater than any wound or consequence that could have unfolded through dissenting from these teachings is to never know the fullness and the greatness of God’s plentiful Grace and sufficient provision found by venturing to walk with Him.
50 years ago Humanae Vitae caused quite the stir and today it appears the waters still ripple with resistance, yet the truth of it is greatly affirmed as we look around society today and at the reality and complexities facing married life, divorce, and the rampant way that people are being used as mere instruments void of the dignity that they deserve. Nor is marriage, for the most part, imagined with the depth of sacredness and sacrifice belonging to it, but often with the ideals of self-comforts and romantic fluff that will ever fall short.
A few months before getting married my husband bought me the encyclical as a gift. I read it then as an engaged and fresh eyed obedient chastity practicing young woman. We well knew that this would be our course. Setting out to live by the Church teachings surrounding sexuality and married life. We were ignorant of it immensely. Not of what was asked of us, because our conscience was well formed with what we knew to be true and right, but the gravity of selfishness within us remained unexplored; those things that would make impossible the attainment of authentic love.
I had no idea how much this difficult teaching would stretch me, or demand of me, and simultaneously bring to surface the sin that inhibits the perfection of marital love. I had no idea how far I had truly flown from recognizing what love was, or quite frankly the true purpose of a unitive and procreative expression of its highest virtue.
With every pang of pruning, of turbulence in periods of struggling with the ebb and flow of nature, as well as our discerned decisions, I am reminded of our shared need for growing into the authentic love that is to be lived out as husband and wife. The sacrifice and the accompaniment of it with another in times of doubt and times of difficulty strengthens the marriage bond, even if it appears to temporarily shake the foundations. It is easy perhaps to suggest dissenting away, when we face challenge and struggle. When circumstances may seem grave and present themselves causing temporary suffering. It may be tempting to give up, to give in, and to live walking the “easy path”.
In every moment of challenge in trying to navigate this journey I find myself praising Pope Paul VI for this gift all the more. The criticism due to anything surrounding it, is not for anything written within it, but for the tremendous virtue we are without in this area, and for the ways that our sin, and all its subtleties impedes the attainment of the greatness of love for which we are called.
Living married life without contraception has brought to the surface many vulnerabilities, difficulties, and necessary conversations that have forced a coming together, that have enabled the addressing of serious issues that could in other situations remain hidden away and hindering the height of love, or risk abandoning its pursuit completely.
As a woman, and a wife I see the necessity of accompaniment with my husband, and to listen to him, to not throw “prescriptions of law” at him or cite encyclicals (even though he ironically bought me Humanae Vitae) but to draw nearer to him in love, and to remain in truth, because it is here that there is freedom.
One of the most vital gifts I have been given besides strong witnesses and friends who also live out these teachings, are shepherds who do not faint away from addressing these teachings in love. The pastors who are willing to accompany us on the course to life in Christ, life in accordance to the Church, rather than bending and breaking with the culture, or to offer me some loophole away from obedience. I am grateful for the good priests always showing us the way to Love. It is not easy, it is not meant to be. A one flesh union requires some growing pains, requires some shedding, and the ascent toward authentic love chisels away everything that renders it impossible, including the painful healing of wounds necessary for greater growth together.
And so we chisel away, we shed, renew, and begin again, with our eyes ever fixed on the Eternal goal for only as such can there ever be a humbling of expectations a purifying of falsities, desires, and the means to endure the many blows and marks that time delivers.
How do we succeed in seeing the splendor and light of Humanae Vitae? By seeking to rid of the ignorance and to foster an understanding of Christian love. “It must be taught and known and loved before it is lived.”(Msgr.Vincent Foy)
Let us pray that those who teach help rid of ignorance, and through teaching scatter seeds of love, and through shared love may we so strive to collectively bear witness to living out the dignity and beauty of human life obedient in love to Christ .
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