Sex, Contraception, & the Meaning of Life

A reflection on Pope John Paul II´s "Theology of the Body."
by Christopher West | Source: Catholic.net

Discussing moral issues of the day, an European cardinal raised eyebrows by saying contraception is "way down the list" of importance. Contrast this with Cardinal Wojtyla´s statement on the tenth anniversary of Humanae Vitae that the issue of contraception is a "struggle for the value and meaning of humanity itself" (Lateranum 44, 1978). What did Wojtyla mean? Read on....

As a young priest, bishop, and later a cardinal, Karol Wojtyla devoted much of his time to pondering the mystery of conjugal love. He was gifted with remarkable insight. Little did he know that just a few months after making the above statement, he would bring his gifts to bear on the world stage as Pope John Paul II. Twenty-one years later, over two thirds of what the Church has ever officially said about marriage and sexuality has come from his pontificate.

John Paul devoted his Wednesday audiences between September 1979 and November 1984 to presenting an in-depth biblical exegesis of the mystery of marriage and human sexuality. It´s this series of audiences that is known as the "theology of the body." It was inspired by Paul VI´s statement in Humanae Vitae that the problem of birth regulation must be considered in light of a "total vision of man" (cf. n. 7). John Paul´s catechesis on the body provides this "total vision of man," or what he calls an "adequate anthropology." His insights offer a new context for understanding the teaching of Humanae Vitae and demonstrate that -- far from being "way down the list"-- this issue is of crucial importance if man is to realize the deepest truth about himself.

A "Personalist" Approach

For centuries the Church has explained the faith based on the objective, principled formulations of Aquinas, and before him, Augustine. Today, however, because the modern mindset is more subjective and experiential, such formulations are typically seen as abstractions that have little to do with the way people experience life.

This "disconnect" is keenly sensed in traditional formulations about marriage. These have been mainly "juridical" in character, focusing on the objective "duties," "rights," and "ends" of married life. Until this century, little attention has been given to the more subjective, experiential realities of inter-personal union and conjugal love.

There is an inherent danger in the modern mindset that appeals to subjective experience as the sole measure of things. We see this in the rampant moral relativism of the day. However, this "turn to the subject" is not altogether bad. We can learn a great deal about who man is as a person and his call to "nuptial love" by examining authentic human experiences.

This is what John Paul does in his theology of the body. Through this philosophical approach known as phenomenology, the Pope is able to penetrate the mystery of the human person with unprecedented clarity and precision. The honest reader can´t help but recognize his own heart being laid bare. It simply rings true. "I can identify with this," he responds. "This is the way I experience life."

John Paul´s new "personalist" approach is not a departure from the Church´s heritage, but an authentic development of it. As a Thomist who makes use of all that is good in phenomenology, John Paul is able to marry the objective and subjective world views for a "total vision of man." In bringing the two together, he avoids both abstraction and subjectivism and provides the Church with a profoundly enriched vision of sex and marriage. What we ultimately learn is that the Church´s objective moral teachings are firmly rooted in the subjective dignity of the person (human experience confirms it!). This is one of the greatest contributions of the theology of the body.

The Content of the Theology of the Body

The theology of the body consists of a searching analysis of biblical texts that reveal the mystery of the body, sexuality, and marriage at three critical "levels" of human experience: as man experienced them "in the beginning" before sin (original man); as man experiences them in human history affected by sin, yet redeemed in Christ (historical man); and as man will experience them in the resurrection of the body (eschatological man). This forms the Pope´s "adequate anthropology." He continues his catechesis by analyzing scriptural passages that reveal the meaning of celibacy and marriage in light of this "total vision of man." He concludes with a reflection on Humanae Vitae demonstrating that "the doctrine contained in this document ...is organically related to ...the whole biblical question of the theology of the body" (General Audience 11/28/84).

According to John Paul, by reflecting on these three levels of "experiencing" the body, sexuality, and marriage, we discover the very structure and deepest reality of human identityÐwe find our place in the cosmos and even penetrate the mystery of the Trinitarian God. The question of sexuality and marriage is obviously not peripheral. In fact, John Paul says the call to "nuptial love" inscribed in our bodies is "the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the "great mystery" of marriage "is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality" (General Audience 9/8/82).

This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become "one body" in marriage. How? Pointing always to the scriptures, the Holy Father reminds us that the Christian mystery itself is a mystery about marriage --the marriage between Christ and the Church. Yes, God´s plan from all eternity is to draw us into the closest communion with himself --to "marry" us. Jesus took on a body so we could become "one body" with him.

This eternal plan of God is inscribed in (and revealed through) our very being as male and female and our call to become "one body" in marriage. As St. Paul says, quoting from Genesis, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, cling to his bride, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:31, 32). Thus, as Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical on marriage, the "one flesh" union of man and woman "has been even from the beginning a foreshadowing of the Incarnation of the Word of God" (Arcanum, 1880).

Why a Theology of the Body?

The entire Christian mystery rests on the incarnation, the embodiment of God. Thus, it should not surprise us that John Paul´s catechesis deals with the body as a theology. As he puts it, "Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theologyŠthrough the main door" (General Audience 4/2/80). As the Holy Father challenges us to see, the human body possesses a "language" which enables it to proclaim and make present the eternal plan and mystery of God. "The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer in the visible reality of the world the invisible mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it" (General Audience 2/20/80). This stunning declaration brings us to the summit of John Paul´s anthropology, crystallizing his entire catechesis on the body. The human body reveals the mystery of God!

But what particular characteristic of the body allows us to understand it this way? The answer is its sexuality, its unifying complementarity as male and female. Here, in an extraordinary development of Catholic thought, John Paul takes us beyond traditional understandings of what it means to be a human person made in the image of God. While medieval philosophers developed a relational notion of the Persons in the Trinity, they didn´t translate this to their anthropology. John Paul does. For him, since God is a life-giving Communion of Persons, "man became the ´image and likeness of God´ not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons which man and woman form right from the beginning" (General Audience 11/14/79). This means the marital embrace itself is an icon of the inner-life of the Trinity!

But let us take care not to misunderstand what is being said. The fact that the male/female communion reveals something of the mystery of the Trinity´s Communion does not mean that God is sexual. God is not made in man´s image as male and female, but man in God´s.

"In the Beginning"

When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce, he pointed them to man and woman´s perfect unity "in the beginning." "Haven´t you read that in the beginning God created them as male and female and said...´the two will become one flesh.´ Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate"(Mt 19:4-6). In response to Christ´s words, John Paul turns to the Book of Genesis to shed light on God´s intention for original man. In his masterful exegesis of the creation accounts, the Holy Father speaks of this original unity of the sexes as flowing out of the human person´s experience of original solitude.

Having named all the animals, man realized he was alone in the world as a person. He alone was aware of himself and free to determine his own actions; he alone was called to love. And there was "no helper suitable for him" (Gen 2:20). Thus, it´s on the basis of this solitude -- an experience common to male and female -- that man experiences his longing to give himself away in love. For man, precisely as male and female, is made in the image and likeness of God "who is love" (Gen 1:27, 1 Jn 4:8). Love is, therefore, man´s origin, vocation, and end.

This is why "it is not good for the man to be alone" (Gen 2:18)Ð he has no one to love. So, to create a "helper suitable for him," the Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. Taking a "rib" from his side, he fashioned woman. As John Paul points out in a footnote, the word "rib" in the original biblical language is a play on the word "life" (General Audience 11/7/79). Woman comes from the very same life as the man.

As the Pope explains, "there is no doubt that man falls into that ´sleep´ [also translated ´ecstasy´] with the desire of finding a being like himself. ...In this way, the circle of the solitude of the man-person is broken, because the first ´man´ awakens from his [ecstasy] as ´male and female´" (General Audience 11/7/79). Immediately the man declares: "At last this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!" (Gen 2:23). That is to say, "Finally, a person with whom I can share the gift of life. Finally, a person I can love!"

The Nuptial Meaning of the Body

Man and woman´s common humanity is revealed through the body -- "flesh of my flesh." Yet the body also revealed their complementary differences. Man and woman are persons made "for" each other. "I can give myself [my body] to you, and you can give yourself [your body] to me, and we can live in a life-giving communion of persons" (marriages). The Pope calls this the "nuptial meaning of the body," that is, "the [body´s] capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift and -- by means of this gift -- fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence" (General Audience 1/16/80). The body has a "nuptial" meaning because, as the Second Vatican Council taught, "man can only find himself by making a sincere gift of himself" (Gaudium et Spes n. 24). Thus, "we are convinced of the fact that the awareness of the meaning of the body -- in particular, of its ´nuptial´ meaning -- is the fundamental element of human existence in the world" (General Audience 1/16/80).

Through the original experience of their bodies, man and woman realized that all of creation is a gift, and that Love is the source from which this same giving springs (cf. General Audience 1/9/80). In this state of original innocence, their nakedness revealed that they were called to share in this Love by being "gift" to one another. Before sin, the very sentiment of sexual desire was to love as God loves -- in total, fruitful self-giving and receptivity. Since they realized each was a person created "for his own sake" (cf. Gaudium et Spes 24), they knew they could not grasp or possess each other -- only receive the other in what the Pope calls "the freedom of the gift." In this freedom they saw and knew each other "with all the peace of the interior gaze, which createsŠ the fullness of the intimacy of persons" (General Audience 1/2/80). Since they lived in complete accord with the nuptial meaning of the body, the experience of original nakedness was untainted by shame (cf. Gen 2:25).

Original Sin & the Entrance of Shame

Shame enters human experience only upon the denial of Love as the source of creation. The serpent tempts the man and woman to think God is withholding himself from them --"God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will be like him" (Gen 3:5). The implication: "God doesn´t want you to be like him -- God is not "gift" -- so you must grasp this likeness to God in order to possess it for yourself." How tragic! Man had already been freely given this likeness to God as a gift -- a gift he need only receive -- but a gift now denied in his heart.

While the experience of original nakedness revealed to them the very meaning of "gift," now their experience of nakedness changed. Through the denial of the gift in God, they subsequently denied "the interior dimension of the gift" in themselves. No longer trusting in "the freedom of the gift," sexual desire, too, became a desire to grasp and possess. The other came to be seen not as a person to love, but as a thing to use for one´s selfish gratification. Thus, "The difference of the male sex and the female sex was suddenly felt and understood as an element of mutual confrontation of persons [rather than communion of persons]" (General Audience 6/4/80). In this way, nakedness in the presence of the other -- and in the presence of God -- became an experience of fear, alienation, shame. "I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid" (Gen 3:10).

As John Paul points out, the experience of shame now connected with nakedness has a double meaning. It betrays a loss of respect in man´s heart for the meaning of the body, and an inherent need to preserve it. Because of lust -- the desire to grasp, possess, use -- they lost the "peace of the interior gaze" associated with original nakedness. Man is ashamed of this loss. He is ashamed, not of the body itself, but of the lust in his "heart." However, still knowing that they were persons created by God "for their own sakes," they were keenly aware that lust violated their dignity. Covering their sexual values demonstrated an inherent need to protect the body from the degradation of lust. This is a positive function of shame.

Experience confirms the Pope´s observation, and history tells the tale of sin´s effect on man and woman´s relationship. The "heart" has become a battlefield between love and lust, habitually threatening the nuptial meaning of the body. As John Paul says, because of concupiscence (man´s disordered passions), "The human body in its masculinity and femininity has almost lost the capacity of expressing this love in which the man-person becomes a gift..." (General Audience 7/23/80).

Thus, historical man, if he is to "fulfill the very meaning of his being and existence," must win the battle in his heart over lust. He must come to see the body, once again, as the revelation of the eternal mystery of God. This, according to the Holy Father, is the meaning of purity of heart (cf. General Audience 3/18/81). Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8)Ðin the body!

The Redemption of the Body

This is the purity to which Christ is calling us when he says, "...if you even look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart" (Mt 5:28). Christ´s words lay bare the sin in man´s "heart" with pointed efficacy. Who is not condemned by them in light of his own experience? However, Christ came into the world not to condemn, but to save (Jn 3:17).

John Paul poses the question: "Are we to fear the severity of [Christ´s] words, or rather have confidence in their salvific content, in their power?" (General Audience 10/8/80). Their power lies in the fact that the man who utters them is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29). Whoever allows these words to act in his heart will hear an "echo" of that "beatifying beginning." He will taste the freedom that he lost and long for its restoration. He will feel in the depths of his heart the tragedy of sin and cry out in repentance, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ will save him.

This is the good news of the Gospel. While we cannot return to the state of original innocence, we can, through the redemption of our bodies (Ro 8:23), live and love as God intended "in the beginning." Christ has definitively revealed, fulfilled, and restored the nuptial meaning of the body by making a "sincere gift" of his body to his Bride on the cross. By doing so, Christ "fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear" (Gaudium et Spes n. 22). In a sense, John Paul´s entire theology of the body is a commentary on this teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

Man´s supreme calling is that he is made for "nuptial" communion with Christ. It´s inscribed in his very being as male and female. The tragedy of sin is that, rather than thanking God for such a great gift, man let his trust in this gift die, and sought to grasp God for himself. But the glory of the Gospel is that "he who was God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." Instead, he humbled himself taking on flesh, and in thanksgiving (eucharistia) for the gift of the Father, became obedient unto death -- even death on a cross (Phi 2:6-8).

Redemptive Suffering

Because historical man is tainted by sin, living according to the truth of the body must lead him to the cross. Restoration of communion comes only through suffering. Christ´s words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mt 27:46), speak of the New Adam´s experience of solitude, a solitude of intense suffering. Still, believing in the gift of the Father, this solitude led him to the ultimate gift of himself. In his nakedness he endured the cross, heedless of its shame (Heb 12:2).

Our redemption is won! In Christ´s own words, "It is consummated" (Jn 19:30). What is consummated? The mystical marriage of the New Adam and Eve. Christ is put into the "deep sleep" of death, and "the woman" (Jn 19:26) is immaculately conceived from his side in the flow of blood and water: figures of Baptism and Eucharist. And their mystical union gives "new birth" to the beloved disciple ("Behold your mother" [Jn 19:27]). Creation is recapitulated!

In light of the cross, how can we continue to deny the gift -- "this is my body given up for you"? All we need do is receive it. Our model in doing so is "the woman" whose fiat finds fulfillment at the foot of the cross: "Let it be done unto me according to your word." As we make her words our own, we conceive new life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. And as much as concupiscence blinds man and woman to their own truth and distorts the desires of the heart, so much does this "life according to the Holy Spirit" permit man and woman to find again the true "freedom of the gift" united to the nuptial meaning of the body (cf. General Audience 12/1/82).

The Resurrection of the Body

Since Christ, who is the resurrection (Jn 11:25), fully reveals man to himself, a "total vision of man" must also look towards the life to come. What will be the experience of the body, sexuality, and marriage for eschatological man? Christ said man will not be given in marriage at the resurrection (Mt 22:30). Does this not seem to undermine in some way all that John Paul has said up to this point about the nuptial meaning of the body? Quite the contrary! Christ´s words, in fact, point to the crowning glory of all that he has said. For in the resurrection of the body "we discover -- in an eschatological dimension --the same ...´nuptial´ meaning of the body ...in the meeting with the mystery of the living God, which is revealed through the vision of Him ´face to face´" (General Audience 12/9/81).

This face to face meeting with the mystery of God is the definitive fulfillment of the nuptial meaning of the body. For man´s ultimate end is supra-marriage, supra-communion: the communion of saints in communion with the Communion of the Trinity. Indeed, heaven is the eternal consummation of the marriage between Christ and the Church. Or, as John Paul puts it, heaven is the rediscovery of a new and perfect communion of persons, redeemed and glorified in Christ, and consolidated by complete concentration on God himself (cf. General Audience 12/16/81).

Once again, all of this is foreshadowed from "the beginning" in the creation of man and woman and their call to become "one flesh." In this sense, John Paul speaks of marriage as the primordial sacrament. But precisely as a sacrament -- an earthly sign and foreshadowing of a heavenly reality --marriage is not the final word on man. Man´s ultimate end is heaven. And there are no sacraments in heaven because they will have come to fruition. Man will no longer need signs to point him to heaven when he is in heaven. Or, as the Holy Father explains in this striking statement: "Marriage and procreation did not determine definitively the original and fundamental meaning of being a body, or of being, as a body, male and female. Marriage and procreation merely give a concrete reality to that meaning in the dimension of history" (General Audience 1/13/82). That is, earthly marriage is simply preparation for heavenly marriage.

Now the door is opened to a proper understanding of Christian celibacy. Those who are celibate "for the sake of the kingdom" (Mt 19:12) are choosing to live in the heavenly marriage on earth. They are "skipping" the sacrament to participate in the real thing. By doing so, they step beyond the dimension of history -- within the dimension of history -- and dramatically declare to the world that the kingdom of God is here (Mt 12:28). Christian celibacy is not a devaluation of marriage, but the expression on earth of its ultimate purpose and meaning!

Celibacy and marriage flow from the very same calling inscribed in man´s being to give himself away in love. As John Paul says, "...on the basis of the same nuptial meaning of being as a body, male or female, there can be formed the love that commits man to marriage for the whole duration of his life, but there can be formed also the love that commits man to a life of continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (General Audience 4/28/82). Thus, an authentic celibate vocation does not express rejection of sexuality, but flows --as does authentic Christian marriage --directly from one´s rediscovery of the true meaning of sexuality in Christ.

Furthermore, since fecundity is integrally tied to our sexuality, the terms father, mother, brother, and sister are constitutive of both marriage and celibacy. For nuptial love is of its very nature life-giving. It´s oriented towards forming a family (cf. Gaudium et Spes n. 50). All of this is setting the stage for John Paul´s reflections on Humanae Vitae. However, we can´t understand the full context of those reflections without understanding the significance of marriage as a sacramental sign.

The Sacramental Sign of Marriage

Here we must return to St. Paul´s words: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, cling to his bride, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:31, 32). "This text," says John Paul, "brings us to such a dimension of the ´language of the body´ that it could be called ´mystical´" (General Audience 7/4/84).

"Is not ´sacrament´ synonymous with ´mystery´?" he asks. "The sacrament [of marriage] consists in the ´manifesting´ of that mystery in a sign which serves not only to proclaim the mystery, but also to accomplish it in man. The sacrament is a visible and efficacious sign of grace. Through it there is accomplished in man that mystery hidden from eternity in God of which the letter to the Ephesians speaks..." (General Audience 9/8/82).

What is this "visible and efficacious sign of grace" in marriage? Some theologians have argued that it´s the wedding vows. Others have argued that it´s sexual intercourse. John Paul settles the question by recognizing that it´s both. "Indeed the very words, ´I take you as my wife -- my husband´ ...can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse." ... "[In conjugal intercourse], we pass to the reality which corresponds to these words. Both the one and the other element are important in regard to the structure of the sacramental sign..." (General Audience 1/5/83).

Sexual intercourse is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. If spouses are faithful to their vows in their sexual expressions, they speak the "language of their bodies" in truth. This, according to the Holy Father, is the essential element for marriage as a sacrament: the "language of the body" spoken in truth. It is precisely by means of this that the sacramental sign is constituted (cf. General Audience 1/12/83).

Let´s pause for a moment to drink in what John Paul is saying here. Sexual intercourse, spoken in truth, is a sacramental sign that proclaims the eternal mystery of God in the world -- his Trinitarian life, and our call to share in that life through Christ. Not only does it proclaim this mystery -- it actually accomplishes it in man. Sex, as an efficacious symbol of the Trinity and of Christ´s union with the Church, is a real participation in divine life (or, at least, is meant to be). John Paul goes so far as to say that the visible sign of marriage (sexual intercourse), inasmuch as it is linked to the visible sign of Christ and the Church (the Eucharist), transfers God´s eternal plan of love into history and becomes "the foundation of the entire sacramental order" (General Audience 9/29/82). Yes -- the Vicar of Christ is saying that sexual intercourse is the fundamental revelation in the created world of the eternal mystery of God (and some say this Pope is down on sex?).

Satan´s Scheme

In contrast to our call to "put on the mind of Christ," let me encourage the reader for a moment to put on the mind of Satan. Satan hates man. He is envious of our being created in the image of God and our call to participate in divine life. From "the beginning" he has set out to keep us from God´s life, as our reflection on original sin has already shown.

If it´s through sexual intercourse, spoken in truth, that we most profoundly image God; and if it´s sexual intercourse, spoken in truth, that is "the foundation of the entire sacramental order" (the foundation of God´s communication of divine life to man), where might Satan go to keep us from imaging God and participating in divine life? If Satan can convince man to distort the foundation of all sacramental signs, he will have gone a long way in effectively blocking the revelation of God´s life and love in the world. According to the very nature of sacraments -- absent an accurate symbol, absent that sacrament´s effect.

Recall that on the basis of his original solitude, man is free to determine his own actions. He can choose to speak the language of the body in truth. Or, he can choose to falsify that language by speaking a lie. The goal of the "father of lies" was to get man to join him in speaking his native tongue. Tragically, he succeeded and man lost purity of heart. That is, he lost sight of the truth of his body as the revelation of the eternal mystery of God. Thus, as John Paul puts it, "Sin and death entered man´s history, in a way, through the very heart of that unity which, from ´the beginning,´ was formed by man and woman, created and called to become ´one flesh´" (General Audience 3/5/80).

Sexual union, the Holy Father says, is "a test of life and death." Here, man and woman "find themselves in the situation in which the powers of good and evil fight and compete against each other" (General Audience 6/27/84). It is historical man, the man of concupiscence, who habitually fails to "re-read the ´language of the body´ in truth" (cf. General Audience 2/9/83).

Of Human Life (Humanae Vitae)

John Paul´s biblical reflection on the body provides us with the richest possible context for understanding the importance of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. If sexual intercourse, spoken in truth, is the "foundation of the entire sacramental order," contracepted intercourse is the foundation of the entire sacrilegious order.

Harsh words. An exaggeration perhaps? Not if we understand the significance of John Paul´s theology of the body. In this light, contracepted intercourse is a counter-sign of the mystery of the Trinity. Contracepted intercourse recapitulates the very dynamic of original sin. And contracepted intercourse is a counter-sign of Christ´s union with the Church.

Counter-sign of the mystery of the Trinity: Sexual intercourse, as God created it to be, speaks the language of his own Trinitarian mystery. It proclaims: "God is life-giving love." However, sexual intercourse intentionally sterilized by man speaks a very different language. It proclaims the native tongue of the "father of lies": "God is not life-giving love." Contracepted intercourse thus denies that man is made in the image of the Trinity as male and female.

Recapitulation of the dynamic of original sin: Original sin was man´s denial of the gift of God´s life and love. Is not sexual intercourse the door through which God gives life to man? It is this gift that man and woman willfully reject through contraception. Furthermore, the nuptial meaning of the body reveals the call of man and woman to image God´s love by becoming a total "gift" to one another. As stated earlier, through the "denial of the gift" in God, they subsequently denied "the interior dimension of the gift" in themselves. Contracepted intercourse dramatically re-presents this. As John Paul says, "[contracepted intercourse] 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" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 32, emphasis added). "Such a violation of the interior order of conjugal union ...constitutes the essential evil of the contraceptive act" (General Audience 8/22/84).

Counter-sign of Christ´s union with the Church: As previously discussed, at the cross we are witness to the consummation of the mystical marriage of the New Adam and Eve. Intercourse is meant to be an efficacious symbol of this reality. If husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5:25), the language of intercourse must be that of Christ´s on the cross: "this is my body given up for you" (Lk 22:19). If wives are to submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Eph 5:24), the language of intercourse must be that of "the woman´s": "Let it be done unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). However, contracepted intercourse says: "This is my body not given up for you;" and, "Let it not be done unto me according to your word." Contracepted intercourse is a counter-sign of the very gift of our redemption.

Conjugal Spirituality

The precise role of conjugal love, according to John Paul , is to safeguard the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meanings of intercourse (cf. General Audience 10/10/84). This cannot be properly lived out, however, unless spouses experience "the redemption of their bodies" through "life according to the Spirit." Through the grace of the sacrament, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are at work in the spiritual life of married couples, especially the gift of piety, which, according to the Holy Father, is the gift of respect for the work of God.

A proper sense of piety in conjugal life "…leads to understanding among the possible ´manifestations of affection,´ the singular, or rather exceptional, significance of [the conjugal] act: its dignity and the consequent serious responsibility connected with it. Therefore, the antithesis of conjugal spirituality is constituted, in a certain sense, by the subjective lack of this understanding which is linked to contraceptive practice and mentality" (General Audience 11/21/84, emphasis added).

Let´s ponder this. The goal of authentic conjugal spirituality is to live a marital life "according to the Spirit," that is, according to the "great mystery" hidden in God from all eternity which was foreshadowed in creation, and definitively revealed through the Incarnation and Redemption. It´s the gift of the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand the conjugal act as an efficacious sign of this mystery. This is the "singular, or rather exceptional, significance" of the conjugal act, of which John Paul speaks. Only by rejecting the gift of the Holy Spirit does man fail to understand the conjugal act in this way.

What is intentionally sterilized intercourse if not a rejection of the Lord and Giver of life? This is why contraceptive practice and mentality constitute the antithesis of authentic conjugal spirituality.

In Conclusion

When Jesus spoke about his real presence in the Eucharist many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" From that point on, many no longer followed him (Jn 6:60,66). Keeping in mind the intimate relation between the Eucharist and the marital embrace, it´s not too much to draw a comparison with the way Christ´s disciples today have responded to Humanae Vitae.

Ultimately, what is at stake here is a question of faith —- the same question of faith that the first married couple confronted in the garden: Do we believe in the gift of God? The gift of God is that he created us as male and female in his image and likeness in order to grant us a participation in his divine life. Faith in the gift of God enables us to live and love according to this truth which we discover precisely through the nuptial meaning of our bodies.

Historical man, he who has denied this gift, is marked by concupiscence, by a failure to "re-read" the nuptial meaning of the body in all its truth. If we look only at this reality, we find the Church´s teaching too difficult to bear. We conclude that it simply doesn´t correspond to the concrete possibilities of man.

"But what are the ´concrete possibilities of man´?" John Paul retorts. "And of what man are we speaking? Of man dominated by concupiscence, or of man redeemed by Christ? For this is the matter under consideration: the reality of the redemption of Christ. Christ has redeemed us! He has liberated our liberty from the domination of concupiscence. This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being (Discourse to Participants in a Course on Responsible Procreation, 3/1/84). This is why the issue of contraception, as Cardinal Wojtyla recognized in 1978, is a "struggle for the value and meaning of humanity itself" (Lateranum 44, 1978).

Through the sacraments—the "great nuptial mysteries"—the redemption Christ won for us on the cross is made fruitful in our lives. As John Paul puts it, "The sacraments inject sanctity into the plan of man´s humanity: they penetrate the body and soul, the femininity and masculinity of the personal subject, with the power of sanctity" (General Audience 7/4/84). This is the Good News of the Gospel that the Church never fails to proclaim for the salvation of every man and woman. This is the Good News with which the teaching of Humanae Vitae confronts us.

Let us not empty the cross of its power, but let us repent and believe in the Good News (Mk 1:15). Let us allow the Holy Spirit to purify our hearts so that we might see sexual intercourse as the revelation of the eternal mystery of God that it is.


Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute.

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