May 11, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

Three popes share loving voice on married love

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Paul VI was courageous; he was a good pastor, and he warned his flock of the wolves who were coming.”
(Pope Francis, Meeting with Families, Manila, Philippines, on Jan. 16, 2015)

Nearly 50 years have passed since Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote his prophetic encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“On the Regulation of Birth”). This encyclical was controversial because it refused to separate the two purposes of sexual intercourse: the loving union of a woman and man in marriage and their participation in the generation of new human life. It, therefore, affirms the Church’s opposition to abortion, sterilization and artificial birth control.

Unfortunately, the controversy too often blinds readers to the powerful underlying affirmation of love and sexuality of “Humanae Vitae.” “Love is total,” Blessed Paul writes, “that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (“Humanae Vitae,” #9).

The Church’s view of love and sexuality is not harsh or negative. Even when Church teaching calls for discipline and restraint, challenging us to see sex as a gift to be treasured and reserved for marriage—not as a casual form of recreation or self‑gratification—the beauty and importance of human sexuality are affirmed. “Married love particularly reveals its true nature when we realize that it takes its origin from God, who is ‘love,’ the father from whom every family in heaven and on Earth is named” (“Humanae Vitae,” #8).

St. John Paul II expanded on this teaching about love and sexuality. He spoke often about “the original unity between man and woman” in God’s design. He also emphasized the integral connection between married love and the duties of responsible parenthood. The 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” (“On the Role of the Family in the Modern World”) refers to marriage as “the foundation of the wider community of the family, since the very institution of marriage and conjugal love are ordained to the procreation and education of children” (“Familiaris Consortio,” #14).

In “Familiaris Consortio,” St. John Paul says, “the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God’s goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which cast a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendor of that ‘Yes,’ that ‘Amen,’ who is Christ himself. To the ‘No’ which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living ‘Yes,’ thus defending the human person and the world from all who plot against and harm life ” (“Familiaris Consortio,” #30).

Once again, the prophetic voice of “Humanae Vitae” is heard, but without a harsh or judgmental tone. According to St. John Paul, “Humanae Vitae” is a compassionate encyclical. “Christ has come not to judge the world but to save it, and while he was uncompromisingly stern toward sin, he was patient and rich in mercy toward sinners” (“Veritatis Splendor,” #95).

Pope Francis has echoed the sentiments of his predecessors many times. During a talk in Manila on Jan. 16, 2015, the pope said, “I think of Blessed Paul VI. At a time when the problem of population growth was being raised, he had the courage to defend openness to life in families. He knew the difficulties that are there in every family, and so in his encyclical he was very merciful toward particular cases, and he asked confessors to be very merciful and understanding in dealing with particular cases. But he also had a broader vision.”

In his 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“On Love in the Family”), Pope Francis cites the core teaching of “Humanae Vitae” when he says, “From the outset, love refuses every impulse to close in on itself; it is open to a fruitfulness that draws it beyond itself. Hence no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life” (“Amoris Laetitia,” #80).

“Amoris Laetitia” also references “Humanae Vitae” #13 in emphasizing that married love requires reverence and respect. “We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Hence it must be clearly reaffirmed that ‘a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife’ ” (“Amoris Laetitia,” #154).

For 50 years now, we have heard our popes speak with one prophetic, loving voice. They remind us forcefully—but without any harshness—that human life depends on the unity of body and soul, and that sexual love belongs exclusively to a loving union between a woman and man who are open to life. All efforts to separate sex and marriage trivialize this profound truth and make love a commodity.

As we observe the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae,” let’s pray for the courage to accept this prophetic teaching as we cherish the gift of our sexuality. †

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