July 25th marks the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s famous re-affirmation of the Church’s constant teaching on contraception. In commemoration, we continue our reflections on this critical issue [Part one, Part two, Part three].
I ended my last column by asking: How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their wedding vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever increasing commitment to them? Then I stated, if you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae.
This is what is at stake: fidelity to the wedding vows; fidelity to love. At the altar, the priest or deacon asks the couple: “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Do you promise to be faithful until death? Do you promise to receive children lovingly from God?” The bride and groom each say “yes.”
In turn, spouses are meant to express this same “yes” with the “language of their bodies” whenever they become one flesh. Sexual intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. Or, at least, it’s meant to be.
Everything the Church teaches about sex begins to make sense when viewed through this lens. The Church’s teaching is not a prudish list of prohibitions. It’s a call to embrace our own “greatness,” our own God-given dignity. It’s a call to live the love we so ardently desire. It’s a call to embrace divine love and share it with one’s spouse bodily.
John Paul II goes so far as to describe the body and sexual union as “prophetic.” A prophet is someone who speaks for God, who proclaims his mystery of love. This is what the marital embrace is meant to proclaim. But, as the Pope adds, we must be careful to distinguish true and false prophets (see TOB 106:4). If we can speak the truth with our bodies, we can also speak lies.
As a sacrament, marriage not only signifies God’s life and love, it really participates in God’s life and love. However, for sacraments to convey God’s life and love, the physical sign must accurately signify the spiritual reality. For example, through the physical sign of cleansing with water, baptism truly brings about a spiritual cleansing from sin. But if you were to baptize someone with mud or tar, no spiritual cleansing would take place because the physical sign is now one of making dirty. This would actually be a counter-sign or an “anti-sacrament.”
All of married life is meant to be a sign of God’s life and love. But nowhere do spouses signify this more profoundly than when they become “one flesh.” Here, like no other moment in married life, spouses are called to participate in God’s life and love. But this will only happen if their sexual union accurately signifies God’s love. Therefore, as John Paul II concludes, we can speak of moral good and evil in the sexual relationship based on whether the couple gives to their union “the character of a truthful sign” (TOB 37:6).
Insert contraception into the language of the body and (knowingly or unknowingly) the couple engages in a counter-sign of God’s mystery, a kind of “anti-sacrament.” Rather than proclaiming, “God is life-giving love,” the language of contracepted intercourse says, “God is not life-giving love.” In this way spouses (knowingly or unknowingly) become “false prophets.” They blaspheme. Their bodies still proclaim theology, but not Christian theology; not a theology of the God who reveals himself as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit. Contracepted sex, whether we realize this or not, attacks our creation in the image of the Trinity at its roots. From this perspective we can see that contraception is actually a sly betrayal of the deepest truth of our humanity.
The language of the body has “clear-cut meanings” all of which are “programmed,” John Paul II observes, in the vows. For example, to “the question: ‘Are you ready to accept children lovingly from God …?’ the man and the woman answer, ‘Yes’” (TOB 105:6, 106:3). If spouses say “yes” at the altar, but then render their union sterile, wouldn’t they be lying with their bodies? Wouldn’t they be speaking against their vows?
Why, then, does the Church accept the practice of natural family planning? We’ll see in the next column.
[Editor’s note: Please enjoy regular features from this and other enlightening authors discussing Catholic teaching on sexuality in CE’s Theology of the Body channel.]
This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (http://www.christopherwest.com).