In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church

July 30, 2008


Humanae Vitae
The Year of the Peirasmòs — 1968
By Cardinal James Francis Stafford

“Lead us not into temptation” is the sixth petition of the Our Father. Peirasmòs, the Greek word used in this passage for ‘temptation,’ means a trial or test. Disciples petition God to be protected against the supreme test of ungodly powers. The trial is related to Jesus’s cup in Gethsemane, the same cup which his disciples would also taste (Mk 10: 35-45). The dark side of the interior of the cup is an abyss. It reveals the awful consequences of God’s judgment upon sinful humanity. In August 1968, the weight of the evangelical Peirasmòs fell on many priests, including myself.

It was the year of the bad war, of complex innocence that sanctified the shedding of blood. English historian Paul Johnson dubs 1968 as the year of “America’s Suicide Attempt.” It included the Tet offensive in Vietnam with its tsunami-like effects in American life and politics, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee; the tumult in American cities on Palm Sunday weekend; and the June assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Southern California. It was also the year in which Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical letter on transmitting human life, Humanae Vitae (HV). He met immediate, premeditated, and unprecedented opposition from some American theologians and pastors. By any measure, 1968 was a bitter cup.

On the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, I have been asked to reflect on one event of that year, the doctrinal dissent among some priests and theologians in an American archdiocese on the occasion of its publication. It is not an easy or welcome task. But since it may help some followers of Jesus to live what Pope Paul VI called a more “disciplined” life (HV 21), I will explore that event.

The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood, ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Peirasmòs for many.

Some background material is necessary. Cardinal Lawrence J. Shehan, the sixth Archbishop of Baltimore, was my ecclesiastical superior at the time. Pope Paul VI had appointed him along with others as additional members to the Papal Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population, and Birth Rates, first established by Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1963 during the II Vatican Council. There had been discussions and delays and unauthorized interim reports from Rome prior to 1968. The enlarged Commission was asked to make recommendations on these issues to the Pope.

In preparation for its deliberations, the Cardinal sent confidential letters to various persons of the Church of Baltimore seeking their advice. I received such a letter. My response drew upon experience, both personal and pastoral. Family and education had given me a Christian understanding of sex. The profoundly Catholic imagination of my family, friends and teachers had caused me to be open to this reality; I was filled with wonder before its mystery. Theological arguments weren’t necessary to convince me of the binding connection between sexual acts and new life. That truth was an accepted part of life at the elementary school connected with St. Joseph’s Passionist Monastery Parish in Baltimore. In my early teens my father had first introduced me to the full meaning of human sexuality and the need for discipline. His intervention opened a path through the labyrinth of adolescence.

Through my family, schools, and parishes I became friends with many young women. Some of them I dated on a regular basis. I marveled at their beauty. The courage of St. Maria Goretti, canonized in 1950, struck my generation like an intense mountain storm. Growing into my later teens, I understood better how complex friendship with young women could be. They entered the springtime of my life like the composite rhythm of a poem. To my surprise, the joy of being their friend was enriched by prayer, modesty, and the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

Later education and formation in seminaries built upon those experiences. In a 1955 letter to a friend, Flannery O’Connor describes the significance of the virtue of purity for many Catholics at that time: “To see Christ as God and man is probably no more difficult today than it has been … For you it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of the law of the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and physical reality really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws. I am always astonished at the emphasis the Church places on the body. It is not the soul she says that will rise but the body, glorified. I have always thought that purity was the most mysterious of the virtues, but it occurs to me that it would never have entered human consciousness if we were not to look forward to a resurrection of the body, which will be flesh and spirit united in peace, in the way they were in Christ. The resurrection of Christ seems the high point in the law of nature.” O’Connor’s theology, with its remarkably eschatological mark, anticipates the teaching of the II Vatican Council, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” (Gaudium et Spes, 22.) In those years, I could not have used her explicit words to explain where I stood on sexuality and its use. Once I discovered them, she became a spiritual sister.

Eight years of priestly ministry from 1958 to 1966 in Washington and Baltimore broadened my experience. It didn’t take long to discover changes in Americans’ attitudes towards the virtue of purity. Both cities were undergoing sharp increases in out-of-wedlock pregnancies. The rate in Baltimore’s inner city was about 18% in 1966 and had been climbing for several years. In 1965-1966, the Baltimore Metropolitan Health and Welfare Council undertook a study to advise the city government in how to address the issue. At that time, the board members of the Council, including myself, had uncritical faith in experts and social research. Even the II Vatican Council had expressed unfettered confidence in the role of benevolent experts (Gaudium et Spes, 57). Not one of my professional acquaintances anticipated the crisis of trust which was just around the corner in the relations between men and women. Our vision was incapable of establishing conditions of justice and of purity of heart in which wonder and appreciation can find play. We were already anachronistic and without hope. We ignored the texture of life.

There were signs even then of the disasters facing children, both born and unborn. As a caseworker and priest throughout the 1960s, part of my ministry involved counseling inner-city families and single parents. My first awareness of a parishioner using hard drugs was in 1961. A sixteen-year old had been jailed in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. At the time of my late afternoon visit to him, he was experiencing drug withdrawal unattended and alone in a tiny cell. His screams filled the corridors and adjoining cells. Through the iron bars dividing us, I was horror-stricken watching him in his torment. The abyss he was looking into was unimaginably terrifying. In this drugged youth writhing in agony on the floor next to an open toilet I saw the bitter fruits of the estrangement of men and women. His mother, separated from her husband, lived with her younger children in a sweltering third floor flat on Light Street in old South Baltimore. The father was non-existent for them. The failure of men in their paternal and spousal roles was unfolding before my eyes and ears. Since then, more and more American men have refused to accept responsibility for their sexuality.

In a confidential letter responding to his request, I shared in a general fashion these concerns. My counsel to Cardinal Shehan was very real and specific. I had taken a hard, cold look at what I was experiencing and what the Church and society were doing. I came across an idea which was elliptical: the gift of love should be allowed to be fruitful. These two fixed points are constant. This simple idea lit up everything like lightning in a storm. I wrote about it more formally to the Cardinal: the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage cannot be separated. Consequently, to deprive a conjugal act deliberately of its fertility is intrinsically wrong. To encourage or approve such an abuse would lead to the eclipse of fatherhood and to disrespect for women. Since then, Pope John Paul II has given us the complementary and superlative insight into the nuptial meaning of the human body. Decades afterwards, I came across an analogous reading from Meister Eckhart: “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful.” Some time later, the Papal Commission sent its recommendations to the Pope. The majority advised that the Church’s teaching on contraception be changed in light of new circumstances. Cardinal Shehan was part of that majority. Even before the encyclical had been signed and issued, his vote had been made public, although not on his initiative.

As we know, the Pope decided otherwise. This sets the scene for the tragic drama following the actual date of the publication of the encyclical letter on July 29, 1968.

In his memoirs, Cardinal Shehan describes the immediate reaction of some priests in Washington to the encyclical: “[A]fter receiving the first news of the publication of the encyclical, the Rev. Charles E. Curran, instructor of moral theology of The Catholic University of America, flew back to Washington from the West where he had been staying. Late [on the afternoon of July 29], he and nine other professors of theology of the Catholic University met, by evident prearrangement, in Caldwell Hall to receive, again by prearrangement with the Washington Post, the encyclical, part by part, as it came from the press. The story further indicated that by nine o’clock that night, they had received the whole encyclical, had read it, had analyzed it, criticized it, and had composed their six-hundred word ‘Statement of Dissent.’ Then they began that long series of telephone calls to ‘theologians’ throughout the East, which went on, according to the Post, until 3:30 a.m., seeking authorization to attach their names as endorsers (signers was the term used) of the statement, although those to whom they had telephoned could not have had an opportunity to see either the encyclical or their statement. Meanwhile, they had arranged through one of the local television stations to have the statement broadcast that night.”

The Cardinal’s judgment was scornful. In 1982 he wrote, “The first thing that we have to note about the whole performance is this: so far as I have been able to discern, never in the recorded history of the Church has a solemn proclamation of a Pope been received by any group of Catholic people with so much disrespect and contempt.”

The personal Peirasmòs, the test, began. In Baltimore in early August 1968, a few days after the encyclical’s issuance, I received an invitation by telephone from a recently ordained assistant pastor to attend a gathering of some Baltimore priests at the rectory of St. William of York parish in southwest Baltimore to discuss the encyclical. The meeting was set for Sunday evening, August 4. I agreed to come. Eventually a large number of priests were gathered in the rectory’s basement. I knew them all.

The dusk was clear, hot, and humid. The quarters were cramped. We were seated on rows of benches and chairs and were led by a diocesan inner-city pastor well known for his work in liturgy and race relations. There were also several Sulpician priests present from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore to assist him in directing the meeting. I don’t recall their actual number.

My expectations of the meeting proved unrealistic. I had hoped that we had been called together to receive copies of the encyclical and to discuss it. I was mistaken. Neither happened. After welcoming us and introducing the leadership, the inner-city pastor came to the point. He expected each of us to subscribe to the Washington “Statement of Dissent.” Mixing passion with humor, he explained the reasons. They ranged from the maintenance of the credibility of the Church among the laity, to the need to allow ‘flexibility’ for married couples in forming their consciences on the use of artificial contraceptives. Before our arrival, the conveners had decided that the Baltimore priests’ rejection of the papal encyclical would be published the following morning in The Baltimore Sun, one of the daily newspapers.

The Washington statement was read aloud. Then the leader asked each of us to agree to have our names attached to it. No time was allowed for discussion, reflection, or prayer. Each priest was required individually to give a verbal “yes” or “no.”

I could not sign it. My earlier letter to Cardinal Shehan came to mind. I remained convinced of the truth of my judgment and conclusions. Noting that my seat was last in the packed basement, I listened to each priest’s response, hoping for support. It didn’t materialize. Everyone agreed to sign. There were no abstentions. As the last called upon, I felt isolated. The basement became suffocating. By now it was night. The room was charged with tension. Something epochal was taking place. It became clear that the leaders’ strategy had been carefully mapped out beforehand. It was moving along without a hitch. Their rhetorical skills were having their anticipated effect. They had planned carefully how to exert what amounted to emotional and intellectual coercion. Violence by overt manipulation was new to the Baltimore presbyterate.

The leader’s reaction to my refusal was predictable and awful. The whole process now became a grueling struggle, a terrible test, a Peirasmòs. The priest/leader, drawing upon some scatological language from his Marine Corp past in the II World War, responded contemptuously to my decision. He tried to force me to change. He became visibly angry and verbally abusive. The underlying ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident. He questioned and then derided my integrity. He taunted me to risk my ecclesiastical ‘future,’ although his reference was more anatomically specific. The abuse went on.

With surprising coherence, I was eventually able to respond that the Pope’s encyclical deserved the courtesy of a reading. None of us had read it. I continued that, as a matter of fact, I agreed with and accepted the Pope’s teaching as it had been reported in the public media. That response elicited more ridicule. Otherwise there was silence. Finally, seeing that I would remain firm, the ex-Marine moved on to complete the business and adjourn the meeting. The leaders then prepared a statement for the next morning’s daily paper.

The meeting ended. I sped out of there, free but disoriented. Once outside, the darkness encompassed me. We all had been subjected to a new thing in the Church, something unexpected. A pastor and several seminary professors had abused rhetoric to undermine the truth within the evangelical community. When opposed, they assumed the role of Job’s friends. Their contempt became a nightmare. In the night, it seemed that God’s blind hand was reaching out to touch my face.

The dissent of a few Sulpician seminary professors compounded my disorientation. In their ancient Baltimore Seminary I had first caught on to the connection between freedom, interiority, and obedience. By every ecclesial measure they should have been aware that the process they supported that evening exceeded the “norms of licit dissent.” But they showed no concern for the gravity of that theological and pastoral moment. They saw nothing unbecoming in the mix of publicity and theology. They expressed no impatience then or later over the coercive nature of the August meeting. Nor did any of the other priests present. One diocesan priest did request privately later that night that his name be removed before the statement’s publication in the morning paper.

For a long time, I wondered about the meaning of the event. It was a cataclysm which was difficult to survive intact. Things were sorted out slowly. Later, Henri de Lubac captured some of its significance, “Nothing is more opposed to witness than vulgarization. Nothing is more unlike the apostolate than propaganda.” Hannah Arendt’s insights have been useful concerning the dangerous poise of 20th century Western culture between unavoidable doom and reckless optimism. “It should be possible to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved into a conglomeration of where everything seems to have lost specific value, and has become unrecognizable for human comprehension, unusable for human purpose. To yield to the mere process of disintegration has become an irresistible temptation, not only because it has assumed the spurious grandeur of ‘historical necessity,’ but also because everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless and unreal.” The subterranean world that has always accompanied Catholic communities, called Gnosticism by our ancestors, had again surfaced and attempted to usurp the truth of the Catholic tradition.

An earlier memory from April 1968 helped to shed further light on what had happened in August 1968 along with de Lubac’s words about violence and Arendt’s insights into the breaking point reached by Western civilization in the 20th century. During the height of the 1968 Baltimore riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I had made an emergency call to that same inner-city pastor who would lead the later August meeting. It was one of numerous telephone conversations I had with inner-city pastors during the night preceding Palm Sunday. At the request of the city government, I was asking whether the pastors or their people, both beleaguered, might need food, medical assistance, or other help.

My conversation with him that April night was by far the most dramatic. He described the view from the rectory while speaking on the phone. A window framed a dissolving neighborhood; his parish was becoming a raging inferno. He said, “From here I see nothing but fire burning everywhere. Everything has been set ablaze. The Church and rectory are untouched thus far.” He did not wish to leave or be evacuated. His voice betrayed disillusionment and fear. Later we learned that the parish buildings survived.

‘Sorting out’ these two events of violence continued throughout the following months and years. The trajectories of April and August 1968 unpredictably converged. Memories of the physical violence in the city in April 1968 helped me to name what had happened in August 1968. Ecclesial dissent can become a kind of spiritual violence in its form and content. A new, unsettling insight emerged. Violence and truth don’t mix. When expressive violence of whatever sort is inflicted upon truth, the resulting irony is lethal.

What do I mean? Look at the results of the two events. After the violent 1968 Palm Sunday weekend, civil dialogue in metropolitan Baltimore broke down and came to a stop. It took a back seat to open anger and recriminations between whites and blacks. The violence of the priests’ August gathering gave rise to its own ferocious acrimony. Conversations among the clergy, where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. Fears abounded. And they continue. The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which Baltimore priests had known for generations. 1968 marked the hiatus of the generational communio of the Archdiocesan presbyterate, which had been continually reinforced by the seminary and its Sulpician faculty. Priests’ fraternity had been wounded. Pastoral dissent had attacked the Eucharistic foundation of the Church. Its nuptial significance had been denied. Some priests saw bishops as nothing more than Roman mannequins.

Something else happened among priests on that violent August night. Friendship in the Church sustained a direct hit. Jesus, by calling those who were with him his ‘friends,’ had made friendship a privileged analogy of the Church. That analogy became obscured after a large number of priests expressed shame over their leaders and repudiated their teaching.

Cardinal Shehan later reported that on Monday morning, August 5, he “was startled to read in the Baltimore Sun that seventy-two priests of the Baltimore area had signed the Statement of Dissent.” What he later called “the years of crisis” began for him during that hot, violent August evening in 1968.

But that night was not a total loss. The test was unexpected and unwelcome. Its unhinging consequences continue. Abusive, coercive dissent has become a reality in the Church and subjects her to violent, debilitating, unproductive, chronic controversies. But I did discover something new. Others also did. When the moment of Christian witness came, no Christian could be coerced who refused to be. Despite the novelty of being treated as an object of shame and ridicule, I did not become “ashamed of the Gospel” that night and found “sweet delight in what is right.” It was not a bad lesson. Ecclesial obedience ran the distance.

My discovery that Christ was the first to despise shame was gut rending in its existential and providential reality. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” Paradoxically, in the hot, August night a new sign shown unexpectedly on the path to future life. It read, “Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered.”

The violence of the initial disobedience was only a prelude to further and more pervasive violence. Priests wept at meetings over the manipulation of their brothers. Contempt for the truth, whether aggressive or passive, has become common in Church life. Dissenting priests, theologians and laypeople have continued their coercive techniques. From the beginning, the press has used them to further its own serpentine agenda.

All of this led to a later discovery. Discernment is an essential part of episcopal ministry. With the grace of “the governing Spirit” the discerning skills of a bishop should mature. Episcopal attention should focus on the break/rupture initiated by Jesus and described by St. Paul in his response to Corinthian dissenters. “You desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God. Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor 13: 3-5).

The rupture of the violent death of Jesus has changed our understanding of the nature of God. His Trinitarian life is essentially self-surrender and love. By Baptism, every disciple of Jesus is imprinted with that Trinitarian watermark. The Incarnate Word came to do the will of him who sent him. Contemporary obedience of disciples to the Successor of Peter cannot be separated from the poverty of spirit and purity of heart modeled and won by the Word on the Cross.

A brief afterword: In 1978 or thereabouts, during an episcopal visitation to his parish, I was having lunch with the Baltimore pastor, the ex-Marine, who led the August 1968 meeting. I was a guest in his rectory. He was still formidable. Our conversation was about his parish, the same parish he had been shepherding during the 1968 riots. The atmosphere was amiable. During the simple meal in the kitchen I came to an uneasy decision. Since we had never discussed the August 1968 night, I decided to initiate a conversation about it. My recall was brief, objective and, insofar as circumstances allowed, unthreatening. I had hoped for some light from him on an event which had become central to the experience of many priests, including myself. While my mind and heart were recalling the events of the night, he remained silent. His silence continued afterwards. Even though he had not forgotten, he made no comment. He didn’t lift his eyes. His heart’s fire was colder now.

Nothing was forthcoming. I left the matter there. No dialogue was possible in 1968; it remained impossible in 1978. There was no common ground. Both of us were looking into an abyss — from opposite sides. Anguish and disquiet overwhelmed the distant hope of reconciliation and friendship. We never returned to the subject again. He has since died while serving a large suburban parish. The only remaining option is to strike my breast and pray, “Lord, remember the secret worth of all our human worthlessness.”

Diocesan presbyterates have not recovered from the July/August nights in 1968. Many in consecrated life also failed the evangelical test. Since January 2002, the abyss has opened up elsewhere. The whole people of God, including children and adolescents, now must look into the abyss and see what dread beasts are at its bottom. Each of us shudders before the wrath of God, each weeps in sorrow for our sins and each begs for the Father’s merciful remembrance of Christ’s obedience.

(Cardinal Stafford is Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, Roman Curia.)


The Last Hurrah of the Catholic Lite Brigade

July 28, 2008


“The answer to the current crisis will not be found in Catholic Lite.” -George Weigel

What is the state of the Catholic Church since the scandals broke in 2002?

The best book to have come out on the scandals is The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, by George Weigel. The author not only offers a sophisticated treatment of the issues but also has some incisive suggestions for where the Church needs to go from here. The authorized biographer of Pope John Paul II, Weigel (currently a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center) is no Church outsider, but he’s not one to cover things up or fail to tell it like it is. To the contrary, Weigel’s clear-headed book criticizes U.S. bishops and Vatican officials where necessary, and he has some key advice for just about everyone this scandal touches. Among other things, he explains the gap between how the Vatican sees the media versus how seemingly everyone else in the West does.

In Weigel’s reading of the scandals, the “reform” the Church needs is a return to what is authentically Catholic. He writes, “Crisis means trauma; crisis also means opportunity. The trauma of the Catholic Church in the United States in 2002 will become an opportunity to deepen and extend the reforms of Vatican II if the Church becomes more Catholic, not less — if the Church rediscovers the courage to be Catholic.”

“The answer to the current crisis,” he writes, “will not be found in Catholic Lite,” in other words, the Boston’s Globe‘s preferred form of Catholicism. “It will only be found in a classic Catholicism — a Catholicism with the courage to be countercultural, a Catholicism that has reclaimed the wisdom of the past in order to face the corruption of the present and create a renewed future, a Catholicism that risks the high adventure of fidelity.

Weigel writes: “There is little in Catholic Lite theology that poses a serious countercultural challenge to the spirit of the age. Catholic Lite is a soft Catholicism, understanding and sympathetic. Being understanding and sympathetic are, of course, virtues. But as G. K. Chesterton pointed out long ago, the world is filled with old Christian virtues ‘gone mad.’ When a religious tradition is profoundly challenged, as Christianity is by modernity, more than vices are set loose in the world, Chesterton wrote: ‘The virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more damage.’ That is precisely what has happened in the culture of dissent. Virtues have gone mad, and one result has been the double-edged crisis of clergy sexual abuse and episcopal irresponsibility. That crisis can only be addressed by a harder, more brilliant form of Catholicism — a Catholicism formed, like a diamond, under intense pressure, but all the more beautiful and shatterproof for that.

The crisis of 2002 has many facets. One of them is that it marked the last hurrah of the Catholic Lite Brigade. Yes, the Lite Brigade still holds the commanding heights of Catholicism’s most prestigious intellectual institutions, protected from its own intellectual sterility by the tenure system. But even there, the crumbling has begun. A younger generation of scholars is not interested in Catholic Lite. Young men and women, formed in the image of John Paul II and joyfully living the Catholic sexual ethic, are filling graduate departments of theology and philosophy at Catholic universities where, as recently as ten years ago, the Lite Brigade was impregnable. These younger scholars are the future. The members of the Lite Brigade may still be good for TV sound bites and newspaper op-ed pieces, in part because the American Media can’t break itself of the habit of writing the “man bites dog” story of Catholic dissent. But the Lite Brigade is aging. It is not producing a new generation formed intellectually in its image. And the results of its promotion of ‘faithful dissent’ are now on display, in clerical sexual scandals and irresponsible episcopal leadership. The game is over.”

Sacred Music – Time to Reconnect with Worship?

July 26, 2008

From Catholic Culture:

(also view ‘A Greater Sense of the Sacred’ from a recent Chicago Tribune article)

Over the years, criticism of music in Catholic worship has become something of a fashion. But when an internationally renowned musician of the caliber of Peter Phillips, artistic director of the world-famous vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars, joins in — and looks to the pope for the Church’s artistic salvation (“Can Pope Benedict restore church music?” The Spectator, November 28, 2007) — it is time for the Church to sit up and take a good look at itself. Phillips makes his point thus:

For a Church which prides itself on continuation and tradition this [public criticism of Church music in the 20th century as in the 16th] is a sorry record indeed. The Anglicans, with their long-lived choir schools and uninterrupted support for good choral music of every period, have done very much better. As have the Orthodox. Nonetheless it does seem as though the low standards tolerated and encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy since Vatican II are at last being addressed . . . Through countless reigns it has been assumed that music is something which can be ordered to size and then cut to fit an agenda, like a vestment or a smell or even an architectural interior, and yet still be attractive music. That this is not true is something which is coming home to roost.

Phillips refers to the recent criticism of choral standards at St. Peter’s Basilica by Monsignor Valentin Miserachs Grau, director of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, who says that the standards were not enhanced by the practice of inviting foreign choirs to sing regularly, and applauds Pope Benedict’s push to make more of the local Vatican choir.

After drawing a parallel between Pope Benedict’s love of chant and that of his predecessors in the 16th century, Phillips continues:

By 1600 polyphony was on the way out, chant was not on the way in, and the standard of singing in Catholic services began a long descent which eventually made possible the decisions of Vatican II.

In this way, Phillips echoes a chorus of criticism which has been growing since the 1960s, when implementation of the Vatican II pronouncements on music commenced. See, for example, Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, New York, 1990; D. Daintree, “Spare me this music”, The Tablet, June 24, 1995; D. Thompson, “In the name of all that’s holy”, The Spectator, London, November 2007.

A fresh assessment is called for. But by what standards should such an assessment be conducted?

According to Phillips, “true art . . . is the goal here”. One might ask, as did Pilate of truth, “what is art?” Perhaps the correct answer is, “that which humanity judges it to be over the ages”. From experience, Phillips knows that the sacred polyphonic music of the Renaissance era — by which I mean music sung in many parts, usually unaccompanied, by composers like Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Guerrero, Dufay, Brumel, Tallis and many others — is considered by people around the world to be “high art”, no less than the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the sculpture of Michelangelo, or the architecture of Bernini.

Specializing in this sacred polyphony, Phillips and the Tallis Scholars regularly fill concert halls around the globe, and sell recordings as if they were hot cakes. The New York Times has dubbed them “the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music”. Theirs is not “popular” music, in the sense that the rock-‘n-roll industry might use the term, but its popularity is manifest nevertheless. So powerful is the intrinsic appeal of this music, expressing as it does the entire gamut of human emotion, that it retains its popularity even when divorced from the Catholic liturgy for which it was designed.

The public performance, recording and sheer availability of this polyphonic music is a very contemporary phenomenon. Due to the prodigious musical scholarship of the twentieth century, and the advent of ever more advanced recording and distribution technologies for sound and printed music, this form of sacred art is more widely appreciated, available and demanded today than it has ever been in history. The pity is that today, great Catholic polyphony is far more likely to be found in a record store, or on iTunes, than in a Catholic church. By failing to reserve a place for this art in its worship — or worse, by driving it from the liturgy altogether — the Church fails to keep up with the times, and loses the very contemporary relevance with many clergy so ardently crave.

Its popularity aside, there is another compelling reason why this music ought be re-connected with the living liturgy. It expresses the sacredness of the liturgical action, and of the occasion. It is, by its very nature, “other worldly”. It defines sonically the difference between a sacred space or experience — that is, within a church or sanctuary — and the ordinary experience of everyday life. Recently, Pope Benedict referred to this concept, in a different context, as the “sacrality” of religious experience.1 A sense of the sacred is absent when the air waves are dominated by music whose aim is to express and reflect the ordinary in human experience, either by adopting musical idioms common to pop music or strains commonly heard in American sitcoms, or simply by the banal nature of monodic musical construction, which characterizes much of the music heard in Catholic parishes today.

Re-connecting with Catholic heritage

How, then, can this high art be re-connected with the liturgy of the Catholic Church, or of other Christian denominations which seek to make appropriate use of our common cultural heritage?

Phillips points to the Anglican tradition, “with their long-lived choir schools and uninterrupted support for good choral music of every period . . .” There can be little doubt that good choral music needs good choral schools. Though the Anglican choral tradition is a fine one, the practice of music in contemporary Anglican worship is not without problems,2 and it would not be correct to suggest that it surpasses, or ever did surpass, that of the Catholic tradition at its highest levels.

But the Catholic Church has no lack of excellent choir schools. For centuries, the endowment and conduct of such schools has been at the center of Catholic tradition. Excellent contemporary examples are readily to be found at Regensburg Cathedral in Germany (of which Pope Benedict’s brother, Georg, was himself musical director), Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Cathedral in London, and at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, to name but a very few.

The Catholic Church has chosen to concentrate its artistic resources on the pursuit of musical high art in those cultural centers where it is considered most appropriate — namely, the major cathedrals around the world. There is simply not the money to endow professional choir schools in every parish.

This, however, cannot explain why liturgical music generally — and parish music in particular — has reached its current state. Nor does it justify denying ordinary Christians, for whom it is not convenient to attend Mass at a major cathedral, access to high musical art in the context of their worship. Still less can it justify denying to the children of the faithful proper access to instruction in the techniques of its practice. After all, the Catholic Church has over the centuries amassed a corpus of musical art which is second to none. The Church has a cultural duty — quite apart from its religious duties — to assure the survival of that corpus of sacred music, and its continued availability to the faithful whom it exists to serve.

Where Church music got off-track

So, how did we come to this pass, and what’s the way out?

Much of the current malaise can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council, and the implementation of the norms contained in Chapter VI of its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated on December 4, 1963. It is not intended here to examine the arguments for and against the policies expressed in Chapter VI, or to engage in controversy over the extent to which sacred music was already in decline prior to the 1960s. Doubtless, debate on these issues, and the historic legacy of Vatican II, will continue for many years.

Three things, however, are tolerably clear.

First, it was not the intention of the Council Fathers to denigrate sacred music, still less to eliminate chant or sacred polyphony from the liturgy. So much is clear from the terms of Sacrosanctum Concilium itself. Indeed, it is stunning — and sad — to compare the sentiment and exhortations expressed by the Fathers with the reality of what followed:

Article 112: The musical tradition of the universal church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy . . . Therefore, sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, prompting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity on the sacred rites … 

Article 114: The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

Article 115: Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. To impart this instruction, teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music. It is desirable also to found higher institutes of sacred music whenever this can be done . . .

Article 116: The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.3

Reading these exhortations, one can be forgiven for wondering what went wrong. The contemporary reality is so far divorced from the desires of the Fathers that one’s natural inclination is to inquire who sabotaged the implementation of these fine sentiments. Much of the blame, regrettably, must lie with those charged with that implementation and with the administration of the affairs of the Church generally — that is, the clergy itself. And — unless the Church undergoes a radical reorganization of its hierarchical structures, which seems unlikely — it is from the clergy that the proper implementation of the Council’s desires must ultimately come.

Secondly, in the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium that followed, bishops took advantage of the permission in SC article 36 to use vernacular languages in the celebration of the Mass according to the revised Roman Missal of 1970. When the Missal was translated into vernacular languages, Latin was effectively eliminated from the liturgy entirely. The immediate result was that chant and polyphony — the art forms that had been used over the centuries to set the Latin prayers of the Missal to music — became immediately obsolete. Not only was this music not encouraged or provided for in the vernacular celebrations of the Mass, it was seen as being indelibly associated with an obsolete Liturgy and with the Tridentine tradition.

This view was historically misinformed, however. Most sacred polyphony pre-dated the Council of Trent by decades or centuries. The Council of Trent did not ban sacred polyphony, though it did not encourage it.4 The 19th-century account by Abbe Giuseppe Baini about how the Council Fathers were persuaded against such a ban by the music of Palestrina, who thereby “saved” sacred music, is apocryphal.5 But the Council of Trent’s generally negative attitude toward polyphony may account for the demise of that music in Catholic liturgy within about fifty years. The official rehabilitation of sacred polyphony and authentic chant would not happen until the early 20th century.6

Even after the Mass was translated into vernacular languages following the Second Vatican Council, there was no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There were and still are plenty of ways to utilize sacred polyphony — and chant — in the vernacular liturgy, to its great benefit. This is done by skilled choirs weekly, if not daily, in major cathedrals around the world.

The spirit of disruption

But one must remember the social and historical context in which Vatican II was conducted. The 1960s witnessed an era of iconoclasm, and the glorification of youth, which — in the West at least — was enjoying the benefits of post-war prosperity and the economic empowerment that comes with disposable income. It was the era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and other popular ensembles who were accumulating immense fortunes by forging new mass markets for the consumption of recorded and printed music, composed of emerging generations of cashed-up teenagers. It was an era in which anything old was despised, and which saw the general deconstruction of anything that smacked of tradition. As Bob Dylan proclaimed, “The times, they are a-changin'”.

Thirdly, the Council Fathers desired — by no means unreasonably — that the faithful should actively participate in the liturgy. This was one of the most pervasive themes of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

Article 14: Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the Liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people” (I Pet 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. 

In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

 The Council desired that congregational participation should extend to music-making, among other things:

Article 30: To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.

However, the Council never contemplated that musical activities of congregations would banish properly trained choirs from the liturgy, for which they specifically reserved a place:

 Article 29: Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people. Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the Liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.

The Council expected and desired a balance between choral and congregational music-making. Precisely where that balance should lie would no doubt depend on the solemnity of the occasion and other practical factors. The requirement for balance was quickly forgotten, or conveniently ignored, in the zeal of many clergy and lay musicians — particularly those who had neither a taste for musical high art, nor the skills to perform it — to appear to implement the liturgical norms of the Council.

There grew up in the 1970s a mentality in which anything learned or old — chant, for example, or sophisticated choral music — was feared and loathed as being “elitist” and considered ripe for destruction. Choral music was often replaced wholesale by monody. That is, single-line music with instrumental accompaniment — almost always an electric organ. This led to the absurd contemporary spectacle of cantors — often egged on by an admiring clergy — singing so-called “congregational” music solo, or practically so, amplified by ever more powerful public address systems, which serves only to belie the fact that the congregation cannot, or does not want to, participate in this way.

So it was almost inevitable that, despite the manifest intention of the Council Fathers to preserve the “sacred treasury” of music built up by the Church through the ages, that very treasury should be driven from the Church, in the perpetual search for something new. Now, in the fullness of time, our folly in this sad saga of artistic deconstruction has become clear, rendering our worship commonplace and often uninspiring.

Musical education is essential

If that is the cause of the problem, what is its cure? Is it simply a contest between “good” and “bad” music, between what Professor Day has described as “reformed folk” and high art? Is one kind of music to be preferred to all others, and are those others to be excluded from worship? The answer must surely be “no”. Such a course would only perpetuate the so-called “liturgy wars”, which have raged in America for decades, between musicians and so-called “liturgists” of either faction. It turns us against each other without justification, and produces nothing but the scandal of division at the Lord’s table.

The answer, surely, is education. At present, Catholics in Australia are often denied access to the simplest musical education at the parish level, which would enable them to appreciate — or even perform — the art which is their culture and heritage. It is here that the parish choir tradition — for which the Anglican Church is famous — provides a valuable example. Children in an ordinary English village have a much better chance of joining a properly directed parish choir than do their counterparts in Australia, regardless of denomination. In a properly formed and instructed choir, children can learn basic skills of music reading and voice production, and of singing in multiple parts, accompanied and unaccompanied. They are exposed to an artistic repertoire stretching from chant to the present day, which can form the basis for more detailed study later, or just for exploring the artistic riches of their cultural heritage in adulthood.

It is this culture that produces the great musicians of the English cathedrals, and of the world-renowned college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge universities, of which the choirs of King’s College and St. John’s College are but examples. We in Australia would do well to emulate this parish tradition, and to encourage its higher development at our university colleges and cathedrals. It means investment, yes, but of a much more modest character than setting up professional choir schools of paid singers outside the cathedrals. It is a practical goal. It has the potential to disseminate musical learning to a far greater cross-section of Christians than currently, and to feed our cathedral choir schools with already formed musicians, capable of greater artistic achievement by reason of their learning and experience. Education itself will in time create the demand for a higher standard of musical worship, ensuring that the vision of the Council Fathers is achieved.

For this to occur, there must first be a change of heart among those entrusted with the administration of the affairs of the Church. What is needed is a newfound respect — echoing and giving effect to that of the Council Fathers — for tradition, for learning, and for the proper place of high art in our worship.

So, from where will this initiative come? It has already started in the right place — that is, in Rome. In a hierarchical Church, reform often has a greater chance of success if it comes from the top. Peter Phillips is right in looking to Pope Benedict for artistic salvation, and he is right to hope that, from Pope Benedict, it will come. Let us hope that reform will come soon.


  1. Pope Benedict XVI, letter dated July 7, 2007 addressed to the bishops of the world, accompanying the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum. The latter authorized the more general celebration of the Mass as published in the Roman Missal of 1962, as the “extraordinary expression” of the Latin rite, alongside the “ordinary expression” of the same rite, the post-Vatican II Roman Missal of 1970 (Novus Ordo). Both are in Latin, but only the latter has been translated into the vernacular, and has been celebrated in parishes around the world from the 1970s to the present day.  
  2. For a trenchant critique of the current situation in Sydney, see Peter Phillips’s article, “Beyond words: Sing in the Pews”, The Spectator, January 16, 2008.  
  3. Vatican translation. [Accessible online at: – Ed.]  
  4. The recommendation the Council made at its 22nd sitting on September 17, 1562 reads as follows: “Ab ecclesiis vero musicas eas, ubi sive organo, sive cantu lascivum aut impurum aliquid miscetur item saeculares omnes actiones, vana atque adeo profana colloquia, arceant ut domus Dei vere domus orationis esse videatur ac dici possit.” [Let them exclude from churches those pieces of music, whether sung or played, which are tainted with anything sensual or impure, and all things secular, and vain or even blasphemous utterances, so that the house of God may be seen to be, and may truly be called, a house of prayer.] (Author’s translation).  
  5. Baini, G., Memorie storico-critiche della vita e dell’ opera di Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, Rome, 1828. For critiques of Baini’s account, see Stove, Palestrina: Prince of Music, Sydney, 1990, page 46; Pyne, Palestrina: His life and times, New York, 1970, page 47ff; and Coates, Palestrina, London, 1948, page 11 et seq.  
  6. The official version of Gregorian chant in the Tridentine era was the Editio Medicaea published in 1614, and essentially reprinted by Friederich Pustet as the Regensburg edition of 1871. Though not completed until after Palestrina’s death in 1594, this version grew out of the papal commission to him and Annibale Zoilo of October 25, 1577, to conform the chants of the day to the new Breviarum Romanum (1568) and Missale Romanum (1570), prepared on the recommendations of the Council of Trent. For the text of the commission, see Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, New York, 1950. It was not until the Motu Proprio issued by Pius X in 1903 [Tra le sollecitudini — accessible on the Adoremus web site: – Ed.] that the scholarly revisions of the chant by the monks of Solesmes were adopted as the official versions of the Church: see Dickerson, The Story of Christian Music, Oxford, 1992, pages 126-127.

Richard Perrignon is an Australian Catholic musician with more than 25 years’ experience in writing and directing sacred music in the liturgy. He is artistic director of Capella sublima, a performing ensemble that specializes in Renaissance polyphony, and a visiting choirmaster at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. He was Director of Music at the former Dominican Priory at Wahroonga, Sydney, from 1998 to 2006. He is a Fellow of St. John’s College within the University of Sydney.

Message Refused: Humanae Vitae, 40 Years Later

July 25, 2008

From Inside Catholic:

(Also see “The Vindication of Humanae Vitae” from First Things)

I know a woman – and, in fairness, I must say that she’s a truly good Catholic woman — who’s slightly bonkers on the subject of birth control. I suppose there are people like that on both sides of this argument, but this woman happens to be bonkers on the pro-contraception side. You can’t help noticing it. Whenever the subject comes up in conversation — and, not infrequently, even when it doesn’t — she lets everybody within earshot know that the Church is flatly wrong about birth control and absolutely, unquestionably, and incontrovertibly must change its position without further delay.


Poor lady. She may be in for a hard time of it in the next several weeks. Today is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception; and although, among those taking note of the occasion, some will undoubtedly join this good Catholic woman in rapping the document and calling for change, many others just as certainly will praise the encyclical as not just true but even prophetically so. Pope Benedict XVI got in the first licks a little while back when he spoke to a group meeting in Rome to celebrate the anniversary.


“What was true yesterday is true also today,” Benedict said. “The truth expressed in Humanae Vitae does not change . . . . The transmission of life is inscribed in nature and its laws stand as an unwritten norm to which all must refer. Any attempt to turn one’s gaze away from this principle is in itself barren and does not produce a future.”


Unfortunately, the gaze-turning of which the Holy Father speaks has been going on for four decades now and gives no sign of being at an end. Birth control is a subject a lot of people just can’t leave alone, including many Catholics who disagree with the Church. Like the woman mentioned above, these folks say they’re absolutely certain contraception is okay, yet they keep bringing it up obsessively as if they weren’t quite sure and needed the approval of the Church to be at peace. Which suggests to me, among other things, that after 40 years, there are still lots of unsettled consciences out there.


Before someone tells me I’m being presumptuous, let me hasten to add that I don’t question anyone’s good faith. God knows about things like that; I surely don’t. My point is not that anyone in particular who goes on and on about how wrong the Church is in this matter is insincere. It’s simply that all these people together manage collectively to give the impression of not being all that sure. And that stands to reason – since, after all, they’re wrong. Those of us who see how wrong they are need to give them a hand.


Ten years after Humanae Vitae appeared, Rev. Charles Curran, the most highly publicized of the American dissenters, made an extremely important point. At the time the document came out, he said, “‘the conservatives’ saw much more clearly than ‘the liberals’ of the day that a change in the teaching on artificial contraception had to recognize that the previous teaching was wrong.” But if the Church was wrong about birth control, then of course the Church could be, and no doubt was, wrong about much else. As Father Curran pointed out in 1978:


Catholic theologians frequently deny the existing teaching of the hierarchical magisterium on such issues as contraception, sterilization, artificial insemination, masturbation, the generic gravity of sexual sins. Newer approaches have recently been taken to the question of homosexuality. [Remember, this was 1978. The dissenters have gone far beyond “newer approaches” since then.] All these questions in the area of medical and sexual morality are being questioned today.


Aside from the reference to the “teaching of the hierarchical magisterium,” a common rhetorical ploy by dissenters indicating their dismissal of doctrine they disagree with as only the teaching of the pope and the bishops in union with him, this was a very honest remark. Since it was made, Father Curran and people like him have moved on from individual moral questions to matters of moral principle and moral methodology. For centuries, the teaching of the Church was based on the conviction that there are absolute, exceptionless moral norms — some actions always and everywhere are wrong in all circumstances.


Now, not a few moral theologians deny that. Adopting relativistic moral theories with names like “proportionalism” and “consequentialism,” they proceed on the assumption that the morality of an action is always determined by circumstances; in the end, nothing can be ruled out in principle before the fact.


Pope John Paul II brushed all that aside in Veritatis Splendor (1995), his admirable encyclical on morality, when he said: “The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.” As any dissenting moral theologian worth his or her salt will be quick to point out, however, that’s only the hierarchical — or, in this case, papal — magisterium talking.


With spectacular timing — good or bad, depending on how you look at it — Humanae Vitae arrived on the scene smack in the middle of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Many Catholics joined that revolution then, and many have joined it since. The consequences of the sexual revolution are clear by now in statistics on things like abortion, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation, divorce, and HIV/AIDS.


As for Catholics, in the last four decades, the number of Catholic marriages in the United States — not the rate of marriage, mind you, but the absolute number of marriages — has fallen by half, and this at a time when Catholic population was surging 30 million higher. In one recent survey, more than half the young, unmarried Catholics in the country saw no reason to get married in the Church.


The central Christian metaphor for marriage is in Ephesians, where the relationship of husband and wife is likened to the relationship of Christ to the Church:


No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, as Christ does the church . . . . For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church (Eph 5:29-32).


It is not a rational argument against contraception but more like an intuition, both moral and aesthetic, to say there’d be something very nearly blasphemous about likening the relationship of Christ and the Church to a contraceptive relationship between a man and woman. As metaphor, it just doesn’t work.


The reason it doesn’t work has to do, among other things, with the fact that contraception depersonalizes the other — it turns the partner into an object, while focusing narcissistically on the gratification of the self. Sex becomes an essentially solipsistic activity rather than a relational experience of self-communication and mutual giving. This is the kind of thinking John Paul II develops to good effect in his well-known theology of the body.


People like the good Catholic woman who believes so strongly that the Church is wrong about birth control ought to think about it. Forty years after Humanae Vitae, the question is how to get her and the rest to do that.


Russell Shaw, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., is author of the newly published Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press) and 19 other books.

Contraception and the Language of the Body — Part 3 of 6

July 25, 2008

Christopher West’s six part series on contraception:

We continue our series commemorating the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.  Pope Paul VI released this oh-so-controversial encyclical on July 25, 1968, re-affirming the constant teaching of the Church on the immorality of contraception. To this day it remains a “thorn in the side” of many.  It was once a thorn in my side as well.  John Paul II’s “theology of the body” helped remove that thorn and show me the glorious fragrance of the rose.

Last time we observed that contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the “Lord and Giver of Life.”  In this way, as John Paul II expressed it, contraception falsifies “the language of the body.”

We all know that the body has a “language.”  A wave of the hand says “hello” or “goodbye.” A shrug of the shoulders says, “I don’t know.” A raised fist expresses anger.  What is sexual intercourse meant to express?  What is it’s true language, its true meaning?

According to Scripture, the sexual embrace is meant to express divine love.  Precisely here, in the consummation of their sacrament, spouses are meant to participate in the “great mystery” of divine love. Whether spouses realize this or not, this is the sacramental power of their love.  It’s meant to be an image and a real participation in Christ’s love for the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).

As John Paul II candidly expressed, “Through gestures and reactions, through the whole …dynamism of tension and enjoyment – whose direct source is the body in its masculinity and femininity, the body in its action and interaction – through all this man, the person, ‘speaks.’  …Precisely on the level of this ‘language of the body’ …man and woman reciprocally express themselves in the fullest and most profound way made possible for them by… their masculinity and femininity” (TOB 123:4).

But if sexual love is meant to express Christ’s love, we must properly understand the “language” of this love.  Christ gives his body freely (”No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord,” Jn 10:18). He gives his body totally-without reservation, condition, or selfish calculation (”He loved them to the last,” Jn 13:1). He gives his body faithfully (”I am with you always,” Mt 28:20). And he gives his body fruitfully (”I came that they may have life,” Jn 10:10).

If men and women are to avoid the pitfalls of counterfeit love, their union must express the same free, total, faithful, fruitful love that Christ expresses.  Of course, as fallen human beings, we’ll never express Christ’s love perfectly.  Even so, we must commit ourselves to the life-long journey of learning how to express this love and, at a minimum, never willfully act against this love.  The name for this commitment is marriage.

This is precisely what a bride and groom consent to at the altar. The priest or deacon asks them: “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. “In fact, the words themselves, ‘I take you as my wife/as my husband,’” John Paul II says, “can only be fulfilled by conjugal intercourse.”  With conjugal intercourse “we pass to the reality that corresponds to these words” (TOB 103:3).

Intercourse, then, is where the words of the wedding vows become flesh. It’s where men and women are meant to incarnate divine love. It’s a fine thing when a couple returns to the church to renew their vows on a special anniversary, but this shouldn’t undermine the fact that every time a husband and wife have intercourse they’re meant to renew their wedding vows with the “language of their bodies.”

How healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly unfaithful to their vows?  On the other hand, how healthy would a marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows with an ever increasing commitment to them?  If you’d prefer the latter type of marriage, you have just accepted the teaching of Humanae Vitae.  In the next column, I’ll unfold why.

Does Contraception Foster Love? — Part 2 of 6

July 24, 2008

Christopher West’s six part series on contraception:

We continue a series of reflections on the issue of contraception in light of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae.  When Pope Paul VI issued this document on July 25, 1968, it fell like a bomb.  Many people wish the issue would just go away.  It hasn’t.  And it won’t.  In fact, it can’t “go away.”  This encyclical takes us to the very foundations of human life (humanae vitae).

In the last column , we looked at how contraception has played a key role in the cultural chaos in which we’re now immersed.  Here we’ll look briefly at what seems to be at the heart of the matter –  love.  It all comes down to this:  What is love?  Does the mere exchange of sexual pleasure offer any surety of love?  Our culture is sated with sexual indulgence but remains starved for love.  Perhaps contraception has had something to do with this sad state of affairs.

It seems what we often call “love,” when submitted to honest examination, amounts to little more than mutual using for pleasure.  In the language of John Paul II, the opposite of love is not hatred.  The opposite of love is using another person as a means to an end.  I know this is a cliche, but why do so many wives claim “headache” when their husbands want sex?  Might they feel used rather than loved?

The Catholic teaching on sex is an invitation to embrace the love that really corresponds to the deepest desires of the human heart.  That is a demanding love, to be sure.  Should we expect it to be otherwise as followers of Christ?  “Love one another,” Jesus says, “as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).  This means it’s going to hurt.  It’s going to demand sacrifice.

St. Paul says it plainly: husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25).  Then he concludes this marvelous passage with the most exalted presentation of sexual love in all of human history: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’  This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:21-32).

The Church, so often accused of devaluing sex, ascribes to sexual love the highest possible value – it is meant to be a merging of the human and the divine.  Anything less, the Church proposes, is a counterfeit for the love we yearn for at the deepest level of our being.  Sexual love is meant to image the mysterious and eternal “exchange of love” within the Holy Trinity.  In the normal course of events, the mutual exchange of husband and wife leads to a “third” – a new human life conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of life.”

Contracepted intercourse marks a determined “closing off” of the sexual act to the Holy Spirit, to the very life and love of God.  In short, whether they realize this or not, contracepting couples are saying, “We prefer the momentary pleasure of sterlized sex over the opportunity of participating in the eternal love of the Trinity.”  To which I respond …bad choice!  But do you think if couples really knew they were saying this, that they would continue to do so?  “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

Most couples simply have no idea what they’re getting themselves into when they sterilize their sexual acts.  So none of this is about assigning culpability.  If I drink a cup of poison – but don’t know it’s poison – I haven’t committed suicide; I’m not culpable for my own death.  But it will still kill me, because whether I think it’s poison or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is poison or not.  Furthermore, if you know it’s poison and I don’t, what would be the loving thing to do if you saw me reaching out to drink it?

The Church is not trying to impose her morality on us.  Like any loving mother, she is trying to prevent her children from unwittingly ingesting a very dangerous “poison to love.”  As the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae approaches, let us thank Pope Paul VI for loving us so much.

“This column first appeared as part of Christopher West’s Body Language series for the Catholic press (