"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In case there was any doubt...

I'm still here, and Humanae Vitae isn't about to become a dead letter.

I do not mention those two facts in the same breath because I imagine my staying power to be greater than or equal to HV's. That courageous, landmark encyclical will not only outlive me and my personal opinions; it has already had, and will long continue to have, much greater effect than they. But there are a few people out there who would be almost as happy to see me fall silent as to see HV disappear under the dust. To them especially I say that, as long as I still have breath, I shall continue explaining why neither said document nor its substantive teaching is going to oblige them. I shall certainly not tire of carrying out that unpopular task.

The perduring reason is the fact—noted only by those few theologians who can take the heat for doing so—that the ancient teaching reaffirmed by HV fulfills the very same criteria for infallibility that then-Cardinal Ratzinger said is fulfilled by the teaching that the Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women. Of course that is not an defense in the eyes of HV's opponents, who generally reject Ordinatio Sacerdotalis too, along with Ratzinger's laconic observation that the offending doctrine in OS has been "infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium." And it's true that neither OS nor the CDF responsum that followed are the sort of medium in which popes unilaterally invoke their infallibility; neither, of course, was HV, as was explicitly pointed out by the Vatican spokesman, one Msgr. Lambruschini, who presented it to the media when it was first published in July 1968. But that is hardly dispositive of the question whether HV's teaching is irreformable.

Another way to put that question is: does HV's substantive teaching belong to the binding content of the deposit of faith and morals taught by the Church, with varying degrees of explicitness, from the beginning? Once the question is framed that way, the answer is as obvious as it was in the case of OS, for the Church's rejection of contraception goes back for as far as we have records. One can only reject the obvious conclusion from that by rejecting how Ratzinger applied Vatican II's criteria for infallibility is his responsum about OS—which is what those who reject HV always do. But that doesn't mean HV is going away, any more than it means that OS is going away. The man is, after all, pope, and he has created quite a precedent by how he has invoked what Lumen Gentium §25 says about the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium.

Hence my other reason for thinking HV is going to be a live letter for a long time: what the Pope said a few weeks ago to a conference in Rome about HV. Tipping my hat to Amy Welborn, I quote it at length:

My predecessor of venerated memory, the Servant of God Paul VI, published on July 25, 1968, the encyclical letter Humanae vitae. That document became very quickly a sign of contradiction.

Elaborated in the light of anguished decision, it constitutes a significant act of courage in reaffirming the doctrine and tradition of the Church. That text, so often misunderstood and wrongly interpreted, provoked much discussion if only because it provided the beginnings of a profound dispute that has marked the lives of entire generations.

Forty years since its publication, that teaching not only manifests its truth unchanged but also reveals the farsightedness with which the problem was confronted.

Indeed, it describes conjugal love is described within a global process that is not arrested by a division between body and soul nor rest only on sentiment that is often precarious and fleeting, but assumes the unity of spouses and their total sharing in a reciprocal acceptance of offering themselves to each other with the promise of faithful and exclusive love that is their own free choice.

How can such love be closed to the gift of life? Life is always an invaluable gift. Every time we witness its emergence, we perceive the power of the creative action of God, who trusts in man, and in this way, calls on him to build the future with the strength of hope.

The Magisterium of the Church cannot exempt itself from reflecting in a way that is always new and profound on the fundamental principles regarding matrimony and procreation. But what was true yesterday remains true today.

The truth expressed in Humanae vitae does not change, Rather, precisely in the light of new scientific discoveries, its teaching had been made more actual and urges reflection on its intrinsic value.

The key word to enter consistently into its contents is ‘love’. As I wrote in my first encyclical Deus caritas est, “Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united… It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves” (No. 5).

Without this unity, a person loses value and one falls into the great danger of considering the body as an object that can be sold and bought (cfr ibid.).

In a culture subjected to the dominance of ‘having’ over ‘being’, human life risks losing its value. If the exercise of sexuality becomes a drug which would subject a partner to one’s own desires and interests, without respecting the wishes and rhythms of the beloved person, then what needs to be defended is not only the true concept of love but, in the first place, human dignity itself.

As believers, we could never permit that the dominance of technology should infect the quality of love and the sacredness of life.

It is not by chance that Jesus, speaking of human love, refers to what God achieved at the start of creation (cfr Mt 19,4-6). His teaching recalls the freely-given act with which the Creator intended to express not only the richness of his love, which openly gives itself to everyone, but also wished to impress a paradigm on which mankind’s behavior should model itself.

In the fecundity of conjugal love, man and woman participate in the Father’s creative act and make evident that at the origin of their married life is a genuine Yes that is pronounced and truly lived in reciprocity, and that is always open to life.

This word of the Lord remains unchanged in its profound truth and cannot be annulled by the different theories which, in the course of the years, have succeeded each other and sometimes contradict each other.

Natural law, which is the basis of recognizing the true equality among men and peoples, deserves to be recognized as the source which can inspire even the relationship between spouses in their responsibility to generate children.

The transmission of life is inscribed in nature, and its laws remain as the unwritten standard to which everyone should refer. Every attempt to ignore this principle will remain sterile itself and has no future.

It is urgent that we rediscover again an alliance which has always been fruitful when it is respected, and which has love and reason in the forefront.

An acute teacher like Willian St. Thierry could write words that we feel to be profoundly valid even for our time: “If reason instructs love, and love enlightens reason, if reason is converted to love, and love allows itself to be confined within the bounds of reason, then together they can result in something great” (Nature and greatness of love, 21,8).

What is this ’something great’ that we may expect? It is the emergence of a responsibility for life which makes fruitful the gift of self that spouses make to each other. It is the fruit of a love that can think and choose in full freedom, without allowing itself to be conditioned disproportionately by the eventual sacrifice it will entail.

From this comes the miracle of life that parents experience for themselves, something extraordinary that is fulfilled in them and through them. No mechanical technique can replace the act of love that two spouses exchange as a sign of the greater mystery which sees them as protagonists and participants in the act of creation.

Unfortunately, one is witnessing more often sad incidents involving adolescents, whose behavior shows an incorrect idea of the mystery of life and of the risky implications of their actions. The emergency in education, which I have often referred to, has a special urgency with regard to the issue of life.

I hope that very special attention may be given to young people above all, so that they may learn the true sense of love and may be prepared through an adequate education in sexuality, without being distracted by ephemeral messages that prevent them from getting to the essence of truth which is in play.

To provide false illusions about love or to deceive them about the genuine responsibilities that they are called on to assume with the exercise of their own sexuality does not do honor to a society that claims to have principles of freedom and democracy.

Freedom should unite itself to truth, and responsibility to strength of dedication to the other to the point of sacrifice. Without these components, the community of men cannot grow, and the risk of enclosing oneself in a circle of asphyxiating selfishness is always lying in ambush.

The teaching expressed in the encyclical Humanae vitae is not easy. Nonetheless, it conforms to the fundamental structure through which life has always been transmitted since the creation of the world, respecting nature and in conformity with its demands.

Respect for human life and the safekeeping of human dignity require us to leave nothing undone so that everyone may participate in the genuine truth of responsible conjugal love, in full adherence to the laws written in the heart of every man.

Wow. How many seminarians, let alone married couples, not only heard about that little talk but have been told it's important?

Of course, the minority of academic theologians who would find B16's defense of HV worth a reasoned rebuttal would probably start by pointing out that it's just the Pope's opinion. No "dogma" is being "defined" here, after all. But that brings me to a larger point I find myself returning to over and over again in my discussions on religion with people from every walk of life.

Most loyal Catholics know that, as Catholics, they are obliged to assent fully to doctrines taught with the Church's full authority. But they are often confused about just what doctrines have in fact been taught with the Church's full authority. Part of that is due to sheer ignorance; but even the more educated have been given the impression by dissenting theologians and priests that nothing short of a dogmatic definition by a pope or ecumenical council requires full (as distinct from provisional) assent from Catholics. That impression is false. It entails logically committing oneself to treating the bulk of the deposit of faith, which has not been so defined, as a mere matter of opinion as opposed to divine revelation. Yet nobody who understands what the relevant concepts involve really believes that the bulk of the deposit of faith (and morals) is only a matter of opinion. So, why does the inconsistency persist in so many minds?

As Ralph McInerny pointed out a decade ago in a little book I recommend to anybody, today we have a crisis of authorities: the Magisterium vs. the guild of academic theologians. The latter authorities generally convey a more popular message than the former, especially on morality, about which the Church has made no dogmatic definitions. And so the theologians are more widely hearkened to about moral questions, and even about dogmatic issues that have direct practical implications, such as the doctrine of the necessity of the Church for salvation. As I have often said before here and elsewhere, authority is the issue.

But of course it is not the most fundamental issue. The most fundamental reasons why the academic guild of theologians often presents itself as an alternate magisterium are spiritual and intellectual pride. The most fundamental reasons why so many Catholics hearken to them is
old-fashioned lust and greed. As even McInerny realizes, only prayer and fasting is going to deal with those.

Time to do my Rosary.
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