As Britain marks Marriage Week John de Waal says that couples flourish when they make a firm decision to build their lives on God’s laws
Iremember a sermon many ymiears ago at a parish ssion. We were invited to consider the dignity of married love by reflecting on one of the Beatitudes, only it was reversed: “Blessed are those who see God, for they shall be pure in heart.” What is the nature and purpose of married love? For some, it is about procreation. For others, it is about the love of the partners – and babies are hardly mentioned.
It is not as if we have been left without excellent guidance from recent popes, from Paul VI, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI. Several encyclicals have spelt out Catholic teaching. It is, perhaps, very sad that such teaching is not always communicated down to the ordinary person in the pew.
I was a sixth-former when Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) was written by Paul VI in 1968–causing a storm in the Church from which, arguably, it has never fully recovered. I was fortunate enough to have an excellent RE teacher in Brother Thomas More, a De La Salle Brother, who gave each of us a copy of the encyclical and took us through it in great detail. I still have my annotated copy. Those lessons have stayed with me through life.
The style of Humanae Vitae was not as user-friendly as we would hope for today– inclusive language had hardly been thought of– but its message was clear and hopeful for those who “had ears to hear”. Paul VI spoke of the purpose of sex as being “procreative” and “unitive”. Today it may sound more helpful to speak of “life-giving” and “love-giving” – it amounts to the same thing. The pope spoke of “the inseparable connection, established by God” between these two noble ends of married love. Experience has shown how important it is to maintain the balance between them–otherwise our view of sexuality and sexual ethics are distorted. Take, for example, some common situations today. Sexual relations outside marriage are commonplace. “The big difference now,” write Hugo de
Burgh and Robert Whelan in The Necessary Family, “is that being unmarried does not mean leading a celibate life. People cohabit, or enjoy a series of sexual partners, for as long as they are able to attract them. Contraception separated childbearing from sexual activity.” Back in the 1960s cohabitation didn’t even figure on Government statistics: now the vast majority of young people cohabit eitherbefore or instead of getting married. Many more see sex as merely recre
ational, a part of socialising without any commitment at all.
Again, as a society we have come to regard homosexual relationships as acceptable. We have civil partnerships and may soon have fully legal same-sex “marriages”. Such relationships can, of course, be love-giving but not life-giving. This, too, has resulted from the world which rejected Humanae Vitae. We have ended up with a culture which has not only
rejected the “inseparable connection” between the love-giving and life-giving aspects of sex but denying that either of them is necessary. Only the other day I heard a trailer fora science programme on television which stated casually that “love is a chemical reaction”. Sex has
become– in more senses thanone – sterile.
By separating the love-giving and life-giving aspects of sex we have forgotten the natural, Godgiven nature of sex. Pope Paul spoke of the “new understanding of the dignity of woman and her place in society... and the value of love in marriage”. Married love derives from God “who is love”. All human love is a reflection of the divine love. Married love is of special importance because ofits place in the natural order. Husband and wife, through the mutual giving of themselves, help to bring each other to greater holiness and cooperate with God in bringing new life into existence –life with an eternal destiny. There is little which can be more awesome than that. Moreover, for Catholics marriage is a sacrament, in which the love of husband and wife is a reflection of Christ’s love for his Church. Paul VI spoke of married love being “honourable and good”. There has also been some talk recently of recourse to natural methods of family planning being considered barely tolerable or second best to abstinencerather like imperfect contrition as opposed to perfect contrition for sin. This goes against papal teaching. It does not cease to be “honourable and good”, “even when, for reasons independent of the couple’s will, it is seen to be infertile. For its natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed... as experience shows that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” Paul VI describes Natural Family Planning as “a facility provided by nature” and encourages scientists to develop further “a sufficiently secure basis for the chaste limitation of offspring”.
Paul VI gives a ringing endorsement to this teaching when he says: “There can be no contradiction between two divine laws– that which governs the transmitting of life and that which governs the fostering of married love.” Pope Paul warned us of the consequences of ignoring these natural moral laws. He spoke of the dangers inherent in artificial birth control: “How easily this course of action can lead to marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” “Not much experience is needed,” he added, “to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that men– and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation–need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.” Perhaps we should keep that in mind when we consider what often passes for sex education in our schools.
So many problems in society can be traced back to the breakdown in marriage and family life. And so many indicators of social ill-health can be seen in statistics forfamily breakdown, abortion, births outside marriage,
sexually transmitted infections, domestic abuse and so on. Such a sad picture reflects a society which has ignored and rejected the message of Paul VI. Our belief in the goodness of human sexuality is rooted in the Incarnation. The God who created everything “and saw that it is very good” even shared our human nature – thereby giving us an immense dignity. Blessed Pope John Paul II said in his 1981 encyclical Familiaris Consortio: “Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love.” John Paul emphasised the “total giving” of the spouses to each other–without reservation. It is a blank cheque willingly given to each other on the wedding day, a commitment lived out in loving sacrifice ‘til death do us part. “The only place in which this self-giving is made possible is marriage,” he wrote.
John Paul II spoke of two ways in which we realise our human vocation to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Such commitment is foreign to our modern culture and we are all the poorer for it. As a society we have lost our way and the root cause, many would argue, is the breakdown of marriage and family life. Too many– inside and outside the Church– have compromised. Until we try to build our lives on God’s laws we will continue to be lost, and the result is much unhappiness.
John de Waal is a retired Catholic headmaster
Marriage Week UKfinishes on February 14. For more information, visit Marriage-week.org.uk