Church Teaching Calls One to a Whole, Integral Life

posted on 03/12/96 12:28 pm by Fr. Mark Miller, C.Ss.R.  

Church Teaching Calls One to a Whole, Integral Life

Prairie Messenger December, 1996 Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D. What bearing does sexuality have on reproduction? That may sound like a strange question, but contraception and modern medical interventions have dramatically changed something that all of humanity has simply taken for granted until this latter half of the twentieth century: Children result from sexual intercourse. Contraceptives succeeded in the mid-part of this century in separating procreation (the conceiving of children) from sexual intercourse. Naturally, prior to contraceptives, not every act of intercourse resulted in a child. However, unless one partner was known to be infertile, the possibility of conceiving a child was always present. Furthermore, until recently, conception could only take place within the body of the woman (I say ‘body’ rather than womb because there are tubal pregnancies and, rarely, pregnancies that occur outside the womb). However, technology first available in animal husbandry rapidly became applicable to human reproduction. Today, various technologies such as in vitro fertilization (sperm and eggs are brought together in a petri dish to facilitate conception) or assisted fertilization (sperm is introduced into the woman’s womb or Fallopian tube) mean that intercourse is not necessary for conception. The consequences of isolating intercourse and conception have been enormous for our society. Sex for pleasure or personal fulfillment dominates the secular understanding of human sexuality. Conception is looked upon as something to be controlled and when ‘mistakes’ are made, simply to be ended. The biology of conception, which for all previous generations flowed without question into the context (though not necessarily always the reality) of a family wherein children grew and matured, has given way to a world of ‘rights’ in which any woman has a ‘right’ to a child regardless of the subsequent social context for the child. And, finally, reproductive technology easily turns procreation into a product rather than a gift, a responsibility and a mystery. Obviously, all is not bad as a result of these changes. Many of us might well wish for a more simpler era; but modern discoveries and technologies do not allow such a luxury. And while much can be said on every facet of these changes, the question I most often encounter is “What should a faithful Catholic do in such a dramatically changing world?” First, I believe, it is critical for Catholics to understand the wisdom of our tradition. Ours is not the first century to attack marriage, family life and an integral understanding of sexuality. Over the centuries the Church has defended the rights of men and women to marry, to have children, and to be assisted as needed in the formation and raising of those children. A committed marriage and a family/home have been the contexts in which both loving relationships and growing children can literally be at home. Marriage and home are the contexts within which Catholic teaching on human sexuality makes sense. Since the Second Vatican Council, the purpose of sexuality within marriage has been understood to be two-fold: to express the union and love of the couple and to overflow into the promise and hope of children. These purposes are considered integral to sex and marriage and cannot be arbitrarily reduced to only one or the other as convenient. Furthermore, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in Humanae vitae, parents must take responsibility for the size of their family (an often-overlooked point in that document); so the Church is not for some kind of unbridled production of children. However, in order to ensure that only moral means are used regarding conception, only natural family planning methods are endorsed as respecting both of the purposes of sex and marriage. Theologians still argue whether or not every act of intercourse, or simply the fullness of the married couple’s life, must be open to both purposes. However, all theologians recognize that the Church is arguing for a social context, called marriage, with all its commitments and responsibilities as the proper place for conceiving and bearing children. But in a world where almost 40% of marriages end in divorce, and indeed, where fewer people are actually getting married, what is the point of upholding some ‘archaic’ morality about marriage and sexuality? Furthermore, many social scientists today point out that marriage can at times be a form of slavery (e.g., where wife-abuse takes over) rather than a ‘loving union;’ hence, they argue, marriage cannot be for everybody. Similarly, many argue that all the children produced not by sexual intercourse but through medical assistance surely prove that these services are good and assist married couples to become families. Our society likes to argue moral points on the basis of consequences (many of which it conveniently leaves out, like the trauma for women and couples who go through many reproductive technologies). Our Church argues from a context of respect for human persons, the serious commitments to marriage and family, and what I believe is a healthy respect for sexuality as a gift of love, communication and new life rather than an instrument solely for personal pleasure. There are many nuances to the Church’s teaching. But I suspect that most Catholics would more clearly follow the Church’s teaching if they understood the wisdom we are trying to protect about sex, marriage, family, personal commitment, and living an integral or whole life in faith. It means a lot of work and often a struggle to accept what one may not like. However, it also means, I believe, that we witness to a life (in faith) understood more wholistically and more integrally— and more from the perspective of responsibility rather than rights. What Catholics perhaps need to learn, besides the wisdom of our tradition, is the courage with which much of the traditional Church teaching must be embraced in the face of a society which sees us as ‘archaic,’ or ‘male/celibate dominated,’ or ‘anti-sex,’ or ‘intolerant of other views.’ At times we may be far too moralistic; but there is a wisdom that we are both protecting and offering for full human living.

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