14 June 2008

Humanae Vitae: A prophetic word...

The Very Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas was the preacher at our Sunday Masses on 8 June 2008, and here is the text:

An Italian proverb says, “Ogni traduttore, traditore.” Which roughly translates as, “Every translator is a traitor.” That dilemma comes into full bloom in today’s Gospel and First Reading. St. Matthew tells us that Our Divine Master quotes the prophet Hosea speaking for the Lord God, “It is mercy that I desire, not sacrifice.” But if you paid attention to the First Reading, you heard the text from Hosea sound a bit different: “It is love that I desire, not sacrifice.” The problem is one of translation. So, before launching into the heart of the matter, let me offer a little lesson in scriptural composition.

When the Jews of old committed Divine Revelation to writing, they did so in Hebrew. As many Jews moved out of the Holy Land proper, losing touch with their mother tongue, it was deemed necessary to put the Sacred Scriptures into a more universally accessible language – Greek. That first translation of what we Christians call “the Old Testament” is known as the Septuagint, which was the version most used by the early Christians. And so, when the inspired writers of the New Testament quote Scripture, they rely on the Septuagint and not on the Hebrew original. Therefore, in Matthew’s quoting of Jesus quoting Hosea, the Evangelist uses the Greek translation of Hosea’s Hebrew – because Matthew is writing his Gospel in Greek and, even if largely for a Jewish audience, one that is probably more conversant in Greek than in Hebrew.

The two words in question are the Hebrew hesed and the Greek eleos. You will recognize eleos as meaning “mercy” from the Kyrie of the Mass, as in “Kyrie, eleison” (Lord, have mercy). Hesed is a bit more difficult to translate since it is a concept more than a mere word. When the one performing hesed is a human being, it involves doing favors for others or having an affectionate feeling for God. When Almighty God is the doer of hesed on behalf of men, it concerns deliverance from enemies, preservation from death, redemption from sin, keeping the covenants. A short-hand expression attempting to capture these various aspects might be “covenant loyalty” or “covenant fidelity.” So, both Jesus and Hosea centuries before Him are saying that a loving response to God’s overtures in the covenant are God’s fondest desires and, if we do that, we’ll not have to offer propitiatory sacrifices, which can be rather cheap and insincere. How often Catholics today use the Sacrament of Penance (if they use it at all) as a kind of magic wand to wave over their sins with no intention of amendment of life or attend Sunday Mass while living the rest of the week on their own terms. We are reminded this morning that God is not pleased by such hollow forms of religious observance, just as He was not pleased with similar performances by the Jews of old.

This morning we also hear St. Paul cite Abraham as the model of faith and the first recipient of the covenant promises The Apostle to the Gentiles, the 2000th anniversary of whose birth we shall shortly commemorate, informs us that the father of the Chosen People “hop[ed] against hope.” For what? For children – and many of them. And poor Sarah thought herself cursed by God. Why? Because she had been unable to conceive a child. My, how the times have changed.

These thoughts arising from the table of scriptural wisdom placed before us by Mother Church today coalesced in my mind around another anniversary on the horizon. Next month marks the fortieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, which taught that each and every act of sexual intercourse must be open to new life. That document, time has proven, was truly a prophetic teaching. The Pope’s wisdom is more apparent today than anyone could have dreamed in 1968 as he warned that unbridled access to artificial contraception would result in an explosion of pornography, exploitation of women, fornication and adultery. By no means the Cassandra that many accused him of being, he was right on target and, in fact, rather measured in his prognostications. Indeed, likewise flowing from artificial contraception have been abortion-on-demand, in vitro fertilization, cloning, and justification for same-sex relations and marriage.

Unfortunately, response to that encyclical both within the Church and in society-at-large has been almost uniformly negative, so that it hangs like a dark shadow over everything for four decades. The dissent coming in its wake in the Church has created a climate of unbelief and what we have come to label “Cafeteria Catholicism.” And ecclesiastical failure to deal with the disobedience effectively has set up in the minds of many – both within the Church and without – the supposition that this teaching is not really all that important. I want to dispute that theory today and to say, on the contrary, that it is very important and, in truth, central to our life of faith. If you are confused by just what the Church teaches on this topic, if you reject it, or if you accept it but find it hard to explain, kindly allow me to attempt to elucidate this moral teaching for you. Particularly for those who find this moral norm hard or uncomfortable, I would invite you to ask the Holy Spirit to guide both me and you over the next five minutes – that I might speak words that would rouse you to what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5).

To hear some people talk, one would get the impression that the prohibition against artificial contraception came out of the blue in 1968. However, even a brief review of history reveals a strong and consistent ban on all such activities from the earliest days of the Church in a direct line, right into the twentieth century, with statements to the same effect by Pope Paul VI’s three immediate predecessors, as well as Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes. Interestingly, all the Protestant Reformers roundly condemned artificial birth control. As a matter of fact, every Protestant body classified such activity as immoral and unbiblical, until the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion in 1930.

Pope John Paul II reiterated the case for the teaching of Humane Vitae with patience and regularity throughout his entire pontificate. Two statements, however, are particularly noteworthy because of their forcefulness. In 1983, the Holy Father declared: “Contraception is to be judged so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified. To think or to say the contrary is equal to maintaining that in human life, situations may arise in which it is lawful not to recognize God as God.”

In 1987, Pope John Paul II asserted that “the Church’s teaching on contraception does not belong to the category of matter open to free discussion among theologians. Teaching the contrary amounts to leading the moral consciences of spouses into error.” If the polls are correct in observing that more than 80% of Catholic women of child-bearing age in the United States ignore this teaching, why not change it, or at least why bother to appear to “beat a dead horse”? Because the truth of the Gospel and the truth about the human person are at stake.

Very often even people of goodwill find the logic of Humanae Vitae difficult to understand. While they know the pronouncements of the Magisterium in this regard, they may feel the teaching has no grounding in Scripture.

That is why I have always wondered why no one seems to ground the core of Humanae Vitae’s teaching in the written Word of God. For me, one passage (which provides a basic theme for the whole of the Bible) is most instructive about the plan of God and the response He expects from those who would wish to be numbered among His Chosen People. I refer specifically to Genesis 17:10-13:

This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you that you must keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. Throughout the ages every male among you when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised, including household slaves and those acquired with money from any foreigner who is part of your blood. Yes, both the house-born slaves and those acquired with money must be circumcised. Thus my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact.

You see, as Almighty God began to form a people uniquely His own, He established a covenant (that is, a pact, a contract) with Abraham as the father of that chosen nation. The Lord promised that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as “the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore” (Gn 22:17). And that from a man who was “as good as dead,” as St. Paul puts it so starkly in today’s Second Reading. All this showed that the Lord was God both in love and in power; He was truly Yahweh (I Am Who Am), Who thus revealed Himself to Moses as the very source of life (cf. Ex 3:14).

And so it was that when God was asked by Abraham to demonstrate His love, God spoke in terms of life; and, ever since, love and life have been inextricably linked to each other, for they are two sides of the same coin.

In ancient times, covenants were the normal means of doing business, and such agreements always had external signs. The Lord God said the sign for Abraham and every son of the covenant thereafter was to be that of circumcision. How strange! Why not a sign that would be visible to all at every moment? Why a sign seen only by the man and his wife? For a reason so simple that it is most profound: The act of sexual intercourse would thenceforth speak not only the language of love but equally the language of life, which is to say, that sexual intimacy would speak God’s language.

Therefore, every time a Hebrew man engaged in intercourse, he would be reminded that this particular act had been invested with a new meaning by God Himself, a point manifest in his very flesh and as enduring as God’s will, God’s love, God’s gift of life.

Whoever came up with the saying, “Two’s company, three’s a crowd,” knew nothing of the God of the covenant; His love is totally unrestricted and completely open. God says, “The more the merrier!” He says that in His own Godhead in that community of Persons Who love Each Other eternally and expansively in the Trinity; hence, not just one Person, nor two, but three. Thus does the Blessed Trinity serve as a model for human love and relationships, in which love between persons necessarily overflows into new life.

The connection between love and life reaches its apex in Jesus Christ, Who loves humanity so much that He gives His life that “we might have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Like His Heavenly Father, Jesus offers a covenantal sign of His love in the life-blood of the Eucharist, that new and everlasting covenant.

Although Christians need not practice circumcision under the new covenant, they are still called to reflect those same values by which love and life are proclaimed in who we are and in what we do, an example provided in a preeminent manner by Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on our behalf.

Unlike any faith system before or since, the covenant way of the Lord sacralizes human sexuality by making of it a mirror image of God’s own gifts of Himself as Love and Life. Therefore, we deal here with the truth of God’s identity and man’s dignity at one and the same time. No wonder, then, that St. Paul could rhapsodize on the beauty of marital love as a great mystery, indeed the sign of Christ’s love for His Church (cf. Eph 5:32). Contraceptive intercourse, on the other hand, lies about both the God of the covenant and the children of the covenant.

Forty years after Humanae Vitae, the Church clings to this essential teaching with a tenacity that annoys and astounds most people, but she does so because of some fundamental convictions that underlie the whole vocation of being a part of the Chosen People. In a 1966 essay in Triumph magazine, Brent Bozell put it powerfully:

"The world deems the Church mad to have hitched its whole moral authority to this wretched piece of intransigence. Millions of Catholics and near-Catholics and apostate Catholics over the years have felt the same way: If only the Church would give ground on this one, the rest would be easy to take. But this wretched piece of intransigence is the key to the mighty mystery of sex, which unlocks the door to the even more awesome mystery of life, which in turn reveals the reality of the supernatural. If the Church does not own this key, it does not own any keys at all."

May the memory of the Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, be honored by a renewed willingness on the part of married couples, theologians, clergy – indeed anyone interested in the God-man relationship – to reflect on “the mighty mystery of sex” and on “the even more awesome mystery of life.” That, I would suggest, is the appropriate response of love to God’s invitation to the covenant, which response will never need a sacrifice.