The Sexual Order

Men and women were both created in the image and likeness of God and find through marriage their human and religious fulfilment (Chs. 5 and 7). From the start of Christianity respect for the personal and social values of human sexuality underpinned the teaching on sexual activity, a teaching that defended a middle ground between two extremes: the widespread licentiousness and shameful treatment of women in ancient times, on the one hand, and the repudiation of sexuality by such groups as the Marcionites, Montanists, Manicheans, and the Cathars, on the other (see Chs. 1 and 2, respectively).

In the immediate post-NT period we find the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas warning against 'the way of darkness' by repudiating three kinds of sexual activity that the Catholic tradition would consistently repudiate, premarital sex, extramarital sex, and homosexual practices: 'You shall not commit fornication; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not engage in homosexual activity (Epistle of Barnabas, 19. 4; Didache, 2. 2). In all three cases, down through the ages many people, including not a few Christians, have dissented from this teaching, but in doing so they have

227 J. F. Langan summarizes these conditions: 'Just-war doctrine', in R. P. McBrien (ed.), The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1995), 728-9.

been overriding the clear judgement of the NT scriptures and the mainstream tradition. But what of sexuality and Christian married life?

St Paul's teaching on the equal status of men and women who had been baptized into Christ (Gal. 3: 28) seemed to make marriage a partnership of equals. However, subsequent domestic rules for Christian households followed patriarchal practice, by inculcating the subordination of wives to husbands. Yet these rules insisted on husbands showing loving respect: 'Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly (Col. 3: 19). Nowadays, many societies take their distance from such first-century household codes of behaviour. But those codes insisted on something that was often missing in ancient and later cultures: Christian husbands were expected to cherish, protect, love their wives with a tenderness that took its standard from Christ himself (Eph. 5: 22—33; see 1 Pet. 3: 1—7). In Ch. 1 we saw how respect for wives and mothers made Christian faith attractive to many women in the Roman Empire.

In a treatise written around 200 (before he lapsed into the extreme views of Montanism) and addressed to his wife when both were in the prime of life, Tertullian left us a most moving appreciation of the beauty of Christian marriage:

How beautiful the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh [Gen. 2: 24]; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together, instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God's church and partake of God's banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecutions, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice [the Eucharist] without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the sign of the cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing from God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of the Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these he gives his peace. Where there are two together, there also he is present [Matt. 18: 20]; and where he is, there evil is not. (Ad Uxorem, 2. 8)228

228 Trans. W. P. Le Saint, Tertullian: Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage , Ancient Christian Writers, 13 (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1951), 35—6.

Unsurpassed in its power to evoke the sanctity of marriage in early Christianity, this passage did not, however, anticipate the teaching of Vatican II on the beauty and wonder of married sexuality as a precious gift from God. In particular, the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World celebrated the tender, life-giving quality of dignified married love (Gaudium et Spes, 49, 51).

From the time of Pius Xl's 1930 encyclical letter Casti Connubii ('Of Chaste Marriage') Catholic teaching has taken up the challenge of holding together the two obvious purposes of marital intercourse: the fostering of mutual love and the begetting of children. Clearly tensions can and do arise between these two purposes. Responsible parenthood must reckon with such factors as the lack of proper housing for a larger family, the precarious health of one or other of the spouses, economic difficulties, and some dramatic demographic challenges. Between 1960 and late 1999, the population of the world was to double: from three thousand million to six thousand million. Pius XI had recognized as legitimate choosing the safe or sterile period for intercourse (or natural family planning), but rejected contraception as morally wrong, 'an offence against the law of God and nature' (DH 3717; ND 2202). Vatican II couched its teaching in general terms, encouraging in spouses 'a sense of human and Christian responsibility'. With 'docile reverence towards God' and 'common counsel and effort', they should reach 'a right judgement' about having further children: 'taking into account their own good and that of the children already born or to be born, they will consider carefully the material and spiritual conditions of their times and of their own situation; and, finally, they will consult the interests of their own family, of the temporal society, and of the church herself'. The Council felt confident that 'there can be no real contradiction between the divine law of transmitting life and that of fostering genuine conjugal love' (Gaudium et Spes, 50-1).

At the request of Paul VI, the particular question of methods of birth control was left to a commission of experts appointed in 1965 by the Pope himself (see ibid. 51 n. 14). The majority on the commission came out in favour of a change in teaching. After prayerfully examining their report and consulting with others, Paul VI published in 1968 his encyclical Humanae Vitae ('Of Human Life'). While recognizing the importance of married love and endorsing responsible parenthood, the Pope rejected contraception. He appealed to the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meaning of sexual intercourse, and declared that

'each and every marriage act' must be open to the transmission of life (no. 11). Although an authoritative statement, the encyclical was not an infallible document. The bishops of many countries introduced mitigating nuances into its teaching: the French bishops, for instance, would not unconditionally exclude artificial means of birth control, which they considered 'a lesser evil', when periodical continence proves impossible or spouses are faced with a conflict of duties.

Whatever one discerns or decides, we must firmly distinguish between abortion and infanticide, on the one hand, and contraception, on the other. Catholic teaching, right from the first century, has rejected the former. As regards the latter, Vatican II should be heard: 'it is the spouses themselves who ultimately must make this judgement in the sight of God', doing so with their 'conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law' and 'submissive toward the church's teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel', and aware that the 'divine law reveals and protects the integral meaning of conjugal love, and impels it toward a truly human fulfilment' (Gaudium etSpes, 50). It is worth recalling here the relevant examination of conscience before approaching the sacrament of reconciliation proposed in 1977 by the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani (to become Pope John Paul I the following year), and by the archbishops or bishops of fourteen neighbouring dioceses: 'In agreement with my spouse, have I given a clear and conscientious answer to the problem of birth control? Have I prevented a conception for egotistical motives? Have I brought a life into the world without a sense of responsibility?'229 These questions test the loving and responsible decision of the two spouses; nothing is asked about the methods used to prevent what they together judge would be an 'irresponsible' pregnancy.

In his papal teaching John Paul II, while saying nothing about any means adopted, repeatedly condemned contraception as gravely wrong and 'a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love' (Familiaris Consortio, 32). He also firmly distinguished contraception from abortion:

From the moral point of view contraception and abortion are specifically different evils: the former contradicts the full truth of the sexual act as the proper expression of conjugal love, while the latter destroys the life of a human being;

the former is opposed to the virtue of chastity in marriage, the latter is opposed to the virtue of

229 Libro dipreghieraper le diocesi della regione Triveneta (Turin: Elle Di Ci, 2nd edn. 1977), 418; trans. ours.

justice and directly violates the divine commandment 'You shall not kill.' (Evangelium Vitae, 13; italics his)

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