26 July 2008

Humanae Vitae - here's what I think

Humanae Vitae was published into a world which was primed for its rejection. Among the factors I perceived were at work: the recent adoption of the television into homes, with the earliest publicly-announced broadcasts in the United States (personal liberty) and the USSR (control by disinformation); a frenzy for innovation in all areas of life; and a disproportionate number of young adults.

Television, and its secondary technology, recording, were initially under some control, but, as we all know, there is virtually no limit to what can be broadcast now. Recording allows the most foolish and ill-advised presentations to be forever available and repeatable (I am thinking YouTube). To sell television in the then-current sponsorship model, entertainment programs must appeal to the broadest audience, which usually means stripping them of distinctives, especially in matters of belief.

Innovation without reference to the past became the norm. From the ridiculous (the abandonment of phonics-based reading education for "look-say" methods pervasively used in schools during this time), to the sublime (what happened to the Mass in the wake of Vatican II), the passion for newness was everywhere, and never more so than in the area of sexual behavior. Innovations with profound implications were foisted upon society in an apparent vacuum. Those counseling prudence were mocked, when not simply ignored.

The post-WW II "baby boom" resulted in teeming hordes of young persons whose minds were full of what they saw in movie theaters and on television, but little else. In school, they were denied the tools which would have enabled them to read omnivorously and quickly. In their classes, reference to the sages of history was proscribed. Religion, when it was admitted, was to be seen as only personal. God could not be stipulated as an absolute when discussing anything. According to the professors, the only reliable source of information about the meaning of anything came from within, based on experience. Critical thinking came to mean simply being critical, instead of doing the intellectual heavy lifting required to thoroughly learn a topic and come up with original ideas based on it.

If the young had been taught to think for themselves... if they'd had the skills to read well... if they had been protected against the distractions and misinformation disseminated by television and movies... and if the Church had not been swept off its place of authority in the public mind by dissenters who proclaimed the worthlessness of her teaching, without even the first glimmer of a clue of what the teaching really was...

But if is a big, sprawling, slippery word.

So here we are, 40 years later, with lives full of experiences formed in a crucible of our own making. If we are honest, we will admit that, by deriding the wisdom of those who had gone before, we merely consigned ourselves to slogging through the same muck they did. Their writings and clear guidance were not meant to spoil our fun, stunt our personalities, or ruin our lives. They did not hate us, sight unseen! They meant to help us avoid slog, instead to start from the intellectual and moral point they had attained with such suffering and effort, so we could go on further, bringing the rest of our human family along with us. Instead, we spurned their patient work, and declared our little experiments to be better than anything they could ever have dreamed of.

We were deceived.

To those who still regard Humanae Vitae, and all that went before it, to be simply wrong, I say this: be honest. Do not say that the Catholic Church should not teach this. What does it matter to you what she teaches? Say the truth: I cannot do this. I do not accept its teaching. I cannot be persuaded. But before you declare that, you really must read the encyclical, once, carefully. To do otherwise is at best simply childish; at worst, it is intellectual dishonesty.

There will be those who dismiss it out of hand, citing science and medicine as far more advanced than some gang of old celibates. Oh, really? There is no shortage of empirical proof of the ills predicted in Humanae Vitae: women exhausted from trying to manage career and family, cast off after bearing children; rampant divorce; wholesale slaughter of unborn children; loss of dignity, loss of respect, loss of control, and harm to the environment (from all the hormones in the water supply). It is pointless to say they're not related, unless the way set forth in Humanae Vitae is really tried. And I am not speaking exclusively of attention to a woman's hormonal patterns, although there are plenty of testimonials as to the benefits of NFP, for conceiving as well as for spacing children. I am referring to the framework, the foundation, which Humanae Vitae and all similar teaching the Church assumes: marriage as a vocation.

A common insult levied at the Catholic Church is that it "treats people like children." I don't see that at all. If anything, the Catholic Church has always had a view of humanity which transcends anything the world has to offer. Yet its ideals are not invented; they are revealed in Scripture, and the Church simply points to them and does everything she can to help them be attained.

Very recently there has been an upsurge in an interest in tradition among the youth. Traditional orders of monks and nuns are flourishing. Young men are entering seminaries where they can be traditionally trained for the priesthood. From the world's point of view, a traditional Roman Catholic priest is either a hero or a fool. To live in continence and celibacy, without a family of one's own...? When undertaken by a mature individual with a right intention, definitely heroic. The Church has a very high view of what people can do with God's help. Her faith is often rewarded: the last two Popes are exemplars of how the celibate, continent man can take the people of God as his family, and be a good father to them.

But if a priest is called to heroism in his daily life, what about laypersons? Of course they are... and none more than observant Catholic spouses. They live out the virtues of faith, hope, and love every single day of their lives. Couples who practise contraception may still be devoted to one another, but no one will deny it takes another whole level of maturity, discipline, patience, and trust in God to live as a family, open to His gift of children.

By the way, it takes no less of those virtues to live through the sorrow and grief of greatly desiring to have children but being unable to conceive, or carry to term. It takes strength and grace to withstand the well-meaning offers to medically correct the situation by using unnatural methods. Those who cannot accept God's will in this matter can end up in grievously disordered situations, in which scientific achievement is the god, and the consequences to human life and emotions are studiously ignored.

Finally, again to be honest, Humanae Vitae's reception was compromised by The Spirit of Vatican Two, at least in the United States. Humanae Vitae was published in 1968. It dropped into an environment of eager relinquishment of things which were once distinctives of Catholic life. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in their pastoral document of November 18, 1966 stated:
Catholics in the United States are obliged to abstain from the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during the season of Lent. They are also obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended. Abstinence from flesh meat on all Fridays of the year is especially recommended to individuals and to the Catholic community as a whole.
What they said: "In order for you to have a more authentic Christian experience, pray and study and find another ascetic discipline, if you like, to replace Friday abstinence." What we heard: "This was a mortal sin, but now it's not." Stunning!

Then, on May 29, 1969, Memoriale Domini was published, which reported,
...in certain communities and in certain places this practice [communion in the hand] has been introduced without prior approval having been requested of the Holy See, and, at times, without any attempt to prepare the faithful adequately.
(Hmm... sounds like most of what came after Vatican II.)

It also contained these words:
...with a deepening understanding of the truth of the eucharistic mystery, of its power and of the presence of Christ in it, there came a greater feeling of reverence towards this sacrament and a deeper humility was felt to be demanded when receiving it. Thus the custom was established of the minister placing a particle of consecrated bread on the tongue of the communicant.

This method of distributing holy communion must be retained, taking the present situation of the Church in the entire world into account, not merely because it has many centuries of-tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist.
It goes on to record the vote from the bishops:
1. Do you think that attention should be paid to the desire that, over and above the traditional manner, the rite of receiving holy communion on the hand should be admitted?

Yes: 597

No: 1,233

Yes, but with reservations: 315
By the time this vote was taken, you know it had to be a widely-known practice. But, for some reason, Pope Paul VI kind of waffled, and ended pretty much by saying, "well, if you must ... send me a note in six months and let me know how it goes."

What that translated to, for those two worthies, John & Mary Catholic, was, "we used to say this was sacrilege; but, oh, all right - go ahead."

And, of course, in the meantime, Latin missals were being thrown into the trash, Mass was being said entirely in the vernacular versus populum, and women gave up covering their heads.

But, in the midst of all that, the Church forbade contraception - and had the gall to couch it in the idealistic 50s claptrap that Vatican II was supposed to do away with!

John & Mary Catholic heard: "Oh yes, there will be top-to-bottom reforms, you won't recognize the ol' Church, - but when it comes to this? Ha ha, just kidding!"

Pope Paul VI was asking a hard thing. On the one hand, he was asking for heroic sacrifices, and saying that this was an unchangeable principle. But the bishops were sweeping away penalties for other things which had seemed no less important and logical. While not a scholar, I do try to understand, and even I was bewildered. It didn't make sense. In the end, it came down to this: I'd become a Roman Catholic at 14 knowing that I would have to be willing to welcome children as God sent them, if I was ever married. I took it very seriously, to the point where it was a factor in losing my dear one.

To raise children, I would need to be able to rely on my faith, not only for myself, but to teach them. In the wake of Vatican II, the Church's message was incoherent, and all that was good and beautiful was headed for the Dumpster (literally, in some cases). I didn't recognize the Church any more, and the Church didn't want the likes of me. Coming on top of my already extremely distressing home situation, it was just too much.

I didn't have the wisdom or the experience to know that the Church has gone through lots of similarly challenging times, and survived. I was incredibly hurt and angry, and I left. I didn't go anywhere else, though. There really is nowhere else, for a Catholic. I can go just so long, eating the dry straw that is Protestant doctrine, before I have to go back to the pasture that is the Truth. And, when I did, I would get out my dear old prayerbooks (rescued from garage sales and trash bins over the years), and my precious Douay Rheims Bible (another garage sale), and I would comfort myself, in private. Because all those things were Wrong and Bad in the new church.

With Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict has not just made it clear the the Extraordinary Form of Mass is Good, he has given us permission to enjoy the beautiful, helpful books and practices from centuries gone by. He has made me feel welcome again. He has shown me the courtesy and kindness and respect for my feelings which was never forthcoming from the liberals.

It may be too late for me. My life did not go down Catholic paths, although I never really left. There will need to be some big changes in my life before I can take my place again as a Roman Catholic. I owe it to Benedict to try. He has certainly come more - far more! - than halfway. I would never have considered trying to go to Mass before S.P. Now, I have no excuse.

Earlier, I said that the Catholic Church does not treat souls like children, because its standards are high and its faith in grace unlimited. Benedict's approach to the youth at World Youth Day could not be called condescension. He painted a picture of what they could do, and urged them to do it, for the love of God. And yet, I do feel like a child, sometimes... like a dirty, tired, hungry child who's been chased out of the house and forgotten about, left to wander about, begging for scraps. Benedict is going out into the hedgerows and coaxing us back in. He is protecting us from marauders, feeding us good food, and giving us the treasures which are rightfully ours. By giving the priests the right to say the Extraordinary Form of Mass, he has preserved it forever, because there will always be priests who want to say that Mass. By making sure the Extraordinary Form is available, Benedict has ensured that the faithful will be there - those faithful who know what the Mass is, and cannot accept the deformative changes, even after 40 years of being told how Wonderful We Are. And by giving the faithful a place to pray and know God, led by priests who know how close the Church came to losing the Extraordinary Form forever, Benedict has, quite simply, saved the Roman Catholic Church. "Where two or three are gathered in my name..."

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