When the Walls Come Tumbling Down: “Humanae Vitae” at 50

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – July 22, 2018

Saint Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

As we get older, I think one of the things we look forward to the most is being more and more free and in control of our lives. We have those big steps in life, those big markers that are signs of more and more freedom. And it starts really small, like getting to pour the milk on your own cereal, or getting to cross the street by yourself. And then there are the bigger ones, like getting a phone, a car, going to college, getting your first job and first paycheck, buying a house, getting married, having kids, losing your hair—and all of these steps are very important in becoming healthy adults! But sometimes we forget that, although we need to take these steps, each step brings with it an equal amount of responsibility, and responsibility can be pretty scary.

Why is it so scary though? Well, as we get older, more and more of our safety nets start to come down, the training wheels start to come off. I mean, speaking for myself, the day before I was ordained a priest and the first few hours after I was ordained a priest were radically different. In one moment I was pretty care free, very few responsibilities; in the next moment, I was invested with the power of the Holy Spirit, ordained a priest in persona Christi capitis (in the person of Christ the head), and my world changed; my responsibilities changed. I was hearing confessions, celebrating mass, assigned to a parish—a parish with the one and only Fr. Ned Blick. Training wheels were off, safety nets were gone.

This sort of situation can paralyze us, cause us to just stop dead in our tracks and think, “My God, what do I do now?” G.K. Chesterton, who was a convert to Catholicism and a prolific writer back at the turn of the 20th century, had a great image about this sort of paralysis. He said that it’s like children playing on an island with one hundred-foot cliffs on every side, but walls all around the play area so they can’t fall off the cliffs. As long as the walls are up, the kids run about freely, having a blast. But if the walls are taken down, the children huddle together in the middle, afraid that they might fall off. They have the same amount of space to play, but without those walls, they are terrified of what may happen (1).

This is the situation we find in our Gospel today. The people have run ahead of Jesus and the Apostles. And although there are a hundred things that could be going through their heads, what is important is how they are described by Mark. Mark says that when Jesus saw them, “His heart was moved with pity, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34). These people ran to him because they had no one to shepherd them, they were lost, they were afraid, lacked any semblance of security. And how does Jesus react? “His heart was moved with pity.” Literally, his stomach sank, his guts turned over.

Has that ever happened to you? As a really young kid, I remember walking through the store with my mom and when I turned around she was gone, and it was that exact feeling—stomach sinking, guts turning over. Or as parents, have you ever lost your child in the store, or been in any of a number of situations, and your stomach just sinks? That is what Jesus felt! He didn’t just pity the people, he was moved—viscerally—really moved with compassion and pity for the situation these people were in. And so he began to teach them.

Which seems like a strange response, doesn’t it? Teach them? Really? Seems like a bad time to jump into a lecture. Well, yeah, it does. But think about it! Jesus begins to teach them—Jesus. Jesus doesn’t teach math classes or social studies. Jesus Christ teaches “the mystery of the Father and His love,” and in doing this he “fully reveals man to man himself” (2). In other words, Jesus teaches us who we are and who we have always been meant to be. Jesus doesn’t teach us a bunch of arbitrary facts or some arbitrary rules he decided to make up. No, he comes and reveals who we are to ourselves. He is the Good Shepherd who gives us that peace, safety and security we so desperately want. He restores and shows us the “walls” so that we can roam freely, so we can freely be who we have always been meant to be.

Where we get caught up in our day and age is with our freedom, our need to be in control! After a while, we begin to question why the walls are there; we forget about the cliff and start questioning why we have walls. I think there is no better example in our day and age than the Church’s teaching on contraception. Sure, abortion is controversial, the death penalty, etcetera. But really, what sets us apart, where our faith seems to be quite radical, is this teaching on contraception.

Fifty years ago, on July 25th, then Pope Paul VI published an encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae. And now, as it was back then, this encyclical, which forbid the use of artificial contraceptives in order to regulate the birth of one’s children, has been the source of intense debate, anger, and frustration. People ask and say, “Why is the Church getting involved in the bedroom?” or “The Church has no right to say anything about this.” But in this beautiful letter, Paul VI was not imposing some strange, arbitrary rule! No, no. Rather, Paul VI, like the Good Shepherd himself, was intervening in a part of people’s lives where so much fear and confusion and lack of security existed and teaching them. Paul VI saw the situation of artificial birth control arising and was “moved with pity.” And so, being the good shepherd he was, “he began to teach the people” (c.f., Mk. 6:34).

Again, he did not impose a rule to control people, but taught in order to help married couples understand more truly and fully the love they professed and vowed to one another. Married love, he wrote, is fully human and not just physical; love which is free and grows so that the man and woman truly become of one heart and soul; love which is total, and not selfish or self-seeking; love which is faithful and exclusive; love which is fruitful, bringing new life into the world (3). But love that has reached this level, that is, true marital love, also comes with responsibility (4).

Just like so many other parts of one’s life, it is this responsibility which becomes so difficult, even scary. This is a huge responsibility! The weight of it has the ability to paralyze people. Those walls keeping us from falling off the cliff are gone, and so we huddle in the middle, not sure what to do. What Paul VI saw was that many people were turning to artificial birth control because it gave them the safety and security they wanted. But it wasn’t the safety and security they needed because even though it provided safety and security in some areas, it failed in so many others. It was a solution, no doubt about it! But it wasn’t a truly total solution, only a partial one (5).

Because it was so partial, because it lacked a truly total perspective, Paul VI predicted that if married couples were to continue using artificial birth control there would be an increase in “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” That it would give young people an incentive and a means to break the moral law. He also predicted—and I think this is quite astounding if you look at our culture, especially in light of what has been hitting the headlines in the past several months—that “man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and . . . reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires” (6).

Paul VI was dead on. And he was dead on precisely because what he taught was not just rules trying to control people, but simply the truth about who we truly are and what marriage and marital love is all about. Like our Lord in the Gospel today, Paul VI saw his people wandering about “like sheep without a shepherd,” and so, “moved with pity” he, as chief shepherd of the Church, gave us this teaching. I have spoken with so many people, some very close to me, who used to use contraception. And they talk about how selfish they became, how it hurt their marriage and love for one another. But those same people talked about how, once they accepted the teaching of the Church in this matter, their lives became so much more joyful, their love for one another so much more true. It came with its struggles, no doubt! But the freedom they felt was unmatched.

To quote G.K. Chesterton again, he said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (7). What Paul VI is trying to convey in Humanae Vitae is much more than, “Don’t use contraceptives” or “Use NFP.” Like our Lord, he is trying to reveal us to ourselves (8)! Like the Good Shepherd, he is trying to teach and reveal to us who we truly are, and to place us on the path toward happiness, peace, and joy. May this fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae be a time for all to embrace God’s plan for marriage and the gift of life, for all to turn to the Lord and allow Him to be their true Shepherd.

1) “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.…We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9).

2) Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 22.

3) c.f., Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 9.

4) c.f., Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 10.

5) C.f., Humanae Vitae’s constant recourse to the “Principle of Totality.”

6) Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 17.

7) G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World?, Part I, Chapter 5, “The Unfinished Temple.”

8) c.f., Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 22.

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