Radiating the Word of Truth
Editorial FAITH MAGAZINE Mar-Apl 2013
'Beauty grows in you to the extent that love grows, because charity itself is the soul's beauty': St Augustine (Ninth Homily on the First Epistle of St John)
Pope Benedict clearly wishes this Year of Faith to be a graced opportunity for Catholics to grapple with the content of their faith. He quotes approvingly his predecessor Paul VI, who exhorts us to strive after an "exact knowledge of the faith, so as to reinvigorate it, purify it, confirm it, and confess it" (Porta Fidei 4). The Holy Father continues: "In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool" (PF11). The Catholic faith is not amorphous and vacuous. It has a definite content: it has dogmas. These are not simply dry nuggets of information. They centre upon and lead us to the living person of Christ, and through Christ to the inner life of God: the Trinity. But,nonetheless, they are dogmas and Pope Benedict wants us to know them. He wants us to apply our minds in this Year of Faith, so that we might acquire an intellectual apprehension of the data of our faith.
However, the Pope also writes: "Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us" (PF6). This idea of radiating "the word of truth" is subtle and evocative. It suggests that the "word of truth" must also be communicated in a way that escapes what might be quantified by a teacher's classroom outcomes and objectives. It implies that somehow the beauty of Christ must shine forth. Indeed in the next edition of Faith magazine we will have an article by Dr Dudley Plunkett that is a sustained reflection on just this theme: beauty as a path to God. But the Pope is here more specifically talking about the witness value of our Christian lives. The Catholic faith finds its most compelling proclamation in the lives of faithful Catholics, but within the prevailingcultural context of the western world we would suggest there is one reality that most effectively "radiate[s] the word of truth": the family.
The Importance of the Family
The priestly and religious life have been held up as paradigms of holiness. And there can be no doubt that, notwithstanding the scandals of recent years, many priests and religious continue to lead lives of heroic virtue. These vocations and the form of life they entail make sense to those who have been adequately catechised and whose hearts are in tune with the mind of the Church. Hence while someone might not himself have received a religious vocation, nonetheless on encountering a truly devout nun that person may well be touched by the nun's fervour and thereby inspired to a deeper devotion to Christ.
Sadly, even within the Church there are many for whom this is no longer true. For a variety of reasons, perhaps including inadequate catechesis, many Catholics are ill-equipped to make sense of the priestly or religious life and are therefore incapable of discerning that the priestly or religious life, in its simple existence, might "radiate the word of truth".
Outside the Church many of our contemporaries have been scandalised. One might query whether in all cases they have been justly scandalised or whether this has come about through the agency of a deeply hostile media. Nonetheless, in their eyes the priestly and religious life appears incapable of radiating anything good. Even among those who have not been entirely scandalised the celibacy, the commitment to prayer, the obedience to authority and the lack of status and financial remuneration stand in stark contrast to everything they have been taught to value. The priestly or religious lifestyle is so alien to their lives that it has little or no immediate power to sway them. Regrettably, in the present cultural milieu the priestly and religious life is now very limited in its pullingpower. However, quite the opposite is true of family life.
In our society, even now, there is still a basic consensus that the natural nuclear family is inherently a good thing. Why else are politicians forever posing for photo opportunities with their families? Why is it that the great and the good have replaced the images of the Holy Family on their annual Christmas cards with pictures not of Father Christmas or robin red-breasts but of their own families? Why is it that advertising agencies use the family to sell anything from holidays to department stores, from cars to brands of gravy? These are all cynical forms of cashing in on the family, but why is that this reality, the family, lends itself to such forms of exploitation? The simple answer is that, even though our own families often fail to live up to these idealised images, we stillintuitively grasp the goodness and value of the traditional family. In our jaded, consumerist society we still aspire to family life and desire it for ourselves because somewhere deep down we recognise that family life is good, beautiful and true.
Threats to the Family
However, this simple human goodness of the family is fragile. Families can be broken. The very notion of the family and the legal framework that supports it is now being dismantled by our ruling classes. Politicians are seeking to redefine marriage, which is at the basis of family life. But they remain muddle-headed and opaque on quite what their new definition will be. Then there's the sustained assault on the family from our media. Often this takes the form of debates in which pundits put forth their ideas, but more insidious are the soap operas, dramas (often children's dramas!) and celebrity magazines which relentlessly bombard us with propaganda pushing alternative forms of the family.
All this is taking place within a profoundly hedonistic culture that sees value only in short-term gratification and which is inimical to and corrosive of any form of commitment. Our culture reduces deep, committed, inter-personal love to nothing more than casual encounters, friends with benefits or at best serial monogamy.
The Church's Role
This is the state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Through the inherent goodness that remains in our human nature we recognise and aspire to family life but nonetheless everything in our culture militates against it. In this context the Church has an important role to play. First of all her teachings sustain the human structure of the family, which even those outside the Church grasp as good. There is something special and uncompromising about the Catholic vision of the family. The Church has always maintained that the committed stable relationship of marriage is the environment God intended for the bringing about of new life. Marriage is the bedrock of family life. The Church has never and could never compromise on the three goods of marriage. Marriage is exclusively faithful.Marriage is an indissoluble lifelong commitment. Marriage is at least in principle open to new life. The Church is not being judgmental in this. She is supporting marriage, and because she uncompromisingly supports marriage she uncompromisingly supports the family.
However, the Church doesn't just support the natural human good of marriage. Through the sacrament of marriage the Church raises marriage and family life to an even higher nobility and beauty. The point of the three goods of marriage is that the spouses become living images of Christ's complete self-sacrificing love. The exclusive fidelity is much more than a negative prohibition and its demands go much further than simply the physical intimacy of marriage. When Christ's side is pierced on the cross there flows forth blood and water. One interpretation of this episode, aside from the eucharistic and baptismal symbolism, is that the water flows forth as a sign that Christ has given himself entirely for us. He has no blood left to shed for us. In the same way the sacrament of marriagechallenges spouses to give themselves so generously to each other that their self-gift is complete.
If you give yourself in a married way completely to your spouse then you cannot simultaneously give yourself in a married way to another. And herein lies the rationale for the exclusivity of marriage. It is not primarily about temptations outside marriage; rather it is about the degree of self-giving within marriage. Marriage is for life. Again this is a corollary of the generosity and completeness of the self-donation that is required of the spouses. When you give yourself completely that includes your tomorrow as well as your today. Someone who says "I love you just for today" doesn't really understand what love is. And finally marriage is open to new life. This again is patterned upon Christ's love for us. Christ's love is always creative and always life-giving in one way or anotherand this is reflected within the spousal love of marriage.
By no means are we contending that Catholics have been untouched by the corrosive atmosphere of our present culture, but the Church has not stopped teaching the ideal of marriage that is the bedrock of what we find beautiful in family life. Furthermore, the simple fact of having to speak the vows in the wedding service means there is one, concrete, tangible moment when those married in the Catholic Church must assent, externally at least, to the ideals of Catholic marriage. In this perhaps very weak sense there remains something special about the way Catholics "do" marriage and the family. And many Catholics do take Christ's self-sacrificing love as the basis of their family lives. This love of Christ in them is nurtured and sustained by the sacraments. And this way of living makes thesefamilies, for all their human frailties, shining examples of goodness.
Humanae Vitaer. "the elephant in the room"
The presence of this goodness within our culture is a sign of hope. It is in itself salvific. But here we must mention what one bishop in the UK has had the courage to call "the elephant in the room". If these wonderful families, which are such an inspiration to so many, are to reach their full potential and "to radiate the word of truth" that is our Catholic faith in all its luminosity and beauty, then we as a Church must recover the fullness of our faith's teaching on sex and loving.
It is not our purpose in these few pages to develop arguments that have been developed elsewhere and at greater depth. We do, however, have to come to a new recognition of the wisdom of the Church's ban on artificial means of contraception. We must recognise that we human beings are body and soul and that what we do physically affects us spiritually and emotionally. Barrier methods of contraception compromise the deep act of physical union between two spouse and, perhaps subtly but nonetheless inevitably, this will play itself out spiritually and emotionally. A medication that manipulates the body into withholding its fertility from this act again undermines the union that is an integral dimension of the marriage act. How can you accept someone completely if that acceptance doesn'tembrace also their fertility?
By no means are we arguing that a marriage cannot survive the use of artificial contraception. There are any number of marriages, even happy marriages, in which spouses choose to use artificial contraception. But we would ask how much more might these marriages have been and still become? The use of artificial contraception undermines the physical unity of a couple and therefore must to some degree compromise their spiritual and emotional unity. When lived with full generosity this unity touches even the smallest details of a married couple's life together and it gives their marriage a lambent beauty that radiates to the utmost "the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us".
The Pastoral Reality
Nearly half a century has passed since Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae and things have changed. The teachings of that encyclical have not been passed on to the lay faithful. At least two generations of Catholics in our pews on a Sunday have not heard the Church's teaching on sex and loving. And among those few who have heard it proclaimed, how many have had it proposed as a realistic possibility for their lives here and now? There is a world of difference between seeing this teaching lived out with generosity and grasping the difference it makes and, for example, being told by a tired, cynical RE teacher: "Well, no one believes it anyway but we have to go through the motions of teaching this." The truth is that, through no fault of their own, only a tiny minority of Catholics have receivedthe life-giving message of the Church's teaching on sex and love. This means that many of the Catholics who are only now beginning to learn of it are already in stable and committed marriages.
Embracing this teaching may be extremely difficult. It may mean that they have to overturn a settled pattern of life. And what are they then to make of perhaps the last 20 years of their married life? Moreover, the repercussions of this teaching touch both the husband and wife. Even if one of them becomes convinced of the Church's teaching, what if their spouse isn't? We must recognise that today this life-giving message is not being proclaimed in a morally neutral context. We are confronting an uphill struggle
However, some changes at least have been for the good. For example, the Billings method of natural family planning was unheard of half a century ago. And when in 1968 Paul VI warned that "a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires" (HV17) many would have dismissed this as scare-mongering. Today, with the breakdown of marriage, the explosion of pornography and the reduction of women to sex objects, who can deny the force of Paul VI's words?
Above all, in this new context we must trust in God. Through his grace, conversion is possible even in the most difficult of circumstances. Pastora ly this means we have to trust more in God than in our own ingenuity or eloquence. It means more prayer and less activism. We have to trust that in God's providence a moment will come when we can win the hearts and minds of these often fine and generous couples to the fullness of Christ's message. Nor is it fair just to assume that absolutely everyone is using contraception. Though few in numbers, there are now families - even in secular Britain -who live out the fullness of the Church's teaching and who are compelling witnesses to the beauty of our faith. But we must also recognise that we cannot expect our culture to change overnight. It maytake generations for the prophetic nature of Paul Vl's encyclical to be fully appreciated.
Even so, certain pastoral contexts are more clear-cut. In our schools, in university chaplaincies and in our marriage preparation courses, for example, we must be fearless in proclaiming the Church's teaching. In these situations we are usually dealing with people who are not yet in a settled pattern of life and who have not made implicit relationship commitments to others. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to give the fullness of the Church's teaching.
To do less is at best a gross dereliction of duty and at worst a personal betrayal of Christ. It would be wrong to assume that people, the young especially, are incapable of generosity or nobility of heart. No one aspires to be mediocre. We all want to be noble and beautiful and to do extraordinary things with our lives. And what is more noble and more beautiful and more extraordinary than the family?
When we compromise or fudge the Church's teaching on this matter we betray our own Catholic faithful, which is terrible -but we also let down wider society. Our society needs families simply to survive and it needs the example of good families in order to flourish. Only the fullness of the Church's teaching can provide a credible alternative to the nihilistic hedonism of our culture. The compelling witness of Catholic families and the manifest beauty and nobility of married life will be the most effective counter-arguments to those forces that now menace the family. And in our society, and for our contemporaries, Catholic marriage and family life lived in its fullness is the most eloquent proclamation of "the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us".