“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfilment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (Amoris Laetitia 37).
This paragraph from Amoris Laetitia is one of the document’s more noteworthy and controversial passages. While most people focus on the end section about consciences, I would like to look at the first part in light of the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s famous encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
Dr. Christian Brugger recently wrote a two-part essay titled “A Re-Reading (Relectio) of “Humanae Vitae.” His articles provide a good summary of Pope Paul’s document and the Church’s teaching on contraception. However, that’s precisely why I think his articles fall short. I’m not here to pick on Dr. Brugger, his articles are simply the latest Humanae Vitae pieces I’ve read that simply reiterate the same teaching, the same talking points, that have been made for the past fifty years.
This brings me back to the passage from Amoris. Here Pope Francis says that simply reiterating Church teaching is not sufficient to support families and give meaning to marital life. In other words, while love without truth is just sentimentality, simply reiterating the truth clearly doesn’t exhaust the work of charity and evangelization. I would venture to say that this strategy, rather than reversing the corrosion of sex and marriage in our society, has exacerbated it, and Pope Francis would agree. In Amoris he says:
“We also need to be humble and realistic, acknowledging that at times the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people has helped contribute to today’s problematic situation. We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation…. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”
This brings me to the second half of that opening paragraph from Amoris where Pope Francis says, “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” And how does the Church form consciences? Not by merely defensively repeating herself, but rather by making new arguments that help people see the real good that following this teaching can bring in their daily lives. As Pope Francis says,:
“…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness. Many people feel that the Church’s message on marriage and the family does not clearly reflect the preaching and attitudes of Jesus, who set forth a demanding ideal yet never failed to show compassion and closeness to the frailty of individuals like the Samaritan woman or the woman caught in adultery” (AL 38).
If people are having a hard time recognizing Christ in the way we present His teachings then we have failed as evangelists and teachers. We have spent too much time in the trenches of a culture war and not enough time listening to the needs and desires of real people. The Holy Father says, “A good ethical education includes showing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right. Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring” (AL 265). In other words, the best presentations of Humanae Vitae will start by answering the question, “How does not using contraception improve my marriage, how will it make me happy?”
This 50th anniversary presents the Church with a great opportunity to take another look at perhaps the most loved and hated social encyclical of the past century and present it to new generations of believers. An anniversary like this is a terrible thing to waste on old strategies that may have done more harm than good. So let’s take a cue from Pope Francis, take a large dose of self-criticism, and stop pretending that simply by restating the hard truth that we will adequately evangelize our neighbor. And lest I’m fairly accused of complaining without offering positive solutions, an article highlighting some people who are taking advantage of this anniversary along with further suggestions on how to better promote Humanae Vitae will be forthcoming.
[Photo Credit: Ambrosius007 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, and professional lay person.