66. Clarity on human sexuality and human life issues is one of the great strengths in the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In both mainline Protestant churches as well as in the Evangelical and Fundamentalist camps, there is an increasing tendency to downplay the seriousness of sexual sin. Whereas St. Paul says,
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each
one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor… (I Thess. 4:3,4).
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? ... Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (I Cor 6:15-20).
This is exactly what is referred to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in its commentary on the sixth commandment, section II, “The Vocation to Chastity” (##2337-2359).
67. The call to virtue in the face of the tidal wave of the sexual revolution and its consequence, the sexual suicide of our cultures. The Position taken against artificial contraception by the Catholic Church is very courageous and very necessary. It is courageous, for Humanae Vitae was an unpopular position taken over against the tidal wave of sexual permissiveness of western culture. If Paul VI had not maintained the historic position of the Catholic Church in this confrontation, the faithful could easily have been in a free fall following fornication. John Paul II stresses that the virtues of the Christian life are not to be obtained without vigorous discipline (See Rom 5:3-5). This prohibition against artificial contraception while permitting “natural methods” is a recipe for virtue, consistent with the biblical recognition of the cost of discipleship. It may also be absolutely essential for the preservation of our society itself. At this time in Northern Europe and English-speaking North America, no society is reproducing itself.
68. The affirmation of the call to self-sacrificing love in the marital relationship. “Be submissive (subordinate – NAB) to one another out of reverence for Christ” is the most distinctive and fundamental guideline for Christian marriage. This is exactly what Jesus modeled at the Last Supper. Was he not the most powerful, most glorious, most important person there? And yet, what did he do first? He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself, washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-15). Later that night, he gave himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In Eph. 5, St. Paul explicitly compares the relationship of Christ to His Church and that of a husband to his wife.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… Even so
husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no
man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:25ff).
Through the supernatural relationship with Christ, both the man and the woman are empowered to love each other with a sacrificial love in imitation of Christ. When both partners have this love in their marriage, there is no problem that can drive them apart. Today I find most Christians rejecting this principle of mutual obedience or mutual submission. I have heard well educated women in Belgium, in France, and in the U.S. say forcefully, “I will never be submissive to anyone.” This principle of mutual submission, of even unilateral sacrifice of the self for the good of others, is clearly affirmed within the Catholic tradition while the liberty and dignity of each person is also protected.
In most liberal Protestant churches, “being submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21), has been relegated to the trash heap as not conducive to the dignity of women. Submission does not seem to be worthy of man come of age. Self-actualization, self-assertion, self-realization are much more in style. Submission does not seem dignified for a proud, powerful, and affluent people. Here, perhaps, we encounter most pointedly the conflict between Christian values and those of Hegelian idealism.
This same word, (hupotassomai in the Greek), is frequently used to describe all adult relationships within the Christian community (Eph. 5:21, 1 Pet. 2:13, 18; 3:1, 5:5). The very structure of Ephesians 5 demonstrates that this submission is the way to imitate God, as Christ himself loved us (Eph. 5:1, 2). Mutual submission is the way Christians should act when imitating the love of Jesus, “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 13:34).
69. The role of the Church in protecting the family and its values, it’s affirmation of the role of women, especially as mothers, and the precious gift that children are. The role of the Catholic Church in protecting and strengthening the family along with the set of moral values that undergird this position was the final and compelling force behind my conversion. The increasing confusion in the mainline Protestant churches in this area was revolting to me. My wife and I have found the Catholic teaching on marriage and the family excellent for us, for our marriage, and for our family. It has led to a secure and warmly intimate relationship which has been more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined. When I reflected back over twenty-five years of married life and realized the source of those values, I realized that not only did I want those values for myself, for my family, for my children, and my grandchildren, but I also wanted the Church and its Tradition that had preserved these so well. And it seemed to me that to pastor in the name of Christ required those same values to be clearly present in the church in which I served. All of the other reasons I have given here were significant, many of which would be adequate by themselves for making such a change. But I found the witness of the Catholic Church in this area of the family and of the moral life to be both emotionally and rationally compelling.
The Catholic Church has not succumbed to the prevailing politically-correct affirmation of feminist values. While strongly affirming the dignity and value of women, the Church has continued to recognize differences between men and women and to attest to the value of their distinctive family roles, maintaining the original and irreplaceable meaning of work in the home and in rearing children. Pope John Paul II also calls for society to be “structured in such a way that wives and mothers are not in practice compelled to work outside the home, and that their families can live and prosper in a dignified way even when they themselves devote their full time to their own family” (FC, 28-41).[i]
When I became aware of all of these biblically-based guidelines given by the Church, developed through consultation with bishops from all the cultures of the world, I decided that the Catholic Church was by far the most healthy place for a solid family to be. I also realized that my very serious commitment to the poor and the down trodden could be most powerfully worked out by serving in the Church that placed such a priority on sexual integrity and family values. Not to be Catholic was becoming downright painful.
A quotation from George Gilder on the importance of spiritually supporting families summarizes well for me the far-reaching importance of this for our lives:
The problems of the American poor are most fundamentally moral and spiritual. As Margaret Mead insisted, stable families – with long time horizons and a resistance to the buffeting of life’s inevitable troubles – ultimately depend, in all societies, on the reinforcement of religious beliefs and ceremonies. Without a strong religious culture, a secular bureaucracy, with its rationalizing ethic, erodes the very foundations of family life and thus creates the very moral chaos it ostensibly combats. The effort to inculcate ethical behavior without religious faith seems one of the great fiascoes of the modern age. If the established churches are truly concerned with the problems of poverty, they will abandon their current tendency to serve as shills for demoralizing materialism of the welfare state and return to their paramount role, giving moral and spiritual guidance to the poor, and to all American society.[ii]
70. A Biblical appreciation for the goodness of proper sexual relationships as well as for the dangers of disordered sex. The Catholic Church of today also exhibits a profound respect for marriage as a sacrament and affirms sexual activity within the marriage as good. This is consistent with the Biblical witness in Genesis 2, Ephesians 5 and Hebrews 13:4.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed (koite) be undefiled;
for God will judge the immoral and adulterous (Heb. 13:4).
The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament (CCC, 1660, see CIC, can. 1055, #1 as well as Gaudium et spes [GS], 48a).
This correct biblical foundation most completely corresponds to real life. Far from being a church that represses and discourages a healthy sexuality, I realized that it was the Catholic Church that provided a life context for a truly sexy marital relationship in a manner that was healthy and sustainable.
71. The devotional resources of the Catholic Church in sustaining a relationship of biblical love: the crucifix. Once I learned what the biblical guidelines for the sacrificial, Jesus-type, agape love needed to sustain Christian marriages and families, I was free to see the profound depth in certain Catholic devotional practices that I had previously scorned. As Catholics, we have devotional practices that sustain us spiritually and inspire us in the practice of Jesus’s manner of love. Almost all Protestant denominations have rejected these practices. For example, the crucifix. Many of my Protestant friends (and family) would ridicule the crucifix, saying, “Don’t Catholics know that Jesus is resurrected?” We might well respond, “Yes, we do, but we are painfully aware of the great price Jesus paid for our sins and how difficult it is to model his self-giving love. That is why we have the crucifix. It reminds us of one of the most precious of all bible verses and facts of Jesus’s life. That is, John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” We are called to live this every day in our lives and we need this sacramental, visible reminder to help us. We use the crucifix in the same manner that Protestants use bible memory. Our method is more direct and more graphic.
72. The devotional resources of the Catholic Church in sustaining marriage and the Christian Life: The Rosary, especially the sorrowful mysteries. The Rosary had been one of the most difficult of the spiritual practices of the Catholic Church for me to participate in. Initially the block was both intellectual and emotional, based on the often cited Protestant warning of the words of Jesus not to pray with “vain repetition.” Even after overcoming bad exegesis of Matt. 6:7 and my intellectual objections to this prayer, emotionally I found it very difficult to do. This was true even though in the most scientific of methods I could document its positive effects in the families of those who prayed it.[iii] The sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary (Agony in the Garden, Scourging at the Pillar, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying of the Cross, Crucifixion) have a special application to the living out of marriage. If we are called to love one another as Christ loved the Church (Eph 5), then meditation on these most painful events in Jesus’s life is essential for us as we love one another in marriage. Nothing that we have to undergo in marriage is as severe as what Jesus suffered to love us!
73. The devotional treasury of the Church in sustaining marriage and the Christian life: the Stations of the Cross. Just as the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary have a particular application to Christian marriage, just so do the Stations of the Cross. By meditating on the Stations of the Cross we can enter more deeply into what Jesus meant when he said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13. The Stations of the Cross describe in bloody detail exactly how Jesus did exactly this. As I reflect on my reactionary attitude before I became Catholic, I am amazed at my blindness. As a committed Christian I was committed to following Jesus. But I resisted participating in this devotional practice. Now I can see clearly that in order to imitate Christ in the most basic aspect of his love, it seems to me now to be absolutely necessary to meditate on the last days of Jesus’s suffering, this, the most painful and humiliating part of his love. It is helpful to meditate on each of the stations asking oneself, “What form would this suffering of Jesus take in my life, in my marriage?” When I realized the depth and power of these devotional practices for sustaining marital life, I could no longer tolerate remaining Protestant. I could not do so as a husband, for I wanted these strengths for my marriage, my family, and my grandchildren. I could not do so as a pastor because integrity demanded that I share these treasures with my congregation and that just would not fly for a Presbyterian pastor.
74. The courage to maintain standards in sexual and human life issues. The moral courage of the Catholic Church in maintaining standards for marriage and for human life issues has been most impressive and has certainly been a strong attraction for me. Most protestant churches today accept whatever the divorce court decrees and allow for remarriage after divorce. The prohibition of divorce by Jesus has been unpopular, but it is a standard very important to maintain.[iv] I frequently found myself as a Presbyterian pastor making a defense for the procedures of the Roman Catholic marriage tribunal. I could also see the many spiritual benefits that accrued to couples who submitted themselves to the tribunal’s demanding process. The work by Heth and Windham, Jesus and Divorce, is a valuable overview of the entire history of the divorce controversy by Evangelical scholars. It was surprising to me to find two Evangelical scholars arrive at the Catholic position by their study. Certainly, the courage of the Catholic stand on this issue will be a sign for all in coming decades.
75.The existence and use of the marriage tribunal. A related strength of the Catholic Church is the use of the marriage tribunal to evaluate the validity of a marriage. No other major Protestant church to my knowledge at this time has any analogous structure. As a Protestant minister counseling Catholics who were angry at their Church for the rigor and depth of the procedures used by the marriage tribunal, I often found myself clarifying its function and encouraging them to participate in its investigation. It is my opinion that even when the tribunal may be too lenient in granting annulments, the very procedure provides an opportunity for submission to Church authority and affords a valid means of being held accountable for the failure of a relationship. In addition to its value to individuals, the tribunal becomes an immense source of knowledge and wisdom for the whole Church as it scrutinizes the stories of so many.
76. The recognition of the value of the celibate life. The recognition of the power and value of the celibate life (I Cor 7:25-35) and of the value of periodic continence within marriage (marital chastity – 1 Cor 7:5) are great gifts of Catholicism. Though the recognition of both disciplines, the Church stands as a sign of practical, realizable holiness in the midst of a sexually indulgent society. This is particularly true when the gift of celibacy is combined with a vocational call to the priesthood or to the religious life. Then all one’s creative energy can be sublimated first into training and preparation, then into availability of service. I clearly saw this gift while living at La Maison Ste Thérèse in Belgium. At every holiday and during the summer all the seminarians and priests went out for formation or for service all around the world. I always had to (and intensely desired to) return to my wife and family to take care of my obligations there. The celibate vocation is to the married vocation as a rifle is to shotgun. Given the same gifts, strengths and energy, the rifle will always carry further than the shotgun. We do note, however, that there are some married men that make a humdinger of a shotgun blast!
There is a fascinating correlation between this kind of sexual discipline and the level of cultural achievement in a society:
J.D. Unwin, in his book Sex and Culture, analyzed 59 preliterate societies and some societies in history, and he came to a conclusion which was sustained by Pitirim Sorokin in his book The American Sex Revolution, namely, that societies were able to advance to a highly rationalistic culture only when they had a spiritual patriarchal type of government, maintained their sexual life within marriage, and were chaste and temperate. They inevitably declined whenever they departed from this basic pattern.[v]
If this kind of research is true to any significant degree, then our very existence as an advanced culture is at stake in the issue of sexual morality, and in the broader issue of male spiritual leadership. I was forced to cast my lot with the Church that seemed to me most equipped to defend sexual purity as an essential value for the Church and for the broader society.
77. A pastorally sensitive but doctrinally accurate opposition to homosexual practice. This has been of very great consequence in today’s world. The Catholic Church makes the essential distinction between homosexual orientation and willful homosexual practice:
Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (cf. Gen. 19: 1-29; Rom. 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6;10; 1 Tim. 1:10), tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” (CCC, 2357)
Today, the historical morality represented by the mainline Protestant denominations is seriously threatened by “gay lobbies” within each body. I found the leadership of the Holy Father to be a real encouragement on this issue. The Catholic Church also makes the essential distinction between an “orientation” to a sinful behavior and the “practice” of that behavior. The orientation is not sinful, but like any other disordered passion must be resisted (See CCC, 1762-1775). All of us have disordered passions because of original sin, the evil of the world, the lusts of the flesh and the activity of the Devil (1 Jn. 2:12-17). These sources of temptation lead to sins only when we give into them.
78. Trenchant opposition to the abortion industry. Catholic opposition to abortion was a genuine inspiration to me. Upon graduation from college I would have described myself as reluctantly pro-choice, a position founded primarily on ignorance. Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s Aborting America clarified the physical, developmental issues surrounding the fetus. Subsequent reading revealed to me the hostility of both Christian Tradition and the Sacred Scriptures to abortion. The Didache demonstrated most clearly the thinking of the Early Church in relating opposition to abortion to the seventh commandment: “You shall not murder a child by abortion/destruction” (Did. 2:2). I was appalled by the utter collapse of main-line Protestant positions in the face of militant feminism. The Catholic Church and the very conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches seemed to be the only ones holding firm. Hence, given all of the above reasons for becoming Catholic, it should be clear that Roman Catholicism was my only possibility in relation to this issue.
79. Humanae Vitae, its opposition to birth control and the honesty of the Catholic Church in the area of artificial contraceptives. The position on birth control is also a compelling attraction of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanae Vitae and the subsequent statements by John Paul II demonstrate that the Catholic Church is the only major Christian denomination that continues to expect all of its members to be able to exercise personal self-control of the sexual appetite. Janet Smith demonstrates that John Paul II is very concerned that persons gain “the benefits for human happiness that come from the control that man acquires over himself through proper self-discipline which in turn yields mastery of self, virtue, and the formation of character in the realm of sexuality.”[vi] All Christian churches opposed artificial contraception up until 1930, when the Anglican Church allowed it for certain situations. Now the Catholic Church is alone in maintaining this position.
Natural family planning, the Billings method, has demonstrated the honesty as well as the accuracy of the Catholic Church in this area of marital intimacy. The Jan. 9, 1995 issue of U.S. News and World Report demonstrates the dishonesty of the anti-contraception lobby in this country. On the list of “dangerous drugs” which the FDA is monitoring, the first is Norplant, the five year contraceptive. The use of such chemical contraceptives is known to raise the risk of clotting and strokes in women. Yet, Planned Parenthood and their allies seek to suppress such data. Under the leadership of Fr. Paul Marx, doctors related to Human Life International have documented that the birth control pill triggers more than 150 chemical reactions in a woman’s body, most of which have not been adequately researched or reported. (Wyeth announced that it does not plan to resume distribution or marketing of the six-capsule Norplant System (levonorgestrel implants as of 7/26/02)
Learning the disciplines of NFP is an excellent manner of gaining self-discipline and self-control, essential to living out the principle of delayed gratification. Does one wish one’s wife to be perpetually available for sexual activity at the cost of undergoing the above-mentioned 150 chemical reactions? To avoid this danger, one must be able to delay gratification. This is the ability not to need to fulfill feelings and urges but to delay them to a more appropriate time. This control is essential to avoiding the danger of credit card and to most financial success also.
Gaining these virtues then make living out one’s marital obligations much more possible and rewarding.
80. The unitive function of natural family planning (NFP). NFP draws husbands and wives together in communication and self-discipline. It is a manner of regulating sexuality that honors a woman’s natural cycles while building character and virtue. At the same time it encourages the appropriate enjoyment of the intimate delights of married life. Statistics gathered in the United States show that the divorce rate is less than two percent for families using natural family planning. This Christian discipline certainly is one of the answers to the collapse of the family in our society today. The encouragement by the Catholic Church for large families and the disciplines of Natural Family Planning confront head on the materialism and selfishness of modern culture.
81. The restriction of the ordained priesthood to men. This is for me an important element of Biblical theology, as well as the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger states the situation well:
One forgets that in the ancient world all the religions also had priestesses. All except one: the Jewish. Christianity, here too, following the ‘scandalous’ original example of Jesus, opens a new situation to women; it accords them a position that represents a novelty with respect to Judaism. But of the latter he preserves the exclusively male priesthood. Evidently, Christian intuition understood that the question was not secondary, that to defend Scripture (which in neither the Old nor the New Testament knows women priests) signified once more to defend the human person, especially those of the female sex.[vii]
82. An emphasis on the primacy of spiritual and moral values. This clear position highlights yet another strength of the Catholic tradition in our day, that is, the warning by the Holy Father to priests and bishops not to see their role primarily as social activists. The underlying realities in individual lives and in society are spiritual. I believe that my list of reasons for becoming Catholic demonstrates the great truth that when one seeks to be pleasing to God, all aspects of life come together in a joyful harmony. As a Catholic, participating as prophet, priest, and king in the ministry of Word and Sacrament of the Church, one helps to provide, as Gilder points out, the necessary spiritual underpinnings for all of society. This all comes together most powerfully in the Sacred Liturgy of the (Mass) Eucharist.
[i] John Paul II has developed this thought further in his Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year.
[ii] George Gilder, Men and Marriage, p. 98.
[iii] See my Catholic Apologetics sheet on “Vain Repetitions and the Rosary.” This is a subject that Keating does not deal with well in Catholicism and Fundamentalism. He does provide a good in depth treatment in a later book, What Catholics Really Believe – Setting the Record Straight, pp.77-81. Even Protestant scholars agree that “vain repetitions” is not a good translation. The phrase means “to babble, to heap up empty phrases, do not be saying idle things.” Jesus himself repeated prayers (Mt 26:44) and urged persistence in prayer (Lk 11:5-13). Since the Rosary is explicitly biblical (see Lk 1:28, 42), with 13 of the 15 mysteries being key events in the life of Jesus, it is very unlikely that a person praying it would be babbling or heaping up empty phrases. The Rosary is a contemplative prayer, designed to encourage meditation on fundamental elements of the life of Jesus and his Mother.
[v] Carl W. Wilson, Our Dance Has Turned to Death But We Can Renew the Family (Tyndale House Publishers, 1981) pp. 85-86.
[vi] Janet Smith, Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C.) 1991, pp230-265. Include reference here to the paper I translated from Wojtyla’s theologians.