‘The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator. It has always been a source of great joy to them, even though it sometimes entails many difficulties and hardships.”
The words of Pope Paul VI were, so to speak, the background music to the extraordinary synod on the family that just wrapped up in Rome.
The opening of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae continued: “The fulfillment of this duty has always posed problems to the conscience of married people, but the recent course of human society and the concomitant changes have provoked new questions. The Church cannot ignore these questions, for they concern matters intimately connected with the life and happiness of human beings.”
New questions, indeed! They abound today. About the very definition of marriage. Pervasive and destructive pornography. The ethics of assisted reproduction. The effects all of these and more are having on how we view ourselves in relation even to those closest to us.
Prophetically, Humanae Vitae warned that it is “cause for alarm . . . 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, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”
Remarkably, the same Church that sounded that alarm is now maligned as waging a “war on women” for the teachings that undergird what Paul VI articulated — the very entity that tried to preserve and protect women. But of course not everyone in the Church stood with Paul VI on that issue. Dissent added to the fog of recent decades, when expectations changed as lives were ordered around the existence of “the pill” and abortion. Today, birth and marriage rates are both in decline. Wounds abound. For the sake not only of Catholic families, but also of the health of the whole world, Pope Francis convened a meeting to consider the fallout and how best to help. How to encounter people where they are and accompany them to something better — that is, the self-sacrificial, radical, redeeming way of Christ. This is the road he has set the Church out on. The meeting in Rome was only part of an ongoing process that includes the pope’s expected visit to Philadelphia and other cities next fall and another meeting in Rome next year.
Of course, that may not be what you’ve heard about what was going on at the meeting in Rome on the crisis in family life the world over. When a working draft of a document was released by the Vatican press office in the course of the meeting, Al Sharpton on MSNBC explained that “a new Vatican document released by Pope Francis is calling for the Church to have a more compassionate attitude toward gays.”
Conspicuously missing from most of the news coverage was the fact that the working document, incomplete though it was, directly cited and reaffirmed Humanae Vitae. And the fact that the synod would culminate in Pope Francis’s beatifying the author of that encyclical — the first step on the road to sainthood and a reminder of the continuity of the Church even in the reform and renewal afoot in Francis’s papacy.
Self-professed Catholic people had gotten caught up in the confusing and exhilarating and disrupting winds of the sexual revolution in recent decades, and in this synod, rather than an upending of Church teaching, what was happening was a resetting.
Apart from the assertions of all kinds of wild things that weren’t happening, most media commentary noticed a new tone in the document. The synod was not changing doctrine, but it was seeking to find pastoral solutions to challenges facing good people who want to live good lives — and in varied circumstances throughout the world. And what was on display was a draft deliberately marinated in an accessible language of mercy and encounter, words Pope Francis often uses.
We live at a time when talk of truth beyond what any one person wills — particularly if it is of a faith-based nature — is quickly condemned as intolerant and, ironically, considered intolerable by many. But just that environment aches for the active engagement of loving and confident witnesses to the merciful love that is at the heart of Christianity.
Among those witnesses are Ron and Mavis Pirola, a couple from Sydney, Australia, who participated in the synod. In an interview, they said that Church teachings, if they are known at all, even by Catholics, are often known only as a “no” or a “yes.” What people need to hear is the “beautiful truth” — the “whys behind the whats.”
The task of communicating the whys and the whats — of reaching people with the healing remedies for an aching culture in the most practical and renewing ways for the lives of women and men today — is what the Church has set out on. And that’s much more exciting than the ideological expectations so many have recently gotten caught up in.
There’s an attainable joy found in the truth, beauty, and goodness of marriage between a man and a woman who are open to children. It can be a renewing presence for friends and family, for communities and institutions, for a country and a culture. Making that case in the most practical — and not just polemical and legal and political — ways could be just what the world really needs right now.