Catholic Social Teaching: The Family, Gift and Sanctuary of Life
Early Fresco of the Visitation of Mary with Elizabeth
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Three to Get Married was the name of a popular book written by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. The title of this book holds a great truth. Marriage involves more than two parties: one man and one woman. The third party--often forgotten in what Bishop Sheen called the "dis-God-ed" generation--is God.
The institution of marriage, one must not forget, is not one designed by the will of the parties. The parties enter into the institution by an act of self-donation which certainly requires free will; but they do not define the institution. The institution of marriage, like all of what is, is entirely dependent on God the Creator, the God who is the "author of marriage" and who "endowed it with various benefits and purposes." (Compendium, No. 230)
One of the benefits of marriage is conjugal love. Here, too, God is the author conjugal love, and He has endowed it with various benefits and purposes. The benefits do not come without responsibilities. Perhaps the most apparent and perhaps the most abused in our own age: "Conjugal love is by its nature open to the acceptance of life." (Compendium, No. 230)
Not only have we severed the tie between sex and marriage, we have severed the tie between sex and procreation. Modern man has a penchant for separating things that ought to be together and putting things together that ought to be separate.
Though sex and procreation are things human persons share with other animals, we must not be fooled to think that these acts are by any stretch of the imagination the same. Biological similarity is not ontological similarity.
Whatever humans do involves persons, and this changes the entire complexion of the matter. One cannot forget that the procreative privilege given man is unique in that it leads to the creation, together with God, of persons, that is, those with the image and likeness of God. No brute animal shares in this privilege.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church speaks of the "social subjectivity of the family." By its very nature, the family is tied into society and is therefore subject to the laws of social life. Uniquely, the family is the fundamental cell where human life is transferred from generation to generation, almost in a manner that a baton is passed from runner to runner in a relay race.
Human life continues to burn within families from generation to generation in a "communion of generations." We might also liken it to the sacred fire of Vesta, which burned for generations in the beautiful circular Temple of Vesta in Rome attended by its vestal virgins. (cf. Compendium, No. 237)
In this manner every child born to a family is a benefit not only to his or her mother, father, brothers or sisters, but also to the entire community into which he or she is born. The family is the temple where the flame of life is transmitted. It is a temple dedicated to the Lord of Life. The family is naturally ordered to serve what John Paul II has called the Gospel of life, the Evangelium Vitae. Every birth ought to declare: Life is good news!
The family is therefore an intensely spiritual society, and the conjugal act that is at the heart of the marriage and which is its fire has a spiritual dimension which is too often forgotten in our day. "Fatherhood and motherhood represent a responsibility which is not simply physical but spiritual in nature." Through motherhood and fatherhood "there passes the genealogy of the person, which has its beginning in God and which must lead back to him." (Compendium, No. 237) (quoting JP II, Gratissimam sane, 10)
"The family contributes to the social good in an eminent fashion through responsible motherhood and fatherhood, the spouses' special participation in God's work of creation." (Compendium, No. 232) For this reason, civil society--including the State--is obliged to assure that its customs and laws support it. Most fundamentally, neither the State nor civil society may impinge or in any manner "violate the right to life, from conception to natural death." Rather, the civil society and the State are obliged to "protect and promote it." (Compendium, No. 231)
Motherhood and fatherhood must be exercised responsibly, with full consideration of a proper hierarchy of values. This means that that married couples must be open to life. Granted, motherhood and fatherhood are not exercised in a vacuum. In making their decisions, couples are entitled to consider the "physical, economic, psychological, and social conditions" which they confront. These present the setting in which responsible parenthood is practiced.
Within these constraints or opportunities, couples confront the gamut of possibility from the "duly pondered and generous decision to have a large family" to the "decision, made for serious reasons and in respect of the moral law, to avoid for a time or even indeterminately a new birth." (Compendium, No. 232)
The practice of responsible procreation, however, must be in conformity with moral law. Some methods of responsible parenthood are to be rejected outright, in all times, in all places. Violating them involves violating exceptionless moral norms. Sterilization, abortion, and any form of artificial contraception are to be rejected as means of responsible parenthood. They are intrinsically wrong.
Anyone sensitive to "a correct and integral understanding of the person and of human sexuality" will recognize at once why and how seriously artificial contraception offends against the conjugal act and the natural moral law. In other words, if the Church's teaching on contraception bothers us, it is proof positive our view of marriage and sexuality is warped and needs straightening.
Responsible parenthood demands the exercise not of all options, but only of moral options. And the moral decisions do not only involve the decision to artificially avoid conception. They also involve the decision to promote conception. There is no absolute "right to children," and no desire to be a mother or a father justifies immoral means to conceive them.
Modern technology has invaded the temple of the family in a sort of abomination of desolation which separates the procreative act from the unitive act and seeks to replace or substitute the conjugal act. The upshot is that "the child comes about more as the result of an act of technology than as the natural fruit of a human act in which there is a full and total giving of the couple." (Compendium, No. 235) Children are viewed as commodities, the product of technology, and not the product of a physical, spiritual and moral self-giving.
The immoral techniques that are available are unfortunately legion: the donation of sperm or ova, surrogate motherhood, homologous and heterologous artificial fertilization, and so on. While there are some techniques that "end assistance to the conjugal act or to the attainment of its effects" which are legitimate, there are a whole host of illicit and immoral techniques that ought to be rejected. The ends do not justify the means. This is a fundamental moral principle that we have forgotten.
One must also not forget that the child has certain rights to be born or raised within the confines of a natural family. "The unborn child must be guaranteed the best possible conditions of existence through the stability of a family founded on marriage, through the complementarities of the two persons, father and mother." (Compendium, No. 235) Efforts to provide children to persons involved in some sort of civil union other than a family founded on the marriage of one man and one woman are to be shunned as unnatural and violative of the childrens' rights.
Finally, human cloning--defined as "the reproduction of a biological entity that is genetically identical to the originating organism"--is something to be abjured. Whether for reproductive or therapeutic purposes, human cloning is "contrary to the dignity of human procreation because it takes place in total absence of an act of personal love between spouses."
It is an "agamic and asexual reproduction" unworthy of man. It represents, moreover, "a form of total domination of the reproduced individual on the part of the one reproducing it." It is a form of technological tyranny. (Compendium, No. 236) It ushers us into what C. S. Lewis so insightfully discussed in his marvelous little book on the natural law, The Abolition of Man.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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